Charles Knight: Publisher & Author

A <i>carte de visite</i> photograph of Charlies Knight in old age, circa 1865.

A carte de visite photograph of Charlies Knight in old age, circa 1865.

The Burns Library owns a handful of books published by Charles Knight (1791-1873), a 19th century publisher, author, and educator whose crusade to bring cheap educational literature to the working class played an influential role in changing the face of the English literary market. Rather ignored by biographers, there has yet to be comprehensive work on Knight, a fact that historian Valerie Gray laments in her book Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer. Gray characterizes Charles Knight as “a prime force in a great movement. He was in the forefront of the movement to provide cheap, quality literature for all readers, but particularly for the newly literate working classes….Knight was instrumental in the creation of a mass market in literature designed to satisfy the needs of the steadily rising literate population”. So often, when looking at a book, it is the author or the object itself that calls for attention. In the case of Charles Knight, it is the man behind the books and authors, who deserves some time in the spotlight.

Plate from <i>The Penny Magazine</i>, 1844.

Plate from The Penny Magazine, 1844, AP4. K7 O’Brien Library.

Knight is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Designed to provide cheap but well-produced publications for the working class, the Society’s goal was education rather than entertainment. Knight served as a publisher and editor for the Society while continuing to publish other authors’ works, including his own. Often derided for his engagement with a Society whose aims often appear at best grandiose and at worst belittling, Knight worked within the SDUK from 1827 until it dissolved in 1845. The Burns Library holds two volumes published during Knight’s tenure with the Society: The Library of Entertaining Knowledge: Insect Transformations and the 1844 volume of The Penny Magazine. This magazine, published from 1832-1845, “was aimed primarily at a working-class readership and served up a wholesome diet of informative articles on art, literature, natural history, science, history, and biography…intended to encourage thrift, self-discipline, self-education, and other social and moral desiderate…It was the first lavishly illustrated publication to be offered to the working classes at an affordable price” (Mitchell). Illustrations were essential to Knight’s high standard of publication and in order to make well-illustrated publications available to the general public he mechanized his printing process, developing the use of stereotype castings and steam printing which allowed for larger and cheaper print runs of illustrated work. The Burns’ copy of The Penny Magazine is part of the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s personal library though it was the property of at least one previous owner, a Mr. Whelm, who inscribed his name on the flyleaf of the book. The volume shows signs of use including bookmarks made out of old newspapers and gaps in the pages where specific articles or illustrations have been carefully cut out.

Illustration of a walking-leaf insect from

Illustration of a walking-leaf insect from The Library of Entertaining Knowledge: Insect Transformations, 05-3159 Kingsland.

The Library of Entertaining Knowledge:  Insect Transformations is part of the King’s Land collection, the personal library of the Hilaire Belloc Family, originally house at King’s Land, the family estate in Sussex, England. Like most of the books in the King’s Land collection, this book is well loved, with its covers worn at the edges and a fraying spine. Though the pages are not marked and there are no visible signs of use other than wear and tear on the covers, this book and its presence in the library of a popular Edwardian writer emphasizes the longevity and continued value of Knight’s work.  But Charles Knight was not only a publisher and a public educator; he was also an author in his own right. With his interest and innovation in the world of printing and publishing, it seems only appropriate that Knight wrote and published William Caxton, The First English Printer: A Biography. Included in the text is a postscript on the history of printing in England in which Knight emphasizes the importance of the publishing industry’s role in diffusing knowledge:

Portrait of William Caxton from the flyleaf of <i>William Caxton, the First English Printer</i> by Charles Knight.

Portrait of William Caxton from the flyleaf of William Caxton, the First English Printer by Charles Knight, Z232.C38 K55 1844 General.

The literary returns of the United Kingdom, in 1743, were unquestionably little more than 100,00l. per annum. What has multiplied them twenty-fold? Is it the contraction or widening of the market—the exclusion or the diffusion of knowledge? The whole course of our literature has been that of a gradual and certain spread from the few to the many—from a luxury to a necessary, as much so as the cotton or silk trade. Henry VIII paid 12s. a yard for a silk gown for Anne Boleyn—a sum equal to five guineas a yard of our day. Upon whom do the silk-mercers now rely—upon the few Anne Boleyns, or the thousands who can buy a silk gown at half-a-crown a yard? The PRINTING-MACHINE has done for the commerce of literature what the mule and the Jacquard loom have done for the commerce of silk. It has made literature accessible to all.

