Today I found the answer to a question I haven’t actually ever thought about but should have. In The Importance of Being Ernest, Cecily, in conversation with Miss Prism says “I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends to us.” And, even after the many, many performances I’ve been in and seen, I have never wondered who Mudie was. Well, today I found out.
Charles Edward Mudie (1818-1890) was the son of a newsagent. By the age of 22 Charles decided he’d had enough of delivering the paper from his bike and so branched out on his own. He opened a small bookshop then started a subscription lending library.
The library allowed subscribers to borrow books. Depending on how much you paid for your subscription, depended on how many books you could borrow. The standard amount was a guinea per year and for that you could borrow one book at a time.
He also felt he should impart the latest knowledge to the literate among the masses and so a good third of his stock was non-fiction. This also gave him access to the lucrative student market who would borrow his books to use at university.
He lent to Charles Darwin and even pushed On the Origin of Species when it came out, buying 500 copies in 1859 figuring they’d be of interest and importance to his many subscribers.
His wealth, however, came from the novel, in particular the three volume novel. It also came from his own moral standards which he decided were the best for everyone else. He made certain, therefore, that he never stocked anything that he considered immoral. He insisted. At the height of his power, he could determine which books would be successful. When Mudie bought a book it was a guaranteed seller; if he didn’t the book would vanish into obscurity. So, too bad if you wanted to write something raunchy.
The demise of his business came with the increasing number of public libraries dotted around the country though, by that time, he was as rich as Croesus.
An amazing and influential man who understood the meaning of control of the market.