Thursday, October 11, 2018

Female Spaces: Circulating Libraries and the Regency era Novel

by Maria Grace

James Fordyce, in his Sermons to Young Women, counsels strongly against novels, the very sort of books offered by local and easily accessible circulating libraries. (Despite the face he had not read them, of course. But I digress…) He declared:
What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will be. Can it be true . . . that any young woman, pretending to decency, should endure for a moment to look on this infernal brood of futility and lewdness? (Fordyce 176-177).

Jane Austen and the Circulating Library

Happily for all of us, Jane Austen did not seem to share that sentiment. Not only was she a subscriber to circulating libraries, her patronage was sought after. On December 18, 1798, she wrote to her sister Cassandra: I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin requesting my name as a Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January, & my name, or rather Yours is accordingly given. My Mother finds the Money … As an inducement to subscribe Mrs. Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature, 8cc. &cc.- She might have spared this pretention 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." (Letters 38-39). So while Austen was very accepting of novels, the local librarian realized the concern and tried to address it, even as she worked to drum up patronage for her business.

Austen imbued her many characters with a love for books and libraries as well.
Fanny found it impossible not to try for books again. There were none in her father's house; but wealth is luxurious and daring-and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber-amazed at being anything in pro pria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way; to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one's improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. (Mansfield Park) 
Though is this case, she does have Fanny eschew novels as reading material for her sister.

Others of Austen’s characters, like Mr. Collins, clearly shared Fordyce’s disapprobation of novels:
By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but 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. (Pride and Prejudice)
What made circulating libraries so important to not just Jane Austen, but Georgian era women in general and what was the role of the humble novel in the whole affair?

Libraries as refuges of the female middle class and gentry

During the late Georgian and Regency eras, there were few public spaces which could be enjoyed by women of good reputation, but limited means. Tea, coffee and chocolate houses might be enjoyed, if one could afford them. But women had no clubs like men did—a place to offer refuge from the day to day. They did though have the possibility of the circulating library.

Though libraries did require a subscription in order to rent books, one could go to the library whenever she wished without paying a fee beyond that subscription. Not surprisingly, circulating libraries became fashionable meeting places for women to see and be seen by others. They offering their patrons sitting areas were raffles and games could be played; some offered expensive (and often distinctly feminine) merchandise for sale. Perhaps most significantly, they offered women an opportunity to read on a large scale including histories, philosophies, biographies, travel, poetry, and plenty of fictional works. (Hilden, 2018) Austen seemed to use the character of Fanny Price to suggest that circulating libraries could ideally be a means for the intellectual liberation of women of small means. (Erickson, 1990)

Not everyone held such positive attitudes toward circulating libraries. Considering libraries largely originated as repositories of theological publications, one cannot escape the irony that by the end of the eighteenth century, circulating libraries drew criticism as sources of corruption. Critics, like Fordyce, suggested that the novels that made up the as much as seventy five percent of a circulating library’s business were responsible for encouraging idleness as well as corrupting the taste and morals of young ladies especially.(Kane, 2011) Many believed that reading novels would give impressionable (and somewhat irrational) young ladies unrealistic expectations about life. (Hilden, 2018)

Because after all, women were far too stupid to be able to tell the difference between a Gothic horror and real life. It is interesting how is seems Austen took this belief head on in Northanger Abbey in the character of Catherine Morland. Though for a bit there it seems as though Catherine might have been just a touch confused as she makes assumptions about General Tilney, by the end, Henry Tilney assures her that her instincts were right even if she got the exact details a bit mixed up.

Libraries and the Rise of the Novel

Publishers also registered concerns about the circulating library, afraid that it would negatively impact their business. But James Lackington, proprietor of the Temple of Muses, noted in the 1794 edition of his memoirs, “thousands of books are purchased every year, by such as have first borrowed them at libraries.” (Erickson, 1990) Moreover, publishers found that increasing numbers of their print runs were purchased by circulating libraries. In 1770, about forty percent of a novel’s print run were sold to libraries. That number increased into the early nineteenth century. (Erickson, 1990)

To economize somewhat, libraries ordered their books with the cheapest possible bindings. Home libraries usually ordered books in cloth or, more expensive, leather bindings. Circulating libraries used a conspicuous marble patterned paper binding that distinguished library books from all others as Austen noted in the way Mr. Collins identified a library book in Pride and Prejudice. These cheap bindings also meant the books lacked the durability of privately owned books and, surviving copies of some of the period's novels are very rare. (Erickson, 1990)

Libraries as publishers

In order to keep up with demand for new books, later in the 18th century, some of the circulating libraries began to take on the role of publisher as well. Although they lacked the broad distribution channels that traditional publishers had, they held a unique distinction.

