Troy J. Bassett. The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Three-Volume Novel.

Cover for the Rise and Fall of the Three Volume Victorian Novel

Troy J. Bassett, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Three-Volume Novel, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 270 p. ISBN: 978-3-030-31926-7, US$ 69.61 (ebook) 

From its obscure beginnings as “one publisher’s calculated gamble” in 1821 to its becoming the format most favored by women authors (96), the Victorian three-volume novel was central to how books were written, marketed, and consumed from the 1840s until the end of the century. The first study to provide a comprehensive examination of the form “as a literary and economic product” (12), Bassett’s rich history takes us from its inception to demise through scrutiny of the organizations that published, circulated, and, ultimately, rejected it. Beyond giving a general economic and cultural history of the format, the book addresses gaps in previous scholarship relating to the form’s financial viability, its longevity, and the complex reasons behind its decline in the 1890s. 

The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Three-Volume Novel opens with an analysis of multi-volume fiction production from 1837-1898, exploring issues from serialization, format, and price to the authors and publishers who were involved in its production. Bassett’s quantitative approach is underpinned by his database (a hugely ambitious project in its own right) At the Circulating Library: A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837-1901, which currently boasts entries for 16,374 titles, 3438 authors, and 508 publishers (20). This data is used to trace a more complex and nuanced history of the format than has been previously evidenced. For example, that “over one-fifth of new multi-volume fiction titles” were serialized during the nineteenth-century highlights the blurring of cultural and economic boundaries between the middle-class subscribers of Charles Mudie’s Select Library and those who were able to access cheaper formats (69).

While Bassett’s study confirms what many have surmised — that the three-volume novel was the most dominant form in the mid-Victorian era until its decline from the mid-eighties to the end of the century —  it also exposes timely concerns, particularly within the context of the urgency to confront Britain’s colonial past in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement.  The data firmly posit Victorian Britain as an Anglo-centric reading nation with only 2.8% of multi-volume fiction produced by foreign, non-American authors (55). The data also offer the potential for scholars to further interrogate issues around gender. Although Bassett notes that by the 1880s, the bulk of three-volume novels were written by women and that some publishers clearly favored women authors, he tantalizingly leaves the reasons why open to speculation, noting that “although the data show us this, it cannot explain it” (96).

The W.H. Smith Circulating Library and case studies of the Bentley publishing house form the subject of two chapters with detailed examination of the publishing accounts of over 100 three-volume novels published by Bentley between 1865 and 1890. Although there has been some disagreement among scholars regarding the commercial “safety” of the three-volume, Bassett’s study of Bentley’s business accounts provides clear evidence of the format’s economic stability (103). He also reveals how female authors “occupied the upper end of [Bentley’s] pay scale,” with Ellen Wood, Anna Edwards, and Rhoda Broughton commanding the most lucrative contracts (121). While Bassett focuses on the women who benefited, as authors, from Bentley’s system, he does not acknowledge those who worked for him in less visible roles. For example, although Bentley may have rewarded his star writers generously, there is no mention of how much he paid his long-standing and hugely influential reader Geraldine Jewsbury, or the extent to which Jewsbury herself was instrumental to the success of the firm.

Another significant player for the three-decker was W.H. Smith & Son, the second-largest Victorian circulating library after Mudie’s (147). In his economic history of the firm, Bassett again highlights the financial security provided by the three-volume novel. However, Smith’s business model relied less on the format than his rival Mudie’s — Smith’s swiftly sold off its three-volume books to cut distribution costs while Mudie, whose clients were more likely to visit his Oxford Street branch in person, held onto his (157). Although rivals, the two libraries came together in 1894 to deliver an ultimatum to publishers demanding a reduced price and increased time between publication and issuing a cheaper one-volume edition. Drawing on Smith’s financial records, Bassett’s assessment of these demands convincingly argues that in turning their backs on a format that had clearly contributed to their prosperity, the libraries’ ultimatum was largely self-serving and designed to increase profits rather than prevent a debilitating decline in them. Ironically though, the demands effectively sounded the death-knell for the format.   

Bassett concludes by examining the writers Robert Louis Stevenson and George Moore, who challenged the format in the 1880s and 90s and the series publication of J.W. Arrowsmith and T. Fisher Unwin, who “recognized a new mass market for fiction…well beyond the circulating libraries”(227). Stevenson’s anguish at the prospect of writing a three-volume novel galvanized him to produce Treasure Island (1883) in one-volume, subsequently inspiring H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Quiller-Couch to follow suit. (192). Bassett sees the emergence of this new-romance genre as an attempt to “leave women authors behind to write multi-volume library novels” (194). However, he overlooks Ouida’s innovative production of novels that problematized generic boundaries between romance and realism, and her ability to attack middle-class hypocrisy while successfully navigating the circulating library system. Likewise, while he rightly acknowledges that George Moore’s anti-censorship polemics were blinkered by his animosity towards Charles Mudie himself rather than aimed at “the underlying cause of literary censorship” (208), there is no discussion of Ouida’s more nuanced interventions into censorship debate.  

Bassett’s study has much to offer the book-historian as well as readers keen to understand the evolution and demise of the three-volume novel. While it provided financial security, prompted innovation and entertained a generation, this uniquely divisive form also inspired fear among those who might attempt it; in Stevenson’s words: “‘It is the length that kills’” (188).  

Stephanie Meek, University of Exeter