In the spirit of making literature accessible to all, Knight’s authorial endeavors encompasses literary as well as educational texts.  Between 1838 and 1841, he published a seven volume pictorial edition of Shakespeare, accompanied by a one volume biography.

Title page of <i>William Shakspere: A Biography</i> by Charles Knight.

Title page of William Shakspere: A Biography by Charles Knight, 04-33230  Manley Hopkins.

The Burns Library owns a copy of The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere, and not just any copy, but the copy that belonged to the Manley Hopkins family. Manley Hopkins (1819-1897) and Catherine “Kate” Hopkins neé Smith (1821-1920) were the parents of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889), the Jesuit priest now most well-known for his religious poetry. Manley and Kate Hopkins had a total of nine children together; the family was remarkably artistic and literary, and many of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s siblings went on to become writers, artists, and scholars. In such a literary home it is not surprising that Shakespeare would be on the family bookshelves. This particular copy of Knight’s edition is in excellent condition: bound in black leather with a blind-stamped floral border and gold edging on the front and back covers, the eight volume set shows signs of gentle wear. The endpapers and edges are marbled and the edition itself is heavily illustrated with lavishly detailed engravings. Each volume is personalized with a hand-drawn bookplate bearing Kate Hopkins’ name or initials. The bookplates range from illuminated manuscript letters, to heraldic crests, to finely drawn sketches all executed in black, colored, or gold inks. The volumes themselves show few marks of overt usage, but there are marks of readership from the Hopkins family. Every appearance of the character of Alonso in The Tempest has a small pencil mark beside it. There is no evidence to provide a reason for this small penciled tick mark, but it is easy to imagine someone studying the role either for educational reasons or personal pleasure. Other small marks of use include a calling card from Edward Steinkopff, owner of the St. John’s Gazette, interleaved between the pages of Histories, Volume II, and a small slip of brown paper in Tragedies, Volume I, marking the title page of King Lear. There is also evidence on several pages in multiple volumes that someone used the book as a desk, drawing or writing hard enough to leave an impression on several pages. Though there are no marginalia or lost manuscripts squirreled away in the pages, these books highlight use by readers over time in small, everyday ways. As the 125th anniversary of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ death draws near, the Burns Library is celebrating the Victorian poet with an exhibit entitled The Jesuit Victorian Poet:  Gerard Manley Hopkins in the Ford Tower of the Burns Library.  How better to complement this exhibit than by examining another influential Victorian man of letters?

Title page for <i>Much Ado about Nothing</i>, from volume two of Charles Knight's <i>The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere</i>.

Title page for Much Ado about Nothing, from volume two of Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere, 04-33230 Manley Hopkins.

Charles Knight was an innovative publisher and author, whose dedication to literacy and affordable reading material helped change the face of 19th century publishing. The subjects of his books, whether published or authored by him,  are as varied as his career, but invariably his work ended up in the libraries of writers and thinkers. While the Hopkins family, Hilaire Belloc, and Flann O’Brien may not have been Knight’s target audience, the presence of his work in the libraries of these authors is a testament to the usefulness and longevity of the texts he wrote and published. If you are interested in perusing any of these texts, The Penny Magazine, The Library of Entertaining Knowledge: Insect Transformations, William Caxton, The First English Printer: A Biography, and The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere are all available at the Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  • Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. Student in the Department of English

Works Consulted

Gray, Valerie. Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer. Burlington: Ashgate                           Publishing Company, 2006.

Knight, Charles. William Caxton, the First English Printer: A Biography. London:                         Charles Knight & Co., 1844.

William Shakspere: A Biography. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1843.

Mitchell, Rosemary. “Knight, Charles (1791-1873).” Oxford Dictionary of National                       Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition Jan 2008.                        Accessed May 19, 2014.

The Library of Entertaining Knowledge: Insect Transformations. London: Charles                     Knight, 1830.

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. London:                    Charles Knight & Co., 1844.

Wormald, Mark. “Hopkins, Hamlet, and the Victorians: Carrion Comfort?” Victorian                    Poetry, 40.4 (2002): 409-431.

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