Tauchnitz Collections reveal how reading fashions have changed

Castello Brown above Portofino, the setting for The Enchanted April (randreu via Wikimedia Commons)

A year ago, as we headed into lockdown and prepared for library closures, I ensured that I had plenty of new reading matter from both the UL and public libraries. One slim volume that I borrowed was Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April, a charming book which proved to be the perfect springtime companion, allowing me to escape to the sunshine of the Italian Riviera at a time when I could barely leave my house. The copy was a Tauchnitz edition from 1925, acquired by the UL in 1982. It contained this intriguing statement:

The copyright of this collection is purchased for continental circulation only and the volumes may therefore not be introduced into Great Britain or her colonies. Sold by all booksellers and at all railway bookstalls on the Continent.

The collection referred to here is the Collection of British and American Authors, a reprint series of popular works, published in Leipzig, which by the early 1920s had been running for 80 years and numbered more than 4500 volumes (by 1939 when the series ended it had reached more than 5300 volumes). It was aimed at English-speaking readers and tourists in mainland Europe. At a time when cross-border copyright agreements did not exist Bernhard Tauchnitz, the publisher, had led the way in obtaining authorisation from authors for continental reprints to appear very soon after or even at the same time as original editions, and paid them royalties in return. He built up relationships with leading authors; until World War Two bombing sadly destroyed it, the publisher’s offices housed a significant archive of correspondence with authors (various anniversary volumes of Tauchnitz publishers offer an insight into some of these, featuring excerpts – see further reading below).

Of course, by rights, none of this collection should have come to the University Library but over time we have acquired more than 100 volumes, one of which, a collection of Katherine Mansfield short stories, appears remarkably to have arrived under Legal Deposit.

At the back of The Enchanted April was a list of all the books then in the collection. But I was even more interested to see a smaller list of books in another Tauchnitz collection, the Collection of German Authors, begun in 1868 and numbering 33 titles of works translated into English.

I studied German literature at university and work regularly on German books so I was surprised that of the 21 different authors listed I had only heard of six of them and only studied works by two of them. Delving a little deeper I discovered that many of these books were particularly popular with 19th century readers and that a good number of them were in the “historical romance” genre, especially admired at that time but perhaps less fashionable now. The UL has copies of almost two thirds of this collection, some of which even arrived under the Legal Deposit Act at the time of publication because they were jointly published in Leipzig and London.

Georg Ebers via Wikimedia Commons

So to expand a little on a few of these perhaps forgotten authors:

Georg Ebers was a noted Egyptologist who fed an appetite for all things Egyptian with a series of successful historical romances set in ancient Egypt.

Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer was a popular and widely read author in the mid 19th century who also translated Dickens into German. Handel und Wandel, the work of his in the Tauchnitz collection, was semi-autobiographical, describing his early career working in a shop.

The three volumes in the collection by Paul Heyse all contained short stories. Heyse was clearly well regarded as he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1910.

George Taylor, not a very German name, was the pseudonym under which Adolf Hausrath, a theologian, wrote historical romances including Klytia, a 16th century story.

Four of the German authors featured in the collection were women, two of whom, E. Marlitt (pseudonym of Eugenie John) and Maria Nathusius counted among the most-read authors in Germany in the latter part of the 19th century. Fanny Lewald was also known as an advocate of the emancipation of women and Wilhelmine von Hillern  was an actress as well as a novelist. Her book The Vulture Maiden (Die Geier-Wally) is a story set in the Alps which inspired an opera as well as several film versions.

I noticed that most of the works had been translated into English by women and it became apparent that some of these were well connected women who had interesting and impressive backgrounds:

Mary Howitt via Wikimedia Commons

Hackländer’s Handel und Wandel was translated by Mary Howitt, perhaps best known for the poem The spider and the  fly. She and her husband William had long and prolific writing careers and were well travelled. In addition to her obvious proficiency in German she became interested in Scandinavian during a brief stay in Germany, and went on to learn Swedish and Danish well enough that she was able to translate works by Hans Christian Andersen and Fredrika Bremer (it is not clear to me whether she ever in fact travelled to Denmark or Sweden).

Clara Bell translated The Vulture Maiden and several of the Ebers books. Like Mary Howitt, she combined motherhood with her translating work (she had seven children). She was fluent in and translated from several European languages, some of which she only learnt in later life.

Eleanor Grove was another influential woman who learnt German while working as a governess. As well as her translating work she was active in promoting opportunities for women’s education alongside her life partner Rosa Morison; this culminated in her taking charge of the first hall of residence for women at University College, London.

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

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