Jane Austen’s Library Humor

Jane Austen’s Library Humor

Last week, I came across a rather confusing line in Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon. In this part of the book, Charlotte has been invited to accompany her new friends to a seaside resort called Sanditon. Austen writes:

“Charlotte was to go, with excellent health, to bathe and be better if she could; to receive every possible pleasure which Sanditon could be made to supply by the gratitude of those she went with; and to buy new parasols, new gloves and new brooches for her sisters and herself at the library, which Mr. Parker was anxiously wishing to support.”

I found myself wondering why anyone would go to the library to buy a brooch . . . or gloves or parasols. What kind of libraries did they have in Regency times? (I had no idea this was all supposed to be funny.) Thus, my study of Regency libraries began.

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Jane Austen mentions two types of libraries in her books—the family library and the circulating library. Circulating libraries were like the public libraries of our day with a few important distinctions. First, patrons paid a subscription to belong to the library and also paid a small fee for each book they borrowed. Second, libraries were a for-profit business, often run by publishers or printers.

Books were expensive in Jane’s day, costing about five to ten times what a paperback would cost today. Circulating libraries allowed common people to have access to books and provided a new source of income for publishers, who could then afford to print more books. Jane Austen’s works would have likely never gone to press had it not been for circulating libraries.

Unlike the quiet, subdued libraries of today, circulating libraries of Austen’s time seemed to be a great place to meet people. For example, I found this line in Pride and Prejudice:

“When Lydia went away she promised to write very often and very minutely to her mother and Kitty; but her letters were always long expected, and always very short. Those to her mother contained little else than that they were just returned from the library, where such and such officers had attended them, and where she had seen such beautiful ornaments as made her quite wild.”

Note that Lydia makes no mention of the books she saw.

It was common to find small libraries located inside shops. Thus, one could conceivably buy a brooch at the same time one borrowed a book. However, when Charlotte from Sanditon and Lydia from Pride and Prejudice mention brooches and beautiful ornaments, I can’t help wondering if Austen is poking fun of silly girls, who have no interest in reading. If they really wished to support the library, they could buy themselves a subscription and borrow a few books.

It was also quite common at the time for moralists to frown upon the unsavory practice of reading novels from circulating libraries.

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To quote Fordyce in his Sermons to Young Women:

“What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decoroum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will be.”

So novel readers were prostitutes? Hmmm.

Austen pokes fun at this notion that libraries were wicked places when she has Mr. Collins turn up his nose at a book that has obviously come from a circulating library:

“By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons.”

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With this in mind, I laughed out loud when I found Henry Tilney’s sarcastic speech about the horrors of circulating libraries:

“You talked of expected horrors in London—and instead of instantly conceiving, as any rational creature would have done, that such words could relate only to a circulating library, she immediately pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling in St. George’s Fields, the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood, a detachment of the Twelfth Light Dragoons (the hopes of the nation) called up from Northampton to quell the insurgents, and the gallant Captain Frederick Tilney, in the moment of charging at the head of his troop, knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window.”

Austen obviously loved her libraries, and loved to make fun of those who didn’t share in her appreciation. As for me, I’m also a huge fan of my local library, and I count myself fortunate that I can check out books for free. I just wish I could also buy a brooch, and maybe a parasol while I’m there.

15 Responses to Jane Austen’s Library Humor

  1. I have bought greeting cards at our local library, plus they have sales of remaindered and donated used books several times a year. The Bodleian in Oxford sells tea towels with the oath that you have to recite when you get a library card there.

  2. When I was growing up, my Mum used to take my sister and myself to this wonderful place called The Library. Yes, the words always had initial capital letters in my mind. It was quite a long walk from our house (Mum didn’t drive) but every two weeks, we could go and borrow two books for free. Sadly, no sign of any parasols or brooches, though, but we didn’t have a lot of spare money so perhaps it’s just as well.

