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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy Godmersham/Pemberley (Library)

In the aftermath of my post earlier today "Lady Denham, Aunt Leigh-Perrot, & Arsenic Poisoning", I Googled "Sanditon" and "poison" together, and that combination led me to the following book:

Women's reading in Britain, 1750-1835: a dangerous recreation by Jacqueline Pearson, Chapter 5 "When and how should women read"

Consider the following information in that chapter and how it relates directly and crucially to Jane Austen's life and fiction:

"Circulating libraries were vital in the democratisation and regionalisation of literature, playing a crucial 'popularising role', since most readers, especially of fiction, 'were not library owners, but library goers.' Books were so expensive that hardly anyone beyond the very wealthiest could afford ephemeral reading like novels: 'who buy novels?', Charlotte Smith asks bitterly. The price of novels rose steeply in the 1790s, when Camilla would have cost L15s and The Mysteries of Udolpho L14s (for the same price, one could buy eight to ten pairs of women's shoes)."

I had no idea about that sharp inflation in book prices during JA's young adulthood. That sheds radical new light on the awful events of 1800-1801 when, among other things, the Steventon rectory library, and in particular Jane Austen's personal collection of books, was sold off for a pittance. Now I understand that the books which JA loved, and depended on having in her possession to facilitate her writing, had probably been bought at low prices during her youth, but could never be replaced during her adulthood, because those same books would by then have cost much much more! So, like the reputation of a woman, these books, once gone, were (essentially) irretrievable! For an author like JA, a truly tragic loss.

And that also shed light on one very important reason why JA, as an adult, enjoyed her rare visits to Godmersham, which had a large library where JA could browse and do research at her leisure:

"I am now alone in the library, mistress of all I survey..."

And that's also why we read the following exchange at Netherfield:

"I am astonished," said Miss Bingley, "that my father should have left so small a collection of books. What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!"

"It ought to be good," he replied, "it has been the work of many generations."

"And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books."

"I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these."

But I fear that Mr. Darcy never opened up, for regular access to the less wealthy residents of Lambton, his richly stocked library (like all those trout in the streams at Pemberley)--No, like most 1%ers, his largesse only went so far, and he mostly left the 99%ers in his village to their own poorer resources. What, one wonders, would Mr. Darcy have done if a delegation of Lambtonites had come to him with a request for regular access?

But getting back to Pearson's chapter about libraries, I also read the following, of which I had previously been aware:

"Circulating libraries, then, were vital in allowing access to literature
to less affluent readers, but were also the subject of vigorous hostile propaganda. Library proprietors sought to preempt this by a number of tactics. Library premises were 'designed to suggest privacy and even domesticity', and advertising through trade cards and catalogue engravings offered 'romanticised pictures' of elegant respectability, including even a subtle 'emphasis on chekcs to untutored and irresponsible reading.'
Despite such attempts, however, the evidence suggests even in the managers of such libraries a 'tension between promotion and guardedness, between commercialization and exclusivity': the public-private space of the circulating library was also viewed ambivalently by library users and even writers who depended on sales to libraries for their livelihood.
In reality, many respectable families and individuals were ready to risk the circulating library's ambiguous space. The Austens...and countless other respctable but not affluent readers depended upon its resources...However,...prevailing stereotypes saw them as culturally and morally inferior, marketing 'illiterate authors for illiterate readers':
they were imaged as an 'evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge', 'filthy streams of spiritual and moral pollution', 'the gin-shop of [female] minds', a 'great evil', simultaneously conveying 'food and POISON' to the young reader. ...Proprietors' advertisements tried to counter stereotypes of circulating libraries as haunts of unbridled sexuality...the hostile propaganda denigrated circulating libraries by representing them as places dominated by women, from the 'young ladies at the counter' to female customers whose ignorance and folly are satirised."

And there you have another covert meaning of the "poison" reference in Sanditon, echoed by the idiotic Edward Denham's dismissal of "the trash of the circulating library". And Sanditon itself, had it been completed, would have added to that pile of "poisonous" "trash".

Cheers, ARNIE

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