Daily Archives: March 5, 2013

A Beauty in Search of Knowledge

As I read Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife in anticipation of review, I’ve been reflecting on how damned lucky I and all fellow females are these days.  Not so lucky as to forget the existence of feminism or the necessity for it, but lucky in that no man may lord over us unless we allow them dominance.  We are not eternally bound by “I do”.  Nor are we raised to be Emile’s adoring, spineless Sophie.  We are beauties in possession of knowledge, not forever and vainly searching for it, but behold the danger in the 18th century.  A young woman is about to ruin her mind at circulating library by renting . . . fiction.  Earlier posts on the subject can be found here and here, and if you’ve read them, you know the absurdity.  If not, reading romances or anything popular in fiction was thought to be a corrupting force in a young lady’s education (does this sound familiar today? A teensy bit).  Only history–but never in Latin–would improve a lady’s faculties and only so far as nature would allow.

18th century mezzotint

Circulating libraries like the one above popped up around London with increasing frequency in the late 18th century.  They served the middle class populace and supplemented booksellers’ incomes by charging a small fee to patrons for access to the entire library. Unlike members-only subscription libraries that offered classical literature, nonfiction, and access to the latest scholarly texts, circulating libraries stocked popular novels and were always eager to accommodate readers with the latest craze, such as the late 18th century’s gothic romances by Ann Radcliffe and others.  Anyone who could read and pay the fee could rent fiction along with travel memoirs, biographies, plays, poetry, and periodicals.

For those who enjoy dates, the first circulating library on the British Isles and the continent opened its doors in Edinburgh around 1725.  By 1750 London and other cities of sizable populations had libraries of their own, a trend that trundled along without competition until the Public Libraries Act of 1850.  The commercial establishments gasped its last breath in the 20th century when they died in favor of free public libraries.