History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past
History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

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History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

7 Reading places

By Stephen Colclough

The places in which readers engaged with texts are of particular importance to anyone interested in the history of reading, because readers don’t just engage with the object being read, they also take note of the context in which it is encountered. Indeed, the sights, sounds and even the smells of the places in which texts are read may have a profound effect upon how readers make sense of them. The UK RED site contains a great deal of information about where reading experiences took place. The period 1750-1850, with which this short introduction to investigating reading places is concerned, saw a great expansion in the number of venues for reading – from the increasing number of homes that included a room called ‘the library’, through to the opening of the first ‘free’ public libraries, which often included ‘reading rooms’.

Subscription libraries and book clubs, which usually charged members for access, became increasingly popular with middle-class readers during the late eighteenth century. Book clubs often met at members’ houses or in local inns and the opportunity to be sociable was one of their key attractions. Entries in RED for the Rev Benjamin Newton show that his membership of the Bedale Book Club often involved him in lively ‘disputes’ after dinner, such as that over the ‘spelling of experience’ which took recourse to the Bible to resolve (UK RED: 5339 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). Access to clubs and subscription libraries was usually restricted by social class, but perhaps the most famous reading space of the period – the commercial circulating library – was open to anyone who could afford to join. Some even rented out books by the volume at a penny or two per night. The ‘juvenile offender’ J. L., for example, borrowed novels about highwaymen at 2d per volume in the 1830s (UK RED: 1576). Many of the most famous commercial circulating libraries were part of the tourist industry. Located at seaside resorts or in spa towns – like Bath – they catered for people who wanted to read while on holiday. Some were exceedingly handsome and functioned as places to see as well as in which to be seen.

The Circulating Library, Isaac Cruikshank (1764-c.1811), pen and ink and water colour and wash on wove paper
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, USA/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Figure 17 The Circulating Library, Isaac Cruikshank (1764-c.1811), pen and ink and water colour and wash on wove paper

Books and newspapers could usually be consulted in the library, but most readers returned to their lodgings to read. Texts were often shared, as occurred when Frances Burney and friends returned from a library in Bath with a copy of Hannah Cowley’s The Maid of Aragon, and Hester Thrale made the discovery that it was dedicated to her father while reading aloud to the group (UK RED: 8596).

Contemporary images often paint a negative picture of such venues as serving mainly female novel readers. However, the kind of evidence being recorded in RED reveals a more complex picture of actual use. Young male readers are not part of the stereotypical picture of a circulating library, but the thirteen year-old Joseph Hunter used Lindley’s Circulating Library in Sheffield to acquire texts including a volume of ‘one of the Prettyest [sic] novels I have ever read’ that had been lost at the subscription library to which he belonged (UK RED: 10800). The RED entries for Hunter reveal a reader who was able to move quite casually between the many commercial and non-commercial reading spaces offered by his home town.

By 1750, London coffeehouses were long established reading spaces, but they only really become a feature of working-class life in the early 19th century. The working-class autodidact Thomas Carter was an early enthusiast, noting in his autobiography that during 1815 he frequently read the previous day’s newspapers while eating breakfast in a coffee shop on his way to work. This resulted in his workmates adopting him as their ‘news purveyor’ and he often kept them abreast of ‘public affairs’ (UK RED: 7621). The Victorian journalist Angus Reach noted that the newspapers and novels provided in such coffeehouses were often covered with the traces of previous sticky-fingered readers and it is worth considering for a moment how often the communally consumed text must have taken on the flavour of its surroundings. The novelist Charlotte M Yonge recalled that her family were opposed to circulating libraries because the books were ‘very dirty, very smoky, and with remarks plentifully pencilled on the margins’. The Yonges chose instead to become members of a local book club and Charlotte notes how enjoyable it was to hear her parents reading the books borrowed to the ‘assembled family’ in the early evening.

There is much evidence to suggest that organised family readings of this sort occurred fairly frequently in middle-class homes during the 19th century and the bourgeois house is clearly one of the most important reading venues of the period. RED is a brilliant resource for finding readers all over the house, from servants reading by the fire in the kitchen (UK RED: 5831) to curling up with a novel in the bedroom (UK RED: 426), though there are, as yet, no entries for reading in the ‘smallest room’ in this period. As these examples show, the remarkable evidence being added to RED provides an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to know not only where texts were read in the past, but how these locations impacted upon reading practice.

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Hall’s Library at Margate, 1789 (coloured engraving), Thomas Malton (1748-1804)
Private collection/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Figure 18 Hall’s Library at Margate, 1789 (coloured engraving), Thomas Malton (1748-1804)

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