Richard Menke, “The End of the Three-Volume Novel System, 27 June 1894”


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.

"Going to Mudie's"

Figure 1: “Going to Mudie’s” (1869)

“Anybody can write a three-volume novel,” Oscar Wilde affirmed in 1890, when the form must still have seemed firmly entrenched; “it merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature” (“Critic as Artist” 358). By the time he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Wilde could treat the format not only as a joke but also now as a reminder of the foibles of the past. The play’s dénouement hinges on a third-act revelation: twenty-eight years before its action, the governess Miss Prism absentmindedly swapped the manuscript of her unpublished three-volume novel for the infant Jack Worthing. In a burlesque of the clichéd plotlines of such standardized fiction, “a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality” (in Lady Bracknell’s withering evaluation) precipitates the sort of foundling or hidden identity plot beloved of many novelists (Importance 55).

Just as Wilde was beginning work on Earnest in the summer of 1894, the curtain was falling for the three-volume novel.[1] In fact, inspiration for the switched-baby-and novel plot must have struck him just as the fate of the form was being widely discussed.[2] On 27 June 1894, Mudie’s Select Library and W. H. Smith’s, the largest of the private circulating libraries that provided many Victorians with their reading material, issued simultaneous announcements specifying the new terms on which they would buy novels from publishers, beginning in the next calendar year. First of all, they would pay no more than four shillings per volume, a reduction of the discount they already received on volumes that bore a nominal price of ten and a half shillings apiece. Furthermore, they would insist that no cheaper edition of a novel appear until a full year after its first appearance in multivolume form. “We do not know whether those who make the suggestion realise precisely what it means,” fretted the next issue of The Publishers’ Circular, calling the situation a “crisis.” “Broadly speaking, it would mean, if complied with, a revolution in literature—at any rate so far as fiction is concerned” (Leading Article). Several publishers were disposed to try following the new guidelines. But as the libraries’ directors perhaps anticipated, most found the terms unworkable, and the three-volume novel — a dominant format for most of the century — died a speedy death. After decades of defining the market for mainstream novels in book form, and after various attempts by individual publishers to circumvent the system and sell new fiction directly to readers, the three-volume novel system was at an end, dispatched by the libraries themselves, which no longer found it sufficiently profitable. As the head of Mudie’s confirmed in a letter to one publisher, “[t]he Three Volume novel does not suit us at any price so well as the One vol.” (Gettmann 260). Troy Bassett’s invaluable online database of multivolume Victorian novels lists 112 three-volume works published in 1894 — but only two for 1897 (Bassett, At the Circulating Library).

Victorians read fiction in many formats. The three-volume system had coexisted with a number of other highly popular and significant formats for long prose fiction: the paper-bound serial parts associated with Dickens and Thackeray in the century’s middle decades, or with the longer “books” that made up George Eliot’s great final novels in the 1870s; serial publication in magazines and newspapers, which became increasingly ubiquitous as the number of periodicals increased in the final decades of the century; inexpensive one-volume reprints of novels, published after their three-volume début; juvenile, religious, and adventure fiction in one-volume form; cheap editions of off-copyright “classic” works. For decades, as I will discuss, the three-volume format and library borrowing became the Victorian middle-class public’s dominant mode of access to new secular, adult novels printed as books. But novelty and secularity, an adult middle-class readership, the codex book form: these were hardly the only varieties of Victorian novels, their formats, or their audiences. And, while some novels seem to play off their volume division (the first volume of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette [1853] ends with the heroine falling into a dramatic swoon), in the content of many more it hardly seems to register; after all, many three-volume novels were first published in serial, and many would later appear as single volumes. Why, then, the fuss about the format?

For one thing, by the late-Victorian era, the three-volume novel had come to represent the norms of workaday British fiction. As a byword or a target, the “procrustean system” of the three-volume novel conflated issues of fiction’s aesthetics, economics, and physical form (Gissing 160). As I’ll show, some writers also saw the three-volume system as working in tandem with serial publication in periodicals to limit the artistic and thematic possibilities of British novels. But in a larger sense, by the end of its heyday, a variety of writers seem to associate the three-volume novel with what seem like the values of a caricatured mid-Victorian middle class: conventionality, regularity, propriety, and dubious pretensions of endurance or monumentality. As Wilde’s animadversions on the form suggest, by the 1890s, writing about the triple-decker and its demise often looks like a proxy for writing about those values.

The Victorian three-volume novel, or triple-decker (the nickname suggests an analogy to sturdy warships) had roots as a prestige form. Even the unit of its pricing asserted the format’s pretensions. Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) was hardly the first three-volume novel, but it provided a pivotal model for the format, a model that was complete when Scott and his publisher Archibald Constable raised the price of the three-volume Kenilworth (1821) to a guinea and a half (thirty-one shillings and sixpence), where it would long remain (Altick 263). Scott and Constable could hardly have known that they had helped establish the major format for new novels for nearly three quarters of a century. Scholars of literature and media have often treated the modern European novel as a form that borrowed the shape of the printed book — with its norms of unity and development — as a general paradigm for a sustained work of prose fiction. Yet apart from particular genres, when new novels intended for a general middle-class readership appeared as books in Victorian Britain, they usually appeared in multiple volumes.

Of course, the most crucial aspect of the Victorian three-volume novel was that it wasn’t priced for sale to readers at all. Rather, the main buyers of novels in this expensive format were the private circulating libraries that came to dominate the trade in new fiction, especially Mudie’s (which began lending books in 1842) and W. H. Smith (which added a subscription service to its railway bookstalls in 1860). Purchasing “library editions” at a large discount from their publishers, the circulating libraries offered them to subscribers, whose payment of an annual fee allowed them to have a specified number of volumes out at once. The basic annual fee of one guinea (for one volume at a time) was less than the retail price of a single triple-decker novel—but it was enough to ensure that the primary audience for triple-deckers consisted of those who could prepay for the privilege of access to them. With the private circulating libraries buying the bulk of the stock, print runs of three-volume novels tended to be relatively stable, with few bestsellers in the modern sense but also a dependable market for titles by new authors and by novelists of reliably middling popularity (they would gain a reputation as staunch defenders of the system). Mediating between authors, publishers, readers, and the vagaries of a literary taste that they helped shape, the libraries could usually be counted upon to buy up hundreds of copies of a familiar novelist’s new book.

Furthermore, the economics of the system aligned with the specific properties of the three-volume format. Lending out triple-deckers by the volume meant that the libraries could circulate a single “copy” of a novel among three subscribers at once. And, although in practice the basic format could be quite flexible, the circulating libraries depended on maintaining the norm of long novels that called for slow reading (Dames 225-26). Short novels might be rapidly read and exchanged for others, allowing subscribers to consume more individual works for their subscription fee. The form and scale of Victorian fiction, then — including its multiple plotlines and their rhythms of introduction, complication, and resolution — were tied to the economics of its standardized distribution and consumption in volumes.

But the three-volume system also meant that novelists had to negotiate multiple gatekeepers: their work had to satisfy not only a publisher but also the circulating libraries. As the name of Mudie’s Select Library promised, the libraries were quite willing to exercise their power as purchasers in order to ensure that new novels met their standards for family reading. While much of the censorship of fiction might have been undertaken preemptively by publishing houses or by authors themselves, writers could find their fiction banned by the libraries, as George Moore learned when Mudie’s rejected A Modern Lover (1883) and his subsequent novels.

As maintained by Mudie’s, Smith, and their smaller counterparts, as well as by the practices of publishers and authors whose output came within their purview, the system that included the triple-decker and the private circulating library proved surprisingly durable. In fact, its comparative stability suggests that we might understand this system as something like what has recently been called an “information empire” (Wu 11).[3] In such an empire, dominant media firms create a closed system that maintains their financial interests but stifles technical or economic innovation. Such arrangements may be supported by government policies or — as with the private circulating libraries — simply by formal and informal networks of mutual interest and control. In the 1860s, as David Finkelstein has documented, an overextended Mudie’s Library had ended up on the verge of bankruptcy, until a cabal of major publishers, fearful of having to write off the vast sums Mudie’s owed them, secretly agreed to help keep the company afloat. Ultimately, when Mudie’s Library became a limited liability company in 1864, several publishers consented to accept shares in the new company as payment for Mudie’s debts (Finkelstein 34). This created a tight complex of ownership and payment in the production and distribution of books. The great circulating libraries and the large publishing houses dealt in many genres besides novels. But the three-volume novel, as a popular genre perpetuated in its distinctive form wholly by the predominance of this interlocked system, readily offered a symbol for the system itself.

