Libraries and the Nineteenth-Century Novel
On our Jane Austen walking tour in Bath, our guide pointed out to us the faded words on the corner of Grove Street and Argyle Street, marking out the building as a former bookshop and library.
Since Grove Street is a comfortable distance from Sydney Place, where the Austens first took lodgings, it is tempting to speculate that this was where Jane Austen’s father first sold the rights to Northanger Abbey for his daughter in 1802. Although, unfortunately, there is no evidence of this – the bookshop referred to in the lettering on the building was only established in 1886 – the location-specific theory did much to bring to life the sense of the young Jane Austen taking her first steps along Great Pulteney Street towards literary fame.
Bookshops, and especially ‘circulating libraries’, as they were called, played a crucial role in the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century. With literacy rates improving amongst the developing middle classes, the demand for reading matter increased; but the cost of books remained so steep as to make private libraries possible only for the very wealthy. According to the Literary Encyclopedia, ‘Up to the 1780s books cost 10-12s for a folio or quarto, the equivalent cost of a good pair of breeches.
An octavo volume would cost 5-6s; a volume in small octavo or duodecimo, the typical format for essays and novels, would cost 2-3s, the equivalent of a month’s supply of tea and sugar for a family of six.’ Public lending libraries, which charged annual subscription fees of up to a guinea, saved the keen reader a great deal of money.
With books thus made cheaply and easily available, the market for popular fiction was suddenly hugely expanded. Novels and poems, including the Gothic fiction of authors such as Ann Radcliffe, which Jane Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey, became wide-spread and fashionable. These developments were probably linked to the role played by William Lane in the establishment of popular lending libraries in fashionable towns: Lane was also the founder of the Minerva Press, which specialised in the publication of novels.
The fiction printed by the Minerva Press, though hugely popular, was considered unwholesome in some fastidious circles, especially for young ladies such as Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. In comparison, as Jennifer Kloester points out in Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, novels such as those by Walter Scott and Jane Austen were quite unexceptionable. Jane Austen herself, in a letter to Anna Austen dated 28 September 1814 , wrote, ‘Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of the mouths of other people.’ Walter Scott, a self-acknowledged admirer of Jane Austen’s work, must have enjoyed this joke if it had reached his ears.
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