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.
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.
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.”
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.