Take a Virtual Tour of Jane Austen’s Library

Jane Austen read vora­cious­ly and as wide­ly as she could in her cir­cum­scribed life. Even so, she told her niece Car­o­line, she wished she had “read more and writ­ten less” in her for­ma­tive years. Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh made clear that no mat­ter how much she read, her work was far more than the sum of her read­ing: “It was not,” he wrote in his 1870 biog­ra­phy, “what she knew, but what she was, that dis­tin­guished her from oth­ers.” What she was not, how­ev­er, was the own­er of a great library.

Mem­bers of Austen’s fam­i­ly were well-off, but she her­self lived on mod­est means and nev­er made enough from writ­ing to become finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent. She owned books, of course, but not many. Books were expen­sive, and most peo­ple bor­rowed them from lend­ing libraries. Nonethe­less, schol­ars have been able to piece togeth­er an exten­sive list of books Austen sup­pos­ed­ly read—books men­tioned in her let­ters, nov­els, and an 1817 bio­graph­i­cal note writ­ten by her broth­er Hen­ry in her posthu­mous­ly pub­lished Northang­er Abbey.

Austen read con­tem­po­rary male and female nov­el­ists. She read his­to­ries, the poet­ry of Mil­ton, Wordsworth, Byron, Cow­per, and Sir Wal­ter Scott, and nov­els writ­ten by fam­i­ly mem­bers. She read Chaucer, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Spencer, and Woll­stonecraft. She read ancients and mod­ern. “Despite her desire to have ‘read more” in her youth,” write Austen schol­ars Gillian Down and Katie Halsey, “recent schol­ar­ship has estab­lished that the range of Austen’s read­ing was far wider and deep­er than either Hen­ry or James Edward sug­gest.”

Austen may not have had a large library of her own, but she did have access to the hand­some col­lec­tion at God­mer­sham Park, the home of her broth­er Edward Austen Knight. “For a total of ten months spread over fif­teen years,” Rebec­ca Rego Bar­ry writes at Lapham’s Quar­ter­ly, “Austen vis­it­ed her broth­er at his Kent estate. The brim­ming book­shelves at God­mer­sham Park were a par­tic­u­lar draw for the nov­el­ist.” In the last eight years of her life, Jane lived with her moth­er and sis­ter Cas­san­dra at Edward’s Chaw­ton estate, in a vil­la that had its own library.

Recon­struct­ing these shelves show us the books Austen would have reg­u­lar­ly had in view, though schol­ars must use oth­er evi­dence to show which books she read. In 2009, Down and Halsey curat­ed an exhi­bi­tion focused on her read­ing at Chaw­ton. Ten years lat­er, we can see the library at God­mer­sham Park recre­at­ed in a vir­tu­al ver­sion made joint­ly by Chaw­ton House and McGill University’s Bur­ney Cen­ter.

Called “Read­ing with Austen,” the inter­ac­tive site lets us to nav­i­gate three book-lined walls of the library. “Users can hov­er over the shelves and click on any of the antique books,” writes Bar­ry, “sum­mon­ing bib­li­o­graph­ic data and avail­able pho­tos of per­ti­nent title pages, book­plates, and mar­gin­a­lia. Dig­ging deep­er, one can peruse a dig­i­tal copy of the book and deter­mine the where­abouts of the orig­i­nal.”

These vol­umes are what we might expect from an Eng­lish coun­try gen­tle­man: books of law and agri­cul­ture, his­tor­i­cal reg­is­ters, trav­el­ogues, polit­i­cal the­o­ry, and clas­si­cal Latin. There is also Shake­speare, Swift, and Voltaire, Austen’s own nov­els, and some of the con­tem­po­rary fic­tion she par­tic­u­lar­ly loved. The Bur­ney Cen­ter “tried,” says direc­tor Peter Sabor, “to imag­ine Jane Austen actu­al­ly walk­ing around the library…. We’re basi­cal­ly look­ing over her shoul­der as she looks at the book­shelf.” It’s not exact­ly quite like that at all, but the project can give us a sense of how much Austen trea­sured libraries.

She wrote about libraries as a sign of lux­u­ry. In an ear­ly unfin­ished nov­el, “Cather­ine,” she has a furi­ous char­ac­ter exclaim in reproach, “I gave you the key to my own Library, and bor­rowed a great many good books of my Neigh­bors for you.” Austen may have feared los­ing library and lend­ing access, and she longed for a king­dom of books all her own. Dur­ing her final vis­it to God­mer­sham Park in 1813, she wrote to her sis­ter, “I am now alone in the Library, Mis­tress of all I sur­vey.”

Try to imag­ine how she might have felt as you peruse the library’s hap­haz­ard­ly arranged con­tents. Con­sid­er which of these books she might have read and which she might have shelved and why. Enter the “Read­ing with Austen” library project here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Jane Austen Fic­tion Man­u­script Archive Is Online: Explore Hand­writ­ten Drafts of Per­sua­sion, The Wat­sons & More

Down­load the Major Works of Jane Austen as Free eBooks & Audio Books

15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satir­i­cal His­to­ry Of Eng­land: Read the Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script Online (1791)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    Jane Austen did not write the nov­els. They were writ­ten by her cousin Eliza de Feuil­lide. Eliza could not pub­lish under her own name because she was the ille­git­i­mate daugh­ter of War­ren Hast­ings, the first Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al of India. Hast­ings paid for her edu­ca­tion by Lon­don mas­ters.
    Eliza rarely vis­it­ed God­mer­sham as she did not get on well with its mis­tress Eliz­a­beth Knight. Eiz­a­beth Knight had been edu­cat­ed at one of the expen­sive Lon­don fin­ish­ing schools satirised in the nov­els. By con­trast Eliza de Feuil­lide had learned Latin and Greek.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.