By the final decades of the century, some novelists and critics expressed discontent with the economic and aesthetic restrictions of the three-volume novel. Indeed, the entire framework in which Victorian fiction was produced, circulated, and read was coming under pressure. One form of this pressure, the struggle of novelists such as Moore and Thomas Hardy over censorship and sexual frankness in their writing, is well known. In his contribution to an 1890 magazine forum on the problem of “candour” in fiction, Hardy objected to the restraints placed on novels in the name of “what is called household reading.” Hardy attributes these hindrances jeopardizing the rise of the novel to adult morality, not to squeamishness and prudery but to the specific media and institutions through which late-Victorian fiction reached its audiences: “The popular vehicles for the introduction of a novel to the public have grown to be. . . the magazine and the circulating library; and the object of the magazine and circulating library is not upward advance but lateral advance” (Hardy 128). Upwards or sideways: Hardy traces novels’ stifled ambitions to a divergence in orientation. Periodicals and library patronage both assume an indefinite, stable continuance from issue to issue, loan to loan, term to term; their model is routinized reading or the subscription. In Hardy’s analysis, a distribution system based on “lateral” stability and predictability in time correlates with the demand that authors remain within stable, established aesthetic and moral bounds. But he suggests that fictional art should orient itself not laterally but vertically, toward development and ascent. Hardy was not alone in characterizing Victorian fiction as largely stagnant. “The novelists have been as busy as ever,” sighed The Dial in a survey of the British and American literature of 1893, “but nothing very startling is to be found among their productions” (“Literary Year” 4).

But even by the 1880s, a number of factors were already making the three-volume format less central or less economically viable: the difficulty of disposing of previous years’ crops of triple-deckers, the establishment of free public libraries, the growth of cheaper book formats, and the popularity of fictional modes that didn’t employ the format at all (with their affiliations to juvenile or adventure fiction, for instance, Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling could escape the pull of the three-volume system), and perhaps also the increasing importance of colonial editions of novels (which provided a model for affordable, single-volume first issues).[4] “Railway fiction” — yellowbacks perfect for use while traveling — was nearly as old as the railways. But by the late-Victorian era portable formats were becoming less and less synonymous with penny dreadfuls and stray reprints.

Well produced, carefully bound, with large type and ample margins (especially when the text of the novel was a bit brief for the format and had to be typographically augmented), the triple-decker seemed permanent and enduring. But in fact its brawny three volumes were the temporary form occupied by novels when they were first bound in covers and essentially unavailable to readers who lacked library subscriptions. Matters only became more uncomfortable for the libraries when publishers pushed their cheaper reprints of novels close to their débuts in three-volumes, reducing the term during which the circulating libraries could offer exclusive access.[5] In 1884, Charles Edward Mudie himself had confirmed this impermanence, privately complaining to the publisher George Bentley about the “ephemeral” lives of the three-volume novels on his shelves, most of which were in little demand within a few years of their publication (Griest 168, original emphasis). The “Catacombs” under Mudie’s splendid premises on map iconNew Oxford Street were crowded with heavy, unwanted triple-deckers (Eliot, “Bookselling” 148, 151).

As late-Victorian writers frequently noted, modern fiction in map iconFrance and the United States was priced for sale to readers and often sold in single volumes; public attention to the anomalous British triple-decker could both reflect and exacerbate frustration with the format and the publishing system it embodied. For his part, Jasper Milvain, the shrewd antihero of George Gissing’s three-volume New Grub Street (1891), “is always saying that the long novel has had its day, and that in future people will write shilling books” (ch. 4; 54). The prediction is typically savvy. But it’s striking to note that when it comes to the format of British fiction, the forecast of the opportunistic Milvain converges with the practice of New Grub Street’s sole exemplar of the novelist as self-conscious artist. Milvain’s antithesis in nearly every way, the unworldly Harold Biffen writes his tediously realistic novel “slowly, lovingly”; it will be “one volume, of course; the length of the ordinary French novel” (ch. 16; 211). Biffen’s “of course” poignantly suggests both the purity of his artistic vision and its utter disregard of the existing marketplace for fiction in Britain. (His publishers must have had other ideas, for they eventually bring out his novel in more than one volume.) Meanwhile, the failing novelist Edward Reardon, unable to await Milvain’s future or to practice Biffen’s authorial askesis, is desperately calculating the minimum amount of text necessary to fill up a few “well spaced out” volumes (ch. 6; 76).

The heft and the standardized format of the three-decker embodied and gratified a mid-Victorian sense of taste that prized the massive or monumental as a sign of worth, a taste amply confirmed by much of that era’s furniture, architecture, and industrial design. But later in the century, an interest in lightness, craftedness, or the ephemeral in aesthetics came to coincide with an acceptance of punctuated attention required for the kind of scattered reading that might be done on public transport or between tasks.[6] (The most successful production in New Grub Street turns out to be not a novel at all but a failed novelist’s creation of Chit-Chat, a journal filled with “chit-chatty information — bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery,” all broken into items of “two inches at the utmost” [ch. 33; 459-6].) Reviewing a sprightly single-volume novel in 1889, Wilde looked forward to the decline of the “very tedious” three-volume novel, with a hope that “[t]he influence of Mudie on literature, the baneful influence of the circulating library” was “on the wane” (qtd. in Donohue 338).

In 1894, on the eve of its demise, Wilde was not the only writer to treat the three-volume novel as an obsolete form. Mary Erle, the heroine of Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) tackles a project that Dixon herself never seems to have undertaken: a three-volume novel. Although Mary is an inexperienced and somewhat accidental author, she recognizes the triple-decker as a form antiquated in both form and content, hemmed in by the alignment between its ossified material format and its preset plots:

I have been given a commission to do a three-volume novel on the old lines — a dying man in a hospital and a forged will in the first volume; a ball and a picnic in the second; and an elopement, which must, of course, be prevented at the last moment by the opportune death of the wife, or the husband — I forget which it is to be — in the last. (Dixon ch. 17; 130)

By describing the triple-decker as a “novel on the old lines,” Mary offhandedly treats it as a residual literary form. Still, in The Story of a Modern Woman it remains powerful enough to define even fiction primarily intended for newspaper serialization, as Mary’s novel is. Like Hardy, Dixon treats the three-volume novel and serialization in periodicals as joint factors in the aesthetic constraint of fiction.[7] In contrast to Moore’s attack on the feminization of the British novel in the name of family reading, Dixon’s critique takes on a feminist edge when Mary Erle’s supercilious editor proclaims that “[w]ith practice [Mary] may be able to write stories which other young ladies like to read” (ch. 11, 108). Still, like Gissing’s Milvain, Dixon correctly intuits the imminent obsolescence of the three-volume form; The Story of a Modern Woman appeared in serial early in 1894 and as a single volume in May, just a month before Mudie and Smith publicly pronounced the current arrangements untenable.

Soon after that announcement, the fate of the three-volume novel system became a subject of much speculation in both the general and the trade press. From July into the autumn, the columns of The Author (published by Walter Besant’s Society of Authors), The Publishers’ Circular, and The Bookseller — their titles encapsulate some of the main parties concerned — closely tracked different responses to the “three-volume novel question,” but monthly journals and daily papers also weighed in. By early July, William Heinemann was already placing an advertisement in The Bookseller that highlighted the publisher’s recent and imminent “new,” “original” one-volume novels, several of them explicitly “modern in treatment and subject.” Heinemann’s roster includes The Story of a Modern Woman, but its foremost attraction appears first, in large, bold type: “Mr. Heinemann has much pleasure in announcing that Mr. HALL CAINE’S New Novel, ‘THE MANXMAN,’ will be issued on July 15, in One Volume. . . price 6s.. . . ⁂ THERE WILL BE NO EDITION IN THREE VOLS.” (Heinemann, original emphasis). The line sounds like a warning but was really an enticement to this journal’s readership; book-dealers were of course “very little concerned in three-volume novels,” unless they also ran a local circulating library (“Three-Volume Novel”). The Manxman ultimately sold nearly 400,000 copies (St. John 29). In August, another publisher’s advertisement in The Publishers’ Circular proclaims a “New Departure in Publishing Novels”: having found it “not quite practicable to comply” with Mudie and Smith’s new conditions, it is issuing R. D. Blackmore’s new novel Perlycross in a single six-shilling volume, even though a three-volume edition has already been printed for the libraries and will appear simultaneously (Sampson Low). The Bookseller could soon hope that “[t]he success of several novels recently issued in single volume forms may. . . be taken as a hopeful augury for those which are to follow” (“Prospects”). The three-volume novel was on its way to becoming yesterday’s news.

