My great-great-aunt Alice M. Browne wrote three Victorian novels which I am collecting and reading. This has been great fun (when else do I get to read melodramatic love stories with happy endings?) and has also taught me a bit about the history of publishing.
The only copy of her novel ‘The Rector of Amesty’ (using the pseudonym John Ryce, and incorrectly catalogued as ‘Amnesty’) that I could trace in Australia is held in the rare books library at Sydney University. I took two days off in the holidays to sit there in scholarly silence reading it.
It was bought by Sydney University as part of a collection of triple-decker novels – of which the university has the best collection in the world.
Triple-decker novels are three-volume novels, but not just any three-volume novel. They were a popular publishing format throughout the 19th century. New novels were published in strong, elegant bindings in short runs for use by subscription libraries such as Mudie’s. The three-volume format meant that three borrowers could be reading the one book at the same time. The quality bindings – and the extra volumes – meant that publishers could make more money per book than with a one-volume novel, and this meant, apparently, that new authors who would not otherwise have been economically viable could be published.