These questions were originally created for English 394: The Victorian Novel from Dickens to Hardy, at the University of British Columbia, Summer Session Two, 1989. They have been augmented with pertinent excerpts from Tillotson's seminal criticism of the early Victorian novel for English 3412 (Victorian Fiction), Lakehead University, January through May 2004. For additional questions click on the "Contexts" icon at the foot of the screen.

In the forties the author had several methods of getting his books into the hands of the public. Three such methods are illustrated by the four novels studied in Part II and a fourth by Kingsley's Yeast.

Left: Phiz's 1863 illustration for Barrington: The Third Volume! (Ch. XXVIII). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The commonest material form in which a reader of the eighteen-forties met a new novel (as at almost any time in the nineteenth century) was that taken by Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell. This novel was in three small 'post octavo' volumes, very much like David Copperfield's first novel) "compact in three indiwidual wollumes" 1 — the usual format for novels since about 1830. By modern standards the volumes seem small and squat — like bound Penguins, but with better margins and more lead between the lines. Their most surprising feature is their price — a guinea and a half for the three. Surprising, until one realizes the dominance of the circulating libraries and their interest in keeping book prices high.2 Then as now, very few people bought new fiction in volume form; and of these, fewer still would feel inclined to buy a novel by an unknown writer — really unknown, for the poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, published in the previous year, had only two buyers and three reviews. But after reading early reviews of Jane Eyre, the reader would probably order a copy of it from his circulating library. 3 By the eighteen-forties the circulating library was everywhere . . . the subscription rates were very moderate "for new novels only one guinea a year." The separate volumes made for convenience of fireside reading, and for sharing among members of a family; though it would be exasperating to finish volume I, which ends at a point where Jane rescues Mr. Rochester from his blazing bed, when one's elder sister had not quite finished volume III. For the three-volume form matched a formal literary design: in many novels the structural divisions are as clear as the three acts of a play. [Tillotson, 21-23]


Victorian Fiction (catalogue of an exhibition arranged by John Carter and Michael Sadleir, 1947); Graham Pollard, Serial Fiction in New Paths in Book Collecting (1934). The Cambridge Bibliography is erratic in noting the original form of publication, especially for minor novelists.

1 Ch. II.

2 See Michael Sadleir, Bibliographical Aspects of the Victorian Novel (1937) (typescript in [The] British Museum), and the sources referred to above.

3 It was advertised in the Athenaeum (13 November 1847), p. 1162, as "Now ready at all the libraries"; a review in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (May 1848), pp. 346-8, says that few circulating libraries are without it.

Question 5

How did the three-volume, "triple-decker" novel become the standard format for the nineteenth-century British novel?


Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955, rpt. 1983.

Created 25 December 2004

Last modified 18 January 2024