The Three-Volume Novel and How It Ended.

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?)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, Google – the Mudie’s of our day.

  2. Sir JCass says

    Hollywood’s now working the process in reverse by taking a modestly sized novel like The Hobbit and spinning it into an enormous trilogy.

  3. I notice in France, and maybe other Continental European markets, paperback editions of classic novels are often sold as three “pocket” volumes. I don’t know that lending libraries are a factor.

  4. GoogleBooks’ search function has been a trial and tribulation for years. Searching for a Victorian triple-decker, as it happens, is a nightmare, as the engine will often pull up only two volumes. Where’s the third? Nowhere in the search results, and sometimes not even in the “other editions” or “related books.” You have to run the search again and hope that Google stuck “volume 2” in the metadata somewhere, and/or go to the regular web search page. And its “my library” search function is completely defunct, which is all the more rage-inducing when you’re using GoogleBooks for serious research purposes. I’m concerned about what this lack of maintenance means for its future…

  5. Google Books search is indeed a nightmare, and when you want to search for the existence of a book by author, title, and all that, you are much better off using ordinary Google search, which indexes the per-book pages just as it indexes any other pages. It’s true that some Google Books results are included in ordinary searches, but you can’t count on that either. The hardest thing about Google searches, from the implementer’s viewpoint, is deciding exactly which of the maximum of 1000 results available from any given query should be included.

  6. narrowmargin says

    Happy B-day. Eager to see the loot list!

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Very interesting. I had no idea that books were so expensive: a guinea per volume, or three guineas for the whole novel, comes to around six times the typical price of a novel for adults inthe 1950s. I remember as a child thinking that 10/6 (half a guinea) was very expensive for Island in the Sun (but the bit I liked to read was short enough to read in the shop). At that time children’s books were typically about 5 shillings.

  8. Oh, much more expensive than that! Using this historical currency calculator, £3/3/0 in 1894 was equivalent to £13/13/5 in 1955 in real terms. However, the labor value (as a fraction of average wages, which had obviously risen quite a bit) was £22/3/7, and the income value (as a fraction of per capita GDP, which had risen even more) a whopping £31/7/2. Publishers were obviously operating on the Mercedes-Benz system, not the Henry Ford system.

    Measuring Worth is a really excellent calculator, with lots of different kinds of conversions, several currencies, deep historical data, and good explanations. If you had a silver penny in Edward I’s day, what could you get for it? About £3.42 in basic commodities in terms of 2014 prices, but £143 as a fraction of per-capita GDP, and £1165 as a fraction of overall GDP. Obviously, we don’t have wage indexes from that long ago.

    Of course, if you’d put that silver penny at 3% interest since 1270 you’d have £14.8 million today (assuming 3% inflation, but ignoring taxes and confiscations), which should be quite enough to buy a thing or two.

  9. The stranger said in miserable Italian, “I wish to see Sior Marin Goldini on business.”

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Oh, much more expensive than that!. You’re right of course, but I was recalling what I thought in about 1958 (after the film appeared), and I don’t think I was very conscious of inflation at that time.

  11. There’s a starving novelist in Gissing’s New Grub Street who is desperately trying to stretch his story to fill three volumes. And the hero of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) works in what must have been one of the last of the private lending libraries.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    There were still private lending libraries when I were a lad in the 1950s. We didn’t use them, as there wasn’t much point, with free public libraries within easy walking distance, but they existed. I have the recollection that the best known one was run by Boots the Chemists (though that seem rather unlikely).

    They still have them in France, and there is one less than five minutes walk from where I live. I used it a lot when we were first here, as it’s much closer than the nearest public library, and the borrowing price was very low. It’s in the same buliding as the local church, and may belong to it, though there is nothing particularly religious about the books it stocks.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden – I had no idea. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying the lending library is almost a metaphor for the depression. I’d assumed that paperbacks killed them dead.

  14. Indeed, the New York Society Library, founded in 1754 when there was no other library in the city, exists to this day. The library has about 300,000 books, and anyone may use it for reading or reference without charge, but to borrow books one must be a member (also open to all; the word society here has no connotations of exclusivity). Household membership is $320 a year; individual membership is $250 a year. It was the Library of Congress during the period (1785-90) when New York was the national capital, and shared space in Federal Hall with Congress. (Congress met there again in 2002 as a show of support for New York after 9/11.)

  15. Current membership libraries. The oldest in the US is the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731)

  16. To put that $320 into context, it’s a little more than you’d pay in New York for HBO and Cinemax together, assuming you already have cable TV.

  17. Still sounds expensive if you use that library only for entertainment reading, set against buying the books for yourself (which gives you the added adavnatage that you don’t have to hand them in after the loaning period expires), but might be worth it if they give you access to rare or expensive specialist books.

  18. But anyone in NYC has access to the NYPL, which surely has more specialist books than the New York Society Library. I suspect that these days the latter is a pure luxury good — people belong to it primarily to show off that they can afford to pay for something normal people get for free.

  19. Hat: I think you’re right. Hans: the trouble with buying books in NYC is that New Yorkers live in what are basically walk-in closets. Where do you put them? (I own a house outside NYC, which helps.)

  20. the trouble with buying books in NYC is that New Yorkers live in what are basically walk-in closets. Where do you put them? Get rid of unnecessary items like clothes or food? 😉

  21. John Cowan says

    “Ad Graecas literas totum animum applicui; statimque ut pecuniam accepero, Graecos primum autores, deinde vestes emam.”

    What Erasmus actually said; note that he did not put books before food!

  22. See now Parul Sehgal’s New Yorker article (archived) on how Amazon is changing the novel; it starts with a good summary of the Mudie’s situation and transitions to Amazon thus:

    The triple-decker prevailed until, toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mudie’s became frustrated with a glut of books and began requesting single-volume novels from publishers. With the rise of mass-market paperbacks printed cheaply on pulp paper, new forms were born (pulp fiction, anyone?), with their own dictates, their own hooks and lures for the reader. But, then, style has always shadowed modes of distribution in the history of the novel, from magazine serials to the Internet. In “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon” (Verso), the literary scholar Mark McGurl considers all the ways a new behemoth has transformed not only how we obtain fiction but how we read and write it—and why. “The rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail,” he argues.

  23. Also, I note with sadness that nobody picked up on my Mack Reynolds quote; the story, “Compounded Interest,” can be read here.

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