What Was Mr. Bennet Doing in his Library, and What Does It Matter?

Romantic Libraries

What Was Mr. Bennet Doing in his Library, and What Does It Matter?

H. J. Jackson, University of Toronto

Early 19th-century phenomena such as biliomania and the figure of the bookman helped to spark a widespread awareness of books as printed objects and an interest in the physical dimensions of the readerly relationship to them. Ferris looks at the ways in which the highlighting of the physical book-object in the bibliophilic genres of the period worked both to counter the impersonal and abstract forces generally associated with the printing press and to unsettle the divisions organizing the intellectual and cultural field of the period. This essay appears in _Romantic Libraries_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.

  1. Mr. Bennet's library at Longbourn, in Pride and Prejudice, is a zone of mystery and, eventually, of guilt. We know from the book that it is a ground-floor room and that it contains a writing table, at least two chairs, and a quantity of books. Mr. Bennet habitually goes there after breakfast and stays most of the day, coming out for dinner and tea but going back between tea and supper while the rest of the family might more sociably be reading aloud, playing backgammon, or having some music. "[W]ith a book," we are told, "he was regardless of time" (12). He likes to have the room "to himself" (71), but on several occasions his solitude is breached, notably, of course, when he has to entertain marriage proposals for his daughters. After hearing Darcy out and then having a private talk with Elizabeth to make sure she knows what she is doing, he laughingly dismisses her with instructions, if any young men should call for Mary or Kitty, to send them along, "for I am quite at leisure" (377). My question is, what did he do in there when he was not "at leisure"?

  2. The novel itself provides some hard evidence and a few broad hints; beyond those we are left to inference, speculation, and analogy. The lives of characters in realistic fiction have to meet higher standards of normalcy and consistency than we do in real life, and I see no harm in speculating on the basis of common behaviour of the period, taking the Bennets as representatives of their class. Mr. Bennet reads and answers his mail in the library: that's what the writing table is for (304, 361). So some business is conducted there. He also entertains male visitors. When Bingley first returns Mr. Bennet's visit, he sits "about ten minutes with him in his library" (9). When Collins comes to stay, he joins Mr. Bennet in the library after breakfast and chooses a serious book, a heavy old folio, but is incapable of attending to it and instead pesters his host with boasts about Hunsford. Mr. Bennet gets rid of him by encouraging him to walk a mile with the girls to the local market town, Meryton, to do some shopping instead. He drives Mrs. Bennet out even more bluntly when she bursts in demanding that he do something about Elizabeth's rejection of Collins. He in turn demands "First, that you will allow me the free use of my understanding on the present occasion; and secondly, of my room" (112). It seems, rather surprisingly, to be one room that Lady Catherine does not poke into when she comes unannounced (352-3). But the library is not an exclusively male preserve, nor does Mr. Bennet keep it selfishly to himself. Elizabeth is welcome there and we are assured that all the girls had ready access to books and masters if they showed any disposition to learn (165). When Jane announces her engagement, Mary, the bookish one, begs "for the use of the library at Netherfield" (349).

  3. The possession of a library—of a dedicated space, as well as of a private collection of books—is a clear indicator of status in the novel, reflecting relatively recent social developments. The Bingleys, renting Netherfield, have a room but not many books; their new money will be put to use in this generation by the purchase of property and the beginning of a collection (38). Darcy has a fine library at Pemberley, "the work of many generations," to which he is constantly adding. His idea of a "truly accomplished woman" is one who would put it to use, a goddess capable of improving "her mind by extensive reading"(39). "I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these," he says (38). His is the standard to which all aspire. The Bennet library is one of the bonds between Elizabeth's family and the one that she will marry into: "He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter," as she defiantly but rather disingenuously declares to Lady Catherine (356). They have the same social values. In the manse at Hunsford the Collinses also pay tribute to those values. He has not a library but a "book room," one of the better rooms in the house and with a view of the road; there, or in the garden, he spends the time between breakfast and dinner (168).

  4. One of the things Mr. Bennet must have been doing in his library was adding to the collection. What did he buy, and how did he do it? He has an income of £2000 a year from an entailed estate. He ought to be putting aside some of that income to support his family after his death, but he has never done so (308). Some of that money goes for books—apparently, serious books suitable for a "family library," as opposed to novels and light reading which could be borrowed from the circulating library and did not represent a sensible long-term investment. In spite of strong competition in the market, the price of new books went up early in the 1790s and remained high until 1830; books were luxuries, though not out-of-reach luxuries.

