Welcome to the first post of my new feature! The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today. It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times. I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know! This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
In my post last week on creating new features, I mentioned what this post would be about - the Circulating Library of the Victorian era. Although it seems to have started in the early 1700s but gained more popularity in the 1800s. Since books were expensive at the time it was necessary and lucrative for publishers and enterprising individuals to offer subscriptions to readers to borrow books. Through this the three-volume novel became popular (for reasons I'll get into later) so that meant a novel - Jane Eyre for instance - was printed up as three books about 200-300 pages each and the reader would have to go to the library to get the next part. According to this site a three-volume novel would have cost the equivalent of $100 in our time! I should stop complaining about the price of books now... although at current hardcover rates our equivalent of a three volume novel - a trilogy - would be about $60 for the set. Maybe not a lot has changed.
|Click on image to read the (funny?) text of this comic from 1877|
This format also affected the way novels were written by English authors at the time. The pace and structure had to adapt to being broken up into three parts, and the story needed to be spun out for a prescribed amount of chapters. The three-volume novel isn't exactly the same as a trilogy but to my mind there are a lot of similarities especially when it comes to goals for marketing and maximizing profit. In fact The Lord of the Rings was intended by Tolkien to be a three-volume novel and not a trilogy but his publishers wanted to release it as three books and give each book a name.
It seems the consensus that the popularity of the circulating library came to an end when affordable public libraries came into existence. And thank goodness for that. It makes me want to go out and visit my local library right now in appreciation!
How often do you visit your local library? How do you feel about trilogies?
British Circulating Libraries
Jane Austen's World
Wikipedia / Wikipedia
The Victorian Web