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Library Window Curtains

“You will wonder,” said she, “what has been fixing my eye so long; but I was looking after some window-curtains, which Lady Alicia and Mrs Frankland were telling me of last night. They described the drawing-room window-curtains of one of the houses on this side of the way, and this part of the street, as being the handsomest and best hung of any in Bath, but could not recollect the exact number, and I have been trying to find out which it could be; but I confess I can see no curtains hereabouts that answer their description.”

Palladian Window Curtains

It is a common defect in building, attributable to the tax upon windows, that a sufficient number of them are not introduced for the purposes of cheerfulness; and there are many rooms lighted by so few, and the dimensions of them so small, that not only an insufficient supply of light is admitted, but the windows are too narrow, and their dressing too circumscribed to form the proportions suited to the apartments. The annexed plate represents a window of this kind, with the added architectural finishings, by which is is so increased as to have the proportions of a Palladian or Venetian one, and a design for a curtain so suitable to it is introduced in a style adapted to a library or eating room. It is a design very applicable to some rooms which have but one window in each. The following curtain and drapery illustrations were also provided by Ackermann’s Repository from 1809 to 1812. Continue reading Library Window Curtains

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The Subscription Library and the Rise of Popular Fiction

The Circulating Library

The Subscription Library and the Rise of Popular Fiction

I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library which opens January 14, and my name, or rather yours, is accordingly given. My mother finds the money. May subscribes too, which I am glad of, but hardly expected. 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, &c. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel-readers and not ashamed of being so; but it was necessary, I suppose, to the self-consequence of half her subscribers.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
December 18, 1798

In a time before television and recorded music, live entertainment, sewing and reading provided the main occupation for leisurely hours. While a great house or estate like Pemberly might boast a well endowed library most middle class families would have been hard pressed to expand their private collections at a pace well able to keep up with the family’s demands. Books were an expensive luxury in Austen’s day– Sir Walter Scott’s three volume novels were sold at the exorbitant rate of 31s. 6d (or close to £90 in today’s currency).

With the growing middle class gaining previously unheard of free time, there was a great demand for new works of entertainment– hence the popularity of the “Novel”, an only recently created genre, with the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Into this void came the idea of a circulating or subscription library. By definition, it is “a library that is supported by private funds raised by membership fees or endowments. Unlike a public library, access is often restricted to those who are members”.

For as little as 1£, 11s, 6d. per year, one could purchase a first class library subscription entitling them to “10 volumes at a time in town and 15 in the country,” well supplying a household of young ladies, like the Bennets, with all the delightful reading they could require (bear in mind that most novels at the time were published in three volume sets). Second and third class subscriptions could also be purchased at a lower cost, with fewer benefits.

Circulating libraries were often a combination library and bookstore and even a quick perusal of period library catalogs shows both the titles and the prices of the selections available. This offered the reader a chance to purchase a favorite book as well as quickly realize the value of his subscription. The first circulating library was begun in 1730, by a Mr. Wright who owned a book shop in the Strand. By 1800 twenty-six such establishments had been opened and by the middle of the century records show 540 subscription libraries in England and Scotland, 266.

Unlike circulating libraries, subscription libraries were largely privately run, such as the one Jane Austen’s neighbor proposed in 1798. Often these were started in opposition to the “trash literature” (mainly novels) offered by the more commercial Circulating library, though they could just as easily be begun in neighborhoods without the benefit of a circulating library.

Most library catalogs contained not only novels and other light reading, but also a variety of other works: plays, biographies, drama, periodicals, travels, memoirs, dictionaries, poetry, pictorial works, etc. Pamphlets were usually not included as being too “here and gone” to long sustain the public’s interest. A library, such as the one Lydia visits in Brighton, might also serve as a sort of gift shop for its clientele, containing such charming items as brooches, shawls, parasols, gloves and fans, all sold for their customer’s enjoyment.

Libraries were not, as they are today, heralded as wonderful institutions bringing literacy to the masses. Far from it; outspoken critics to the new availability of books and the following trend of writing to please the “masses” claimed that “the pressures toward literary degradation which were exerted by the booksellers and circulating library operators in their efforts to meet the reading public’s uncritical demand for easy vicarious indulgence in sentiment and romance” caused “a purely quantitative assertion of dominance” by female authors and readers, and by the gothic romance genre. Namely, that, “circulating libraries vulgarized literature, by pandering fiction to women, servants, and other people who had previously been excluded from reading by the high cost of books or by illiteracy.”*

No wonder Jane Austen offers such a strong defense to her chosen mode of expression. In Northanger Abbey the topic of novels arises, and in a rare outpouring of personal feeling, writes:


The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm, and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves.

