Regency Three-Deckers:   On the Cusp of Monopoly

In this case, I do not mean the British ships of the line which had three full gun decks and were commonly known as "three-deckers." But the particular books about which I will write this week were named after those powerful battleships. And in their way, those books became as powerful in the circulating libraries as the naval three-deckers were at sea, and in fact, outlived their namesakes by several decades. But what was to become a virtual monopoly on modish fiction publishing first began to solidify during the Regency.

A few facts about fashionable fiction publishing during the Regency …

The particular fiction which found its medium in the three-decker was the novel. The novel had its origins in the medieval French heroic romances and Elizabethan prose fiction. The word itself has its source in a transliteration of the Italian word novella, which had been a rather short, but realistic story popular during the Renaissance. Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, the word was spelled with two ls and when people spoke of such works of fiction, they said no’vell, with the emphasis on the second syllable. It was only about a decade before the Regency began that people were regularly calling these books novels, with the same pronunciation that we use today. Except in some of the more remote areas of Scotland, where as late at the early twentieth century, the original eighteenth-century pronunciation was still in use, though when written, the modern spelling was used.

It is impossible to name the very first novel in the English language, in part because of the definition of what a novel is and partly because there are quite possibly still long works of fiction written centuries ago which have yet to be discovered. However, many literary scholars and critics are of the opinion that the first true novel written in English was Robinson Crusoe, which was published on 25 April 1719, and was written by Daniel Defoe. This tale was a fictionalized account of the life of a man marooned on an island for decades. It is generally believed that Defoe loosely based his story on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scotsman who was marooned on an island in the Pacific, alone, for four years, before he was rescued and returned to England, where he told his tale. For the eighteenth century, Defoe’s novel was a runaway bestseller and demonstrated that the English had a taste for lengthy works of realistic fiction with no aspects of mythology, folk tales, or religious history or doctrine. Robinson Crusoe was originally published in two volumes, as were the additional editions which had to be printed that year and the year after to meet the demand.

It must be noted, however, that there are probably just as many literary scholars who feel that the first true English novel was not published until a generation after Robinson Crusoe first came off the press. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1740, is considered by many to be the first true novel in English. It was presented as a series of letters, the majority of them written by the heroine, an innocent young maidservant in an aristocratic household. She is the recipient of persistent unwanted advances from her employer’s son, who eventually abducts her, trying to seduce her, and very nearly raping her. But her goodness and her sterling character win out over all, and eventually the young man offers her marriage. Unlike Defoe, whose main intent had been to tell a rousing good tale, Richardson intended his novel to serve as a guide to good conduct for young ladies, the fact that he entertained them while educating them was secondary. Despite his intent, there was some criticism of the book as lewd and licentious, which, of course, only helped to spur sales, and Pamela, published in two volumes, was another wildly successful eighteenth-century best-seller. So successful, in fact, that Richardson followed it up the following year with a continuation of Pamela’s tale, again published in two volumes.

By the mid-eighteenth century, after being shown the way by both Defoe and Richardson, more and more novels began to roll off the presses of England. But these new works were very unlike the majority of fiction which had been written and published for the masses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The pious, morally uplifting religious stories and the thrilling historically-based tales published in the form of short, cheap, paper-bound chapbooks had been sold by traveling chapmen for a few pence each, for many decades, to the poor and the lower classes of Britain. But these new novels were much longer, richer, deeper stories, much better written and were intended for the reading pleasure of the wealthy upper classes and the aristocracy of England. To attract that much more upscale and affluent readership, not only would the books have to be written to appeal to their more educated and sophisticated tastes, but they would also have to be printed and bound to appeal to those same refined tastes. Thus, the cost of publishing novels was several orders of magnitude above that of the simple chapbooks and so, too, would be the format in which they would be published.

Paper, as I noted last week, in my article on book-making, was very expensive. Lest I have not made that fact crystal clear, paper in England, from the eighteenth century right through the Regency, was still made primarily by hand and it was extremely expensive. In all cases, the cost of the paper was the greatest cost a publisher faced when printing a book. For this reason, early on, publishers seriously considered their options before publishing a novel, a type of book for which the market was uncertain. Those who published Bibles, books on law, the classics, even agricultural and scientific publications, had some idea of how many of each of those types of books would sell in a given year. But novels were not so predictable, their sales essentially depended upon the whim of the reading public at the time of their publication. There was also the purely physical challenge that these longer works of fiction would be difficult to bind successfully, but economically, due to their thickness. The spine is the weakest part of any bookbinding, and the thicker the book, the greater the threat to the spine. Not to mention the fact these thick books would be difficult to hold comfortably when reading. As early as Robinson Crusoe the solution was found, the multi-volume publication. As noted above, both Robinson Crusoe and Pamela were each published in two volumes, as was the continuation of Pamela’s story, published the following year, in 1741.

