Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Mudie’s Select Library And The Three Volume Novel

Charles Edward Mudie

Born in 1818 in Chelsea, London, to newspaper shop keepers originally from Scotland, Charles Edward Mudie wasn’t the first person to create a circulating library but he was the person who brought it to prominence. He had the business background to build his library upon. He opened his first bookshop in 1840, ‘a little shop in Bloombury’ as The Times called it1 (The Times, 1913).

In 1842, Mudie began lending books to students of the University of London. For a guinea a year (equal to 20 shillings – in today’s currency a shilling is roughly 5 pence) a student could borrow one volume at a time. The system was so successful that Mudie moved to a better location and soon had branches of his library in other cities, including Manchester and Birmingham (Wikipedia n.d. a). Deliveries in England were made with vans and trains. Ships took orders overseas (ibid.).

The reason Mudie was so successful is summed up by George Landow in his 2001 [1972] review of Guinevere Griest’s 1970 work, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel. Landow notes the ‘famous guinea yearly subscription’. (For a higher fee you could borrow more than one at a time.) Landow also notes the advertising that created ‘something very like a best-seller list’, a new market that established Mudie’s power. Mudie also ordered books in large numbers, sometimes entire print runs. (A print run would comprise of up to 1000 copies.)

Readers didn’t have to wait long to read the books they wanted. At the height of the library’s popularity, Mudie boasted over a million titles (Spiegel, 2011). The Library catalogue for January 1860 notes, in letters rather than numbers – possibly so that it looks even better – ‘rate of increase exceeds one hundred and twenty thousand volumes per annum’, and genres include history, biography, religion, philosophy, travel, and, in all its pomp and capitalisation, the ‘HIGHER CLASS of FICTION’ (Catalogue of New and Standard Works, 1860, contents page).

Mudie had originally started lending to provide wider access to non-fiction; the genre was a good amount of the stock, and it was this that made the consumption of scientific volumes a success – Mudie bought 500 copies of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species; Darwin’s own reading was thanks to Mudie (Wikipedia n.d. a). But Mudie recognised the market for fiction.

It was Mudie’s influence that led to the popularity and full adoption of the three volume novel; Mudie demanded publishers produce only three volume novels, which allowed one work to be divided between multiple subscribers, increasing both stock and the number of borrows. Why Mudie was so successful here is due to the fees he set and the accessibility of his library. Lending libraries were crucial to the middle class’s access to literature. Books were expensive to buy, costing the equivalent of half the weekly income of an average household but the guinea per year set up at Mudie’s was relatively lower cost. Mudie’s influence over publishers, due to this social mobilisation of the middle class, effected the morality, subject, and scope of what was published for the next 50 years (Landow 2001). He was all the more powerful because other libraries began to follow his recommendations. Books were censored or not published at all if Mudie didn’t like them (he took note of his customer’s opinions on books)2. Authors were often contracted for a specific number of pages and if their books weren’t quite in line with the format they were asked to change them so that they were in line. (This is likely why Charlotte Brontë, when writing to her sisters’ publisher – her own potential publisher – noted that Jane Eyre was a work in three volumes, and is also perhaps why Emily and Anne’s novels were sent together as a combined three volumes. Despite a rejected first novel, she knew what needed to be done in order to succeed.) Mudie’s advertising informed subscribers of new works and reminded them of the service in general3.

An advertisement for Mudie's

Thus the three volume novel became the standard in the 1800s; before that there had been novels in volumes of varying numbers. Shorter works were simply divided into chapters. The format had first been produced by publisher Archibald Constable in the early 1800s; however his influence over the three volume novel was small – publisher Henry Colburn (who had worked at a circulating library) made it more popular. The format made it easier for new authors to be published. Their reputations were more in Mudie’s hands than the critics, who in turn often hoped bad novels would just not be ordered by libraries – but the system put a barrier between authors and readers, and discouraged several generations from buying novels (ibid.). In an article published in 1965, Guinvere Griest said that there were single volume novels – mostly books previously published in three – but that there was an ‘aura of dignity and worth’ to three volumes which eclipsed all other forms (1965, p. 117).

The three volume novel remained popular as a form until 1894, when Mudie (the library), along with W H Smith’s (first founded in 1792 as a news vendor and, according to Griest, Mudie’s only rival) stopped buying it.

Mudie himself died in 1890. His libraries continued to run until the 1930s when public libraries began to rise with services that were even cheaper. (They had first begun to gain traction in the late 1800s and thus Mudie had experienced the lessening of his empire.) But interestingly, as Landow says, Mudie’s lost its power in particular due to its own decision to abandon the three volume novel (2001). ‘The end of the Victorian circulating libraries, however, does not coincide’ says Griest, ‘with the end of [Mudie’s and W H Smith and Sons] but rather with the extinction of the three-decker, a method… so closely entwined with [circulating library] prosperity that the end of the one spelled doom of the other’ (1965, p. 104)4. As publishers began publishing very cheap second editions comprising of all three volumes, the libraries had trouble keeping their capital and not finding themselves faced with a ton of books that were no longer being borrowed. They tried to tie publishers’ hands but now the publishers were worried about the effect a return to higher prices would have on the industry and readers. Mudie’s successor, his son, Arthur, chose to kill off the three volume novel rather than raise subscription prices, believing higher prices would not help (ibid, p. 123). He said later that he didn’t believe in the three volume novel. How his father would have taken that, we can never know.


1 The Times notes that circulating libraries had been in existence since at least the Middle Ages, though they state as the pioneer one Samuel Fancourt (1678-1768).
2 Straight after the list of genres included, and the Catalogue says, in italics, ‘Cheap reprints, Serials, Costly Books of Plates, Works of merely Professional or Local Interest, and Novels of objectionable character or inferior ability, are almost invariably excluded’. (At least they gave a capital letter to those Novels!)
3 Landow’s referenced writer, Griest, said in an earlier article about Mudie, ‘Publishers’ advertisements of newly issued fiction in the middle and late years of the nineteenth century frequently proclaimed to interested readers, “Popular New Novels, at all the libraries, each in three volumes, crown octavo,” or “This say, at all libraries, in three volumes…,” thus revealing the importance of these great lending organizations in book distribution and, by implication, the dominance in the fiction lists at the libraries of the novel in three volumes. In other words, novels were announced not for sale, but as available to the public through lending organizations.’ (Griest, 1965, p. 103).
4 We can assume Griest meant W H Smith’s in its historical form – Smith’s survives still today though it is now a combination of bookshop, newsagents, stationers, and often post office.

Book References

Catalogue Of New And Standard Works In Circulation At Mudie’s Select Library (1860) Charles Edward Mudie, New Oxford Street London

Article References

Griest, Guinevere (September 1965) A Victorian Leviathan: Mudie’s Select Library, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 103-126, University Of California Press, accessed 10th May 2019.
Landow, George (2001 [1972]) Mudie’s Select Library and the Form of Victorian Fiction, The Victorian Web, accessed 10th May 2019.
Spiegel, Nancy (2011) Circulating libraries: library history and architecture, University Of Chicago Library News, accessed 10th May 2019.
The Times (2nd September 1913) London Circulating Libraries, accessed 10th May 2019.
Wikipedia (n.d.-a) Charles Edward Mudie, accessed 8th May 2019.
Wikipedia (n.d.-b) Three-volume novel, accessed 10th May 2019.


No Comments


Comments closed