As you know, I love libraries of all kinds (public libraries, church libraries, university libraries, etc.). In my latest book, The Ladies of Ivy Cottage, Miss Rachel Ashford (a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances), is determined to earn her own livelihood…somehow. Her friends encourage her to open a circulating library with the many books she’s inherited. As villagers donate additional volumes and Rachel begins sorting them, she discovers hidden mysteries.
There’s a lot more to the story, but hopefully that whets your appetite. I am receiving encouraging reviews and emails, and many readers (including some librarians) are commenting that they are enjoying the setting of this novel in particular. Clearly I’m not alone in loving libraries!
Today, we take free public libraries for granted. But in England during the early 19th century where my novels are set, libraries were far different. I am not an expert or historian, but I enjoyed researching circulating libraries—forerunners of today’s public libraries—to write this book.
During the Regency era, books were very expensive, often beyond the means of the average person. Circulating libraries made books more accessible and affordable to many people. For a fee, which varied from library to library (I’ve read figures from a half a guinea, to one pound six, to two guineas per year), a person could become a subscriber, which allowed him or her to borrow a certain number of volumes, sometimes at no additional cost, sometimes for a small additional fee (a penny or two pence) per volume.
Circulating libraries carried nonfiction, poetry, novels, as well as magazines and newspapers. Some also offered “Reading Rooms” where people could peruse London newspapers, journals, and magazines, or discuss books.
According to Lee Ericson in The Economy of Novel Reading: “By 1800, most copies of a novel’s edition were sold to the libraries, which were flourishing businesses to be found in every major English city and town…”
Here’s how British History Online describes one such library: “Fellows’s Circulating Library was a subscription library of modern books—histories, novels, travels, plays, and magazines—and by 1798 it possessed over 1,200 volumes. Books could also be borrowed by non-members on payment of a deposit and a small fee…and provide[d] a reading room for newspapers and ‘ephemeral publications’.”
Jane Austen was a circulating library subscriber and mentioned them in her letters and novels. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins refuses to read a book “for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,” protesting that “he never read novels.”
And about Fanny Price in Mansfield Park we read: “Wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber…amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books!”
In her letters to her sister, Cassandra, Jane mentioned visiting a circulating library in Southampton, and another in Basingstoke: “I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library… As an inducement to subscribe, Mrs. Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of literature. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel-readers and not ashamed of being so…”
Were you already familiar with circulating libraries, or was this information new to you? Hope you enjoyed it. And I hope the next time you borrow a book from your local library at no charge (well, not including the taxes we pay 🙂 ), you will take a moment to appreciate the pleasurable privilege.