  5. Where did Mr. Bennet's books come from? Distribution networks for published material were very good by the end of the eighteenth century, and Meryton probably had significant resources. Austen's fictional circulating library, Clarke's, in Meryton may have doubled as a bookshop and stationer's, like the business of Thomas Wilson in Bromley, a market town ten miles from London. In 1797, the year in which Pride and Prejudice was first offered to a publisher, Wilson advertised a selection of 58 books calculated to appeal to a community very like the community of Longbourn and Meryton: these are probably the pick of a collection that would also have included, as a matter of course, older novels, poems, plays, and periodicals (Figure 1). There is something for everyone in his catalogue, but there are not many titles suited to a permanent family library, perhaps only the reference books and the volumes of travels. Mr. Bennet would soon have exhausted the stock of a provincial shop and have had to turn to London dealers. But this he could easily do. Meryton was only a few hours' ride from London and there would have been regular coach services. Bromley by this time had stage coaches running back and forth from London three times a day. The coaches efficiently carried newspapers (with advertising), booksellers' catalogues, and periodical reviews all over the country. New publications were routinely and accurately described as "sold by all booksellers and stationers." Mr. Bennet must therefore have spent some agreeable time in his library taking in his papers, keeping up with the news, and deciding what books to buy; he would then have written to his London bookseller or have placed an order through the local one (Clarke's), confident that the books would be in his hands within a week. When they arrived, he would have to do some collection management, unpacking the books, finding them shelf space, sending them to be bound, and keeping track of the ones that were removed by members of the family or lent out in the neighbourhood. But of course most of his time in the library would have passed in reading, particularly of the new arrivals; and I am prepared to bet that while Mr. Bennet read he was also writing in his books.

  6. Under present circumstances, we are inclined to think that it is naughty to write in books, and that those who do it must be compulsives unable to help themselves. (I am talking about lay readers, not about professional editors and reviewers.) In many ways, the conditions surrounding readers of Jane Austen's time were quite like our own—the printing, advertising, purchasing, and reviewing of books among them. But in this respect things were different. There was no prohibition against writing in books; it was seen as a privilege of ownership and was considered normal, unremarkable and even commendable behaviour. After surveying about 2000 books containing readers' notes of the period, I have come to believe that, far from being the practice of a tiny minority who acted out of irresistible habit—a little band of deviants—in the Romantic Period most owners wrote notes in their books, but did it only occasionally. What I find in those books is a range of practices sanctioned by tradition and adapted to meet individual needs.

  7. What kind of annotator is Mr. Bennet likely to have been? Let me briefly consider the options by outlining some of the commonest forms of annotation of the period, and some striking variations. There were several ways of using notes as study aids. Some readers wrote headings and summaries in the margins. Some made indexes of topics at the back of the book. Some marked good passages to be copied out in notebooks or commonplace books, and some copied into their books relevant extracts from other ones. I doubt that Mr. Bennet did any of these things; we know him as an indolent man, and he ridicules his daughter Mary's industrious way of reading "great books" and making extracts (7). It is hard to imagine him bowing to the labour of systematic note-taking. For the same reason it seems unlikely that he was engaged in literary or antiquarian projects, sifting through his own and other libraries for details that might illustrate or improve an interleaved Bible or Shakespeare or work of local history; or assembling relevant bibliographical and biographical information at the front of the book as many collectors did. I don't see him as an amateur editor either; he lacks the spirit of enthusiasm.

  8. It seems unlikely that he was engaged in socializing through books, though many of Austen's contemporaries made gifts of books with their notes in them, tailored to the recipient. In some cases these annotated books passed between lovers. In heterosexual affairs it was usually the man who wrote the notes to please and instruct the woman, so that when she read the book she would be reading it as though—in a thrillingly Paolo-and-Francesca-like way—with him. But we can rule that out for Mr. Bennet, a respectable married man, somewhat anti-social, and hardly a risk-taker.

  9. Mr. Bennet is intelligent, educated, opinionated, and at leisure. He was in a position to make corrections in his books when he noticed errors and he might have done that, though I do not see him as a rigorous or systematic critic. He might have followed the practice recommended by Montaigne, leaving a general note on a flyleaf of the book to sum up his opinion of it. This does not take long and serves two useful functions: it reminds you that you have in fact read the book before and it resurrects your first impressions. But of all the common uses of marginalia in the period the one that seems most likely to have been congenial to Mr. Bennet was desultory commentary, a kind of talking back to the book as the spirit moves you. This practice has nothing to do with pupillage and self-improvement, everything to do with self-assertion, reinforcing your prejudices, and the love of a good fight.

