Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article

“THE PROMISE OF LITERATURE IN THE COMING DAYS”: THE BEST HUNDRED IRISH BOOKS CONTROVERSY OF 1886

Clare Huttona1

a1 Loughborough University

In January 1886 Sir John Lubbock, a Liberal MP and scientist, addressed the members of the London Working Men's College on “Books and Reading,” and recommended a list of a “hundred good books.” The Pall Mall Gazette decided to publicise the list, as “the hundred best books,” a small but significant revision which has as its ultimate reference Matthew Arnold's idea that culture can make the “best that has been known and thought in the world current everywhere” (Arnold 113). Though Arnold himself declined to comment on Lubbock's list, the ensuing column on “The Best Hundred Books by the Best Judges” proved to be enduringly popular. It ran for four weeks, and the responses to Lubbock – which ranged greatly in tone, manner and content – were reprinted in a Pall Mall Gazette “Extra” which appeared on 10 March 1886 and sold more than forty thousand copies within the next three weeks. Obviously this debate took place in a context of growing anxiety amongst the intelligentsia about the seemingly endless proliferation of mass produced cheaper books, especially in the area of fiction. In the face of such abundance, it was generally felt that it was important for the “Best Judges” to instruct the newly literate classes on what to read. Indeed, as N. N. Feltes has shown in Literary Capital and the Late Victorian Novel, the response to Lubbock's original list may be read as index of late Victorian ideologies of literary value.

(Online publication May 18 2011)

Metrics