The Offices of the Minerva Press, Leadenhall Street

Watercolour Image of The Offices of the Minerva Press, Leadenhall Street

Contributor: Anthony Mandal

Location: Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Description: This engraving shows Leadenhall Street in the City of London at the close of the eighteenth century. Today, the thoroughfare is primarily associated with banking and finance; then, Leadenhall Street was one of the publishing centres of Romantic London. Dominating the image on the right is the unmistakable, pillared building of the East India House (demolished in 1861 and now the site of Lloyd’s of London). A block away, opposite the pink building near the back of the image, was No. 33, Leadenhall Street. It was here that William Lane (1738–1814) established his Minerva Press and Library in 1773, a major influence on the Romantic book trade and a key player in the history of fiction. This illustration appeared around 1799, during the golden age of the Minerva Press that spanned the 1790s to the 1810s. Yet, no image of the Minerva Press survives, and nor do its archives. The only traces that remain are the books and circulating library catalogues that the press produced. Still, these reveal the extent to which the output of the Minerva Press depended on translation and adaptation both to sell to British readers and to sell across Europe, and other evidence underscores the press’s market penetration in continental Europe.

The Minerva Press was a powerhouse of novel production, becoming effectively synonymous with the fictional potboilers of the period, issuing over 800 new titles (nearly one quarter of all the fiction published in this period), each of them fitted to changing public tastes. The publishing historian John Feather notes that ‘the “Minerva Press novel” became almost as much of a descriptor as “Mills and Boon” was to be of popular romantic novels in the second half of the twentieth century’ (p. 78). A shrewd entrepreneur, Lane promoted his works through the catalogues of his Minerva Library and in the lists of ‘Works Just Published’ appended to his novels. The business continued to grow through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, through Lane’s partnership with Anthony King Newman, who took over the running of the firm upon Lane’s retirement in 1808.

Many of Minerva’s writers had begun as its readers. The expansion in literacy among women from the middling classes during the period combined with growing restrictions on their ability to work, generated a community of women writers. Some of these remained amateurs, but many eked out a living through their writing, and comprised the majority of the Minerva authors. Lane actively solicited new authors—particularly female ones—a number of whom enjoyed long-standing publishing careers with Lane. Among them were Elizabeth Meeke, the most prolific novelist of the period; Regina Maria Roche, who at one time competed with Ann Radcliffe for dominance of the market for gothic fiction; and Ann Hatton, who published most of her works pseudonymously as ‘Ann of Swansea’.

A sizeable portion of Minerva’s source material originated in foreign works, which were then translated or adapted for an anglophone audience. These translations were often undertaken by amateur women writers, who had the linguistic skills to translate while not occupying any official capacity in the print culture of the period.

Around 8 per cent of Minerva’s output from 1800 to 1829 derived from translations, primarily from the French and German, with some from the Italian. The majority of these appeared between 1803 and 1804. Translated works published by Minerva included Jean Regnault-Warin’s The Cavern of Strozzi (1800), Madame de Genlis’ The Impertinent Wife (1806), ten translations from the German novelist August Lafontaine and four of the French writer François Ducray-Dumenil. Mary Charlton’s The Homicide (1805) was adapted from Goldoni’s comedies, and the title page of her 1803 novel, The Philosophic Kidnapper, claimed to have been ‘altered from the French’. One of the most popular translations was Elizabeth Meeke’s 1807 adaptation of Mme de Cottin’s Elizabeth; or, the Exiles of Siberia, which had been published in Paris a year earlier: the translation went into at least 25 editions by 1850.

But translation also moved trade in the opposite direction, and around 12 per cent of Minerva’s works published between 1781 and 1829 were adapted into French and German. To take an example: of Mary Charlton’s 11 published Minerva novels, four were translations from French, Italian or German originals, while four were translated into French or German. Her 1805 adaptation of Goldoni, mentioned above, was translated into French in 1817, indicating the bidirectionality of Minerva’s productions. As late as 1821, Margaret Campbell prepared The Midnight Wanderer, a free adaptation of Louise Breyer de Saint-Léon’s 1813 novel Alexina. This was, in turn, translated back into the French in 1830 as Rose d’Altenberg.

Beyond translation, another vector of trans-continental transmission was the circulation of English editions in Europe. One of the most prominent instances of this can be found in the Princely Library at Schloss Corvey in northwest Germany, in a collection accumulated during opening decades of the nineteenth century by a bibliophile aristocratic couple, the Landgrave Victor Amadeus and his second wife Elisabeth. They built up a huge collection of literary works in German, French and English, evidently relying on agents located in the key book markets of the area. The Romantic-period literary collection at Corvey includes just under 3300 English-language novels, representing nearly 80 per cent of the fiction published between 1796 and 1834. Around 9 in 10 of Minerva’s novels can be found in the Corvey Library, indicating how the publisher’s reputation stretched into Europe.

The Minerva Press, situated in the heart of London, was therefore a conduit to and from European print culture, as well as being a major influence in the British marketplace. Yet, little critical attention has been given to Minerva: perhaps the best-known study is Dorothy Blakey’s bibliographical analysis from 1939, followed in 1997 by an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Deborah McLeod. However, more focused work is now being undertaken, with scholarly articles appearing in recent years, as well as a 2019 book-length study of Minerva’s gothic fiction, and ongoing doctoral research into the firm and its outputs. A special issue of the journal Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, appeared in 2020 dedicated to the Minerva Press. Nevertheless, there remains much work to do, not least on the trans-European network of the Press, whose influence stretched out from that busy thoroughfare in Leadenhall Street—just past the East India House—to influence a whole world of readers beyond British shores.

Date: c. 1799

Creator: Thomas Malton, the Younger (1748–1804)

Subject: Minerva Press; William Lane; Anthony King Newman

Media rights: Public domain (Courtesy of the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut)

Object type: Illustration (topographical)

Format: Watercolour over etched outline

Language: English

Publisher: Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Digital collection record: https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3631995

Catalogue number: B2001.2.1001

References

Blakey, Dorothy, The Minerva Press, 1790–1820, London: Bibliographical Society, 1939.

Feather, John, A History of British Publishing, 2nd edn, London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

McLeod, Deborah Ann, ‘The Minerva Press’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta, 1997.

Neiman, Elizabeth, Minerva’s Gothics: The Politics and Poetics of Romantic Exchange, 1780–1820, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2019.