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Sense & Sensibility - a three-volume novel

Those of you who are familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (either the play or the movie) may recall much being said about the three-volume novel, which was spoken of rather disparagingly by most of the characters in the play.

Back in Austen's time, lots and lots of models were three-volume novels. Not because a novel couldn't be printed all in one volume, but because of the circulating libraries that existed at that time. Circulating libraries were very popular, because books were (relatively) expensive, and only a small percentage of the populace could afford to buy as many as they liked. (This is one of the reasons that wealthy people in novels set in that time, whether written then or now, tend to have large libraries - it's a form of conspicuous consumption, really, even if one has to be inside the walls of their homes to discover that it exists.)

Circulating libraries required a paid membership subscription, and one usually paid a fee in order to borrow a book. That's right - the fee was paid on a per-volume basis, not on a per-title basis. A novel printed in three volumes was therefore worth three rental fees, rather than just one. Publishers knew that most novels would sell a significant percentage of most novels to circulating libraries, so they were only too happy to accommodate those libraries by printing the majority of their novels in multiple volumes.

And thus it was that Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma were printed as three-volume novels. (The other two novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were printed together after Austen's death in a four-volume set.)

Don't forget our foray into Sense and Sensibility starts this Thursday. If you haven't found a copy of the novel, but would like to read along anyhow, may I recommend Molland's Circulating Library, an online repository of Austen-related texts? Here's the direct link to the Table of Contents for Sense and Sensiblity.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
elizabethcbunce
Sep. 22nd, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
There is a local public library here *still* called "Paola Free Library" because it was funded by a bequest from a local businessman's will, with the stipulation that the library be free to the public in perpetuity.

It's a fascinating little tidbit of history, but a great reminder not to take our public libraries today for granted.

Or, I guess, the ability to get a complete novel in one chunk. Unless you're reading Connie Willis (BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR) or Robin McKinley (PEGASUS v. 1 and 2)!
kellyrfineman
Sep. 22nd, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
The Free Library in Philadelphia, where I went tonight to hear Sara Gruen speak, was initially founded by Benjamin Franklin (true of so very many things in Philadelphia, really). Somehow, I didn't realize that McKinley's book was in two volumes! (I guess Octavian Nothing was, too, yes?)
melted_rachel
Sep. 22nd, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)
So, at the end of Northanger Abbey (the recent one) Catherine would have been in a lot of trouble for throwing that book in the fire!
kellyrfineman
Sep. 22nd, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
She certainly would have been. And Jane Austen would have been appalled by that particular scene, since she was all for people reading novels (including Gothic novels).
writerjenn
Sep. 22nd, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
I, too, bought all these books to impress people. The teetering piles on my floor are particularly attractive. ;-D
kellyrfineman
Sep. 23rd, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)
Yeah. I hear you. You'll notice I restricted the comment to that period in time on purpose.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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