by Diane Scott Lewis
The eighteenth century witnessed a huge boom in book reading. Between the 1500’s and the mid-eighteenth century, male literacy grew from ten to sixty per cent. Women, naturally with less opportunity, lagged behind, ranging from one to forty percent, which was still an improvement. Female literacy grew the fastest in London, probably with the rise of the middle, merchant, class.
The elite—the aristocratic, noble and rich merchant males—were almost totally literate by 1600.
Obviously, as literacy grew so did the desire for books. A spurt in publishing—due to the relaxation of the crown and conservatism—started in the late seventeenth century to meet those needs.
Books in the past were rare, usually of a religious bent, and treated as sacred. Cookery and herbal books were found in many households. Sermons and poetry were the most widely published literary forms in this era. History books were national or Eurocentric, with an emphasis on understanding France.
But now the populace wanted to read for pleasure as well as learning.
Books became widely available from lending libraries, booksellers, and even itinerant peddlers sold abbreviated versions of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, or Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones.
Periodicals, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, advertised what new novels were available to order and purchase from the booksellers. These books could also be borrowed for a nominal fee.
The large circulating libraries offered places where patrons could browse, gossip, flirt, or actually read a book. These establishments promoted learning and leisure. Novels, tales, and romances were the most checked-out books. History remained popular, such as Captain Cook’s voyages, and William Robertson’s History of the Americas in two volumes (1777). Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets were also well-borrowed.
Unfortunately, libraries earned the reputation as places full of fictional pap served up for rich ladies with nothing better to do than read romantic nonsense. Though men remained the majority subscribers, visiting to read or discuss religious and political controversy.
Church libraries offered books to the poorer in the parish, though probably not the variety.
Coffee houses maintained collections of books for their patrons, which had to be read on the premises. Any man, merchant or laborer, could wander in, order a glass of punch, and read a newspaper—a sign of English liberty.
Even the illiterate were encouraged to buy books so their more literate friends could read to them. People read aloud in taverns for the enjoyment of the less educated.
Books became icons. In paintings, the depiction of a man with books became as common as with his spouse or dog. And though men would never admit it, the frivolous novel reader was as much male as female.
With this wider reading public, more women romantic writers emerged, such as Fanny Burney who published Evelina in 1778 and Cecilia, 1782...
Nevertheless, women read critically to lift the mind from sensation to intellect as well as their male counterparts.
Everyone profited from increased literacy, education and the availability of the written word to broaden the mind in the sciences, philosophy, history, and of course, those romantic novels for pleasure.
Source: The Pleasures of the Imagination, by John Brewer, 1997
Diane Scott Lewis writes historical fiction with romantic elements. Visit her website: