A novel requires some measure of structure to hold it together, a plot tends to work nicely for this. To deconstruct a bit, traditionally, a novel is divided into chapters and at one time was even commonly divided into physically separate volumes. Over time, the result of the separate volumes has been the unhappy event of missing volumes. If I had only volumes 1 and 2 of the original Pride and Prejudice I think I would be very sad. (I don’t have any, by the way.) But I do have single volumes of other very old books.
I’ve heard only anecdotally that the reason for separate volumes stemmed from the convenience of being able to pass on volume 1 to the next reader while proceeding with volume 2. I’ve never come across this as any more than speculation. Personally, I suspect the volume decision was a financial one and/or a limitation of the materials at hand, and the fact that the separate volumes could be passed on so that readers didn’t have to wait for someone to finish the entire book was simply fortuitous for the customer. Perhaps in my copious spare time I’ll try to track that down.
The historical practice of physically separate volumes has gone by the wayside, thank goodness, because imagine the horror of your TBR pile if your favorite historical romance (let’s say it’s Scandal by yours truly) came in three volumes and now that you finally have time to read this lovely book, you discover you’re missing volume two. Or the book eating cat (we have one of those) has managed to drag volume three under the bed for a nice snack of the opening chapters. Or that you picked up all three volumes on your way to the airport but only when you’re at 40,000 feet do you discover you have the volume one of some other book.
If books today still came in separate volumes, would each volume have different cover art? This, of course, was not an issue back in the day. You either went cheap and kept your books in their original boards (what would the neighbors think of that?) or you bound them yourself, probably in Morocco leather. And since Carolyn Jewel of 1815 would surely have been Lady Readerham (married to the dashing and wholly reformed rake the earl of Readerham— I assure you, we had quite the tumultuous courtship and that the story about how he got that scar is completely false. There were never any crocodiles in the moat.) At any rate, I would have a nice little coronet to have embossed on the covers of the books in my library.
But that was then. (Would have been then?) What about today? Would bookstores today even allow you to buy single volumes of a multi-volume work? Or would there soon be a healthy after-market source for orphaned volumes? Maybe there’d be special deals, Buy Volumes 1 and 2, get Volume 3 for half off!
What do you think? And if you lived in 1815, who would you be and what would be in your library? Sorry, Lord Readerham is taken.