By publishing novels in a multi-volume format, publishers could save paper by printing in octavo or duodecimo, that is, eight or twelve pages on each sheet, respectively, rather than the quarto, with only four pages up on each side. The hard-to-handle thicker books which would have resulted from this economy were mitigated by the multi-volume format. It was not long before publishers realized that the multi-volume format offered them other opportunities to economize on the printing of novels. For unknown authors, a publisher might only have the first volume of the novel printed and distributed. If that sold well enough to justify the expense, the additional volumes would be published, often funded by the income from the first volume. Not only did this save publishers money by not having to print the remaining volumes of a novel which did not sell well, it also helped to reduce the amount of their capital they had tied up in such volumes. In addition, it also reduced their storage costs, since, with fewer books to store, they could reduce the amount of warehouse space they needed to rent or build.

The multi-volume format of the novel found great favor with the reading public. The majority of novel readers were women, and they found the lighter weight and smaller size of each physical volume much less fatiguing to hold as they read than they might have found the full novel published in a single volume. There was also a fashionable cachet developing around the multi-volume novel, which set its readers apart from the lower classes and their scruffy paper-bound single-volume chapbooks. Though small in size, the volumes of fashionable novels were usually printed on good quality paper, in an attractive typeface, and bound in handsome and decorative covers. They were a treat to the eye as well as to the imagination and many ladies were as eager to examine and proclaim over the lovely bindings of a novel as they were over what was between its covers. Few people purchased novels, yet for ladies who simply must own a particular novel, but whose pin money was not generous, the multi-volume format allowed them to purchase portions of the novel over time until they owned the entire tale. And circulating libraries were absolutely delighted with the concept of multi-volume novels because they charged their patrons by the physical volume, not by the title. Thus, if a patron wished to read every horrid detail of The Mysteries of Udolpho when it was first published in the spring of 1794, they would have had to pay the loan fee for four separate volumes at their local circulating library. Since few ladies would have been willing or able to pay the loan fee for four volumes all at once, they would have borrowed one volume at a time, returning the one they had finished to the circulating library and borrowing the next. However, with a popular novel, they might not find the next volume available when they returned to the circulating library. The clerks at the circulating library would have been happy to recommend something which was available, to fill the lady’s time while she waited for the next volume of the novel she actually wanted, thus brining in yet another fee and ensuring she would return to the library yet again. Each visit from a patron was an opportunity for income for the circulating library.

From the eighteenth century and into the very early years of the nineteenth, novels were always published in multiple volumes. But the number of those volumes per title was not yet formalized, as it would be by the end of the Regency. A novel might be published in just two volumes, as had Pamela, Richardson’s own sequel to the novel, or the vast number of unauthorized satires and sequels which followed it. But a longer novel might require more volumes in order to completely reveal the full story. One of the longest novels of the mid-eighteenth century was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written by Laurence Sterne. The first volume was published in 1759 and was so popular that it ultimately ran to nine volumes over the course of the next ten years. Novels of four, five or even six volumes were regularly published by the end of the eighteenth century. By 1810, it was becoming more and more common to publish fashionable novels in three volumes. That seemed to be the optimal length for a successful novel, for the author, the publisher, the circulating library, the book-seller and the reader. By the time the erstwhile Prince Regent was laid to rest in July of 1830, nearly every novel which made it to press was published in a three-volume format. Certainly all fashionable novels were published in three volumes. They soon came to be known as "three-deckers," after the ships of the line of the British navy having three gun decks. Within a decade the three-decker novels came to be even more powerful than their namesake, as nearly every novel published in Britain from the 1830s through the mid-1890s was a three-decker. Though long before then, many literary critics, as well as most authors and publishers, railed against it, the circulating libraries preferred it, and they had such power they could force both authors and publishers to their will. Novels which were too long for three volumes were ruthlessly cut until they were, while novels which were too short were padded with long descriptive passages and/or the addition of unnecessary characters and events to fill them out.

Jane Austen was well aware that by 1810, when she was revising Sense and Sensibility for publication, that its best chance of success was to be published as a three-decker. She revised and re-worked her novel to fit into that format, as she eventually did for each of her other novels, all of which were published in three volumes. All of the Waverley Novels, written by Sir Walter Scott, were also published in three volumes, beginning in 1814. William Lane, the founder of the Minerva Press, was originally the proprietor of a circulating library. Lane’s press turned out hundreds of three-decker novels filled with sentimental romance and Gothic horror, all of which were available from his circulating library, as well as many others across Britain. During the Regency, the three-decker novel was the fashionable way to publish and read fiction in England. A novel of less than three volumes would have been considered "short" and would have elicited little interest from most novel readers, and therefore, from the circulating libraries. Without the assurance of the purchase of a large portion of any press run by the circulating libraries, few publishers would have taken the chance on publishing a short novel. Authors who wrote shorter works would have strung a few of them together to fill a three-decker, or they would have tried to publish their short stories in the ladies’ magazines of the period.

