Although it’s an interesting question, the simple answer is books. But since the English Regency was one of the more interesting times in history, it’s no surprise that something as simple as books and libraries became more complicated.
Up until the late 18th century, book authors and playwrights were sponsored by private patronage, such as Shakespeare and Marlowe who wrote for Queen Elizabeth. But when the government decided everyone should be able to read the bible, literacy rates for all classes soared. To read more, please join me today at the Dashing Duchesses House Party or click here to read more.
As newspapers became popular, the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 created a new type of entertainment called the “novel”. Unfortunately, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, the demand for new things to read–both newspaper periodical essays and mass-market novels–outpaced the economies of scale for the publishing houses. The cost of printing and buying books was too expensive for the average person in spite of the growing demand. It would take years before the processes of making paper, ink, and binding books would become cheap enough for all to afford.
Although the British Government supported circulating libraries, when the Regency dawned, public libraries couldn’t keep up with the growing demand. So the publishing houses came up with a brilliant idea. They funded their own subscription libraries filled with books written by their own authors. A subscriber would join a library for a small fee and would be able to borrow and return books at their own pace. These private libraries became quite popular and appeared throughout England.
While this worked well for the middle and lower classes, the success of these subscription libraries also increased the the demand for independent writers. Since authors no longer wrote for sponsors, but for their readers, they were free to write what they wanted. If a book didn’t “sell”, i.e. lend well, the authors switched genres and wrote something else. As long as the authors wrote and subscribers subscribed, the publishers were happy.
There was one downside–many people (the Aristocracy) thought that books for the “masses” were of lower quality and catered to base emotions. If one were to read, one should read to improve oneself, not entertain oneself. So it’s no surprise that those who had the means began their own collections. They could either spend the money or share books with those of a lower station.
But since we are Duchesses here, what about the Aristocracy?
Despite the huge reading rooms seen in many of our favorite Jane Austen movies, fully stocked libraries were still an expensive luxury during the Regency. Many of the volumes filling the shelves were acquired during Grand Tours of Europe. But with outrageous taxes on papers, and travel to and from the continent disrupted by wars with France, some have even wondered if the early libraries of the great county manors were filled-in with fake books which were slowly replaced as books became more widely available and less expensive. Without proof, we can only surmise.
In 1859 the English government passed the Public Libraries Act. This law replaced most of the private subscription libraries with public libraries. But experts have speculated that without the promotion and access provided by the publishers during the Regency, many of our favorite classics, including Miss Jane’s, would never have made it into print. And the library in the Dashing Duchesses Manor House? I can assure you there are no fakes. Although, if you look hard enough, you may find a few contemporaries tucked between our beloved Austens and Brontes.
Now I’d love to know–are you a library user or book buyer? Maybe a bit of both?
I’ve included a few links of interesting articles for further reading: