Dove’s massive giveaway of a book of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine columns, in exchange for free advertising inside the book, is neither the first nor the most consequential instance in American publishing history of books selling soap. I quote from Rosemary Ashton’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s triple-decker novel Robert Elsmere:
Published in 1888, when its author was aged 36, the work became an immediate and enduring bestseller. It went on to achieve even greater sales, mainly in pirated editions, in America. Within a year of its publication, Robert Elsmere–less a mere book than “a momentous public event,” as Henry James put it–appears to have sold about 40,000 copies in Britain and 200,000 in America. So extraordinary was the behaviour of American booksellers and entrepreneurs, one of whom gave the book away free with every purchase of a bar of Balsam Fir Soap, that the case for pushing through at last an International Copyright Bill was made largely with reference to the fortunes of Robert Elsmere in America. The bill came into effect in 1891.
So what’s Mrs. Ward’s piracy-smashing and just-plain-smashing success all about? No sensation novel hers, but “a long, serious, detailed account of the loss of orthodox faith of a young clergyman, Robert Elsmere, and the consequent straings on his marriage to an Evangelical wife.” That’s Ashton again. I’m sorry to have to borrow her words, since I actually did read this book once upon a time, though strictly out of duty when I was a student of British fiction of this period. My memory of Elsmere is highly sketchy, my book itself dutifully underlined and check-marked, though not, I see, much festooned with actual notes. As a novel it’s more than competent but unremarkable. If you are in the market for a quickie history of nineteenth-century religious issues in England, however, it’s probably as cushy a ride as you’re going to find.
Perhaps the most popular novel of its age, now forgotten by all but scholars. I wonder what will be the Robert Elsmere of our time? More to the point, I wonder what won’t.