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 serialized in magazines) were released as three-volume sets; reprints of successful three-volume novels were often done in cheap one-volume editions.
Though the era of the three volume novel effectively ended in 1894, works were still on occasion printed in more than one volume in the 20th-century. Two of John Cowper Powys's novels, Wolf Solent (1929) and Owen Glendower (1940) were published, in a two volume edition, by Simon and Schuster in the USA.
The Lord of the Rings is a three volume novel, rather than a trilogy, as Tolkien originally intended work to be one volume of a two-volume set, the other to be The Silmarillion, but this idea was dismissed by his publisher. For economic reasons The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes over the course of a year from 29 July 1954 to 20 October 1955. The three volumes were entitled The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
References in literature
- Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889), Chapter XII ("The London Journal duke always has his “little place” at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.").
- 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.").
- A New Introduction to Bibliography, Philip Gaskell. Oxford, 1979. ISBN 0-19-818150-7
- Mudie's Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction, George P. Landow. The Victorian Web.
- Draznin, Yaffa Claire (2001). Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day (#179). Contributions in Women's Studies. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-313-31399-7.
- Reynolds, Pat. "The Lord of the Rings: The Tale of a Text". The Tolkien Society. Retrieved 5 February 2011.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #126., ISBN 0-395-31555-7
- "The Life and Works for JRR Tolkien". BBC. 7 February 2002. Retrieved 4 December 2010.