For love’s sake

In the 19th century, publishers began printing mass-market “story papers” full of stories about love. Some ended with an HEA, but others ended in insanity, tragedy, and regret. How well did these papers sell? What did readers think of never knowing if a story would end in a wedding, a funeral, or the asylum? William Gleason looks at how these papers changed over time.


How was romance sold in the 19th century?

After the Civil War, there’s this increasing distinction in how literature gets valued and how it counts, and you see it most clearly in the segregation of magazine culture.

So you get something like the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s Weekly, which established themselves as high culture magazines, and then you get the story papers and dime novels that are quite clearly low culture magazines. Now I say quite clearly, I mean the publishers understand that they’re marketing to different audiences, or at least believe that that’s who’s only buying and reading them. We get this stratification into “brows” that is a part of our inheritance today.

So I’ve been doing some reading lately in these 19th-century story papers, which are these 16-page—they’re like mini-newspapers, but what they include is fiction and serialized novels, and they have poetry and they have letters to the editor. They started as family papers in the 1840s; they’re weekly papers. In the 1840s it was something for everyone, so you’d have it in the house and everyone from the children to the parents to the grandparents would find something to read. But gradually, and again after the Civil War, publishers begin to think about niche market audiences, and they create for the first time romance as a separate category for readers. They begin to market to women and teenage girls these story papers that would deliver romance on a weekly basis, and sort of “all romance, all the time.”

Do these stories have happy endings?

I’ve gone back to reread some of these early stories and I’m surprised to see that, on the one hand, you have traditional romantic happy ending and on the other hand there are some of these stories that are out of the more tragic tradition; but then in the middle, you also have stories in which the hero and the heroine get together, they are clearly in love, but they might also have some pang of regret for a road not taken. It’s very interesting because they’re clearly “happily ever after,” the stories make very clear that this couple is happy and this couple is in love, but the hero might look at the portrait of the young girl he thought he might marry every so often and think about what might have been.

In that story in particular, which is called For Love’s Sake, that woman in the picture was his ward, he was her guardian. A lot of these stories are about guardians who marry their wards—20-year-old men who were raising 14-year-old girls and eventually they fall in love and get married. It’s a real genre in these early stories.

But in one of those, it doesn’t go that way. The girl becomes a successful European trendsetting opera singer and the hero is a starving artist. The girl is in love with him “tumultuously,” the story says, but she catches him in a clinch with her sister, her half-sister, and decides at that moment for love’s sake to help them reach their happily ever after. She surreptitiously buys his paintings so that he has enough money to prove to their father that he’s worthy of marrying her half- sister. They get married. They live happily ever after, but she sacrificed her love for his happiness, or for the greater good of love itself, for love’s sake. He looks at her portrait every so often, and not with a kind of passionate longing, he looks at it and says, “She is so pure and above this Earth, I look at her to remind myself for love’s sake what it means to be in love.” That’s not a conventionally happy ending. It’s a strange kind of ending, but that’s the ending in this story.

Were these story papers successful?

So one of the things that has interested me in reading some of these earliest attempts, is that first of all, they don’t all succeed. The first “all romance” paper lasted only three months, it lasted 13 issues. The second one lasted barely twice as long. A lot of people have tried to figure out why this is and the argument they’ve offered is that the readers weren’t ready for it; the market didn’t really exist yet. I find it very strange to blame the readers…

When you go back and look at the issues of these magazines you realize that they weren’t consistently delivering “all romance, all the time”; they were giving a romance story here, but then they would have another story in which the lovers end up hating each other, or in which a woman goes insane and dreams she has a lover but she doesn’t actually have a lover.

I think readers decided, “Well, I don’t want to buy both, I just want one. Come back to me when you figure out the version I want.” And when they eventually did, they sold and sold and sold and those periodicals lasted for years and years and years.

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