The Workers' Library: the emergence of new genres

The growth of the publishing industry in the second half of the Victorian era led to an explosion in new fiction genres. These genres reflected the cultural, social and political events of the time. The Workers’ Library collection at Quarry Bank reflects the diversity of fiction genres available to readers. Read below to explore types of fiction and take a look at how some existing writing styles were updated for a late Victorian and Edwardian audience. Follow the links throughout to learn more about the books in the collection.

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Romance fiction

By the 1930s, romance fiction was still one of the most popular forms of novel writing. These stories are often about much more than just love though, as authors often used romance to discuss social change and current affairs. Gilbert Frankau’s book 'A Lonely Man' is a great example of this as it blends a love story with the exploration of British masculine identity, both at home and in an increasingly globalised world.

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Religious fiction

Religious fiction was an important and popular genre throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Declining religiosity, the continued growth of non-denominational faiths and increasing urbanisation meant that religion and morality were the source of much discussion and debate. While many religious novels from this era have been forgotten today, they had a significant impact on the writings of those who came later. George Macdonald was one of the most influential of these authors. Important and well-known authors such as C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, and E Nesbit all claim to have been inspired by him. His books 'Mary Marston' and 'Lilith' were very popular in the library.

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Historical fiction

The Workers’ Library holds many books by the authoress Baroness Orczy, known best for her enduring creation, 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'. She was a prolific author of historical fiction and her stories were a thrilling mix of chivalry, villainy and adventure, usually concerning the aristocracy in both France and the UK. History has always provided inspiration for writers. Looking at the past can often reveal things about the contemporary world too. Despite being a work of historical fiction, 'Nicolette' reflects on and explores many of the anxieties familiar to a contemporary audience. Class boundaries and the changing nature of society are all explored and would have resonated with a post-First World War audience.

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Adventure

Tales of adventure and exploration reached new levels of popularity in the second half of the Victorian era. This was because of the continued growth of the empire and the improved newspaper coverage of military campaigns. For the first time military figures became household names and by the time of the First World War you could buy merchandise featuring the heroes of the Boer War. Much of this merchandise was aimed at young boys who were able to buy toy soldiers with replica uniforms of famous military moments such as the Charge of the Light Brigade. Adventure fiction was also largely aimed at boys but was also enjoyed by men of all ages. Girls were unlikely to have been encouraged to read adventure fiction but there was nothing to stop them borrowing books like 'Captain Blood' from the Workers’ Library.

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Horror

The horror genre had been popular with readers since the publication of Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' in 1818. However, the genre reached new heights of popularity between 1880 and 1914 when large numbers of books about vampires, the occult and science experiments that take a dark turn were published. The reason for this growth in supernatural fiction may have been partly a response to social anxiety surrounding the question of what it is to be human. The development of psychiatry and psychology as well as advances in biological science focused public attention on the subconscious mind. Spiritualism and studies in the occult also flourished at this time. 'Black Magic' by Marjorie Bowen combines these elements.

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Detective fiction

Crime was a very popular subject with Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens. Novels like 'Great Expectations' had questions about punishment and redemption at their heart. Stories about the fledgling police force appeared during this era as did tales of amateur detectives. Many aspects of detective stories that recognise today, such as the detective’s grand reveal and the use of deduction were shaped in the first half of the twentieth century. G K Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories were some of the earliest examples. The Father Brown stories were published from 1911 until the death of the author in 1936. They influenced the detective fiction writers such as Dorothy L Sayer, Nygio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Agatha Christie, whose stories are still popular today.

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Science Fiction

Technological and scientific discoveries fascinated the public in Victorian Britain, yet by the 1880s fears about the economy, Britain’s place in the world and a sense of potential social collapse stalked the collective psyche. Writers such as H G Wells wrote works of fiction about future worlds where technological developments and social change have reached a critical point. 'The Days of the Comet' is not one of Wells' best known books but it is fascinating for the way he embedded current affairs into his fiction. Potential world conflict, a newly discovered comet, and an exploration of polyamory as a utopian state of affairs ensured that the book was sensational when published in 1906.

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Children's fiction

Children’s fiction took off as a genre in the 1880s and continued to grow in popularity throughout the early twentieth century. We often refer to the period 1900-1914 as the Golden Era of children’s fiction. More books were being written for children than ever before and many of these books are still popular with children today. Rudyard Kipling is best known for his 'Jungle Book', but 'Puck of Pook’s Hill' was one of his best loved works for children.

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Western/ Pulp fiction

Despite the fact that the American Frontier took place almost a hundred year previously, books like 'The Masked Rider' were immensely popular with readers in the early part of the twentieth century. Stories of cowboys and Indians, bandits and heroes filled countless books. The popularity of this genre in the 1920s was fuelled further by the rise of Westerns in the cinema, and both were designed to be consumed rapidly rather than have time taken over them. Pulp fiction was a term given to this type of fast fiction because they emerged at a time when printing was cheap and books could be rapidly produced on cheap paper to meet the growing demand.

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Political fiction

Works of fiction reflect the times they're written in. Some authors like Charles Dickens filled their fictional stories with social critique. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the rise of socialism as a political viewpoint, the campaign for women’s rights and changing views on religion were being widely debated in society. In his book 'One of the Guilty' W L George, an avid feminist, sets out his critique of contemporary masculinity and provides us with an insight into the debates of the time.