For the most part, critics and the reading public seemed prepared for the end of the triple-decker and surprised only that it was the circulating libraries that had helped dispatch it. Punch initially mourned the “rash reform” (“Ballade of Three Volumes”). But by the end of the summer, a mocking piece in Punch presents the experience of a first-time author whose manuscript novel bears the portentous title Douglas the Doomed One. Assured by The Author that publishers are always searching for new talent, she shows the work to a firm that immediately agrees to accept it unread, since it is “sufficiently long to make the regulation three volumes. That was all that was necessary.” Her publishers mean simply to harvest the modest but predictable returns from issuing the novel on the notorious “half profits” system. But in the end even Douglas the Doomed One finds its audience. Delivered in an indiscriminate “box of books from a metropolitan [public] library,” it saves the life of a chronic insomniac by putting him to sleep after a single volume (“In Three Volumes”). The long, generic triple-decker: unreadable or at least largely unread, doomed in its dotage to become a sleep aid.

Mudie’s and Smith’s circulating libraries would survive well into the twentieth century (indeed, they would soon face new competition from private libraries run by Boots, the Times, and Harrod’s). But the rise of the one-volume novel as first book issue, the end of the circulating libraries’ control over readers’ access to new books of fiction, the disappearance of the triple-decker — these developments in the history of print as a medium in Britain also constitute a divide in literary history. For by the final years of the triple-decker, many novelists, publishers, and readers were well prepared to take advantage of the new possibilities that emerged from the shake-up of the information empire. The demise of the three-volume novel helped support emerging developments in fin-de-siècle fiction: the success of wild bestsellers, for example, but also of genres and subgenres for particular audiences, dual symptoms of an expanding and diversifying reading public. George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), published in the waning months of the triple-decker era, has often been considered a quintessential bestseller, although some observers felt it made less of an impression in its initial British three-volume form than it did in the splashy, well-illustrated single volume first sold in the United States (“Book Talk” 149). New Woman fiction hardly began with the death of the three-volume novel; Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) and Iota’s A Yellow Aster (1894), for instance, both appeared in that format. But the rise of the single-volume novel emphasized the possibility of shorter works that could explore less conventional plotlines — or could generate new conventions — as many New Woman novels did, and which could find a more direct route to interested readers.[8] New novels could now appear in formats that would until recently have been used chiefly for other kinds of works. For instance, the success of George Egerton’s notorious Keynotes (1893), a collection of stories in one volume (like books of poetry, short story collections had no three-volume stipulation), inspired her publisher John Lane to produce an entire “Keynotes” series of slim, inexpensive, single-volume books. The series included novels as well as story collections, many of them with controversial or self-consciously decadent themes (Harris 1407-8).

Some writers recognized the passing of the three-volume novel in terms that were less derisive than Wilde’s, Dixon’s, or Punch’s. With a typical combination of wry acceptance and unnerving percipience, Rudyard Kipling published “The Old Three-Decker” in the Saturday Review in July 1894, only weeks after the three-volume novel had effectively been scuttled. Taking as his conceit the idea of the novel as sailing ship, Kipling adeptly connects the vehicle of the triple-decker to its contents, as well as to the supposed fixity of its itinerary:

Full thirty foot she towered from waterline to rail—
It cost a watch to steer her and a week to shorten sail;
But, spite all modern notions, I found her first and best—
The only certain packet for the Islands of the Blest.
Fair held the Trade 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.

Lovers, heirs, and confessing nurses as the prototypical complement of a triple-decker — Kipling’s catalogue elaborates the trenchant generic logic by which Wilde would soon make a lost three-volume novel serve as liber ex machina in The Importance of Being Earnest.

With the impetus of “the Trade” [wind], the course of the mighty craft seems sure. (A few years later, once the trade was no longer behind the triple-decker, Kipling altered “the Trade” to “the breeze.”) But as the poem’s past tense confirms, the literary age of “steamers” is underway, and these newer vessels take a different route. The “modern notions” of turn-of-the-century realism, scientism, or aestheticism that can propel fiction’s speedier new vehicles might make novels on the old lines seem outmoded, but the poem’s speaker finally affirms the oldfangled consolations of the three-decker:

Her crew are babes and madmen? Her port is still to make?
You’re manned by Truth and Science, and you steam for steaming’s sake?
Well; tinker up your engines. You know your business best,
She’s taking tired people to the Islands of the Blest! (“Old Three-Decker”)

The endorsement of the three-decker’s comforts seems warm, if also droll and self-aware. Again, the format stands in for conventionality and regularity, if no longer for endurance. Yet Kipling’s defense of the novel as a solace for the tired nevertheless recalls the fate of Douglas the Doomed as well as quite serious claims that the three-decker’s generous typography and slow pace made it well suited to comfort and distract the infirm (Dames 226-28; Griest 193, 203).