    I’ve always been a quick reader, so those two books would only last a week, if I was lucky. Our library had a section for younger readers and one for over 16s. My Dad was, like me, a sci-fi geek and when I reached my teens, he’d let me read some of his books as well. Over 16s had an allowance of four books per fortnight. Some rural areas even have mobile libraries but local bovernment funding cuts are making them rather rare nowadays. Even some local libraries are having to find alternative funding or face closure.

    Nowadays, everything’s computerised. We can still borrow books for free but it’s up to six now. Then we can also borrow audiobook and music CDs, though there is a small charge for those. One thing I’ve discovered recently is that I can access the full Oxford English Dictionary website just by logging in with my library card number. From what I can gather, most libraries here in the UK subscribe to the OED website so if you have a library card with a barcode and number on it, you should be able to gain access. It’s great for looking up word origins, usage etc and cites examples and dates. Don’t know if it’ll work for overseas library cards though.

  3. In Pennsylvania most libraries are set up in an state system where you can borrow books from any library in the state that has that book. Plus there are so many with story times for the preschoolers and then story time with crafts for the school age children and we also have book mobiles. And I loved my Used paperback book store but it closed recently. I think Kindle/Nook put it out of business. We could trade in used paperback and get credit on the next purchase. But none of the libraries I am familiar with have any trinkets for sale. I have read Sanditon and several variations giving us an ending to the uncompleted novel. Thankfully, I was never discouraged from reading a novel although there have been some parents asking for censorship of some “recommended summer reading lists” from some local school districts. Thanks for the post.

    • You are very fortunate to have such a great library system. I used to work for a library software company, so I learned a little about the library systems throughout the U.S. Some areas do a much better job at establishing libraries than others. I think any library is great, but it’s so much better to have a large, shared system.

  4. In Mansfield Park, Fanny gets books from a circulating library for her sister Susan to read.

    My earliest memories of our library are of walking into an open mezzanine that looked up to a second story balcony. I remember the rich dark wood and… to my hearts delight… a wooden spiral staircase leading to the balcony book shelves. All of that was gone after a major remodel. As for the circulating library, we have a bookmobile that travels the county for those unable to come into town to check out books.

    What things would I buy? Well, a good silk parasol [the tight thread count is the best at blocking the sun’s rays], you can never have too many gloves, and of course a fan… I love and collect fans. Thanks for the chuckle…I love the photos.

    • Wow! Your library sounds fabulous. I love that passage from Mansfield Park and how Fanny helped her sister find books at the library. I think it shows how important libraries were in educating women

  5. Thank you for this fascinating post! I will always be reminded of these interesting facts when I visit a library.

    • I hope you have many lovely visits to the library! They’re my favorite places. I’d probably even go there on Friday and Saturday nights for dates if mine was open. I guess the librarians have to get out sometimes.

  6. I love this post, Rebecca! I also love Books A Million because it not only has books, but lots of other things for sale. If only they added parasols and brooches it would be complete! I would never have known this about the libraries of Jane’s day without your post. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Brenda. I would have never known any of this either if I hadn’t stumbled upon that passage from Sanditon. I was actually trying to learn about cameo brooches, but this turned out to be more interesting to me.

  7. Okay, I giggled a good bit throughout this piece. I adore libraries and book stores and basically anywhere I am surrounded by books. Thinking of the trinkets for sale made me think of the small town I grew up in. The library was inside the city hall, attached to it was a small shop where you could buy “spirit gear” for the local schools and city bumper stickers etc. So I could conceivably gone to the library and returned with a fine hat (cap) and gloves. LOL They would have been black and gold but…. 😉

    I just adore Jane’s humor!

    • That is such a fun memory, Stephanie. I’ve been to a few small town libraries, but none like that. You can really get a feel for a place from the library the citizens have. When I was growing up, the library system bought a kiosk in the middle of the mall and tried that out to see if people would check out books from the mall. It didn’t last long, but I liked it while it lasted.

  8. Thank you for this post. I never thought of circulating libraries being for profit; but it makes sense for the time. I am grateful for them, since without them we may never have known Jane Austen’s works. interesting that they would have been in shops, but since they were for profit, it makes sense. It’s interesting where research can take us and the interesting twists and turns we find.

Your thoughts are precious!