April 2, 2017

Books in houses

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that the availability of all kinds of books had on the lives of the ladies of the late Georgian country house. Novels and romances, together with quantities of non-fiction books, were devoured by both men and women, but the latter spent much more time at home than their brothers and husbands. ... Books, which would be sent for, or borrowed from a friend or even a public library, were an invaluable resource for women, providing instruction and entertainment, and topics for discussion with friends and relations.
      The eighteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the number of books were published, and in the range of subjects they covered.  When Lady Christina Fox died in 1718 there were thirty-one books in her closet at Whitehall, including three Bibles and a prayer book. Of the remaining volumes, at least twenty were mainly concerned with religion. The others were all serious works, on subjects such as 'acute disease' and 'politicall arithmeticke.'  If one compares this with the fifty-seven books read  by Lady Christian's granddaughter Susan O'Brien in 1793, 1794 and 1795, the contrast is striking.  These included few, if any, religious books, but numerous novels. Susan read several historical works, including an account of the French revolution and a history of the Plague of Marseilles. She read travel books, accounts of the American states of Virginia and Kentucky, and several volumes of memoirs and letters. ...
     Novels began to appear in increasing numbers after 1740, when the first part of Samuel Richardson's best-seller Pamela was published. Word soon got around if a book was worth reading. Early in 1751 Caroline Fox wrote from Bath to ask her husband to 'Send Peregrine Pickle (as it can't be had here) in all haste.'  ... Sarah Napier recommended Fanny Burney's Cecilia to Susan O'Brien in 1782, the year of the book's first publication.
      Commentators soon began to express their concern about the popularity of  novel-reading among women, believing that the time thus spent was wasted, and that novels would corrupt feminine minds and hearts. In 1761 Sarah Pennington advised her daughter not to give herself  'the trouble of reading ... novels and romances' -- 'though many of them contain some few good morsels,they are not worth picking out the rubbish intermixed.'  There is no indication, however, that the girls at Melbury and Redlynch were discouraged from reading novels. ... [In 1789] Harriot Strangways wrote from her school in Weymouth to beg her sister Mary to send her 'The Prince of Abyssinia, which I have a longing to read.' ...In 1792 Harriot was reading Ann Radcliffe's Gothic novel The Sicilian Romance (published that year), commenting in a letter to Mary 'How shocking it is!  It has given me a sort of languid feel that is very, very disagreeable' ...

I borrowed this book from the library after seeing it mentioned in this one.  It traces the everyday lives of the women in several interconnected aristocratic families in 18th and early 19th England (ancestors of the author, I think).  It's a bit overstuffed with facts and details for my needs, so I'm skimming a bit, but it's the kind of history I love to read most.  Much more appealing that 'politicall arithmetick,' whatever that is, which just sounds terrifying. :)

Wives and daughters:  women and children in the Georgian country house, by Joanna Martin
Hambledon and London, 2004
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum

{The painting is Serena Reading, by British artist George Romney, c. 1782, found here.}

No comments: