A Library Fit For A Hero

Julien Léopold Boilly  1796-1874  Young Man Reading Under A Tree  Morgan Library and Museum 2

"Young Man Reading Under A Tree" by Julien Léopold Boilly, 1796-1874 (Morgan Library & Museum)

Susanna here.

In an earlier post, we talked about the hero in the library. But libraries are nothing without books, and in there are times in a novel when someone has to actually take a book off the shelf and do something with it, so today I thought it might be fun to share how I go about stocking the shelves for my characters.

MoonstoneSince most of my books are twin-stranded, I probably ought to point out that I mean the historical characters, since when it comes to the modern-day ones I just let them take what they want from my own bookcases (and I know at least two of them, in separate books, have “borrowed” Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone…)

But the historical characters pose a particular challenge. I have to consider not only the time that they’re living in, but where they’re living (the New World or Old? Town or country?), their social position, the language (or languages) that they can read, and their politics, and their religion, before I can start to guess what books they might have acquired for themselves, let alone what they might have inherited.


Then, as now, a person from an educated family, living in a city well supplied with booksellers, would have a very different sort of library from a tradesman living in a village, who in turn would have a different sort of library from someone living on a fairly isolated rural farm.

Catalogue of library of edward webbe et alAs a former museum curator born into a family of amateur genealogists, the first place I head when I’m stocking a fictional library is straight to primary documents—catalogues from auction houses, notices of book sales and new publications that were posted in old newspapers of the day (thankfully still preserved by resources like the British Newspaper Archive), and probate inventories—those magical lists attached to many old wills, giving detailed accounts of what people owned at the time of their death, including their paintings and drawings and books.

Of course, probate inventories were written for the sole purpose of putting a value to those belongings, not to create a Useful Resource for Writers of a Later Century, and they tend to assume that the person reading them is familiar enough with the publications of the day to know that “Tisiot—1 vol.” means: Advice to People in General, with Respect to Their Health, by Samuele Auguste David Tissot, translated from his earlier French edition and published at Edinburgh in 1768, in two volumes, one of which apparently made it into the inventory.

If I just want to have an idea of what books were published in any given year, there’s always the Gentlemen’s Magazine (published from 1731 through 1907), which helpfully included an Index to the Register of Books at the back of each edition.

To choose a year at random—in 1737, a handful of the many titles featured in that index were: Tryals of Pyrates, Grey’s Art of Memory, Character of Quacks, Dissertation on Mandrakes, Gordon on Mummies, Hamilton on Fevers, King on Bathing, and the intriguing Scotch Prophecy.

Greys Art of MemoryAnd if I take one of those titles—say, Grey’s Art of Memory—and do a little searching on the website archive.org (a treasure trove of scanned old books), I can find the book itself: Memoria Technica: Or, a New Method of Artificial Memory, by Richard Grey, D. D., Rector of Hinton in Northamptonshire. The one on archive.org is the second edition, published in 1732, so the 1737 edition noted in the Gentleman’s magazine must be even more “new and improved”.

A little more digging, and I learn the first edition was published in 1730—so, since the novella I’m writing right now is set in 1733, this might be a good book to give to one of my characters, or put on the shelf in the public lounge in the small inn where they’re stranded together. Perhaps it was left there by one of the inn’s former guests…

And that’s how I start building a fictional library.

Sometimes, I’ve been known to cross the line between the fictional and real, when a particularly tempting old book comes my way. I couldn’t resist adding this copy of Madame D’Aulnoy’s Travels Into Spain to my collection while I was working on A Desperate Fortune.

Daulnoy

It’s always a special feeling for me to hold an old book, and think about the people who’ve held and enjoyed it before me. But by far the most special part about holding this one for the first time was discovering the faded bookplates inside the front cover that announced it had belonged to the Cathedral Library of Ely, having been donated to them by the Canon of Ely, the Rev R. A. Perkins, L.L.D., in 1732—the very same year A Desperate Fortune was set.

I chose to take that as a Sign the well-loved book was meant to find its way to me, all these years after it was published. And I confess I wish I'd had the chance to browse the Reverend R. A. Perkins's entire book collection, because any man who had Madame D'Aulnoy on his shelves was likely someone with an interesting mind.

I realize my overly fussy techniques aren't for everyone, but what book, new or old, would you add to a hero or heroine’s library, if you were building one?

60 thoughts on “A Library Fit For A Hero”

  1. A most interesting post. I would never have thought about old books in these way, so now you have intrigued me.
    I don’t think I have any favorite as such. — Although I always thriledl by finding characters reading a novel by “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” because I know this is true to the period. (I also know that she wasn’t as popular then as she is today.) My pleasure is diminished if the author is named in the novel I’m reading.