As originally printed in the summer of 1894, when it was part of the press’s general discussion of the fate of the form, Kipling’s poem began with the epigraph, “And the three-volume novel is doomed,” attributing this observation to a generic “Daily Paper.” When Kipling collected the poem in The Seven Seas (1896), he trimmed its title to “The Three-Decker”; in just two years, the adjective old had already become redundant. Kipling also revised the poem’s epigraph to “The three-volume novel is extinct.” The poem presents these italicized words as a fact that needs no attribution. The three-decker form was now permanently moored in the Islands of the Blest.

published September 2013

Richard Menke, Associate Professor of English at the University of Georgia, is the author of Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (2008) as well as a variety of articles about literature, technology, and media from William and Dorothy Wordsworth to Martin Amis. He is at work on a book about the late-Victorian invention of media.


Menke, Richard. “The End of the Three-Volume Novel System, 27 June 1894.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957. Print.

“A Ballade of Three Volumes.” Punch 107 (28 July 1894): 39. Print.

Bassett, Troy J. At the Circulating Library. Victorian Research Web, 23 May 2012. Web. 9 June 2012.

—. “The Production of Three-Volume Novels in Britain, 1863-97.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 102.1 (2008): 61-75. Print.

Bassett, Troy J., and Christina M. Walter. “Booksellers and Bestsellers: British Book Sales as Documented by The Bookman, 1891-1906.” Book History 4.1 (2001) 205-36. Print.

Besant, Walter. “The Rise and Fall of the ‘Three Decker.’” The Dial 17.199 (1 October 1894): 185-86. Print.

“Book Talk and Tattle.” The American Bookmaker 19.5 (November 1894): 148-49. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. Print.

Cross, Nigel. The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth-Century Grub Street. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Dames, Nicholas. The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Dickson, Sarah Augusta, ed. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, in Four Acts As Originally Written by Oscar Wilde. By Oscar Wilde. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1956. Print.

Dixon, Ella Hepworth. The Story of a Modern Woman. 1894. Ed. Steve Farmer. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2004. Print.

Donohue, Joseph, with Ruth Berggren. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Reconstructive Critical Edition of the Text of the First Production. Gerrards Cross, Bucks.: Colin Smythe, 1995. Print.

Eggert, Paul. “Robbery Under Arms: The Colonial Market, Imperial Publishers, and the Demise of the Three-Decker Novel.” Book History 6.1 (2003): 127-46. Print.

Eliot, Simon. “Bookselling by the Backdoor: Circulating Libraries, Booksellers, and Book Clubs 1876-1966.” A Genius for Letters: Booksellers and Bookselling from the 16th to the 20th Century. Ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris. Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1995. 145-66. Print.

—. “The Three-Decker Novel and its First Cheap Reprint, 1862-94.” The Library 6th ser., 7.1 (March 1985): 38-53. Print.

Feltes, N. N. Literary Capital and the Late Victorian Novel. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1993. Print.

—. Modes of Production of Victorian Novels. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Finkelstein, David. “‘The Secret’: British Publishers and Mudie’s Struggle for Economic Survival 1861-64.” Publishing History 34 (1993): 1-30. Proquest. Web. 28 July 2012.

Gettman, Royal A. A Victorian Publisher: A Study of the Bentley Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1960. Print.

Gissing, George. New Grub Street. 1891. Ed. John Goode. Oxford: World’s Classics-Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Griest, Guinevere L. Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. “Candour in English Fiction.” 1890. Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences. Ed. Harold Orel. 1966. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990. 125-33. Print.

Harris, Wendell V. “John Lane’s Keynotes Series and the Fiction of the 1890s.” PMLA 88.3 (1968): 1407-13. Print.

Heinemann, William. “Mr. Wm. Heinemann’s New List.” Advertisement. Bookseller 440 (5 July 1894): 595. Print.

“In Three Volumes.” Punch 107 (1 Sept. 1894): 101. Print.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The Old Three-Decker.” The Saturday Review 78 (14 July 1894): 44. Print.

—. “The Three-Decker.” The Seven Seas. London: Methuen, 1896. 134-38. Print.

[Leading Article]. Publishers’ Circular 6 (7 July 1894): 5. Print.

“The Literary Year in Retrospect.” The Dial 17 (1 January 1894): 3-4. Print.

Menke, Richard. “The Medium is the Media: Fictions of the Telephone in the 1890s.” Victorian Studies 55.2 (Winter 2012): 212-21. Print.

Moore, George. Literature at Nurse, or, Circulating Morals. 1885. Ed. Pierre Coustillas. Sussex: Harvester; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1976. Print.

“Prospects of the Season.” Bookseller 443 (10 October 1894): 833. Print.

Raby, Peter. “The Genesis of the Play.” In Wilde, Importance. 183-95. Print.

Sampson Low, Marston, and Co. “The New Departure in Publishing Novels: Special Notice to the Trade.” Advertisement. Publishers’ Circular 61 (4 Aug. 1894): 120. Print.

St John, John. William Heinemann: A Century of Publishing. London: Heinemann, 1990. Print.

“The Three-Volume Novel.” Bookseller 441 (4 Aug. 1894): 637. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Artist as Critic.” 1890. The Critic as Artist: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 340-408. Print.

—. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1895/1899. Ed. Michael Patrick Gillespie. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.


[1] The story of the end of the three-volume novel has of course been told before; indeed, the amount of critical attention given to it perhaps demonstrates the book-oriented bias of many histories of print and literature. My discussion draws on Guinevere Griest’s history of Mudie’s circulating library in the Victorian age (151-212) as well as the work of more recent scholars such as N. N. Feltes, Simon Eliot, David Finkelstein, and Troy Bassett. But I also consider the three-decker as part of a nineteenth-century version of a media system, even an “information empire.” And, taking inspiration from BRANCH’s use of the timeline as organizing tool, I offer an account of the summer of 1894 as a literary inflection point — for instance, pulling works by Oscar Wilde, Ella Hepworth Dixon, and Rudyard Kipling (none of whom wrote triple-deckers) into the ambit of what was briefly called “The Three-Volume Novel Question.”

[2] In July 1894, Wilde outlined the unwritten play to the actor and theatre manager George Alexander, mentioning Miss Prism but not the switch between baby in perambulator and novel in handbag. In the four-act version circulated in September 1894 (Alexander insisted on cutting the play to three acts), Lady Bracknell is “Lady Brancaster,” but the switch and the abuse of Miss Prism’s manuscript are firmly in place (Raby; Dickson).

[3] In Feltes’s intriguing but contentious interpretation, the three-volume novel represented the survival of “simple petty-commodity production” in Victorian book publishing, a situation that reached a crisis in the 1880s and 1890s, when it was replaced by “a new kind of structure, suited to, demanded, and provided by the larger structures of emergent monopoly capitalism” or what he later calls “a patriarchal/capitalist mode of production” (Modes 27, 78-9; Literary 4). Finkelstein’s subsequent revelation of the networks of collusion and ownership that underlay the circulating library system might present some empirical complications for this argument.

[4] Indeed, Simon Eliot concludes that “by the 1880s at the latest, the system was clearly no longer in the best interests of either Mudie’s or Smith’s” — quite paradoxically, since they were still widely blamed for maintaining it (“Bookselling” 147). Eliot outlines the circulating libraries’ dependence on reselling books (“Bookselling” 153-61); Bassett documents triple-deckers’ diminishing proportion among all fiction from the 1880s on (“Production” 68-69, 75); Eggert suggests the implications of the colonial trade in novels.

[5] The trend was not new. Even in the 1860s, Eliot finds examples of cheap editions of novels being issued much less than a year after their library editions (“Three-Decker”).

[6] Crary analyzes the paradoxical relationships between attention and distraction across late nineteenth-century visual experience, philosophy and culture; on attention, distraction, and Victorian fiction. The readers may also refer to Nicholas Dames.

[7] On the publication of novels in newspapers and (beginning in the 1870s) via newspaper syndicates, see Cross 208-9. For a more detailed consideration of The Story of a Modern Woman, in relation to the discourse of media in fiction of the 1890s, see Menke.

[8] These innovations hardly meant that such works couldn’t sell well. Bassett and Walter find New Woman novels amply represented in the fin-de-siècle bestseller lists they analyze (208).