At the Circulating Library: Introduction

For the Romantic era, the literary period immediately preceding the Victorian, three recent works by Peter Garside, James Raven, Rainer Schöwerling, and Anthony Mandal have created a comprehensive bibliography of fiction: the book The English Novel 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles (2 volumes; 2000), the affiliated website British Fiction 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation and Reception (2004), and the appendix website The English Novel, 1830–1836: A Bibliographical Survey of Fiction Published in the British Isles (2006). In all, the authors identify 1,421 fiction titles published from 1770–99 (averaging 47.4 titles per year); 2,272 fiction titles published from 1800–29 (averaging 75.7 titles per year); and 610 fiction titles published from 1830–36 (averaging 87.1 titles per year). As their numbers suggest, the production of fiction increased remarkably from the late-eighteenth century up to the Victorian period.

But to date no such bibliographical work exists for the Victorian period. An early attempt to come to terms with the Victorian novel includes Andrew Block’s enumerative bibliography The English Novel, 1740–1850 (1939; revised 1961), which only covers the first thirteen years of the sixty-four year period and has proved unreliable in its entries. Volume four (covering the years 1800–1900) of the revised The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (3rd ed., 1999) covers the whole century but focuses mainly on first- and second-rank novelists, some 200 in total, which is less than three-percent of the 7,000 nineteenth-century novelists as estimated by John Sutherland. As such, it is far from comprehensive. The ongoing online database Nineteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue (NSTC) is a union list of holdings of eight research libraries around the world including the Bodleian Library, the British Library, Harvard University Library, the Library of Congress, the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, and the National Library of Scotland. The strength of the NSTC is the scope of the listing—some 1.2 million titles—and the ability to find the libraries that hold copies. But the drawbacks are singling out fiction from the mass of titles, assuming that the holdings of these particular eight libraries are comprehensive. In lieu of comprehensive bibliographies, scholars have relied on Michael Sadleir’s XIX Century Fiction: A Bibliographical Record Based on His Own Collection (2 volumes, 1951) and Robert Lee Wolff’s Nineteenth-Century Fiction: A Bibliographical Catalogue Based on the Collection Formed by Robert Lee Wolff (5 volumes, 1981–86). Neither collection is exhaustive: Sadleir’s collection (housed at UCLA) consists of over 3000 volumes and Wolff’s collection (housed at the University of Texas) consists of over 6000 volumes, and both collections contain multiple editions of some titles. So, at best, Sadleir’s and Wolff’s collections represent a small, though significant, fraction of Victorian fiction.

At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

With this in mind, I created At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901 (ATCL) to fill this need for a comprehensive bibliographical resource for nineteenth-century fiction. Begun in 2007, the database currently contains entries for 16,125 titles, 3,374 authors, and 500 publishers as well as information about genres, illustrations, serializations, and other statistical data. Significantly, the database accounts for all of the two-, three-, and four-volume novels published between 1837 and 1901 in Great Britain.


To be included in the database, a prose fiction title, whether novel or short story collection, needed to be published in English in Great Britain between 1837 and 1901 (the vast majority were published in London or Edinburgh). In rare cases, a few Dublin-area publishers are included in the database: for instance, the Irish publisher William J. Curry partnered with London publishers to print and distribute his books in England (however, such arrangements were rare). Furthermore, works clearly aimed at children (i.e., under 12 years of age) and works with less than 100 pages of text were omitted. Only first book publication information is included: thus, information about reprints or later editions are not included. Works by foreign authors, including American authors, are included if the title was published in a British edition. For example, James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer: or The First War-Path was first published by Lea and Blanchard in Philadelphia in 1841 and later that year by Richard Bentley in London. Hence only the latter edition is included in ATCL. Likewise, translations of foreign works are included if published in English in Great Britain. For example, Emilie Flygare-Carlén's The Hermit was first published in the author's native Swedish in Stockholm in 1846 and later published in English translation by T. Cautley Newby in 1853. Hence only the latter edition is included in ATCL. In general, only fiction written or published in the English language are considered.

