Novels of Interest

6. Circulating libraries were of at least three types. Literary or philosophical societies started specialty libraries in towns and cities aimed at a more exclusive clientele; membership enabled access to a selection of reading materials. Lower-class readers formed less formal reading clubs, often with the intent of improving their lot in life by gaining knowledge (e.g., of trade, business, politics). Commercial libraries in major urban areas such as London served a broadly middle-class readership, or those able to afford the luxury of paying to read.

Despite pervasive critical contempt for the novel, which was still considered a lower form of literature in the early nineteenth century, the most popular reading material in many circulating libraries was fiction, especially romance novels, many of which were written by women. Middle-class readers read novels such as The Heart of Mid-Lothian, The Abbot and Kenilworth (1821), but also novels by women such as Maria Edgeworth, Maria Elizabeth Budden and Ann Radcliffe.

Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) was re-printed in three volumes at London for Hunter and Craddock, Baldwin and Joy in 1821. It is a middle-class society romance; as with many such novels, it offers a complex and interesting portrayal of courtship and marriage, family life and society, in the early nineteenth century, including themes that appealed to many readers, but perhaps especially to young women with the leisure and money to read such works.