Imagine if JK Rowling’s name rang no bells in people’s minds 100 years from now. Rowling: so ubiquitous, influential and popular – the thought seems absurd. But this is exactly what happened to the Cork-born writer LT Meade, who died 100 years ago today and who was the JK Rowling of her day.
Like the creator of Harry Potter, Meade was a bestselling phenomenon who wrote across audiences and inspired devotion among her readers. She's probably the most prolific author Ireland has ever produced. After moving to London in her early thirties, she published about280 books, dominating the market for girls' books in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
Her 1886 novel A World of Girls, which sold an impressive 37,000 copies, had a huge influence on girls' school stories of the twentieth century by the likes of Enid Blyton. But she also wrote widely in crime fiction – her stories appeared in the Strand, alongside Sherlock Holmes – romance, ghost stories and many other genres besides, and she invented a number of sub-genres including the medical mystery. So no LT Meade, no Diagnosis Murder.
So why has she dropped out of the public imagination despite such popularity during her lifetime? Could it be that her books, with such memorable titles as A Sweet Girl Graduate, Wild Kitty, Light O' the Morning; or The Story of an Irish Girl and Dumps: A Plain Girl, are simply no good – too much of their time to compete with today's giants of children's literature?
Meade still has her champions. Last summer, the former British children's laureate Julia Donaldson picked Meade's 1893 novel Beyond the Blue Mountains as her "hidden gem" during a radio book club broadcast from the Edinburgh Book Festival.
Perhaps her industry is precisely the reason for her descent into literary obscurity. In interviews, Meade styled herself as the exemplary literary professional who took pride in her productivity and work ethic. But these were not fashionable qualities as literary values and tastes changed in the twentieth century.
Meade had little time for ideas about inspiration or tortured literary geniuses. She described herself as writing “to order”, producing whatever kinds of books publishers required, and advised aspiring writers to be “business-like”. Long before creative writing was a fixture on university courses, she controversially campaigned for the creation of “schools of fiction” to support and help to train professional writers who, like her, would “live by their pens”.
Meade was certainly well placed to advise would-be authors. She knew exactly how to market herself: in articles about her books for younger readers, for example, she often referred to her own children; when talking about her books for teenage girls featuring “Wild Irish Girls”, she played up her Irishness and wrote about her experiences of growing up in a Church of Ireland rectory, the dreaming daughter of a rector with little belief in his imaginative daughter’s emerging talent.
Just like today's best loved writers for young people, such as Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and John Green, Meade was an expert at interacting with her readers. She may not have been able to make YouTube videos like Green or send cryptic tweets like Rowling, but Meade made the most of the resources available to her.
As the editor of the popular girls' magazine, Atalanta, she was able to address girls directly on a regular basis, and to promote ideas that were important to her, such as girls' access to education. In press interviews she wrote movingly about her commitment to her readers and she claimed to receive thousands of letters from fans. A particularly vitriolic review by the Saturday Review in 1906, dismissing her work as nothing more than "factory output", inspired a group of schoolgirls to write to the editor in defence of their heroine. The support is strikingly similar to discussions of young adult fiction we see online today.
Meade’s books were read, swapped via magazine exchange columns, and given as presents and school prizes from the 1880s to the early decades of the twentieth century. Her role in the history of crime fiction means that she had a huge influence on the writing that fills the bestseller lists to this day. Yet, Meade’s name has not endured. Her story tells us a great deal about the ways in which popular literature has been valued through history, or more accurately not valued, and about the potentially transitory nature of literary celebrity. While some nineteenth-century writers have ascended to the status of “classic”, many others, like Meade, have been consigned to the bargain bins, then footnotes, of literary history.
Yet this does not mean that her achievement isn’t valid. Meade’s books may not have remained in print, but her legacy lives on in the readers who grew up adoring her work and became authors in their own right. Similarly in our own day, Stephenie Meyer’s work may frequently be slated by critics, but chances are her work has played an important part in sparking the imaginations and love for reading in tomorrow’s authors. When we think about reading in this way, assumptions about the “literary value” of books by popular authors do not necessarily reflect the role played by reading in people’s actual lives.
Meade may be little read now, but if we've ever pledged our allegiance to writers like JK Rowling and Maeve Binchy, beloved by readers but rarely by critics, then we owe it to Meade's readers, and to Meade herself, to remember this remarkable Irish writer 100 years on from her death.
Beth Rodgers is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, Wales. She grew up in Co Down and tweets @thebethbook.