This wonderful essay by Richard Menke explains a great many things about Victorian England and its literature of which I had no conception; I had, of course, heard of the three-volume novel, but I had no idea how it tied into the circulating library system, or of the fact that books were priced so that most individuals couldn’t afford them (like scholarly books now, grr), or of Mudie’s and its primness, or… well, just read it. Here’s the abstract, if it will help whet your appetite:
In 1894, the great private circulating libraries announced that they were changing their terms for purchasing fiction, ultimately leading publishers to abandon the long-standard three-volume format for novels. This essay considers the three-volume novel system as part of an information empire and examines the collapse of that system both through the work of book historians and through the writing of Oscar Wilde, George Gissing, Ella Hepworth Dixon, Rudyard Kipling, and other writers of the 1890s.
Here‘s more about circulating libraries, and here‘s the MetaFilter post by Miriam Burstein from which I got those links—there are many more in the post. (And I just learned from her blog that some books cannot be searched via GoogleBooks at all; you have to use the regular Google search function. Why, Google, why?)