How Regency Ladies Bought Jane Austen

Kristi here. At Regency Reflections we celebrate books containing inspirational stories set in Regency England and this year we have a lot to celebrate. This month alone, two of our own authors saw their debut novels hit the shelves. (Yea, Sarah and Vanessa!)

BooksTablet
Image courtesy of Maggie Smith, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today, we have a variety of options when purchasing our reading material. We can get the book electronically, printed and bound with a stunning cover, or even read to us via audiobook in some cases. We can make our purchases online or in a physical bookstore.

Aside from the very obvious lack of internet purchasing and electronic book readers, people wishing to purchase books in Regency England faced other obstacles on the road to filling their personal libraries.

For one thing, books were considerably more expensive in the 19th century. An ordinary servant would have to pay half a month’s salary to purchase even the cheapest of novels. No wonder a full and robust library was such a clear sign of wealth!

Let’s assume that you did have the money to fill your shelves with volumes of written words. How would you purchase them?

Lackington Allen Co Bookstore, 1809 Ackermann print
Lackington Allen Co Bookstore, 1809 Ackermann print

Bookstores were becoming quite prevalent by the time the Regency rolled around. Though considerably smaller than your local Barnes and Noble, the were considered large stores at the time. Many served as printers and circulating libraries as well – more on that in a bit. Books could also be purchased on subscription, if you wished to support a particular author or project.

One very large difference in the book buying experience of today and that of two hundred years ago is the cover. Can you imagine getting to choose what the cover of your book looked like? Do you want the picture of the couple or one of a meadow? Maybe you don’t want a picture at all, just the title and author in large letters. It’s pretty hard to fathom.

Back then you weren’t choosing a picture, but choosing the material. And it was more than just hardback or paperback kind of choices. Books were sold unbound and uncut. People would then take the book to a bookbinder. The wealthy had them bound in leather, which varied considerably in quality and types, while the more frugal had theirs sewn into stiff cardboard with a flexible connecting piece. The outside edges were then cut with a sharp knife and the book was ready to read.

If you couldn’t afford to purchase a book you might could afford a subscription to a circulating library. This was a combination of a current day library and coffee shop. The size of the libraries varied greatly. At the turn of the century (1801) the largest could be found in Liverpool with more than 8000 books available. For the same cost as purchasing 2-3 books a year, a person had access to an entire library.

The sheer expense of being an avid reader made being well read a sign of gentility and wealth. It also explains why so many stories were printed as serials in newspapers and magazines to make them more accessible to more people.

Have you had a unique experience buying a book or going to the library? Share it in the comments!

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