Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Reading at Godmersham: Edward's Library and Marianne's Books

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Reading at Godmersham: Edward's Library and Marianne's Books

Article excerpt

THIS SHORT ARTICLE is, in some ways, a speculative detective story. It is my own attempt to flesh out the story of a historic library collection that has been attracting increasing interest from scholars and visitors alike in the last decade. In some ways, the library is an entirely typical English country house library, put together largely in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with a sense of furnishing a large and prestigious house with the embellishments requisite for the English upper classes. And in some ways, it's entirely untypical, for this is a library collection well known to, and used by, Jane Austen herself. My tale is a tale of two houses: Godmersham Park in Kent, a fine Georgian mansion house, built in 1732, and Chawton House, an Elizabethan manor house with splendid Jacobean and later features. The estates are linked by their shared owner, Edward Austen, later Knight, Jane Austen's third eldest brother. It may even be possible to recreate--digitally, and perhaps physically--this library collection for the benefit of both scholarship and the general reader, for we have the 1818 catalogue of the library at Godmersham Park, recording every title in the collection. And we have around one third of the original library on loan to us at Chawton House Library from the Knight family, as the Knight Collection.

My story is also a tale of many readers. The most famous reader linked to the library collection at Godmersham Park is Jane Austen herself. Readers of her letters cannot fail to notice several references to being in the library; in delightful quiet, perusing works she has already consulted, eschewing billiards for cosy family discussion. But others have made extensive studies of Jane Austen's reading, in the pages of Persuasions and elsewhere. Here, I am more interested in readers who have left very few traces, whose stories have to be hunted down and interpreted from scant archival resources.

As David Allan notes in an excellent recent study of reading in the Georgian period, the eighteenth century was a period of an explosion of literacy in all classes, and ideas of appropriate reading material, and the serious nature of reading, were discussed and debated in the private--and crucially the public-sphere (12-15). It was a period, too, of increased access to the printed word. Book historian James Raven observes the broad sweeps of the changes: "Books in England in the fifteenth century, many manufactured abroad, circulated to relatively few. Four hundred years later, after successive transformations of the trade, books, printed and marvellously diverse in subject, size and price, had become part of the fabric of life" (351).

The Godmersham Park library was being put together at the height of this explosion in print culture, as part of what was necessary for a gentleman to demonstrate his affluence, and his cultivated ideas. In 1732, the same year as the building of Godmersham Park in Kent, Hogarth placed his group portrait of the Cholmondley family in the library. That painting makes a statement about this new room as the heart of the home, and it marks the Cholmondley family themselves as educated and aspirational. George Cholmondley, Viscount Malpas, commissioned the work from Hogarth as a tribute to his recently deceased wife, Mary: next to leather-bound and gilded books, the entire family seems modern and enlightened.

Most works in the Godmersham library date from 1700 onwards, but there are a number of seventeenth-century works included and even a handful of books produced in the 1500s. The library includes books in several languages as well as English. There are texts by classical Greek and Roman writers and philosophers. There are a substantial number of French books, including works by major figures in eighteenth-century French philosophy, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, several books in Italian, and at least one in German.

Much of what is in the Godmersham library definitely reflects the interests of many such country house libraries at the time. …

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