Reading Readers – Jenny

For the second in our Reading Readers series, Jenny tells us about the exciting discoveries she has made about the world of publishing in the Chatto & Windus letter books.

Jenny recording details from one of the many Chatto & Windus letter books.

Jenny recording details from one of the many Chatto & Windus letter books.

I started working as a volunteer in the Special Collections about two years ago, my task being to join the team transcribing the archive of letters from the Chatto and Windus publishing house. I began with letters from the 1860s. Time moves on, and I am now working on volumes of letters from the 1890s. The objective remains to record the names of the recipients, together with the page number on which the letter appears in each volume. The fragility of the tissue on which the letter copies were made means the pages need to be turned carefully, and quite often the use of a magnifying glass is required to assist in reading the elegant but indistinct copperplate writing.


The letters reveal that the daily business practices of a publishing house have not changed so much over time; potential authors are sent rejection letters, suppliers are sent orders, debts are pursued, remuneration cheques are issued to successful writers. Most of the correspondence is the routine stuff of office life. What fascinates, however, is that occasionally a letter appears addressed to a familiar name; an author or a member of nineteenth century society now recognised by posterity. I have come across letters concerning Mark Twain, Jerome K Jerome, the poet Algernon Swinburne and the composer Arthur Sullivan. There was delight in finding a note telling a Mr J E Millais that his illustrations were not of sufficient quality to be used. I wonder if the future Sir John Everett Millais kept that note. It was interesting to find a short letter to Victor Hugo, sending him a cheque for sales of the translation into English of the first parts of Les Miserables.


The letters are all out-going and very seldom have replies, but once in a while there is a response tucked between the pages. My most exciting find was just such a reply. The outgoing letter was addressed to a Mr A. Conan Doyle, and expressed concern that one of his tales had been used to advertise and market a book of short stories not published by Chatto and Windus. The publishers were asking his advice as to how they should react. And there, between the tissue, was a hand written reply from Conan Doyle himself, in crisp black ink, very clear and easy to read. It was not one of his best stories, he says, but since the book is out and for sale, he prefers to take no action. A wonderful find on a nineteenth century sales problem – one which still seems relevant to business today. And I had in my hand a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle!

You can find more details about the Chatto & Windus archive here.


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