Multiple sources were consulted in creating the database. First, The English Catalogue of Books (ECB) (7 volumes; 1863–1906) served as the foundation for the database: based on lists of new books appearing in the weekly trade magazine The Publishers’ Circular, the editors compiled and published an annual list which were then combined into the volumes of the catalogue every few years beginning in the 1860s. The ECB lists entries alphabetically by author (if named) or title with information about format (e.g., crown octavo), price, publisher, and date. Since the ECB relies on self-reporting by publishers and the combination of secondary listings, the catalogues on first blush cannot be trusted to be comprehensive or accurate. As they themselves note in the prefaces to The English Catalogue of Books, the compilers took great care to present accurate lists; however, some errors and omissions still occur and can be seen when compared to other bibliographies. But overall, despite these occasional lapses, the ECB proved to be a fairly reliable and comprehensive source for bibliographical information as compared to other sources.

The scale of the project—well into several thousands of books—forestalled any attempt to examine each title individually. So the data from the ECB were then compared to various library catalogues and print bibliographies. In particular, the British Library and the University of Oxford online catalogues were consulted for each title: as deposit libraries for the United Kingdom, one or both libraries typically owned a physical copy so their entries could be used to correct errors in the ECB. In addition, each library was searched for titles missed by the ECB (relatively few titles as it turned out). In rare cases, the search expanded to other libraries in order to locate a physical copy of each title. Next, print bibliographies were consulted, such as Sadleir, Wolff, and Margaret Harris's A Checklist of the "Three-Decker" Collection in the Fisher Library, University of Sydney (1980), in order to verify bibliographical details. Another recent bibliography proved extremely helpful: Rolf Loeber and Magda Loeber's A Guide to Irish Fiction 1650–1900 (2006) overlapped considerably with ATCL and contained a significant number of relevant titles. More rarely, author or publisher bibliographies were used: for instance R.W. Stewart’s Benjamin Disraeli: A List of Writings by Him (1972), John Stock Clarke’s Margaret Oliphant: A Bibliography (1986), and publisher Bentley’s A List of the Principal Publications (8 volumes, 1893–1920). Thus, all titles in the database were verified in at least two sources. Lastly, when possible, books were examined in either physical or digitized copies (e.g., Google Books). At a minimum, the database includes each book’s complete title, author, publisher, publication year (as stated on the title page), format (number of volumes and size), and price.


Every attempt has been made to identify authors when possible through publisher’s records or other means. At a minimum, the database aims to include an author’s legal, maiden, married, and pen names, birth and death dates, nationality, and occupations. A large number of authors, about a thousand, already appear in standard reference sources such as Oxford’s The Dictionary of National Biography, Frederick Boase’s Modern English Biography, the Loebers’ A Guide to Irish Fiction 1650–1900, and Sutherland’s The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. However, the majority of authors require much more work to uncover. Digital genealogical resources have proved a boon in this regard: authors often can be traced in English census records, probate records, and vital records via The digitization of newspapers and periodicals (especially the Times Digital Archive) have served as a fruitful source for tracing authors. At times, anonymous and pseudonymous authors proved the most vexing to trace. Attributions in ATCL were made only if there was a high degree of confidence in the identifications.


In order to trace the serializations of Victorian fiction, over 200 magazines and newspapers were examined either directly or through published bibliographies. When possible, the start and end dates and the frequency of appearance (weekly or monthly) of the serialization are recorded. The chief bibliographies consulted include J. Don Vann’s Victorian Novels in Serial, the Victorian Fiction Research Guides series (7 volumes), The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900, and Graham Law’s Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000). Digital archives of periodicals proved especially fruitful: in particular, Chadwyck-Healey’s British Periodicals collection, the British Newspaper Archive collection, the Welsh Newspapers Online collection, and Thomson-Gale’s Nineteenth-Century UK Periodicals collection. Print copies of several dozen periodicals were examined at the British Library, Cambridge University Library, Indiana University, and the National Library of Scotland. Serials in parts, though relatively few in number, were identified in several sources, most notably in Vann’s work and Sutherland’s article “Dickens’s Serializing Imitators.”