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Thursday, 13 February 2014

'All Great Novel-Readers'

In Jane Austen's day, new books were expensive - a three volume set of Sense & Sensibility cost 15s when first published in 1811. Her father George had a large library of his own (500+ volumes) at Steventon Rectory but it was sold when he retired to Bath.

So families hungry to read the latest 'horrid' novels, travel guides and biographies joined a circulating library.  

However, many well-meaning people thought that novels were trashy and immoral tendency.  On 18 December 1798, Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra from Steventon: ‘I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library... My mother finds the money... Mrs Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of literature, etc. 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 ’.

In Pride & Prejudice, Mr Collins was horrified when Mr Bennet asked him to read aloud to the ladies: ‘On beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels’. Instead Mr Collins chose Fordyce’s Sermons to entertain the girls.

Portico Library, Mosley St, Manchester. This beautiful building was built by Thomas Harrison. It opened to subscribers in 1806. © Sue Wilkes.
A Halifax Circulating Library ticket, c.1790-1800. Author's collection.

Hugh Thomson illustration of Mr Collins for Pride & Prejudice.

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