    Reply
  2. A most interesting post. I would never have thought about old books in these way, so now you have intrigued me.
    I don’t think I have any favorite as such. — Although I always thriledl by finding characters reading a novel by “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” because I know this is true to the period. (I also know that she wasn’t as popular then as she is today.) My pleasure is diminished if the author is named in the novel I’m reading.

    Reply
  3. A most interesting post. I would never have thought about old books in these way, so now you have intrigued me.
    I don’t think I have any favorite as such. — Although I always thriledl by finding characters reading a novel by “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” because I know this is true to the period. (I also know that she wasn’t as popular then as she is today.) My pleasure is diminished if the author is named in the novel I’m reading.

    Reply
  4. A most interesting post. I would never have thought about old books in these way, so now you have intrigued me.
    I don’t think I have any favorite as such. — Although I always thriledl by finding characters reading a novel by “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” because I know this is true to the period. (I also know that she wasn’t as popular then as she is today.) My pleasure is diminished if the author is named in the novel I’m reading.

    Reply
  5. A most interesting post. I would never have thought about old books in these way, so now you have intrigued me.
    I don’t think I have any favorite as such. — Although I always thriledl by finding characters reading a novel by “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” because I know this is true to the period. (I also know that she wasn’t as popular then as she is today.) My pleasure is diminished if the author is named in the novel I’m reading.

    Reply
  6. Susanna, I am AWED! You’re adding a whole new layer of authenticity to your wonderful books. And I’ll bet you have so much fun researching these books that it’s hard to tear yourself away. *G*

    Reply
  7. Susanna, I am AWED! You’re adding a whole new layer of authenticity to your wonderful books. And I’ll bet you have so much fun researching these books that it’s hard to tear yourself away. *G*

    Reply
  8. Susanna, I am AWED! You’re adding a whole new layer of authenticity to your wonderful books. And I’ll bet you have so much fun researching these books that it’s hard to tear yourself away. *G*

    Reply
  9. Susanna, I am AWED! You’re adding a whole new layer of authenticity to your wonderful books. And I’ll bet you have so much fun researching these books that it’s hard to tear yourself away. *G*

    Reply
  10. Susanna, I am AWED! You’re adding a whole new layer of authenticity to your wonderful books. And I’ll bet you have so much fun researching these books that it’s hard to tear yourself away. *G*

    Reply
  11. Thank you for a fascinating post, Susanna. I’ll now be paying more attention to what the characters in historical novels are reading.

    Reply
  12. Thank you for a fascinating post, Susanna. I’ll now be paying more attention to what the characters in historical novels are reading.

    Reply
  13. Thank you for a fascinating post, Susanna. I’ll now be paying more attention to what the characters in historical novels are reading.

    Reply
  14. Thank you for a fascinating post, Susanna. I’ll now be paying more attention to what the characters in historical novels are reading.

    Reply
  15. Thank you for a fascinating post, Susanna. I’ll now be paying more attention to what the characters in historical novels are reading.

    Reply
  16. Wow, Susanna — I’m impressed. I never go into this much detail in my books. I might occasionally mention a book title that’s relevant, but that’s as far as I go.
    I do love that so many of these old books are available on line. I’ve made good use of some travelers’ journals from the time and place setting of my books, but that’s about all.

    Reply
  17. Wow, Susanna — I’m impressed. I never go into this much detail in my books. I might occasionally mention a book title that’s relevant, but that’s as far as I go.
    I do love that so many of these old books are available on line. I’ve made good use of some travelers’ journals from the time and place setting of my books, but that’s about all.

    Reply
  18. Wow, Susanna — I’m impressed. I never go into this much detail in my books. I might occasionally mention a book title that’s relevant, but that’s as far as I go.
    I do love that so many of these old books are available on line. I’ve made good use of some travelers’ journals from the time and place setting of my books, but that’s about all.

    Reply
  19. Wow, Susanna — I’m impressed. I never go into this much detail in my books. I might occasionally mention a book title that’s relevant, but that’s as far as I go.
    I do love that so many of these old books are available on line. I’ve made good use of some travelers’ journals from the time and place setting of my books, but that’s about all.

    Reply
  20. Wow, Susanna — I’m impressed. I never go into this much detail in my books. I might occasionally mention a book title that’s relevant, but that’s as far as I go.
    I do love that so many of these old books are available on line. I’ve made good use of some travelers’ journals from the time and place setting of my books, but that’s about all.

    Reply
  21. Every period does have different conventions for naming the author (or not), although there are always exceptions.
    I’m just very glad “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” continues to find new readers in our modern age, because her books are lovely 🙂

    Reply
  22. Every period does have different conventions for naming the author (or not), although there are always exceptions.
    I’m just very glad “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” continues to find new readers in our modern age, because her books are lovely 🙂

    Reply
  23. Every period does have different conventions for naming the author (or not), although there are always exceptions.
    I’m just very glad “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” continues to find new readers in our modern age, because her books are lovely 🙂

    Reply
  24. Every period does have different conventions for naming the author (or not), although there are always exceptions.
    I’m just very glad “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” continues to find new readers in our modern age, because her books are lovely 🙂

    Reply
  25. Every period does have different conventions for naming the author (or not), although there are always exceptions.
    I’m just very glad “the author of ‘Sense and Sensibility'” continues to find new readers in our modern age, because her books are lovely 🙂

    Reply
  26. It’s one of my most favourite rabbit holes. I can get lost reading those books, and often find passages or phrases that end up triggering bits of a scene or an exchange of dialogue between my own characters. It’s really fun!

    Reply
  27. It’s one of my most favourite rabbit holes. I can get lost reading those books, and often find passages or phrases that end up triggering bits of a scene or an exchange of dialogue between my own characters. It’s really fun!

    Reply
  28. It’s one of my most favourite rabbit holes. I can get lost reading those books, and often find passages or phrases that end up triggering bits of a scene or an exchange of dialogue between my own characters. It’s really fun!

    Reply
  29. It’s one of my most favourite rabbit holes. I can get lost reading those books, and often find passages or phrases that end up triggering bits of a scene or an exchange of dialogue between my own characters. It’s really fun!

    Reply
  30. It’s one of my most favourite rabbit holes. I can get lost reading those books, and often find passages or phrases that end up triggering bits of a scene or an exchange of dialogue between my own characters. It’s really fun!

    Reply
  31. I adore coming across authentic details in Regencies and other historical novels. I get a feeling of belonging to some delicious secret society. (Conversely, throw me an incorrect factoid like “they went shopping in a pantheon”—ugh—and I’m out of that book in a flash.) More than once I’ve Kindle-clicked through to a mentioned book/author (e.g., Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) and snuggled even deeper into a world I can only visit through books.

    Reply
  32. I adore coming across authentic details in Regencies and other historical novels. I get a feeling of belonging to some delicious secret society. (Conversely, throw me an incorrect factoid like “they went shopping in a pantheon”—ugh—and I’m out of that book in a flash.) More than once I’ve Kindle-clicked through to a mentioned book/author (e.g., Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) and snuggled even deeper into a world I can only visit through books.

    Reply
  33. I adore coming across authentic details in Regencies and other historical novels. I get a feeling of belonging to some delicious secret society. (Conversely, throw me an incorrect factoid like “they went shopping in a pantheon”—ugh—and I’m out of that book in a flash.) More than once I’ve Kindle-clicked through to a mentioned book/author (e.g., Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) and snuggled even deeper into a world I can only visit through books.

    Reply
  34. I adore coming across authentic details in Regencies and other historical novels. I get a feeling of belonging to some delicious secret society. (Conversely, throw me an incorrect factoid like “they went shopping in a pantheon”—ugh—and I’m out of that book in a flash.) More than once I’ve Kindle-clicked through to a mentioned book/author (e.g., Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) and snuggled even deeper into a world I can only visit through books.

    Reply
  35. I adore coming across authentic details in Regencies and other historical novels. I get a feeling of belonging to some delicious secret society. (Conversely, throw me an incorrect factoid like “they went shopping in a pantheon”—ugh—and I’m out of that book in a flash.) More than once I’ve Kindle-clicked through to a mentioned book/author (e.g., Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto) and snuggled even deeper into a world I can only visit through books.

    Reply
  36. To tell the truth, unless the book was relevant to the story I was reading, I don’t think I would take much notice of it.
    However, I do understand the affinity for old books. I have two school books from the 1920s. One belonged to my mother and the other to an aunt who died when she was just 18 – many years before I was born. I also have a prayer book that belonged to a great aunt that dates back to the 19th century.
    Every now and then I go through purging periods where I want to get rid of things I don’t need or no longer use any longer. These are not important books, but for some reason, I have just never been able to let them go. When I pick them up and touch them it is almost like touching my ancestors who owned them once upon a time.