Unlike traditional publishers, these smaller presses published many works by female authors, although these were often published anonymously to avoid prejudice by the reading public.

Minerva press

Minerva Press Circulating Library in London, created by John Lane, was the largest circulating library in the 18th century. The library advertised over 20,000 titles, compared to the 5,000 titles most libraries averaged, with 1,000 considered works of fiction. (Hilden, 2018) Minerva Press, became known for printing Gothic horror and sentimental romance novels, including The Mysteries of Udolfo by Mrs. Radcliffe (that Catherine Morland read during Northanger Abbey.)

Though some argued that were hurriedly written to a formula by obscure women writers, these publishers “changed to course of publishing and really opened the door to the social acceptability of female authors, as well as created a better variety of fictional novels.” (Hatch, 2014)

It is interesting to note how much the impact of circulating libraries on publishing resembles the transformation of the publishing industry in the first decade of the 2000’s with the advent of the e-reader and electronic publishing down to the criticisms offered toward authors and books published by them.


“British Newspaper History”. Accessed September 6, 2018

“Book Shops” Georgian Index. 2003 Accessed August 29, 2018.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Tor, 1988.

Austen, Jane, Terry Castle, and John Davie. Northanger Abbey; Lady Susan ; The Watsons ; Sanditon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Austen, Jane, Marilyn Butler, and James Kinsley. Mansfield Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Austen, Jane, Claude Julien. Rawson, and John Davie. Persuasion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Austen, Jane. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Jane Austen's letters to her Sister Cassandra and others. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Benson, Mary Margaret. “Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries.” Persuasions # 19, 1997 Jane Austen Society of North America.

Erickson, Lee. "The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library." Studies in English Literature, 1500-190030, no. 4 (1990): 573-90. doi:10.2307/450560.

Feather, John. The Provincial Book Trade in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.

Fordyce, James. "From Sermons to Young Women." Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity. Ed. Vivien Jones. London: Routledge, 1990. 176-79.

Glover, Anne. Regency Hot Spots: Bookseller Shops and the Subscription Library. Regency Reader. November 6, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2018.

Hatch, Donna. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. Historical Hussies. Friday, November 7, 2014. Accessed July 0, 2018.

Hilden, L. A. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. L.A. Hilden. July 23, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018.

Jacobs, Edward and Antonia Forster. "'Lost Books' and Publishing History: Two Annotated Lists of Imprints for the Fiction Titles Listed in the Circulating Library Catalogs of Thomas Lowndes (1766) and M. Heavisides (1790), of Which No Known Copies Survive." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 89 (1995): 260-97.

Kane, Kathryn. Before the Call Number: The Pressmark. The Regency Redingote. January 16, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2018.

Kane, Kathryn. Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who? The Regency Redingote. October, 211, 2011, Accessed August 12, 2018.

Manley, K. A. "London Circulating Library Catalogues of the 1740s." Library History 8 (1989) 3,74-79.

Mc Leod, Lesley Anne. Who Doesn't Love a Library? Lesley Anne McLeod. Wednesday, November 8, 2017.

Sanborn, Vic. The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts. Jane Austen’s World. August 30, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2018.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.


  1. Thanks for this enjoyable post, Maria! It seems some things haven’t changed. There are some writers, including one very popular children’s writer, complaining that having their books in libraries means they lose money(not really true in his case, as he must get huge amounts of money from public lending rights). Libraries that offer ebooks can only lend them out so many times before they have to buy them again.

    Nice to know Jane Austen loved reading novels and wasn’t embarrassed to say so!

  2. Terrific post, thank you! Love reading about the libraries. It's amazing how long the condemnation of novels went on. It could be argued the decisive victory wasn't achieved until Charles Dickens came on the scene and his popularity flattened the remaining opposition. It was clever to have novels appear in serial form.


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