Charles Edward Mudie

Charles Edward Mudie by Frederick Waddy (1872).

Charles Edward Mudie, English publisher and founder of Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library, was the son of a second-hand bookseller and newsagent. Mudie’s efficient distribution system and vast supply of texts revolutionized the circulating library movement, while his “select” library influenced Victorian middle-class values and the structure of the three-volume novel. He was also the first publisher of James Russell Lowell’s poems in England, and of Emerson’s Man Thinking.

Mudie originally opened his circulating library to give the public greater access to nonfiction works—which took up nearly one third of his stock—but the market value of the novel brought Mudie financial success. In 1842, he began to lend books to students at the University of London, charging subscribers one guinea per year for the right to borrow one volume of a novel at a time.

This proved so successful that in 1852 he moved his “Select Library” to larger premises at 509, 510 & 511 New Oxford Street, at its junction with Museum Street and Hart Street, just a few yards south of the British Museum. Mudie’s soon had outlets on Cross Street in Manchester and on New Street in Birmingham.

London book deliveries were carried out by vans, and the expansion of railroads and trains allowed people to order books across the country. International orders were also issued and shipped abroad in tin boxes. Mudie’s also exported books using watertight boxes, some of which were reported to have survived shipwreck.

Mudie was able to offer publishers advance purchase of three or four hundred copies of their new books and obtained corresponding discounts. The company’s withdrawn books were offered for sale at £5 for a hundred volumes in 1860.

Since the cost of novels in the Victorian era was such that most middle-class English people could not afford to purchase novels privately, popular lending libraries like “Mudie’s” had a strong influence over the public—and thus over authors and publishers. Mudie’s demands that fiction novels be suited to the middle-class family controlled the morality, subject and scope of the novel for fifty years. His “select” books were carefully chosen with these considerations in mind; once the Mudie Library considered a book unfit for its customers, other libraries followed suit. The rise of the three-volume novel can be directly attributed to this influence, and Mudie’s refusal to stock “immoral” books and “novels of questionable character or inferior quality”, such as George Moore’s A Modern Lover (1883), A Mummers Wife (1885) and A Drama in Muslin (1886), also had an effect on the direction of Victorian literature.

George Moore criticized the moral and structural power the circulating library system had on literary distribution. His response to censorship was to issue a number of polemics against circulating libraries, the most popular being Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals. He confronted Mudie on why the librarian refused to sell A Modern Lover. Mudie’s response:

Your book was considered immoral. Two ladies from the country wrote to me objecting to that scene where the girl sat to the artist as a model for Venus. After that I naturally refused to circulate your book, unIess any customer said he wanted particularly to read Mr. Moore’s novel.

Mudie was also crucial in the success of scientific volumes – In November 1859 he bought 500 copies of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In fact, much of Darwin’s own reading was obtained from Mudie’s nonfiction collection. His five-guinea annual subscription allowed him to borrow a parcel of up to six recently published books a month.

In 1860, the company’s New Oxford Street premises were substantially enlarged, and new branches of the business were subsequently established in other English cities such as York, Manchester and Birmingham. In 1864 Mudie’s was converted into a limited company. On August 18, 1871, directors of Mudie’s Select Library (Limited) controlled the English and Foreign Library (formerly known as Hookham’s). Mudie’s library continued into the 1930s. The decline of Mudie’s eventually came as a result of the rising number of government-funded public libraries, which offered similar services at a much reduced rate.