    Reply
  37. To tell the truth, unless the book was relevant to the story I was reading, I don’t think I would take much notice of it.
    However, I do understand the affinity for old books. I have two school books from the 1920s. One belonged to my mother and the other to an aunt who died when she was just 18 – many years before I was born. I also have a prayer book that belonged to a great aunt that dates back to the 19th century.
    Every now and then I go through purging periods where I want to get rid of things I don’t need or no longer use any longer. These are not important books, but for some reason, I have just never been able to let them go. When I pick them up and touch them it is almost like touching my ancestors who owned them once upon a time.

    Reply
  38. To tell the truth, unless the book was relevant to the story I was reading, I don’t think I would take much notice of it.
    However, I do understand the affinity for old books. I have two school books from the 1920s. One belonged to my mother and the other to an aunt who died when she was just 18 – many years before I was born. I also have a prayer book that belonged to a great aunt that dates back to the 19th century.
    Every now and then I go through purging periods where I want to get rid of things I don’t need or no longer use any longer. These are not important books, but for some reason, I have just never been able to let them go. When I pick them up and touch them it is almost like touching my ancestors who owned them once upon a time.

    Reply
  39. To tell the truth, unless the book was relevant to the story I was reading, I don’t think I would take much notice of it.
    However, I do understand the affinity for old books. I have two school books from the 1920s. One belonged to my mother and the other to an aunt who died when she was just 18 – many years before I was born. I also have a prayer book that belonged to a great aunt that dates back to the 19th century.
    Every now and then I go through purging periods where I want to get rid of things I don’t need or no longer use any longer. These are not important books, but for some reason, I have just never been able to let them go. When I pick them up and touch them it is almost like touching my ancestors who owned them once upon a time.

    Reply
  40. To tell the truth, unless the book was relevant to the story I was reading, I don’t think I would take much notice of it.
    However, I do understand the affinity for old books. I have two school books from the 1920s. One belonged to my mother and the other to an aunt who died when she was just 18 – many years before I was born. I also have a prayer book that belonged to a great aunt that dates back to the 19th century.
    Every now and then I go through purging periods where I want to get rid of things I don’t need or no longer use any longer. These are not important books, but for some reason, I have just never been able to let them go. When I pick them up and touch them it is almost like touching my ancestors who owned them once upon a time.

    Reply
  41. How I loved your sharing your library authenticity research in this post. Whenever I read how impressed Elizabeth is with the vastness of Pemberley’s library and is told it has been the efforts by several generations of Darcys, I want to be there myself looking at those shelves discovering those books. And every time an author names the shared love of certain authors, poets or book titles I highlight those on my e-reader. And try to remember to look them up later. I love these historic details.
    However, if I were a time traveler alas, today an average education no longer has students learning to read in multiple languages, so many of those titles would be lost to me.

    Reply
  42. How I loved your sharing your library authenticity research in this post. Whenever I read how impressed Elizabeth is with the vastness of Pemberley’s library and is told it has been the efforts by several generations of Darcys, I want to be there myself looking at those shelves discovering those books. And every time an author names the shared love of certain authors, poets or book titles I highlight those on my e-reader. And try to remember to look them up later. I love these historic details.
    However, if I were a time traveler alas, today an average education no longer has students learning to read in multiple languages, so many of those titles would be lost to me.

    Reply
  43. How I loved your sharing your library authenticity research in this post. Whenever I read how impressed Elizabeth is with the vastness of Pemberley’s library and is told it has been the efforts by several generations of Darcys, I want to be there myself looking at those shelves discovering those books. And every time an author names the shared love of certain authors, poets or book titles I highlight those on my e-reader. And try to remember to look them up later. I love these historic details.
    However, if I were a time traveler alas, today an average education no longer has students learning to read in multiple languages, so many of those titles would be lost to me.

    Reply
  44. How I loved your sharing your library authenticity research in this post. Whenever I read how impressed Elizabeth is with the vastness of Pemberley’s library and is told it has been the efforts by several generations of Darcys, I want to be there myself looking at those shelves discovering those books. And every time an author names the shared love of certain authors, poets or book titles I highlight those on my e-reader. And try to remember to look them up later. I love these historic details.
    However, if I were a time traveler alas, today an average education no longer has students learning to read in multiple languages, so many of those titles would be lost to me.

    Reply
  45. How I loved your sharing your library authenticity research in this post. Whenever I read how impressed Elizabeth is with the vastness of Pemberley’s library and is told it has been the efforts by several generations of Darcys, I want to be there myself looking at those shelves discovering those books. And every time an author names the shared love of certain authors, poets or book titles I highlight those on my e-reader. And try to remember to look them up later. I love these historic details.
    However, if I were a time traveler alas, today an average education no longer has students learning to read in multiple languages, so many of those titles would be lost to me.

    Reply

Leave a Comment