The Steaminess of the Local Lending Library

Friday: repost day. A look at the saucy past of our lending libraries.

I think I have established, on several occasions, that I am the heart of disorganised darkness.

I straddle the borderline between the undisciplined and the unhinged, which is why I am always amazed that librarians do not see me coming.

But they don’t. It shouldn’t be allowed, there should be a law against someone with my previous convictions walking into a library, taking a choice volume from the shelves, and walking off with it.

Because within six months I will be in deep financial water, up to the top of my flowery wellies in library fines, gazing down the barrel of a bill for lost books.

Yet I still, occasionally, slink into the local branch of affably staffed fustian volumery, and try not to look shifty as I eye the shelves with intent.

Libraries  have not always been so fashionable. Indeed one clergyman – Pride and Prejudice’s oily Mr Collins – seems quite averse to them. On his first night at the Bennet’s house Mr Bennet mischievously invites the tedious man of God to read out loud to the family.

The vicar pounces on the idea, right up until the moment that a book is produced, when he starts back: because “everything about it announced it to be from a circulating library”.

Apparently it is a novel, and Mr Collins does not read novels.He prefers ‘books of a serious stamp’. He settles for Fordyce’s Sermons.

Once, the circulating library  – distant forerunner of the local repositories of today – was a bastion of bad influences.

For evidence, look no further than Sheridan.

The Rivals is a wonderful tale, the very heart of which is a young noblewoman’s obsession with romantic novels. Her soul mate is readily available in a comfortably arranged marriage: but she would rather have a penniless romantic hero.

Of course, due to a little light deception, they are, unbeknown to her, one and the same.

Very early on in the proceedings Sir Anthony Absolute, the hero’s father, expresses his concerns about the new lending libraries which seem to be springing up everywhere. He tells the comical Mrs Malaprop, the damsel-in-question’s guardian: “A circulating library in a town is an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! – and depend upon it, Mrs Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last!”

According to Dr Robert Clarke, of the University of East Anglia, books back in the 1600s were expensive to buy, so bookshops would charge a lending fee and allow readers to take and return a book for a small fee. Gradually the booksellers began to build up stocks of books for rent as well as those for sale.

Scottish poet Allan Ramsay rented books from his shop in Edinburgh in 1725: and from that moment the trend began to grow. By the 1740s there were at least three circulating libraries in London.

The libraries thrived. And this had a very interesting side-effect for writers.

Libraries, it seemed, created a hunger for books. In the 1720’s just six fiction titles were produced each year in Britain. By the 1800s British readers were enjoying around 70 new titles. And this was happening even though the price of fiction trebled between 1780 and 1820.

For the first time it became a going concern, this writing lark. Libraries caused prices to rise and the number of titles to shoot up. The price of each volume meant a writer could make a tidy sum with their words.

And who was foremost in this popular trend for the novel?

The women, of course. Female readers fuelled a revolution and brought a host of female writers to the fore. One must wonder whether Austen, or the Brontes, might have had the same opportunities for publication 100 years before, when just six works of fiction made it to the printing presses.

So our mild-mannered lending libraries have a steamy past. And they are also responsible for bringing a whole gender one step further towards recognition: they brought the words of a generation of insanely talented women to the fore.

What a lot we must thank them for.


52 thoughts on “The Steaminess of the Local Lending Library

  1. An interesting post. Following your tenuous and slightly perverse logic, lending libraries placed the seeds of women’s equality movements. The damn swines. If only we had known 🙂

    1. My source for that is quite a dusty one: Raymond Irwin wrote about the feminine angle in ‘The Heritage of the English Library’ back in the sixties. Womens’ reading was certainly boosted: but whether it made them more equal, I’m not so sure. Do the neon chick lit novels of today empower? Hmmmm.

  2. Once, here in darkest Wales, we had a library van visiting periodically, so no chance of building up fines: hooray! It all changed when we swapped to a stationary (not stationery) library and the fines built up: boo! I now mostly haunt charity shops, buying books I can choose to keep (or not) for the same amount of cash that regularly went into council coffers. Equanimity restored.

