Andrea/Cara here, musing today on the subject of libraries, which as you know is a subject near and dear to the hearts of all the Wenches. I’m lucky enough to live within easy walking distance of my local library, which is a wonderful historic building , complete with woodburning fireplace in the main reading room—which is always blazing away in the winter months—and Tiffany stained glass windows in the stacks.
I love stopping by and browsing the shelves of new releases to see if I see something that tickles my fancy. And the other day that got me to thinking about the Regency, and how important the lending—or circulating—library was to those who loved books and reading.
Books were expensive, and while many of the grand estates possessed cavernous libraries filled with volumes collected by the family over generations, a great many people, including aristocrats, patronized lending libraries rather than spend a good deal of blunt to purchase their own copies of books—especially if they were for pleasure reading.
The first known lending library was established in London in 1730, by Mr. Wright, a bookseller located on the Strand, and by 1801, it’s thought there were approximately 1,000 of them located throughout Britain. They charged a flat fee for the first subscription (in effect, a membership) and then a small fee for each book borrowed. They tended to be located in cities, spa town or market centers, though some of the smaller towns had them too. The larger ones would often have a reading room with editions of the latest newspapers and magazines.
As an example of pricing, the Royal Colonade library in Brighton charged £1.60 for a full year subscription, and also offered half year, quarter year and two week subscriptions. (I was also happy to see they offered family subscriptions!) Given that the cost of a three-volume novel in 1815 was roughly the equivalent of $100. Today, it’s easy to see why people tended to borrow novels rather than buy them. According to The World of Jane Austen blog, Jane was very aware of this and in one of her letters wrote, “People are more ready to borrow and praise, than to buy—which I cannot wonder at.” (It seems that authors worrying about sales numbers is nothing new!)
Guidebooks of the era often included mention of the libraries for travelers. And indeed, the libraries in popular destinations were not only places where one could borrow books, but were also fashionable spots in which to see and be seen, as well as pick up all the latest gossip. It wasn’t uncommon for ladies and gentlemen to linger there for hours, browsing, chatting . . .and likely flirting! Here’s a excerpt from a Regency-era guide book:
MESSRS. WRIGHT AND SON’S ROYAL COLONADE LIBRARY, MUSIC SALOON, AND READING ROOMS.
This establishment is situated in North-street, at the corner of the New Road, and contains between seven and eight thousand volumes of History, Biography, Novels, French and Italian, and all the best Modern Publications. The Reading Room is frequented both by Ladies and Gentlemen, and is daily supplied with a profusion of London morning and evening papers, besides the French and weekly English journals, magazines, reviews, and general popular periodicals.
From the first, publishers were delighted with the idea of lending libraries. Given the cost of books, they were seen as a guaranteed market for their books. In fact, William Lamb, who originally was a proprietor of a lending library, turned to publishing as he saw it as a lucrative business model. His Minerva Press became wildly popular, publishing many of the famous “horrid novels” of the time, including Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Mr. Lamb deserves kudos for showcasing so many woman authors, though I’m less happy with Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for £110. (She had asked for £150.) He ended up making a profit of £450 as the first edition sold out and he reprinted a second one. (In his defense, Austen had the choice to gamble and agree to indemnify him for the cost of publishing the book, and in return receive the profits. But she didn’t know at the time that Sense and Sensibility would sell out, making it likely that P&P would be a commercial success.)
With the decline of books and mortar bookstores, I find myself depending on my local library for the fun of just browsing and discovering books I might not have ever thought to look for. (It's just not the same to try to "browse" on the internet.) For me, that’s part of the joy of reading—those serendipitous discoveries that introduce you to a new author or subject.
How about you? Do you enjoy browsing in libraries? How do you discover new books? Please share!