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Literary Detectives on circulating libraries in the time of Jane Austen
. . . In the eighteenth century, an increase in literacy and printing resulted in a greater reading variety for all social classes. As such, the circulating library rose in prominence during the second half of the eighteenth century. By 1775, many circulating libraries existed in Bath and London and other large towns, and by 1801, there were about 1,000 circulating libraries in England (Erickson, “The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library,” 574). They existed in cities with a population around 2,000 inhabitants. John Lane’s library is considered the largest circulating library of this period, advertising more than 20,000 titles (Erickson 580). Since only the wealthy could own copies of books, the circulating library allowed the middle classes to gain access to an array of literature for the low price of 2 guineas a year, meaning a customer could read about 26 volumes a year for the price of one book (“The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts”, Jane Austen’s World, 2010).
Mid 18th century advertisement from Nobles’ Circulating Library in London
The circulating library was infamous for peddling “trashy” literature, especially gothic romance and mystery novels, which (of course) were associated with the female authors and the largely female readership of these genres. The surviving catalogues of circulating libraries, such as those of Thomas Lowndes (1766) and M. Heavisides (1790), indicate that they tended to mostly distribute popular novels, and women comprised the majority of the libraries’ patronage (Jacobs, “Anonymous Signatures: Circulating Libraries, Conventionality, and the Production of Gothic Romances,” 605). Circulating libraries also sought to publish works by anonymous as well as female writers, probably an indication that authors remained anonymous to retain their respectability in society since the institutions were associated with vulgar literature. Also, struggling authors would have been more likely to risk working with circulating libraries since there was such a stigma against the decency of these establishments.
The circulating library served as a place where women could socialize and be seen in society. In resort towns, entertainments such as raffles and games would take place at the circulating libraries. In addition to the reading rooms, the circulating libraries also sold some luxury items to supplement their profits from patron membership, such as hats, tea, and perfumes (Erickson 581). The circulating libraries gave women more freedom in their pursuance of leisure activities in spite of the fact that reading was viewed with suspicion, especially the reading of novels, which was associated with immorality.
Jane Austen was well aware of her society’s bias towards novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is embarrassed when he pulls out a novel, which is apparently recognizable as coming from a circulating library, instead of Fordyce’s Sermons (Erickson 573). In reference to her own works and the circulating library, Jane Austen professed some concern over a second edition of Mansfield Park, acknowledging that people would rather borrow books than buy them due to the high cost. . .