THE TRADE GOTHIC
There is a clear critical division that exists in the Gothic, between the Canonical and trade, the first being an indicator of the genre's critical success and reception, the other dismissed as not really belonging to the genre by an act of assessment which assimilates the popular to the literary, and finds it disreputable. The modern critical view of the Gothic limits it to a set of high reaching artistic achievements: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), Ann Radcliffe's The Italian; or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) are constantly cited as defining the genre. But this view largely excludes the question of whether those novels unashamedly produced as part of a lucrative business or trade Gothic can be admitted, either as a legitimate literary category, or even as a contribution to the life of the genre. Many of the most fashionable and popular Gothic novels were written by writers who turned out works as part of a profitable business. Authors such as Sarah Wilkinson, Francis Lathom, William Ireland, William Child Green and Louisa Stanhope produced most of the best selling novels, chapbooks and short tales of terror, often selling more and gaining more critical acclaim than the 'canonical' writers, but are largely forgotten today.
Undoubtedly, the most condemned offspring of the Trade Gothic, chapbooks or bluebook are considered by some to be not only 'low quality Gothic fiction', but the 'corrupted form' of the Gothic', the 'disposable rubbish of a subliterate body of literature' whose 'publication and commercial value stand as an index of the sensation-craze into which the Gothic vogue degenerated in its declining years.'
Chapbooks or bluebooks were a whole series of short tales, 36 to 72 pages long, distinguished by their flimsy blue covers, and thought to be redacted, plagiarised, abridged, extracted or imitations of popular novels and well-known Gothic novels. But, of course, it would be erroneous to suppose that all chapbooks or bluebooks were merely diminutive renderings of Gothic novels; in fact, very few were direct abridgements of Gothic novels and some were indeed, original. Often illustrated with wood cuts or engravings, chapbooks were sold for under a Shilling and are now unmistakably linked to the vulgarisation of the pastiche-ridden Gothic, the dumbing own of the Gothic's intricate and convoluted plots, dark motifs and representations of the sublime, into simple tales of terror.
The Gothic chapbook trade, largely a secondary market for fiction specialising not only in original work but redactions, was separate and distinct from street literature, the cheap ballad sheets, pamphlets and chapbooks which simultaneously flourished in the early nineteenth century and the production of Gothic novels by publishers like William Lane of Minerva Press. The Gothic chapbook trade was comprised of several large publishing houses in London including Dean & Munday, J. Roe, Ann Lemoine, and Thomas Tegg, who were often more book dealers rather than publishers, producing a wide variety of literature including cookbooks and religious tracts with Gothic bluebooks comprising only a small amount. Smaller publishers such as Simon Fisher, John Arliss, Robert Harrild and Thomas Hughes, whose primary commodity was the Gothic chapbook, shared the field with the larger publishers, driving the Gothic chapbook trade between 1800 and 1825. In those twenty-five years they produced around a thousand chapbooks and bluebooks.
The popular historical representation of a Gothic chapbook reader is that of school boy Percy Shelley reading horrid chapbooks from a 'low' circulating library, at Sion House. This figure has in fact become literary history which in part has aided in distinguishing between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' readers of the Gothic. Literary historians such as Montague Summers have confidently argued that since Shelley, as a school boy, read chapbooks; they were of course read by all school boys, apprentices, servants (Summers specifically states girls) and that 'vast population who longed to be in fashion.' (Summers, Gothic Quest , pp. 84-85) There is, however, no documentation supports this supposition; undoubtedly, it is the chapbooks' link to cheap popular fiction and street literature that predictably aligns them with the working class reader. However, Shelley's brief appearance in chapbook's literary history does suggest two, often neglected, fragments of evidence. Initially, it is clear that Shelley obtained these chapbooks at a 'low' circulating library which indicates that readers would have to have access to a circulating library and the money to procure them. Second, the fact that Shelley was receiving a formal education while enjoying chapbooks indicates that such readers (i.e. young and even upper-middle class) were, perhaps, required to possess some amount of education to detect some of their distinctive features and textual characteristics.
Almost certainly, Gothic chapbooks were exclusively available in small circulating libraries, while chapbooks, the "shorter versions of the sixpenny and shilling romances [which were] bought by more prosperous readers", were available from street vendors. William Booth's Circulating Library in Norwich, for example, carried 'pamphlets' including Raymond and Agnes, a Romance, The Spectre of the Forest, or Black Castle , Gothic Stories and Kilverstone Castle which were available for 1d. per night. In 1817 William Fish's Circulating Library in Norwich, displayed Gothic chapbooks and bluebooks prominently under the heading Novel and Romances ; for instance, The Veiled Picture, or Mysteries of Gorgona, a romance of the 16th century an adaptation of Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho was advertised as two volumes. Both novels and chapbooks were available to non-subscribers for 1 d . per night. Reading a volume of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho may take several nights, but reading a redacted version may take only a few hours.
There is unfortunately little USEFUL information on the web regarding this important subcategory of Gothic fiction. The following are the few links worth exploring, but they are generally condescending and moreover, they unfortunately reinforce the established literary history which specifically links the crude illustrations of chapbooks to their literary quality, fundamentally judging the book by its cover.
Illustrations from Gothic Chapbooks: from Frederick Frank's bibliographical site: The Sickly Taper
Gothic Gold: An article on the Sadleir Black collection at the University of Virginia by Frederick Frank.