Posts Tagged ‘Regency library’

Scarborough Beach today. Image @Tony Grant

Post contributed by Tony Grant. All rights reserved, Tony Grant.

At the start of our Easter Holidays, on the 11th April, Marilyn, Abigail and myself drove up to Scarborough to spend a few days. Scarborough is on the beautiful rugged Yorkshire coast in the North East of England. We wanted to visit somewhere different and take a refreshing break from South London. We spent three days up there and drove on the North Yorkshire Moors, had a day in York, visited the fishing port of Whitby and went to Castle Howard, a few miles east of York, for one whole afternoon. Many of you will know Castle Howard as the wonderful, rich pile, used in the film and TV adaptations of Brideshead Revisited.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard has been home to the Howard family for over three hundred years. It is an 18th century residence set within over a thousand acres of landscaped gardens and vistas.

Castle Howard. Image @Tony Grant

Marilyn, Abigail and myself took a tour of this wonderful place. One of the things that has always interested me and I have often wondered about, is what books and authors an 18th century gentlemen has on his shelves. Reading Claire Tomlin’s biography of Jane Austen, it is her father’s library, consisting of hundreds of books that was part of Jane’s partly self lead education at Steventon. A short while ago we visited Sir John Soane’s house in Holburn. He had an extensive library. I asked one of the assistants in his house if I could take pictures. I was told politely that I could not.

Library at the Sir John Soane's house. Image @Sir John Soane's House Museum

I had a discussion about the books on John Soanes shelves with the assistant but he did not know much about them. I looked at them, stared at them closely, extremely closely and tried very hard to remember titles, authors and general themes that ran throughout the library. My memory is not that good. I remember large leather bound atlases, the works of Shakespeare, books containing prints and sketches of ruins from classical Greece and Rome, philosophies, histories and there were many religious tracts. There seemed to be a variety of dictionaries. It is interesting to remember that Dr Johnson had many rivals before his Oxford English Dictionary became the definitive one.

The Library at Castle Howard sits along a grand hallway. Image @Tony Grant

Anyway, getting back to Brideshead, sorry, Castle Howard. There is a magnificent library there. Shelves and shelves of beautiful volumes with gold-tooled titles and gold leaf flower and leaf patterns adorning, the light tan, dark brown and black leather bound volumes.

Detail of the book shelves in the library at Castle Howard

I asked, timorously, of a smiling gentle looking lady standing to one side of the library, the gallery assistant, if I could take photographs of the books expecting a negative reply. “Yes,” she said enthusiastically, “go ahead, and are there any particular books you would like to see?” I couldn’t believe my luck. She continued,“We have many first editions by great authors here.” I did ask about Jane Austen first editions. She thought there might be some somewhere amongst the novels section. We looked, but could only find Swift, Dryden, Byron, Congreve and others. We couldn’t find Jane. These first editions were there, on shelves, within touching distance. AAAAAGH!!!!

Brown Leather and gold-tooled lettering

One thing I discovered as we went around Castle Howard was that the gallery assistants were not your run of the mill gallery assistants, these people know a lot about the contents of the rooms. They had really studied what they watched over. An example was when we walked into a bedroom and on the wall was a portrait of Henry VIII and it was a Hans Holbein but the same room had Gainsboroughs and Lawrences, on the walls too. No, not copies, the real thing. Rooms throughout the Castle were full of original masterpieces. I couldn’t believe it. A lady there when I asked her, gave me a great art historians analysis of one particular Gainsborough. She, never mind the painting, was the real deal.

Library at Castle Howard. Image @A Life Less ORdinaRY

So back to the books, where I started. I was allowed to take photographs of the books. I must have looked odd. Other visitors looked through the windows at the magnificent views around the grounds, or studied beautiful gleaming vases and glanced at magnificent paintings and there was I, getting close and personal with brown dusty looking things crammed on shelves. I am a constant embarrassment to my family. Ha! Ha!

Books on the shelves at the library. Image @Tony Grant

Some of the books I came across were by authors I had never heard of, for instance, “Col. Napiers Peninsula Wars.” I discovered later that,Sir Charles James Napier was born in August 1782 and died in August 1853. He was a general in the British Army and became the British Army’s Commander in Chief in India. Napier commanded the 50th (Queen’s Own) Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War in Iberia against Napoleon Bonaparte.

A luminous Greek statuette in the library. Image @Tony Grant

General Napier put down several insurgencies in India during his reign as Commander-in-Chief in India. Some of his rather perceptive insights into dealing with insurgencies included:

The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.
which may help explain why he felt rebellions should be suppressed with such brutality.”

He also once said that:

the human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear.”

Charles James Napier

An example of this idea in practice was after the Battle of Miani, where most of the Mirs surrendered. One leader held back and was told by Napier:

Come here instantly. Come here at once and make your submission, or I will in a week tear you from the midst of your village and hang you.”

He also mused that:

“so perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to be misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another”

I would have loved to have met him. Wouldn’t you? Imagine him at your dinner party.

Castle Howard. Image @Tony Grant

Other books on the shelves included: Davies’s Micelanie, J. Orton’s Works ERASMUS, Murphy’s Works, alongside some more tried and tested volumes that have lasted the travails of time: Ben Johnson’s Work, Defoes’ History of The Stage, Drydens Plays, and Smollett’s England, to give you a flavour and taste of the contents of this library. I tried to search for information on some of the more obscure authors and as you can tell I found a bit about Colonel Napier. Many of the authors I could find nothing about, but an interesting discovery I made was about Murphy and his works. He was an Irish playwright. Here are some play titles to slake your thirst and satiate your appetite.

The Upholsterer (1758)
The Way to Keep Him (1760),
The Old Maid (1761)
Three Weeks After Marriage (1764)
Know Your Own Mind (1777)

Arthur Murphy wrote about eighteen plays in this vein. I wonder about The Upholsterer though. I’m sure it was a very “comfortable” play. You would probably fall asleep on your deeply “upholstered” seat during it, mind.

HOW can you write a play about upholstery???

He also wrote biographies of David Garrick, Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding.

Globe Fountain on Castle Howard Grounds. Image @Tony Grant

With my experiences in two 18th century gentlemen’s libraries, Sir John Soanes house in Holburn, and the vast and airy gallery of the Howard family at Castle Howard, amongst their fine varied brown leather covers and illuminated gold leaf lettering, what sort of conclusion can I come to? After a swift and furtive voyeuristic delving into their interests and source of deep thought and emotions? What can I say?

The book titles have a familiar ring to them. If you spend an afternoon in a Waterstones [bookstore] it too has many of the same book divisions and sections as those two 18th century libraries. Nowadays the novel provides the larger section in Waterstones but at Holburn and Castle Howard they provide a rather smaller section. History, biography, philosophy, poetry, plays and dramas, atlases and travel accounts are there in varied abundance. Dictionaries are very prevalent in the 18th century library and dictionarys produced by different people using different criteria. In the 18th century there was a great interest in words, their meaning and origins. There was a hunt going on for words in the 18th century and need for conformity. There was the need for one language and one set of words accepted by all. You can only speculate the economic consequences. Local dialects were all very well within a locality. There was a sort of race to be the best amongst word gatherers, dictionary makers. Of course, we know now that Dr Johnson won. Hurray!!

In 1815, Thomas Jefferson sold 6,487 volumes of his vast collection of books from his library at Monticello to the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of these interests shown in the books displayed can be connected to interests in the classical world, which is not so much of a concern these days for the majority, unless you do a degree or are doing the Romans at school, or are watching a BBC documentary about Delphi or the Olympics.

I imagine plays by Dryden or Arthur Murphy were in great demand, because people didn’t have television and radio then to entertain them. We can see people’s interest in owning written drama scripts, reflected in Jane Austen’s own family’s exuberant enacting of plays and the writing of them at their home in Steventon. Jane uses the play, Lover’s Vows, as home entertainment in Mansfield Park, with many meanings and personal interactions connected to it.

So there are differences in the use and purpose of books between now and the 18th century, but the subjects covered and the systems of organisation were recognisable. Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) didn’t create his system until later, but the general system used for organisation was grouped in familiar ways. How we think about the world was being formed. Dewey and some others made it far more sophisticated. The organisation of books has had a big impact on the way we think and learn.

So there you are. We are not the only generation with a thirst for reading. The next time you visit a country house or stately home, get in amongst the musty smelling, brown leathery things. They will speak volumes to you.

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Circulating libraries in the 18th and 19th century were associated with leisure, and were found  in cities and towns with a population of 2,000 and upward. They were as much of an attraction in wealthy resorts, where people came to relax and look after their health, as in cities and small towns, like Basingstoke, where Jane Austen subscribed to Mrs. Martin’s circulating library.

In 1801, it was said that there were 1,000 circulating libraries in Britain. Book shops abounded as well, but in 1815 a 3-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 today. Such a price placed a novel beyond the reach of most people. Worried about a second edition for Mansfield Park, Jane Austen wrote in 1814:

“People are more ready to borrow and praise, than to buy –which I cannot wonder at.”

Circulating libraries made books accessible to many more people at an affordable price.  For two guineas a year, a patron could check out two volumes. Which meant that for the price of one book, a patron could read up to 26 volumes per year.

By 1800, most copies of a novel’s edition were sold to the libraries, which were flourishing businesses to be found in every major English city and town, and which promoted the sale of books during a period when their price rose relative to the cost of living. The libraries created a market for the publishers’ product and encouraged readers to read more by charging them an annual subscription fee that would entitle them to check out a specified number of volumes at one time. – Lee Ericson, The Economy of Novel Reading

The leisurely classes had plenty of time for reading, late 18th c.

The practice of borrowing books was not a new concept in the Regency era. Records from the 17th century show that people were borrowing books from booksellers. As early as 1735, Samuel Fancourt advertised a circulating library in Salisbury for his religious books and pamphlets.

Circulating libraries attracted many patrons, even those who did not necessarily come to borrow or book or read, for they were also places for fashionable people to “hang out” and meet others.

In the resorts the circulating libraries became fashionable daytime lounges where ladies could see others and be seen, where raffles were held and games were played, and where expensive merchandise could be purchased.  – Lee Ericson, The Economy of Novel Reading

Jane Austen well knew the attractions of libraries at sea side resorts. Mrs. Whitby’s Circulating Library operated in Sanditon, and Lydia visited one in Brighton.  In her letters to Cassandra, Jane frequently mentioned circulating libraries, in particular visiting one in Southampton.

Circulating Library and Reading Room, Milsom Street, Bath. Image, Tony Grant

Circulating libraries tended to be located in a convenient location in the center of a resort. Newcomers would find out about them from guide books, such as the one in Brighton. The Royal Colonade Library advertised itself as thus:


This establishment is situated in North-street, at the corner of the New Road, and contains between seven and eight thousand volumes of History, Biography, Novels, French and Italian, and all the best Modern Publications. The Reading Room is frequented both by Ladies and Gentlemen, and is daily supplied with a profusion of London morning and evening papers, besides the French and weekly English journals, magazines, reviews, and general popular periodicals. – Brighton As It Is, 1836

In 1836, Cassandra Austen would have been familiar with the costs associated with the Royal Colonade Library’s terms of subscriptions:

Terms of subscription

By the end of the 18th century, Scarborough, a resortt located in the county of North Yorkshire, boasted several circulating libraries. The town’s population had risen to 7,067 by 1811, and one can imagine that, with the many leisurely hours available to tourists and visitors, these libraries managed a booming business.

A circulating library in Scarborough around 1818, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough

The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, first published in 1813, features twenty-one illustrations of humorous subjects about the many features available in the resort, including a satiric poem about the Circulating Library:

As in life’s tide by careful fate
The mind is made to circulate
Just so each watering place supplies

Where charming volumes may be had
Of good indifferent and bad
And some small towns on Britain’s shore
Can boast of book shops half a score
Scarbro and with much truth may boast
Her’s good as any on our coast
AINSWORTH’S or SCAUM’S no matter which
Or WHITING’S all in learning rich
Afford a more than common measure
Of pleasant intellectual treasure

One wonders if the following publication could be checked out a Scarborough circulating library at the turn of the 19th century, for the book was written by a local schoolmaster:

A Short Grammar of The English Language. In Two Parts By John Hornsey. Schoolmaster, Scarborough.

THE publick are much indebted to Mr Hornsey for this able and excellent compendium of English grammar. We acknowledge that we perused it with singular satisfaction; and are well persuaded that a more useful introduction to the English language cannot be placed in the hands of our youth. That this work should reach a second edition, did not excite our wonder; may it pass through many succeeding ones!- The Nichols, John.Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 86, 1799, p 1144.

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