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April 2007

Exhibition note

by Alexandra Mullen

"Victorian Bestsellers"
Morgan Library & Museum, New York.
January 26, 2007-May 6, 2007

“Bestseller” is a relatively recent coinage. It doesn’t even appear in the first edition of the OED. The Supplement’s first citation is from 1911, given an American origin, and pejorative: “His book had passed into the abhorred class of best sellers.” I think the OED is late by at least twenty years, but this is clearly a case where life cried out for a new word.

The wonderful new exhibit at the Morgan Library officially covers the period from 1837–1901, Victoria’s reign, but it sneaks in some forerunners, like the Gothic novelists Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis. Their effect can be judged by Gillray’s print “Tales of Wonder!,” in which even the drawing-room ornaments are agog at the thrilling horrors read aloud into the wee hours of the morning to the female audience. Thus the birth of the trashy bes ...

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Alexandra Mullen is an advisory editor at The Hudson Review
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 April 2007, on page 66
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