Today, I am glad to host Grace Elliot, author of historical romances, including Verity’s Lie. Here, Grace discusses options available for book lovers during the Regency. – Kim
By Grace Elliot
If you are visiting this blog, then it’s likely you are a bookworm, and a history loving one at that! But if you lived in the 18th century, then your addiction could be difficult to feed – unless you were wealthy.
Low priced books did exist, in the form of chapbooks. These were mass-produced 24-page booklets with a woodcut illustration on the front cover. The latter did not necessarily reflect the content, for example, the story of Dick Turpin had a Turk with a scimitar on the front cover. Chapbooks were retellings of folk stories such as Robin Hood or Tom Thumb, or accounts of sensational stories such as the criminal Jack Sheppard. Chapbooks were at their most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and were sold by street vendors who also touted sheet music and broadsides (single sheet reports of crime, gossip and deathbed confessions).
Chapbooks were cheap and designed for the masses; for those with money at the luxury end of the market were professionally printed books. To some extent these expensive books were fashion items because they manufactured either bound or unbound – if the latter, the purchaser could choose a binding to match his library décor!
What is perhaps surprising is the number of bookshops that existed as early as 1700. At the beginning of the 18th century it is estimated there were 200 booksellers operating in the 50 largest towns. By 1790, this had increased to 1,000 shops in 300 towns. That said, these shops sold diverse goods and the card of “William Owen, Bookseller” is illustrated with bottles – perhaps hinting that his primary trade was not paper goods.
The inability of booksellers to survive selling books alone was because of the price. In the 1770s a complete set of Shakespeare cost £3 at a time when a teacher earned £12 a year. A curate’s entire salary of £20 a year, could buy 12 novels. However, some members of the upper classes were happy to keep prices high, to prevent lower classes becoming infected with unsuitable ideas for their station. It was a perfectly conventional assumption at the time to think that knowledge was a dangerous commodity. Indeed, an attorney general wrote to one author:
“Continue…to publish…in octavo form [a luxury format], so as to confine it to that class of readers who may consider it coolly; so soon as it is published cheaply for dissemination among the populace it will be my duty to prosecute.”
So what of bookshops? To this day, you can visit Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly and get a flavour of what a 19th century bookshop was like. Founded in 1797, Hatchard’s is the oldest bookshop in London and welcomed Jane Austen, Byron and Disraeli amongst its customers. Still trading today, the creaky wooden floors, quaint curved staircases and floor-to-ceiling books evoke a bygone atmosphere. Indeed, in my new release, Verity’s Lie, it is one of the heroine’s favourite haunts and she pays it a visit…with unexpected consequences.
Excerpt from Verity’s Lie
Verity suppressed a smile. If only she too could be free of Miss Mowlam, even for half an hour, but alas it was not to be; however, a different kind of escape waited within Hatchard’s book shop.
This was one of Verity’s favorite places. To browse the window display, which was crammed with books of all sizes with leather spines tooled in gilt, brought it own type of joy. The shop’s long frontage comprised central doors flanked by bay windows, and Verity approached it with anticipation. Her eyes danced from volume to volume, taking note which to ask for once inside.
Browsing the window brought her to the neighboring store, and it was then she noticed a chalk drawing on the pavement.
Curious, she stooped to examine a lively caricature of the Prince Regent, accurate to the popping waistcoat buttons over a burgeoning belly. A boy knelt over the sketch with chalk in one hand and charcoal in the other. Verity was shocked by the child’s appearance: barefoot and patched breeches held up with string.
He glanced up. “Please, miss. Spare a coin, miss?”
There was raw need written large on his face. The boy, she realized, was younger than she’d originally supposed.
“Where are your parents?” she asked gently.
“Dead, miss.” His tone flat and matter-of-fact.
“Where do you live?”
The boy’s gaze dropped to the ground. “Any where’s I can, miss.”
She frowned at his matted hair and ragged clothes. While growing up, crying herself to sleep for the want of her mother, she had always had food and shelter, but this child had nothing. With trembling fingers she pulled at her reticule’s drawstring.
“Who looks after you?” she persisted. A shadow fell across the edge of her vision.
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is passionate about history, romance and cats! She is housekeeping staff to five cats, two sons, one husband and a bearded dragon (not necessarily listed in order of importance). Verity’s Lie is Grace’s fourth novel. Find out more about Grace at her blog, Fall in Love With History, her website and her Amazon author’s page. You can also connect with Grace on Twitter @Grace_Elliot and Facebook.