Index Novel
Aspects of the Victorian Book
  Production   Publishing
  The Novel
The Novel  

According to contemporary trade journals, almost 60,000 works of fiction (both adult and juvenile) were published during the Victorian period. The 238 mid- to late-nineteenth-century novelists listed in the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, vol. 4 1800-1900 (3rd. ed., 1999) represent the most enduring of approximately 7,000 authors identified by John Sutherland (The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, 1988) as entitled to call themselves 'novelist'. From the society novels of the 1830s, to 'industrial' novels reflecting the desperate lives of the poor, historical and domestic novels, tales of adventure, the emerging detective stories of the 1860s, the sensational novel and science fiction, they were responsible for an astonishing range of literature.

This activity was fostered by an increasingly skilful and professional publishing system. Most Victorian novels were published in three volumes at 31s. 6d, or 10s. 6d per volume. Although too expensive for the average purchaser, this price enabled the publisher to cover his costs on a comparatively small edition (usually 1,000 copies), and allowed for a reasonable payment to the author. The majority of readers, who could not afford to buy new novels, flocked to the circulating libraries which sprang up all over the country. Led by Charles Mudie's establishment in New Oxford Street, these controlled a significant share of the market in new novels, keeping a censorious eye on the moral and religious content of their stock.

At the same time, authors and publishers were anxious to increase their sales by reducing the price of new fiction. The unexpected success of Dickens's Pickwick Papers in 1836-7 revitalised the old practice of publishing in shilling monthly numbers. Serialisation in periodicals (and, to a lesser extent, newspapers) was also popular, especially from the 1860s with the founding of important literary journals like the Cornhill Magazine, Belgravia, and The Argosy. In both cases, famous artists of the day were often commissioned to provide high quality illustrations, which were an additional inducement to purchase. With increased sales came the prospect of improved payments for at least some authors, which in turn contributed to the professionalisation of authorship during the century.

Once a serial had been completed, and the novel had exhausted its original market in three volumes, it might be reprinted in a cheaper (usually 6 shilling) one-volume edition, and then again as a yellowback in one of the popular Railway Libraries. As the century progressed, the intervals between these editions tended to contract, and by the 1880s the 6 shilling novel was beginning to emerge as the preferred form for new fiction. Faced with the growth of free libraries, and increasingly vociferous complaints from authors about censorship of their work, the circulating libraries finally took matters into their own hands. In 1894 they announced that they would pay no more than 4 shillings a volume for fiction - in effect signalling the death of the 'three-decker'.

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