Even in the Regency, circulating libraries were able to exert some power over publishers of novels, as they were the major market for such works of fashionable fiction. By the early Victorian era, they had what amounted to a monopoly on the distribution of novels, and they wanted those novels published in three volumes, which was the format which the majority of their patrons considered socially acceptable. In fact, most circulating libraries purchased new novels in bulk, with a deep discount, and the guarantee that cheaper single-volume reprints would not be issued for at least a year after the initial date of publication. These cheap reprints, known as yellowbacks, and the railroad, eventually killed off the three-decker novel in England. As more and more people traveled by train, W. H. Smith set up circulating libraries in most of the larger train stations. Patrons could borrow a single-volume edition of a novel at their point of departure and return it at the W. H. Smith stand at their destination. Eventually, as people became accustomed to single-volume novels, the fashionable cachet of the three-deckers began to decline. By the mid-1890s, even the circulating libraries had stopped demanding their copies of novels be published as three-deckers, and the three-decker form became essentially extinct by the turn of the twentieth century. But the three-decker novel was to have one last hurrah fifty years later. In 1949, a professor at Oxford University finished the last revisions to his magnum opus, a work on which he had labored on and off for twelve years. Due to various differences of opinion with his publishers, the book was not accepted for publication until 1952. The final manuscript was over 500,000 words in length, and would run to over 1,000 pages in print. The publishers, George Allen and Unwin, realized immediately they would not be able to publish the full novel in one volume. Paper, once again, was the driving factor, but this time it was not price, it was availability. Paper in post-war Britain was in short supply and the publishers could not get enough paper to publish the entire novel in one press run. In consultation with the author, it was decided to employ the three-decker format in order to get this novel into print. The Oxford professor slightly tweaked his work so that it could be broken into three roughly even sections, and gave each volume its own sub-title. Those sub-titles were The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The novel’s title, is, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Though often referred to as a trilogy, it is most certainly not one. A trilogy consists of three separate stories, often linked by characters and/or location, but each story reaches its climax and is complete in a single volume. Georgette Heyer’s tales of the satanic Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, and his progeny, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, and An Infamous Army are a trilogy, as each novel is related to the others, but stands on its own. Though each volume of The Lord of the Rings is riveting, they are all just sections of the story, they do not stand on their own. Professor Tolkien did not write a trilogy, he wrote a single novel which was first published in three volumes, perhaps the greatest three-decker of them all.

I have read so many Regency novels in which the hero hands the heroine a book in a book shop, the implication being that single volume is the complete novel. But as you know now, such was not the case during the Regency. Nor would many young ladies visit a Regency book shop to purchase a novel they wished to read, as only the most wealthy would have been able to afford to do so. And even more scandalous are those heros who purchase a copy of a novel as a gift for the heroine. Besides the fact that the novel would have consisted of three volumes, a not insignificant item, the cost would have made it a completely inappropriate gift to any woman who was not a relative. In 1810, the average price of a novel was seven shillings per volume, bringing the total for a three-decker novel to about $90.00 modern-day US dollars. Poetry was often published in single volumes, and though that volume in Regency times would still have been quite expensive, it would have been about one-third the cost of a three-decker novel. Plus, it would usually have been small enough to slip into a reticule or muff to keep it out of sight of the watchful eyes of the young lady’s mama or chaperone, who would certainly have insisted she return it, unless she was already betrothed to the giver. Books are so cheap and plentiful today that we take them for granted. No one living during the Regency would ever have done such a thing. Books in the early nineteenth century were seen as expensive treasures, to be cherished and appreciated. Dear Regency authors, please do the same when you write of those books in your books.

Next week, the circulating libraries of Regency England.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Entertainments and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Regency Three-Deckers:   On the Cusp of Monopoly

  1. Pingback: The Making of Regency Books | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who? | The Regency Redingote

  3. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   Sense and Sensibility Hits the Press! | The Regency Redingote

  4. Pingback: Biblio for Books | The Regency Redingote

  5. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   Pride and Prejudice Published | The Regency Redingote

  6. Pingback: The Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine | The Regency Redingote

  7. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   Publication of Mansfield Park | The Regency Redingote

  8. Irene says:

    Where are your sources?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Too many to list. I have been fascinated with the history of books and how they were made since I was in high school. Over the decades since, I have read scores of books and articles on the history of writing, publishing and reading. Some books which come immediately to mind are:

      The English Common Reader by Richard Altick
      The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland
      Book Illustrated: Text, Image and Culture by Catherine Golden
      Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel by Guinevere Griest
      The Book: The Story of Printing & Bookmaking, edited by Douglas McMurtrie
      English Printed Books by Francis Meynell
      The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 by James Raven
      The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914 by Ray Gordon
      Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books by Margaret Willes

      This list should get you started, and they all have bibliographies which will help you to expand your research.



Comments are closed.