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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

THE THREE-VOLUME NOVEL AT THE TIME OF JANE AUSTEN

Novels of Jane Austen’s time were normally published in three volumes. This must have been partly to facilitate the reading by several members of the household simultaneously (as when Caroline Bingley reads the second volume of Darcy's novel), and partly to assist circulating libraries. These libraries, which you joined by paying a small subscription, were far and away the most important buyers and circulators of books for most of the Nineteenth Century. They usually bought up to three quarters of the copies printed.

A novel, unbound, might cost a week's wages for an average working man. You could go to the library and take out one volume, read it, then take it back and get out the next one.

In Victorian times, Mudie's was to be one of the biggest circulating libraries. In the front and back of its books, this company included pages of advertisements for patent medicines, boot black, tooth powder, and other odd-sounding things.

The novelist had to take care to structure the book so that each individual volume had some shape and could stand alone, and of course end with a kind of cliffhanger – as in Mansfield Park, where Volume I ends with Julia bursting in on the theatricals to announce that Sir Thomas is in the hall at this very moment. Volume II of Pride and Prejudice ends with Elizabeth just about to go and see Pemberley for herself for the very first time.