The Minerva Press – Purveyors of Gothic and Sentimental Fiction

The Gothic novel was a popular genre in England during the Romantic era. Authors who wrote within this genre generally produced dark and frightening tales with an emphasis on violence and oppression, often making frequent use of the supernatural. The Minerva Press capitalized on the vogue for these novels, becoming extremely successful in the 1790s as publishers of both sentimental and Gothic fiction.

Literary critics generally consider Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to be the first Gothic novel. Although Walpole’s novel was initially published in 1764, the boom for Gothic fiction didn’t really begin until the 1790s. The novels of Ann Radcliffe in particular built on the literary foundations set out by Walpole, establishing a range of conventions and themes which would subsequently be identified with a distinctive form of modern romance, or Gothic novel. The Minerva Press would provide a publishing stable for many imitators of Radcliffe’s work.

The company was founded in 1790 in London by its proprietor William Lane after he transferred his circulating library to the capital. Lane was a charismatic businessman who rapidly made a fortune marketing cheap Gothic fiction and it wasn’t long before Minerva dominated the novel publishing industry, commanding an impressive market share.

It is significant to feminist studies that many of the authors published by Minerva were women and their output was primarily read by female readers. Although relatively obscure today, some of the company’s more prominent novelists who wrote within the Gothic genre include Eliza Parsons; Regina Maria Roche; Isabella Kelly; Catharine Selden; Mary Meeke, and many others. Several of Minerva’s titles, such as The Animated Skeleton (1798) and The New Monk (1798) – a parody of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) – were published anonymously.

The Minerva authors drew directly on the Gothic conventions established by Walpole and Radcliffe, their novels focusing upon the subjects of feudal cruelty, imperilled young virgins, rightful inheritance, ruthless banditti, and vengeful ghosts. As with the work of their literary forebears, the narratives of the Minerva Gothic novels would frequently be set in a distant medieval past, their storylines often playing out against an ominous backdrop of crumbling castles and convents situated in Southern Europe.

Although many of Minerva’s authors are now long forgotten, Jane Austen’s celebrated parody of the Gothic genre, Northanger Abbey (1818), inadvertently went some way to bringing a select few back into public consciousness. In Austen’s novel the character of Isabella Thorpe is described as an avid reader of Gothic fiction, presenting the heroine Catherine Morland with a reading list of so-called “horrid novels”. The list features seven titles in all, including Eliza Parsons’s The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning (1796), as well as Regina Maria Roche’s Clermont (1798), and of the seven titles overall, only one, Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell (1798), wasn’t published by Minerva.

Isabella’s list subsequently came to be known as the ‘Northanger Canon’ and for many years these titles were believed to have been of Austen’s own invention. It wasn’t until pioneering studies by literary scholars Michael Sadleir and Montague Summers in the early 20th century revealed that the novels on the list were actually real.

After his death in 1814, William Lane was replaced by his partner Anthony King Newman, who became Minerva’s new proprietor. From the 1820s Newman discarded the Minerva name, with the title pages of later books displaying the name ‘A.K. Newman & Co.’. In recent years however, critical acclaim has eluded the authors who published work under Lane or Newman.