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British Fiction, 1800–1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception

Guide to Contemporary Libraries

Records from library catalogues point to the strikingly effective circulation and distribution networks for Romantic-era fiction, which meant that a work published in London could be available within a short time to readers in Aberdeen or Belfast. While library holdings cannot tell us if a given novel was actually borrowed or read, the records from library catalogues offer important clues about the general availability and popularity of a work. The importance of contemporary libraries in providing readers with access to fiction cannot be underestimated: at a time when the average price for a new three volume novel could be as much as 31s. 6d. (roughly equivalent to £88 today), libraries offered the public a chance to borrow the latest novels (as well as old favourites) at an affordable rate.

The Records in the Contemporary Libraries section comprise material from the catalogues of two types of libraries: Circulating and Subscription libraries. Circulating libraries were privately owned businesses that charged a fee for lending books. In some cases, circulating libraries were run by a bookseller or publisher: one example being A. K. Newman’s Minerva library in London, which was, unsurprisingly, well-stocked with Minerva press titles. Subscription libraries were essentially owned by subscribers who acted as library shareholders. Subscription libraries charged subscribers a small fee, which enabled them to borrow books either free of charge or at a reduced rate. Subscribers tended to be from the gentry and professional classes, and were predominantly male.

In all, 24 early-nineteenth-century library catalogues have been examined, providing what we believe to be a representative picture of library holdings. Faced with a large number of catalogues from this period (at a time when most large British towns could expect to have at least one library), the list of catalogues must be regarded as necessarily selective. Catalogues have been selected to provide a representative spread by date, geographical location, and type and size of library. English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish libraries are represented here; catalogues are drawn from libraries in major cities (London, Edinburgh and Dublin), fashionable spa towns (Bath and Cheltenham), as well as smaller cities and market towns (Aberdeen, Belfast, Norwich). Some library catalogues are small and selective, such as that of Jones & Parry in Caernarvon, Wales; others, such as Barry & Sons in Bristol, appear designed to satisfy even the most voracious of novel readers. In all, records are available for 2,092 novels, or more than 92 per cent of the total number in the database. The most popular works of the time, such as Maria Edgeworth’s six-volume Tales of Fashionable Life (1809/12) are listed in all the library catalogues examined. However, even those titles that have been long-forgotten, such as the anonymous Constantia de Courcy (1806), were available to at least some fortunate readers in Britain and Ireland.Click here to go to the top of the page.

The records in Contemporary Libraries show which libraries held which given titles, based on an analysis of the library catalogues. Records also provide basic information about how titles appeared in the catalogues (e.g. whether the author’s name given, whether the title listed more than once) and if the library held multiple copies of a novel. Many libraries issued main catalogues, and then supplemented these over time with addenda. Addenda and appendices normally have been treated as separate entities from the main catalogues, as they can be considered freestanding catalogues. Where a title appears in both a library’s main catalogue and an addenda, both catalogues are given in the record.

At the end of each record, a summary details the number of libraries (not catalogues) that held a given novel. It should be noted that the annual cut-off point for each library used in calculating the summaries is to some extent a crude instrument, and in particular that catalogues published early in a calendar year will necessarily exclude titles published later in the same year. Furthermore, especially in the case of larger catalogues, the possibility also remains that a title is listed elsewhere other than in the main ‘Novels and Romances’ section surveyed, and so has been overlooked. As a result the number given for the take-up of individual titles by libraries may in a few instances slightly underestimate the actual situation.

The following abbreviations are used in this section:

The author is named in the catalogue entry.
Denotes where a title is listed twice in the catalogue. This does not necessarily indicate that two copies of the novel were held by the library. Where the catalogue specifically states that multiple copies are held, this is noted in the record. Listings of (au) [2x] indicates that the author’s name is given in at least one entry, but not necessarily in both.
The pseudonym under which a work was published is given in the catalogue entry. In cases where the author’s name has been identified, the pseudonym is given (e.g. ps: Bluemantle). Where the pseudonym is the only name available for the author of a particular work, only (ps) is given.
Denotes where there is an uncertainty whether a pseudonym is being used, or whether a real name.
The translator of a work is named in the catalogue entry. Listings of (tr) [2x] indicates that the work appears twice in the catalogue, and that the translator’s name is given in at least one entry.
Title is listed with translator name, but there is uncertainty about whether the title is an actual translation or an original work.
Both author and translator are named in the same entry.
Brackets [ ]:
Indicate further information provided by the catalogue entry. In some cases, this indicates where a work has been listed both under the original title, and under a subtitle or a later edition or reissue. For example, Mary Charlton’s novel Homicide (EN2 1805: 19) is listed in the Newman catalogue under both the original title Homicide, and also under the title of the 2nd edn, Rosaura di Viralva. Such variants have been provided as possible indicators of multiple copies in the library. Significant variations in title or author information in catalogue entries are also given in square brackets.
 © 2004 Project Director: Professor Peter Garside;
 Research Associates: Dr Jacqueline Belanger, Dr Sharon Ragaz;
 Database/Website Developer: Dr Anthony Mandal
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