18th-century Women Readers, the British Museum and Ramsay’s Circulating Library

I’ve been so buried by work that this blog has virtually sunk into oblivion… However, back to business with some thoughts on a great programme yesterday on BBC 4 yesterday evening: “How Reading made us Modern” (catch it quick while it’s still available – for 6 days or so).

In the space of 60 minutes, John Mullan – professor of English at UCL, London – goes back over 300 years to the late 17th century when books were few and far between, printing presses had to be licensed and the vast majority of people could not read.

1695 is a key date: this was the year the Licensing Act was repealed, opening the flood gates to newspapers (The Daily Courant in 1702), chapbooks, magazines (Tatler and the Spectator – both still in print), and eventually the novel – most famously Samuel Richardson’s bestselling Pamela or Virtue Rewarded.   Roll on the wonderful 18th century, the century Mullan defines as the start of the modern age of reading in a free-thinking society.

pamela-richardsonBooks were everywhere – no longer exclusively the privilege of the rich.   In this year of anniversaries of all sorts (Darwin, Lincoln, Burns, Braille, Poe, John Dee, Galileo’s telescope, the Beatle’s last concert and the first Apple computer, to name a random selection), the British Library (then part of the British Museum, more exactly the Department of Printed Books) is also celebrating its 250th anniversary.  It opened its doors on 15 January 1759, after being founded by Parliament six years earlier.

John Mullan pulled out a few facts and figures:  thanks to the library’s privilege of legal deposit (which entitles it to a copy of most items printed in the UK), its collections now total in excess of 150 million and require 4oo miles of shelving!

On a slightly less massive scale, but nonetheless far-reaching in its effects – and predating the British Museum and its Department of Printed Books by over 30 years – was Allan Ramsay’s Circulating Library, which he set up in his Edinburgh bookshop in 1726.

L.C.89]

Poet, bookseller and wigmaker Allan Ramsay’s shop in Edinburgh’s High Street, from The Works of Allan Ramsay, Vol. III, 1851 [National Library of Scotland reference: L.C.89

Ramsay the Elder (to distinguish him from his successful son, Allan Ramsay the painter) opened a bookshop in the High Street, opposite Niddry’s Wynd (you can just make out the sign of Mercury, with his winged heels, in the plate above), but in 1725 he

removed from this his original dwelling to a house in the east end of the Luckenbooths, which had formerly been the London Coffee house. Here, in place of Mercury, he adopted the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, and in addition to his business as a bookseller, he commenced that of a circulating library. Ramsay was the first to establish such a business in Scotland, and it appears that he did so, not without some opposition from the more serious part of the community, who found fault with him for lending the loose plays of that age to persons whose morals were liable to be tainted by them. In this shop the wits of Edinburgh continued daily to meet for information and amusement during the days of Ramsay and his successors in trade.(from A Dictionary of Printers and Printing by C.H. Temperley)

It is the influence of the rise of the novel on women and the growth of reading for pleasure that is particularly fascinating – circulating libraries were soon set up in most British towns and are thought to have played a key role in fostering the interest in reading and novels among women and servants, most of whom had been excluded until then by the cost of books and widespread illiteracy.  But society looked down its nose at these libraries and the novels they promoted – although considerably later, think of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice and his reaction when asked to read to the Bennett family after dinner:

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him…

Some of these ideas and concepts – at least in relation to Scotland – will be up for discussion at the one-day seminar on Women’s Lives in Eighteenth-Century Scotland on 14 March.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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