Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Julie, first printed in 1719, 1740, and 1761 respectively, were highly popular fictional works of a type that came to be called novels. Popular interest in reading novels greatly intensified competition for attention to printed works.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe went through six authorized editions within a year of its first printing in 1719. In 1790, a biographer of Defoe described Robinson Crusoe’s reception as “immediate and universal.” In 1834, a leading publisher stated, “There scarce exists a work so popular as Robinson Crusoe.” By the end of the nineteenth century, Robinson Crusoe had generated “at least seven hundred editions, translations, and imitations.”^ Robinson Crusoe was one of the most widely read books for working-class persons in nineteenth-century Britain.^
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was first published in November, 1740. By the end of 1741, four additional editions had been printed and perhaps 20,000 copies of the work had been sold. Pamela was a “commercial triumph” and “made nonsense of the old benchmarks.” About six months after Pamela’s publication, Henry Fielding parodied it with Shamela (1741). Shamela noted that Pamela had generated “an epidemical Phrenzy now raging in Town.”^ Additional editions of Pamela were printed in 1742, 1746, 1754, 1761, and 1801.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie was first published in French in 1761 under the title Lettres de deux amans habitans d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes. In subsequent French editions and English translation it became titled Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie, or the New Heloise). It also was a best-seller:
perhaps the biggest best-seller of the century. The demand for copies outran the supply so badly that booksellers rented it out by the day and even by the hour, charging twelve sous for sixty minutes with one volume, according to L.-S. Mercier. At least seventy editions were published before 1800 – probably more than for any other novel in the history of publishing.^
Julie created extraordinary engagement between its characters and its readers. That was a more general pattern of shifting importance from action to character in the proliferation of novels competing for attention.