By the time the ladies had made their way back to the house they were not only in possession of Lady Caroline Lamb’s scandalous book, and of course, The Black Dwarf, but Caroline clutched the latest edition of Weatherby’s General Stud Book as well as Kubla Khan, which she purchased over Eleanor’s objections . (Counterfeit Viscountess)
When we think about best sellers we probably imagine something like a book by Stephen King or J K Rowling. But best sellers have been around as long as books have themselves. That’s how the bible has managed to sell six billion copies (give or take a few million). So it’s no surprise that during the Regency there were books that everyone had to read and then talk about with all their friends.
Lady Caroline Lamb’s first novel, Glenarvon, was one of them. Glenarvon was a satire populated by real people thinly disguised in a very melodramatic roman a clef. It was dismissed as an overwrought work of revenge against many of the members of the ton in general and the titular character, based on Lord Byron, in particular, with little literary merit. But that didn’t stop people from reading it. Quite the contrary. Interestingly, that view is now coming under renewed scrutiny and Glenarvon is starting to be hailed as a quite well-written early work of feminism. Whether Lamb would have appreciated that or not is anyone’s guess.
Sir Walter Scott, unlike Lady Caroline Lamb, was renowned for his writing, rather than his personal life. He pretty much invented the historical novel, but he also wrote plays, poetry, short stories and non-fiction and was well-respected for his literary efforts. That didn’t stop him from writing stories every bit as lurid as anything Lady Caro could come up with. Facing dire financial straits he made no bones about the fact that he wrote for money. A story like The Black Dwarf, full of mystery, magic and melodrama, was guaranteed to sell boatloads of copies and he didn’t hesitate in writing to suit less than exalted public tastes. Even a sensible young woman like Caroline Saxon couldn’t resist.
Unlike modern times, poetry was as likely to achieve best seller status as prose was – hence Lord Byron’s contention that he woke up famous the morning after the publication of his epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan was also published in 1816, many years after its composition, at the urging of Byron (literary people all seemed to hang around together back then, too) and became as famous for the story behind its composition as for its strange construction. Coleridge said he wrote it after waking up from a drug induced dream. He was interrupted part way through and completely lost the story, so it remained unfinished.
The final book mentioned above, Weatherby’s General Stud Book, was a breed registry for thoroughbreds in England and Ireland. It was started by James Weatherby in 1791 and continues to this day. It is still owned by the Weatherby family and is published every four years. The 48th volume was published in 2015 and it remains the go-to book for registering horses to this day.