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  • Olive Schreiner, T. Fisher Unwin and the Rise of the Short Fiction Collection in Britain
  • Clare Gill

Writing to her good friend Havelock Ellis in August 1890, Olive Schreiner expressed her perplexity at the distinct lack of interest shown by British publishers for her long-awaited second book—a collection of allegories which she called Dreams. "I wonder how it is no one takes my MS," Schreiner confided to Ellis: "I have had many more letters from people about my allegories, and have gained much more reputation by them than by An African Farm, and I myself believe they have deeper value."1 Readers awaiting a new book from the pen of the acclaimed author who had brought them the scandalous, best-selling novel The Story of an African Farm in 1883 had had to make do with the short allegorical stories Schreiner published in various periodicals at irregular intervals throughout the 1880s; and while they proved popular with readers, their irregular appearance did little to sate the demand for a new, full-length publication.

The desire for new texts from Schreiner is best understood in the context of the contemporary reception of her debut novel: by the end of the century, The Story of an African Farm had sold close to 100,000 copies in Britain alone and had attained such enormous popularity among readers that it was voted as one of the "100 best books of the century" in the influential list published by the Daily Telegraph in 1899. Quite understandably, Schreiner believed that she would have the opportunity to negotiate the market with ease with her second publication, and that she would be afforded the luxury she had been denied with her first book, of choosing a publisher for her collection of allegories from a selection of interested parties. Yet, as the author's correspondence with Ellis throughout the year 1890 documents, Dreams was rejected by at least two prominent publishers—Blackwood and Macmillan—before [End Page 315] the text was accepted by T. Fisher Unwin, who not only recognized but also capitalised upon the aesthetic value of Schreiner's unique and powerful short fiction collection.

This article explores the difficulties this popular author experienced in securing a publisher for her second book and situates these struggles within the context of late-nineteenth-century print culture, arguing that the early publishing history of Dreams was shaped by both the aesthetic and material conditions of a changing literary marketplace.2 This discussion places the publication of Schreiner's first collection of allegories within the context of these changes, suggesting that factors including the expansion of reading audiences and technological advancements, together with shifts specific to the publishing world, made it initially difficult, but ultimately possible, for a stylistically idiosyncratic text such as Dreams to locate a strong foothold in the literary marketplace, and indeed, come to be published in the first place.

While Schreiner was resistant to editorial advice regarding emendations to her manuscripts, her publishers still exercised considerable influence over the material and visual form of the finished textual product. Inspired by Gérard Genette's work on paratexts, this article also argues that in addition to contributing to the overall look of her text, T. Fisher Unwin contributed to the formulation of the meaning of Dreams at the level of paratext. Quoting Philippe Lejeune, Genette defines paratext as "a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one's whole reading of the text," and includes such extra-textual features as cover design, illustrations, typesetting and prefaces.3 T. Fisher Unwin contributed in various ways to both the original production and subsequent endurance of Schreiner's text in the fiercely competitive fin-de-siècle book trade, when the genre had yet to reach the zenith of popularity it would attain later in the decade. In addition to casting new light onto Unwin's creative role in shaping Schreiner's Dreams, this article illuminates the significance of the firm's marketing strategies for the text, undertaken at a time when many booksellers refused to stock volumes of short stories on account of their perceived unpopularity among readers. An exploration of the innovative advertising and marketing...


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pp. 315-338
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