They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other’s train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.


Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?


I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.


And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.


“I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.


“And what are you reading, Miss — ?”


“Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.


“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.


Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

Regardless of one’s feelings on the subject, it is impossible to deny the benefit the subscription library had on the selection of titles available to readers during the Regency. According to Yvonne Forsling, “Through the whole Eighteenth century about 150,000 titles were published in the English language. During the last two decades of that century book publishing increased around 400% and continued to grow in the Regency era.”

With the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850, most of the subscription libraries were replaced or taken over by town government and opened free of charge to the public. Free to the public libraries were not a new thing, originating with the Greeks and Romans, and made famous in 1606 by Thomas Bodley’s Bodleian Library, which was open to the “whole republic of the learned”, but these repositories of learning and higher education were few and far between and likely to house more academic than entertaining literature.

Without the Subscription library and the public they catered to, it is likely that many of the most beloved literature classics, including all of Austen’s novels, would never have been published. For that, we are ever grateful.


Sources for this article include:

Anonymous Signatures: Circulation Libraries, Conventionality and the Production of Gothic Romances by Edward Jacobs; ELH – Volume 62, Number 3, Fall 1995, pp. 603-629; The Johns Hopkins University Press

Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees by Dierdre Lynch; 2000 by Princeton University Press

Regency Shopping: Booksellers and Publishers by Yvonne Forsling; Regency England

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The Family Library

Elizabeth thanked him from her heart, and then walked towards a table where a few books were lying. He immediately offered to fetch her others; all that his library afforded.
“And I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever look into.”
Elizabeth assured him that she could suit herself perfectly with those in the room.|
“I am astonished,” said Miss Bingley, “that my father should have left so small a collection of books. — What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr Darcy!”
“It ought to be good,” he replied, “it has been the work of many generations.”
“And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books.”
“I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.”
Pride and Prejudice

A Gentleman's Library from Ackermann's Repository of the Arts

Jane Austen grew up in a bookish family. Rev. Austen was a great reader (and writer of
sermons) and he read aloud to his children. When her family moved to Bath, Jane’s father sold
or gave away over 500 books from his vast library, which must have crammed the parsonage in
Steventon. Under her father’s direction, Jane read English, classical and foreign literature
by such authors as Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Alexander Pope, George
Crabbe, William Cowper, and William Shakespeare. Jane was also encouraged to buy
subscriptions to the popular novels written by Frances Burney, Sarah Harriet Burney, Maria
Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe. Rev. Austen’s library at Steventon provided inspiration for the
short satirical sketches Jane wrote as a girl and with which she entertained the family. To
entertain each other, the close knit Austen family would also read to each other, play games,
and produce plays. One imagines that Rev. Austen’s library played an important part in
devising these amusements.*

Although Mr. Darcy speaks of the family library as a collection of books, it was far more
than that. In the country house of a gentleman like Mr. Bennet, the library is his “Man
Cave”– his haven– storing books, yes, but also doubling as an office or study where he
might retire when confounded by his wife’s folly, or a place to meet his esate agent, as Mr.
Knightley does, in Emma. Books were expensive, luxuries, and it was a sign of prestige
for a home to include a large number of or them. Great Houses might have an entire room
designated for the purpose– a place, which might also host family gatherings and be opened
to guests when large parties were arranged.

From The Story of a Country Houseby John Strickland Goodall.

Book Accessories & Home Libraries offers the following peek into a Regency
Home Library: “This 1816 etching by John Britton represents a typical home library during
Regency. The library is located at Cassiobury Park and it was used similarly to many other
home libraries of the time — it was essentially the most important room of the house and
could be easily referred to as a family sitting room. A group of small dogs in the front
sufficiently demonstrates the openness of this library to anyone and anything. At the same
time, all traditional library features are present and their style is unmistakable. We see
built-in bookcases that are architectural in nature. In other such libraries you would often
see (apart from the books, obviously) various antiquities and curiosities. Small private
museums of this sort had a long history, but in Georgian times and in the early 19th century
the trend became very popular. As far as architectural styles, Regency designers preferred
neoclassical decor, howver Gothic influences were also quite common at the discretion of
individual owners who were inspired by the love of all things Medieval (as interpreted by
novelists and poets). The furniture of this particular home library is typical Regency style
(note the Grecian chairs), but the general tone has a certain Gothic air.”

Enjoy these additional samples of Regency library furniture.


*This information was compiled by Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen Today. Visit her site to read the full article.

View Thomas Jefferson’s suggestions for inclusion in the Home Library here or furnish your own library with our online book shop. Click here!