Country House Libraries

Country House Libraries

In my last post, I wrote about finding my personal Pemberley during my trip to England. In this post, I want to talk about a room that was particularly on my mind as I looked at a series of houses: the library.

By the Georgian era, libraries served a number of purposes. They stored a book collection, of course, and in so doing also provided an opportunity for an estate owner to display his wealth. Books were expensive, and many people would use circulating libraries rather than purchase books. How many books they could afford to buy, rather than borrow, showed the extent of a family’s disposable income.

They increasingly displayed this wealth in more significantly designed and decorated spaces, and these spaces, in turn, became an alternative to the other social rooms at many estates. This was often the room in which people in a country house party would pass the morning, engaged in not only reading but other occupations. Many libraries show this multi-purpose role, beginning with that of Hatfield House, pre-Georgian era but showing that transition to a social room:

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Hatfield House
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Saltram
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Kedleston Hall
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Calke Abbey

Even Calke Abbey, which has been left by the National Trust essentially as it was when they took it over (and is therefore a strange, strange place showing the evidence of what can only be described as decades if not centuries worth of hoarding) retains a library that follows a pretty common footprint and set of decor. There is invariably a desk, and some other seats (often a nice comfy sofa). Many have a “reading chair,” such as the one that can be seen in the Kedleston photo. You were meant to sit backwards on it, and place the book on the rest where the National Trust sign can be seen. Some also include a pianoforte or another musical instrument, showing the multi-purpose role of the room.

Not every family must have used their library as a social room, however. We see this in Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book. We see this also in Pride and Prejudice, where the library at Netherfield is merely a place to go and select from what sounds like a meager collection of books:

Elizabeth thanked him from her heart, and then walked towards a table where a few books were lying. He immediately offered to fetch her others; all that his library afforded.

“And I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever look into.”

Elizabeth assured him that she could suit herself perfectly with those in the room.

“I am astonished,” said Miss Bingley, “that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”

“It ought to be good,” he replied, “it has been the work of many generations.”

“And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books.”

“I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.”

There is much happening between the lines, here. Miss Bingley has conveniently forgotten that her father was in trade, and very likely did not have the leisure time (and perhaps initially the fortune) to be procuring books like these many generations of Darcys have done. It has been left to Bingley the son to purchase an estate and also the books to adequately stock a library, yet he has not done so. Is the neglect Darcy speaks of deliberately aimed as his friend? Is he seeking to spur his friend on to making the purchases he ought to? Or is this merely meant to shut Caroline Bingley down?

I feel the sense, as well, that the Pemberley library, well-stocked with books by previous generations and its current master, is a better-used room within the house, one that is beautiful, but also a comfortable place to pass the time. This is how I’ve envisaged it myself, and described within A Constant Love:

The lure of this room was impossible to ignore. The stillness, the delicious smell her husband had described to her so many letters ago, the soaring ceilings and the bookshelves with their ladders on long brass railings all combined to make it a place which could not help but stir the soul of a lover of books. To all of this was added most comfortable seating – large, worn chairs – and a series of tall windows, letting in the spring sunlight. None of these things, however, were Elizabeth’s object in coming here.

You can see many of the elements of the libraries shown above here, although it does also come rather close to the library at Chatsworth, which is perhaps the one room within that house I may borrow some additional elements from in the future:

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Chatsworth

There is still that darkness to Chatsworth’s library, however, that heaviness in all of the gilt, and in feel I think it closer to that of Kenwood, in London, although the books are positively dwarfed at Kenwood by the amazing Robert Adam architectural features:

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Kenwood

Of all of the houses I’ve seen, Kenwood’s library breaks the mold the most, save one. That house – Ham House – is actually the one that got me thinking about libraries, because it’s the closest I’ve seen to what I think Longbourn’s library must have been. Unlike other houses, Longbourn’s library is not the library, it’s Mr. Bennet’s library – his refuge from the rest of the house:

Lydia’s intention of walking to Meryton was not forgotten; every sister except Mary agreed to go with her; and Mr. Collins was to attend them, at the request of Mr. Bennet, who was most anxious to get rid of him, and have his library to himself; for thither Mr. Collins had followed him after breakfast, and there he would continue, nominally engaged with one of the largest folios in the collection, but really talking to Mr. Bennet, with little cessation, of his house and garden at Hunsford. Such doings discomposed Mr. Bennet exceedingly. In his library he had been always sure of leisure and tranquillity; and though prepared, as he told Elizabeth, to meet with folly and conceit in every other room in the house, he was used to be free from them there; his civility, therefore, was most prompt in inviting Mr. Collins to join his daughters in their walk; and Mr. Collins, being in fact much better fitted for a walker than a reader, was extremely well pleased to close his large book, and go.

Mr. Bennet could not have preserved such a large room as the other libraries within this post for his own use, and so I think his library is much more like the one at Ham House. It is small, although packed with books, and while it contains a desk, it has only one other seat. Spaces where seats might have been placed are currently taken up with a collection of globes. It is a library that is far more about its collection than any display of wealth – fitting, I think, for Mr. Bennet. Unlike Mr. Bingley, who is not buying the books he could afford, and Mr. Darcy, who is buying books he can afford, Mr. Bennet is very likely purchasing books when his money would have been better put towards dowries for his daughters. Rather than neglecting his library – which will ultimately pass to the unappreciative Mr. Collins – he is neglecting his family.

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Ham House
library
Ham House

It was this library from before the time the room became a social room that made me think more deeply about Longbourn. Was it really a lesser Georgian house, or is it more likely that it was an older Jacobean house, like Ham? I’ll be back next month to talk more about that.

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27 Responses to Country House Libraries

  1. From what I can see, it looks like many of these libraries contain books in sets, that is with the same binding as if they were sold together. I hope the owners didn’t buy them because of the way they looked rather than for their contents.

    I had a roommate in college who was studying library science. She told me bookshelf space was more expensive than books. I think that must have been the case with these libraries, Those are gorgeous! Thank you for sharing them.

    • You’re welcome! And yes as I recall many of them were multiple volumes of a work. Lots of instances of someone’s memoirs or travelogue (I guess they had to be printed before the days of blogs!) or a history of something. I like to think the owners bought them for their contents, but whether they were genuinely interested in the contents or embarking on an Emma-esque list…that I suppose depends on the owners.

  2. Such an interesting post! I briefly describe the library at Pemberley in my second JAFF from my own imagination, but it’s so great to see the pictures of these real-life libraries. Thank you!

  3. Sophie,
    What a lovely post. So many wonderful tidbits of information and the photographs are just amazing.
    Thank you so very much for taking the time to prepare this delightful look at libraries.

  4. I adore libraries. I wish I could enlarge the photos so that I could just soak them in LOL I agree with you about Ham House, that is a particularly Mr. Bennet space. I love that phrase from Constant Love. Oh the smell of books. sigh

  5. Hi Sophie,

    I love your posts. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful pictures and insights. They really help stir the imagination.

    Summer

Your thoughts are precious!