Three-volume novels (3-deckers)

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.

The system had its disadvantages. Purchase of a novel when it was first published was out of the question for nearly every individual reader – they either had to join the subscription libraries or wait a year for publication in a cheaper format. In addition, the three-volume format led to some padding, and the publication of short runs meant that some books of lower quality were published. The format got a reputation for poor literature, although it was used by many literary authors such as Thomas Hardy, and had been popularised by Sir Walter Scott with the publication of Waverley in three volumes in 1814.

The concentration of so much purchasing power in the hands of a few subscription libraries also gave them unwarranted power to influence publishing success. Similar issues applied to serial publication – for example, Thomas Hardy removed from his novelThe trumpet-major all swearing and lover’s embraces, and travel by one character on a Sunday (!).

Serial publication also affected the structure of novels. Ouida wrote to The Times ‘The greatest injury to the novel is, in my opinion, the feuilleton form (in France) and the serial form (in England) which so often precedes publication as a whole: in it the writer sacrifices form and harmony to the object of attaining an exciting fragment for each division of his work.’

At the end of the nineteenth century, nearly everyone turned against the three-volume format, and The Times published letters from the newly formed Society of Authors, some individual novelists, and even subscription libraries railing against the disadvantages. Its demise was sudden, and was commemorated by Rudyard Kipling in his poem ‘The Three-Decker’, which starts with the message: ‘The three-volume novel is extinct’. The second verse sums up the genre:

Fair held the breeze behind us – ’twas warm with lovers’ prayers.

We’d stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs.

They shipped as Able Bastards till the Wicked Nurse confessed,

And they worked the old three-decker to the Islands of the Blest.

Three-volume novels and serial publication of novels are interesting examples of the influence of publishing formats and library trends on the content and quality of books.