The Circulating Library

  • Franz J. Potter


Sarah Wilkinson’s 1803 production The Subterraneous Passage: or Gothic Cell; A Romance (2.307) is a nineteenth-century Gothic text whose action begins in a library. The reading scene is converted to the Radcliffean action of the Gothic complete with concealed compartments, rings in the floor and hidden staircases:

the books were covered with dust, and the whole apartment appeared in a state of desolation. On examining the shelves, a volume of natural history caught her attention: she raised her hand to remove it; but it was wedged so tight between the other books, that it required her whole force to effect her purpose. With a sudden violence she pulled the volume from the shelf, and several of the books fell at her feet. In the vacancy appeared a light glimmering through a small crevice. Emily drew near, and peeping through the aperture, perceived a large apartment, with several windows of Gothic stmcture… She minutely examined the library, and to her great surprise, perceived at last, the bookshelf from which she had removed the volume concealed a door.1


Early Nineteenth Century Reading Habit Small Library Reading Public Library Catalogue 
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  1. 2.
    Young women and servants are commonly thought of as readers of Gothic fiction. See Summers, Montague, Gothic Quest (London: Fortune Press, 1938), pp. 84–85. Also see Chapter 2.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Devendra Varma’s The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge (Washington, DC: Consortium Press, 1972), p. 198. Varma’s book contains a reprint of a pamphlet titled The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered (1797). Consequently, subsequent references to this pamphlet will note the pamphlet’s title and page numbers as located in Varma’s book.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Lane, William, A Tale Addressed to the Novel Readers of the Present Times (London: Minerva Press, 1795).Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Blakey, Dorothy, Minerva Press 1790–1830 (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 114.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    The figures are taken from Patrick Colquhoun’s A Treaties of Indigence (1806)Google Scholar
  6. Harold Perkins’ The Origins of Modem English Society 1780–1880 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 17–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 13.
    W. Fish’s Catalogue of His Circulating Library, 38, London-Lane, Norwich (Norwich: Lane & Co., 1817).Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    W. Booth’s Catalogue of Books, belonging to his Circulating Library; consisting of more than Four Thousand Volumes (Payne: Norwich, 1802), p. ii.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Anonymous, ‘Letter to the Printer’, Sarah Farley’s Bristol Journal, 12 December 1796.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    Sir Walter Scott: On Novelists and Fiction, ed. Ioan Williams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 206–207.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    Lathom, Francis, Fatal Vow; or, St. Michael’s Monastery (London: B. Crosby, 1807), 2, pp. iii–iv.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Kaufman, Paul, Libraries and Their Users: Collected Papers in Library History (London: Library Association, 1969), pp. 195–196.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Skelton-Foord, Christopher, ‘Fiction Holdings and Indexing Practices in the Circulating Libraries of Late 18th-and Early 19th-Century Britain’, Corvey Journal, Jahrgang 8 (1997), p. 11.Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    Scott, Walter, ‘Review of Melmoth the Wanderer’, Monthly Review, 2nd ser., xciv (1821), pp. 81–82.Google Scholar
  15. 31.
    See John Brewer’s ‘Reconstructing the Reader: Prescriptions, Texts, and Strategies in Anna Larpent’s Reading’, The Practice and Representation of Reading in England, ed. James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  16. 35.
    Fawcett, Trevor, ‘Music Circulating Libraries in Norwich’, Musical Times (July 1978), pp. 594–595.Google Scholar
  17. 37.
    Altick, Richard, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 288, 382.Google Scholar

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© Franz J. Potter 2005

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  • Franz J. Potter

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