Forgotten Best-Sellers: John Moore’s Zeluco (1789)

In this blog, I am initiating a new thread in our blogposts, which we’re calling ‘Forgotten Best-Sellers’, in homage to Robert Darnton’s great work The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1996). While the work of the ‘Books and Borrowing’ project focuses more on what we might more accurately call ‘Most-Borrowed’, rather than ‘Best-Selling’ works, the questions with which Darnton begins The Forbidden Best-Sellers, and the methods he uses to answer them, are also central to our own enquiry. Darnton asks: ‘What causes revolutions? Why do value systems change? How does public opinion influence events?’ And he seeks to answer these questions by ‘beginning with a query of a different order, one that can be answered: What did the French read in the eighteenth century?’[1]

The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, by Robert Darnton.

We, too, are interested in the questions that can be answered if we know more about what people read in the eighteenth century, and in the connections between reading, opinions, and action. So this series of blogs will focus in on some of the works that have largely been forgotten today, but which appear extremely frequently within our borrowers’ registers. We’ll look at books that either top the charts in a single library, or which appear frequently across a large number of different libraries. The only criterion is that these works were clearly popular and important in their own time, and often, as in the case of Henry Brooke’s Fool of Quality (1765-70), discussed by Matt here, well beyond it, but very little known or read now. This blog series therefore constitutes part of our attempts to retrieve such works from the margins of history, and to restore them to something of their former glory.

Today’s ‘forgotten best-seller’ has been mentioned before in these pages – it is John Moore’s 1789 novel, Zeluco. Zeluco, as Jacqueline discusses here was the most borrowed single title by the Leighton Library’s Water Drinker borrowers between 1815 and 1828, despite being published at least two decades earlier. Zeluco was acquired by the library in 1791, and its battered physical appearance bears tribute to its popularity with borrowers from then on. In a previous blog, I speculated on the reasons for Zeluco’s popularity with the borrowers in Dunblane, but today I want to give a more detailed description and analysis of the work, and to think a little more about its contemporary popularity, and subsequent decline.

Page from the Leighton Library’s copy of Zeluco (photograph by Jacqueline Kennard), with kind permission of the Trustees of the Leighton Library.

The first, and perhaps most important, thing to say about the book is that is an absolutely cracking read. It’s an exceptionally fast-paced novel, which whirls the reader across Europe, to the West Indies, and back again, in the wake of its deliciously evil villain, the eponymous Zeluco, and a large cast of supporting characters of different nationalities. Equally interesting to scholars of the eighteenth-century and Romantic-period novel, though, is the way in which this work speaks directly to so many of the most important debates of its time. Wrapped up in a semi-Gothic narrative about a wicked Sicilian aristocrat, we find firm opinions on education, improvement, religious tolerance, national stereotypes, slavery, the rights of men and women, the hazards and benefits of sensibility, and the dangers of a credit-based economy. The novel thus presents us with both a rattling page-turner and serious opportunities for moral reflection.

The book begins, conventionally, with a description of Zeluco’s childhood. He is spoiled by a foolish mother who neither can, nor wishes to, restrain his ‘violent and overbearing disposition’. Instead, she ‘applaud[s] the blusterings of petulance and pride as indications of spirit’, and so ‘his temper became more and more ungovernable, and at length seemed as inflammable as gunpowder’[2] (p.4) The narrative then depicts his headlong rush into every kind of vice and tyrannical behaviour, his bankruptcy and subsequent financial recovery, the sufferings he brings upon himself and others, including two wives, one rich, the second lovely and virtuous, and finally his mortal wounding at the hands of his equally-wicked mistress’s servant-lover, and his death-bed repentance. But the narrative frequently leaves Zeluco and his doings for chapters at a time to focus on things that are either tangentially related to the plot (the actions of the father of one of Zeluco’s acquaintances, for example, or the religious convictions of his deceased father-in-law) in order to give the author the opportunity to discuss the hot topics of the day. We shouldn’t forget that the novel’s subtitle is ‘Various Views of Human Nature, Taken from Life and Manners, Foreign and Domestic’. From this perspective, Zeluco’s own story is rather less important, and the ‘various views of human nature’ with which we are presented allow us some more insights into the author’s concerns. Much of the novel’s moral commentary is carried on in dialogue (although narratorial interventions do exist), and Moore makes substantial use of figures with opposing views who engage in lengthy disputes or debates, as well as interpolated letters for both comic and serious effects. The narrative voice itself is cultured, tolerant, worldly, and amusing, much like that found in Moore’s own personal correspondence and travel writings. (He in fact made his name as a travel writer, and his A view of society and manners in France, Switzerland, and Germany (1786) and A view of society and manners in Italy (1781) both feature not only in the collections of the Leighton, but in a number of our other partner libraries’ records as well).

F. James, Zeluco’s Portuguese Neighbor Stabs Him with a Dagger. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

There are many humorous moments in the novel. These are sometimes provided by the two comic Scots characters in the novel, Targe and Buchanan, both servants of Zeluco’s acquaintances, who represent respectively Highland and Lowland Scots, and who on one occasion fight a comic duel over Mary Queen of Scots’s honour. On other occasions the venality of the Catholic priest, Father Mulo, provides opportunities for comedy, as do the sayings of Mr Transfer, a retired city merchant. These are all, to a greater or lesser degree, familiar comic stereotypes of the period, deployed here presumably to provide comic relief among the darker Gothic scenes of abduction, murder and deceit.

The central moral message of the novel is clearly laid out in its first sentence:

Religion teaches, that Vice leads to endless misery in a future state; and experience proves, that in spite of the gayest and most prosperous appearances, inward misery accompanies her; for, even in this life, her ways are ways of wretchedness, and all her paths are woe […] To recal a truth of such importance to the recollection of mankind, and to illustrate it by example, may therefore be of use (Zeluco, p.3).

But Zeluco isn’t as simple or didactic a novel as this might suggest; as Pam Perkins writes in her introduction to the excellent Valancourt edition of 2008, it is ‘simultaneously a plot-driven melodrama and a digressive, stimulating novel of ideas’ (Zeluco, p. xxxiv). It does contain much food for thought, and is a genuinely exciting read. In our own cultural moment, its denunciation of slavery, not only as harmful to the enslaved, but also to the enslavers, is worthy of note. The narrator notes, for example, that ‘[e]ven Zeluco, though of a capricious, violent, and selfish disposition, was not naturally cruel; this last grew upon him in consequence of unlimited power’ (p.47), and its lengthy disquisition on the importance of religious tolerance in both personal and political relations (pp. 135-147) is still very well worth reading. And it was clearly enormously popular with its contemporary readers, and judged worthy of inclusion in Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s collection of The British Novelists, of 1810. Barbauld included 28 novels by 21 novelists, and her selection criteria was simple: she wished to choose ‘the most approved novels,’ considering the tastes of the public. [3]  Zeluco features here, then, as an ‘approved’ as well as popular novel, and Barbauld’s selection may have given it a new lease of life in the 1810s after its initial success on publication. She introduced the novel as follows: ‘Among modern novels of English growth, few possess greater excellence than Zeluco’, and continued enthusiastically that it was ‘one of the most entertaining we possess, from the real knowledge of the world which it displays, and the humour and spirit of the dialogue’.[4]

Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s edition of The British Novelists. Zeluco is volume 34.

It is easy to see why Zeluco appealed to its contemporary readership – Perkins and Barbauld are both right as to its entertaining characteristics. It’s less easy to see why it fell out of favour, though it was probably eventually a victim of the enormous popularity and subsequent rejection of the Gothic mode that characterised the criticism of the early nineteenth century. Written in the 1790s, when ‘the great enchantress’, Ann Radcliffe, was at the height of her powers and popularity, Zeluco probably benefited from the vogue for the Gothic that characterised that period.

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), who popularised the Gothic novel in the 1790s.

But the Gothic mode was the victim of its own success; at the turn of the new century, writers and critics were already beginning to mock the sensational and melodramatic tropes of the Gothic, as well as what had quickly become its formulaic character. Wordsworth and Coleridge were early rejectors of what they called ‘frantic novels’ in 1800, and by 1818 both Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock had written comic parodies of the Gothic in the shape of Northanger Abbey and Nightmare Abbey respectively.[5] What Jane Austen elsewhere called ‘desultory novels’ (i.e. novels that ranged over a very large variety of situations, geographical locations and characters) had also become less popular by 1814, and Scott’s appropriation of the genre of the novel in that year took readerly tastes in different directions.[6] By the 1830s, new kinds of melodramatic novels – such as James Fenimore Cooper’s adventure stories – were springing up, and when Richard Bentley chose titles for his Standard Novels series in 1831, Zeluco was not among them. Bentley’s choices are a story for another day, but suffice to say here that Zeluco’s canonicity seems to have ended with Barbauld, and its last reprinting until 2008 was in 1827.

The Valancourt edition of Zeluco, edited by Pam Perkins (2008)

Zeluco still has much to offer a twenty-first century readership, though, and fortunately it is now available in a modern edition, ably edited by Pam Perkins, from Valancourt Books.

ISBN: 1934555517
ISBN-13: 978-1934555514





[1] Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (Fontana, 1997; first published HarperCollins 1996), p.xvii.

[2] John Moore, Zeluco. Various Views of Human Nature, Taken from Life and Manners, Foreign and Domestic, ed. Pam Perkins (Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2008), p.4.

[3] Anna Letitia Barbauld, The British Novelists; with an Essay, and Prefaces Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, et al., 1810), 1:61.

[4] Anna Letitia Barbauld, The British Novelists; with an Essay, and Prefaces Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, et al., 1810), 34:i.

[5] William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge, ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads (1800).

[6] Jane Austen, Letter to Anna Lefroy, 10-18 August 1814.