Three-volume novel  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The three-volume novel (sometimes three-decker or triple decker) was a standard form of publishing for British fiction during the nineteenth century. It was a significant stage in the development of the modern Western novel as a form of popular literature.

The format does not correspond closely to what would now be considered a trilogy of novels. In a time when books were relatively expensive to print and bind, publishing longer works of fiction had a particular relationship to a reading public who borrowed books from commercial circulating libraries. A novel divided into three parts could create a demand (Part I whetting an appetite for Parts II and III). The income from Part I could also be used to pay for the printing costs of the later parts. Furthermore, a commercial librarian had three volumes earning their keep, rather than one. The particular style of mid-Victorian fiction, of a complicated plot reaching resolution by distribution of marriage partners and property in the final pages, was well adapted to the form.

The price in the United Kingdom of each volume of a three-volume novel remained stable at half a guinea (10s 6d) for much of the century. In purchasing power terms, this is close to a high-quality hardback book today, costing over £20. The business model of Charles Edward Mudie, the most prominent London subscription library proprietor, was based on this continuing high retail price, on novels he was able to buy for stock at 5/- per volume.

The normal three-volume novel was around 900 pages in total at 150–200,000 words; the median length was 168,000 words, in 45 chapters. It was common for novelists to have contracts specifying a set number of pages to be filled and required to produce extra copy if they ran under, or to be encouraged to break the text up into more chapters — as each new chapter heading would fill up a page.

Around two thirds of novels first published in book form (not already serialised in magazines) were released as three-volume sets; reprints of successful three-volume novels were often done in cheap one-volume editions.

References in literature

  • Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875), Chapter LXXXIX ("The length of her novel had been her first question. It must be in three volumes, and each volume must have three hundred pages.").
  • Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Act II ("I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us." "Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily.") and Act III ("It contained the manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.").

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Three-volume novel" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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