  10. When I consider the example of celebrities of the period in relation to Mr. Bennet, I have to dismiss the greatest models—Hunt and Keats, who wrote notes in friendly competition with others of their circle; Blake, who used marginalia as an alternative form of publication; Horace Walpole, whose books supported and supplemented his ambition to be the memoirist of his generation; Hester Piozzi, who displayed her charm and her learning; Coleridge, who dazzled his acquaintance with his intellectual virtuosity. Though only semi-public these are all still too public for the retiring Mr. Bennet. In the second rank there are more promising matches. William Beckford used idiosyncratically to copy onto the flyleaves of his beautiful little books the passages that he especially enjoyed, sometimes adding cynical remarks of his own; but even that would probably have been too much like regular work for Mr. Bennet. Thelwall and Horne Tooke exercised their debating skills by chaffing, hectoring, and arguing with the author in the margins of the page. That sounds more his style: it doesn't have to be sustained disagreement, and the author couldn't talk back. But the figure who comes closest to what I imagine was Mr. Bennet's custom is, not surprisingly, Jane Austen. We do not have many instances of her marginalia and what we have is small-scale stuff, nothing like Coleridge's expansive essays. We know that she wrote a playful note at the end of Burney's Camilla proposing an extension of the plot (Doody, 272) and that she defended Mary Queen of Scots against the historian William Robertson (Le Faye). Was Mary violent in her attachments as Robertson says she was? "No." Was she impatient of contradiction? "No." Was she fond of flattery? "A lie." Did her personal weaknesses betray her into errors and crimes? "[A]nother lie." Can anything justify her attachment to Bothwell? "She was not attached to him." And so on. These are brief but confident interventions of a kind that we can easily imagine Mr. Bennet making.

  11. What was Mr. Bennet doing in his library? He was avoiding his family, especially his wife. He was hiding out. All readers understand that. So what is the point of all this fanciful speculation about his writing notes in his books? Obviously I am using the Bennet household which we know well to make a point about social history, to introduce a feature of late-eighteenth-century life with which we are not so familiar. The widespread practice of book owners should be relevant to our reading of Austen's novels, which after all emerged out of and like a jet of water fell back into the fountain-basin of print culture.

  12. Austen's contemporaries were enthusiastic and rather formidable readers partly because of the environment in which they operated, and a significant part of that environment was the permissive attitude toward the physical handling of books. They may have been luxuries but they were not pampered luxuries. Bibliomania and connoisseurship were still to come when Austen wrote this book; the Public Libraries Act was unthought of. Educators advocated making notes in books as a way of sharpening the reader's own thinking; annotated books were circulated among groups of friends as in a virtual book club. The general attitude towards books was respectful but practical. They were put to use: read from aloud at all sorts of social gatherings, mined for good lines that could be introduced in conversation, and made the subject of conversation themselves, as we see over and over again in the novels. All these and other functions could be supported by the reader's making notes; in consequence, there is a substantial body of marginalia of this period, much of it by readers whose identity we do not know.

  13. I don't want to overstate the case for the importance of this material but it surprises me to find how often the evidence of marginalia has been overlooked. In part this neglect comes about from our own prejudices: we assume that marginalia are transgressive and aberrant, though that has not always been the case. We have lost touch with this order of document: we are not sure how to assess marginalia. But believe me, readers' notes are worth looking at. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when books were expected to last and to circulate, reading with pen in hand put readers on their mettle. They did not think of themselves as "consumers"; they meant to make a permanent contribution to the book. For the social historian, the resulting notes flesh out the understanding of everyday life and give access to the relatively—I stress, only relatively—unguarded opinions of readers who were not public figures. To the historian of reading, they offer insight into prevalent attitudes towards books and individual cases of readers' engagement with books. (As James Secord says, "To learn what is really important about reading, the limited and partial evidence of the situated case . . . remains vital even when audiences number in the millions" [519].) For literary historians, they illustrate contemporary critical norms. They can therefore support reception studies, complementing the public record of reviews, editions, and sales. They can help us to avoid "presentism" by causing us to see a text through the eyes of a contemporary reader. But the main thing, it seems to me, is that the process of note-making was part of the whole system of production. Marginalia expose standards that are usually tacit. We can see from these notes what readers expected, whether they were pleased with a book or not; and from what they expected we can infer what writers aimed to supply, not only because they were attentive to their audiences but because they themselves were a part of the audience, trained to a common standard. In various ways, marginalia express and enforce standards. One of the reasons that I think Mr. Bennet's marginalia must have been of the tart and corrective type, enforcing standards, is that he tells Elizabeth, as you will recall, that though he was prepared "to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, he was used to be free from them" in his library (71).


Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1932.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Le Faye, Deirdre. "New Marginalia in Jane Austen's Books." Book Collector 49 (2000): 222-6.

Secord, James. Victorian Sensation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.