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In older literature - mostly 19th century - I noticed a common tendency to provide two alternative titles for a text. One example I just came across is:

Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood

There are countless examples from both fiction and non-fiction for this kind of "dual" title.

Currently I'm writing detective fiction stories set in Victorian times and I try to imitate the 19th century style. As these "dual" titles appear typical of the period, I think of using that style for my own writing, but I am nor quite sure what the purpose of giving a text two titles is and how to employ this format properly. So I wonder:

What effects were authors trying to achieve with these "double" titles? And how would I go about if I wanted a similar kind of title for my own story?

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    This is a question for Literature SE, not Writing. – user16226 Mar 29 '18 at 12:11
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    I don't know why they did it, but your observation is correct: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/… "May be used to evoke an older era, when such subtitles were more common, or a faux-academic style." – J.G. Mar 29 '18 at 13:40
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    @Cloudchaser The question could be edited to reflective this question actually being about the tittle. Currently that is just minor background. If the question was rephrase to "Is it okay to have two tittles?" I think it would be on topic. – White Eagle Mar 29 '18 at 17:25
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    @WhiteEagle - I totally agree, and also think this was left as an implication by the original asker (otherwise why mention his own work set in a Victorian setting?) I've edited the question to ask it more explicitly. – Jules Mar 31 '18 at 14:53
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One reason for this style is that, to an event greater extent than today, a lot of novels of this period were studies about a particular character -- modern books have a tendency, at least in most genres, to focus on an event and the characters involved in that, but a popular form at the time was to focus on a character and secondarily on the events that make that character interesting. When writing such a story, it's typically very tempting to name the story after the character ... but just giving it such a title doesn't tell a potential reader about what kind of story it is. So, early novelists made their titles longer in order to give more detail of what kind of story the reader would find in the book. My personal favourite name for such a book is:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent

Of course, that's a bit of a mouthful and therefore people quickly started abbreviating the titles to just a short section, usually the character's name (in this case, Moll Flanders).

The "name; or, something that gives a hint as to the kind of book" type of title came a little later. The first such title, I believe was Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. This book was hugely popular and prompted a lot of copying of the title (and its author repeated the style for later books, e.g. Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady).

The height of the popularity of this style was, I think in the early 19th century. Some particularly well known books used it in this period (although often the subtitle is omitted in modern references to them, e.g. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus). Using it is an interesting way to evoke the particular feeling of that period, and can certainly be done to good effect. My only concern is that - at least originally - the style was most commonly used with a character name as the first part, but a detective story is usually more about an event than any one character. It can work with an event as the first part rather than a character, but it was uncommon enough that I'm currently struggling to think of a contemporary example.

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    Arguably this style of protagonist-subtitle still lives on today, simply with a slightly adjusted format. See also "Captain America, or, the First Avenger", "Rogue One, or, A Star Wars Story", or the ever beloved "Deuce Bigalow, or, Male Gigalo". – Wolfgang Apr 5 '18 at 16:55
  • @Wolfgang - true. It's less common now, but it is still used. Also, there's the related non-fiction convention of "short title: longer more explanatory title" which has been popular for a while now. – Jules Apr 5 '18 at 17:15
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A Bit of History, or the Principles of Creating Dual Titles Outlined in Their Chronology, by Cloudchaser

Ancient and medieval texts did not usually have a title. The titles by which we know ancient texts today were mostly given to them by later copyists or librarians (e.g. the Metaphysics are those books by Aristotle that were placed "behind" (gr. meta) the books on physics by Andronicus in his edition of Aristotle's works). Medieval texts either had a brief passage either at their beginning (incipit) or end (colophon) which gave the author of the text and briefly summarized its content.

For example, the incipit to the Liber Scintillarum reads:

Incipit liber scintillarum, id est diversarum sententiarum, distinctus per LXXXI capitula. [Here begins the book of sparks, that is a collection of moral sayings, divided into 81 chapters.]

In this example we can already recognize the structure that is the topic of this question: a name ("book of sparks"), an explanation ("that is ..."), and further information about the book.

After book printing had been inventend in the 15th century and books were no longer handcopied for a known client (who didn't have to be swayed to buy the book), but published in numbers for an anonymous audience who had to decide which books they wanted to buy, books were given a title page which had an advertising function similar to that of book covers of today.

Until the 16th century, the text on those title pages was usually not chosen by the author of the book, but by its publisher, who used certain conventional forms to attract buyers by promising, in case of a novel, "a pleasant diversion", "useful and edifying", and based on "true events".

Here is a typical example of such a title page (click image to view a large version):

image of a typical title page from the 15th century

This translates as:

Necessary inventory of the history of German dramatic poetry, or a catalogue of all German tragedies, comedies, and musical comedies which have been published in print between from 1450 until the first half of the present century, collected and brought to light by Johann Christoph Gottsched

Instead of the id est, "that is", of the medieval Latin text, this example already features the "or" that is so common in titles of the 19th century.

But in this example, the two parts of the "title" aren't a name of the book plus an explanation, as in the medieval example, but rather two different explanations of the content of the book ("inventory of dramatic poetry" and "catalogue of tragedies etc."). Some books from that time have a title that juxtaposes two synonyms:

Dictionarius vel Vocabularius Germanicus diversis Linguis respondens [Dictionary or vocabulary of diverse Germanic languages]

Providing synonyms for many words was a common practice at that time in text, too. In the 15th century, most European languages were still divided into mutually unintelligible dialects, and a common lingua franca (such as High German or Early Modern English) were only just developing. Many dialects not only differed from each other in phonetics and grammar, but also had different words for the same thing. When an author wanted to write in the evolving common language, they often used two synonymous words from different dialects to ensure that their readers knew at least one of them.

From the 18th century onwards, books were increasingly reviewed in literary magazines, and the synopsis of the book's content on its title page was no longer necessary. As a consequence, titles became both shorter and more grandiloquent and contrived, employing methaphor and allegory instead of directly stating what the book was about. This tendency was criticized by art critics of the time, but widespread nonetheless.

But not all Victorian book titles are "dual" titles or stilted. Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, or The Importance of Being Earnest – to name just a few – do not follow the principles outlined above.


Most of the information in this post is taken from:

Erchinger, P. (2009). Titel. In G. Ueding (ed.), Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik (vol. 9, pp. 581-590). Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

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A short (non-historical) answer: two titles or a compound title like "Varney the Vampire - Feud of Blood" can be used in a (intended) series for its recognition value. Otherwise it has often the opposite effect: remembering a book title becomes harder. "Varney's Blood Feud" would be w.r.t. psychology and marketing better.

To be recognizable between all title variations of the genre a name like Varney will be good.

Some mood hint like final victory, friends, many enemies, dry humor or such would also win over potential readers that do not like the entirety of the genre.

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