Nikita Willeford Kastrinos on Dracula and Yellowback Novels

Nikita Willeford Kastrinos is a PhD candidate in the Department of English who earned her Graduate Certificate in Textual and Digital Studies in spring 2022. Her research focuses on the intersection of literary form and material format in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel. In her own words she describes her experience conducting research at Emory University in Summer 2023.

Last spring, I was awarded a research grant from the Textual Studies Program for summer 2023 and traveled to the Rose Library at Emory University to conduct research for my dissertation chapter, “The Yellowback and the ecoGothic: Mediations of the Nonhuman in Dracula.” Using the library’s John Moore Bram Stoker collection and its Chester W. Topp collection of Victorian yellowbacks and paperbacks, I examined first and early editions Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a host of other nineteenth century yellowback and paperback fiction.

Caption: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and yellowback novels from Emory University’s Rose Library.

“Yellowback” is a term used characterize a particular type of cheap fiction that had become popular during the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain. Sold at railway stalls and named for its characteristically bright paper-covered boards—often specifically yellow in color—the yellowback garnered a reputation as a container for sensational, lowbrow, fiction. But, in fact, all sorts of novels were published and even republished in this format.

Caption: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Jane Austen, republished in The Select Library of Fiction by Ward, Lock, and Co.

Marked by their distinctive physical contrast to what were, customarily, cloth-covered books, the yellowback’s use of colored paper-covered boards represents a seminal moment in the history of the book in Britain. Emblematizing the kind of technological advancements which led to the proliferation of cheap reading material, the yellowback holds a special place in the development of printed culture in the nineteenth century.

Caption: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published by Chatto & Windus, and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published by Spencer Blackett.

Dracula, published in 1897, evokes these yellowback novels. Though covered in cloth, the famously yellow color of its binding materials and the red lettering of its cover design suggest connections with the yellowback that bring into view its generic resemblance and the advertising potential of its association. These kind of copycat yellowbacks appeared as early as 1857 according to Michael Sadleir in his work, Collecting “Yellowbacks” (Victorian Railway Fiction). Often, these copycats were bound in cloth, but “the cloth was yellow, was highly glazed,” and featured “lettering and decoration in black and red—the whole most carefully contrived to look as much like a yellow back as possible.”1

Caption: Dracula by Bram Stoker, published by Archibald Constable and Co. and the first paperback edition of Dracula from The Electric Press.

Yellowbacks developed in synchronicity during the mid-nineteenth century with the prevalence of railway travel and railway bookstalls, their bright and pictorial covers designed to attract customers. Focusing on the graphic and material associations between their embodiments and Dracula’s own physicality, my chapter considers the way in which Dracula’s first publications—recalling these yellowback “railway” novels—speak to its implication in Britain’s rapidly growing coal economy at the tail end of the nineteenth century, and thinks about the way in which Stoker’s novel mediates this environmental past, bringing it into our present. During the course of my visit to Emory, I examined Dracula’s first and early editions, covered in its famous yellow cloth, and was able to compare their appearance to a host of yellowback fiction, including some very notable titles like Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone, as well as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Aurora Floyd. These volumes embody the characteristic yellowback design with their highly glazed yellow paper and their hallmark artistic style, including the red outlining of their front covers and the stark appearance of their titles in relief.

Caption: Dracula by Bram Stoker and a selection of yellowback novels from the Rose Library at Emory University including Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in its publisher’s series reprinting by Ward, Lock and Co. Selections show an example of the advertising material included in yellowback publications, which was instrumental in keeping the cost of these books low. It also depicts yellowback binding practices, which often incorporated scrap paper.

I’m incredibly grateful to the Textual Studies Program for their generous support of this research, the results of which will be presented as an initial draft of my chapter at the upcoming North American Victorian Studies Association Conference this November.

  1. Michael Sadleir, Collecting “Yellowbacks” (Victorian Railway Fiction) (London: Constable, 1938),142. This title is one of a host of reference books on the subject that forms part of the Rose Library’s collection of bibliographic materials on yellowbacks. ↩︎