  3. Dear Kate, I found your posting today to be not only entertaining and enlightening, but also satisfying. The reason? Since fifth grade–sixty-five years ago–I’ve been a library user. I’d walk up to the Independence, Missouri, Square once a week and visit the local public library to check in an check out books. Right now I have about 23 books and films checked out.

    Often, I feel such gratitude for this wonderful public service that I will say to the librarian–be it here or wherever I’ve lived–“Who do you think started the first lending library?” No one has known and I’ve always guessed that it was the Roman emperor Claudius. But now I learn from you that this wonder of learning started way later–in 1725 in Scotland. Thank you for answering my oft-repeated question. Peace.

  4. Sheesh, we women really ruin everything, don’t we. And novels are the devil’s work! Especially all those gothic novels like Castle of Otranto and stuff. Although I still find it interesting that even though Jane Austen had already been published under her own name, the Bronte sisters still used male aliases so many years later.

    1. That’s true, Madame Weebles. They still write about girlie stuff though. Even Emily and her gothically horrifying Heathcliffe. But being a bloke was the way to get ahead, so…..

  5. Sorry to get all Debbie Downer in response to an excellent post, but this makes me wonder about all the female voices that were silenced before the 18th century opened the door.

    1. Indeed. People like Cecily Neville: her fortunes were dependent on the men who fought in an arena outside her control, forced to plead for mercy to one son over the life of another, and who knows where she stood over the princes in the tower? Female has always been hard to be.

      1. I never heard of her until now, so I just Googled her (got 427,000 results). Wow, she made it to 80 in the 1400s! Is that like reaching 110 today? It must have been horrible to have been a woman then, such a third class citizen, but of course, I’m judging based on my own era. At least the air was cleaner in her day, even if the smells were infinitely more pungent.

      2. She ended up banged up in a convent despite at one time being one of the key political players in England. Womens rights: non existent. I’m sure, however, that a nun’s cell would have proved by far the safest place for someone like her to be.

  6. Our local library has a steamy present when the airconditioning breaks down in February as it usually does. As Mrs Malaprop might have said, it causes one to scream with perspicatious.
    No wonder women went for novels in a big way. It made a nice change from all that embroidery.
    Some of the chick lit these days is a lot better written than the stuff they pass off as literature.

  7. LIbraries. I get lost in them. I carry armloads of books out the door, then stop at another library on the way home and put more books in my arms. I’m hopeless – and now know who to thank.

  8. According to a Brit Lit professor I had, many women writers’ works were written under “Anon.” That’s a shame that their work was unrecognized just because of their gender.

    I hadn’t realized, Kate, that “just six fictions titles” were produced in the 1720′s each year in Britain. “By the 1800s British readers were enjoying around 70 new titles.”
    Nowadays, there is a flood of titles – so much so that it’s hard for a new author to get noticed.

    Now, slink back into that library and pay your fines. 🙂

  9. What a great interesting lesson about libraries!! I too just never get a book back in time so I just don’t go unless it’s to sit and research!!

  10. What a delicious photo. I’d love to prowl through those old titles. I practically grew up in libraries and in my family, overflowing bookshelves have always been held in high regard. I mourn the slow demise of the printed word.

  11. In the words of Virginia Wolfe: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

    Though not as famous as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Behn was a successful playwright in the late 1600’s, as well as a spy for Charles II while he was exiled in Italy. Her most famous play, The Rover, is a very saucy piece about several Englishmen in exile in Italy and their romances and affairs with a courtesan, a noblewoman avoiding being made a nun, and other ladies.
    Saucy indeed.

    1. Hi L! Thanks for that fabulous comment: what a forthright woman Behn must have been. Woman have had their moments in history. And an endorsement by Virginia Wolfe has to be a plus.Off to root out a biography…

  12. How rich in published material we are today! I have multiple library cards, and sometimes I just like to go inside, bring home a stack of books, and simply “hope” I get around to reading them all. I really enjoyed learning more about the origins of the lending library. I had no idea the number of published books was so small in the 1720s. Just six published titles? And to think of the women writers we still revere two hundred years later! I am so appreciative of what you’ve shared, Kate. It’s wonderful!

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