There are plenty of mentions of novels and popular literature in Jane Austen’s books. But books were expensive in the early nineteenth century, and women weren’t necessarily encouraged to read them. How, then, did her heroines get their book fix? Literature scholar Lee Erickson uncovers the frivolous (and serious) secrets of circulating libraries.
Though Erickson notes that they “made reading fashionable when books
were very expensive,” circulating libraries didn’t really resemble
modern libraries. You had to pay to be a member, and if you patronized
one you were likely of the leisured classes. And while modern libraries are predicated on a demand for books, writes Erickson, circulating libraries created that demand.
The libraries, which were found in fashionable watering holes like
Jane Austen’s fabled Bath, began as offshoots of bookselling. They
became social gathering places that people subscribed to as soon as they
got to their vacation destination. They weren’t just for books,
either—they held raffles and social events, and the subscription record
books were a good place to figure out who was in town. If you lived in a
rural area, though, you were probably out of luck. No businessman would
set one up in an area that couldn’t sustain it.
At the time, industrialization hadn’t yet made printing affordable,
so only the richest could afford books. Erickson points out that the
average three-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 at the time,
which makes Darcy’s extensive library even sexier. And since anyone with
enough money for a subscription could use a circulating library, it
became a way for women to gain knowledge without asking a man for
permission to use his library or borrow his books.
Not everything in a circulating library was intellectually uplifting,
though: They were repositories for the Regency version of beach reads.
The hottest novel might be available for several months, then be
replaced by the new big thing. This led to big demand for new books, and
that demand drove bigger print runs. Authors also started writing with
the libraries in mind, which led to the rise of genres like the gothic
Though circulating libraries might have seemed like goldmines, writes
Erickson, their proprietors often ran into the same problems as regular
readers and found they couldn’t afford a large stock of books. In an
attempt to make more money, they began to offer luxury items like the
ones that drive Lydia Bennet “quite wild.” These items included things
like powder puffs, paper goods, and ornaments designed to make ladies
open their purses.
At the time, circulating libraries were easy to mock as feminine
places of frivolity, in which women flaunted their pleasure in leisure.
Accordingly, they were looked down on by many. But, writes Erickson, “we
should recognize that, if nothing else, the readers and their libraries
encouraged and enabled Austen to write her novels.” And that’s serious