Friday, 8 October 2010

Chawton House Library Reading Group: New season 2010-2011

The reading group convened again on Monday 20 September to discuss Ashton Priory one of the rare texts in the collection. Ashton Priory can be accessed as part of the Novels-On-Line project, or purchased as a paperback from Chawton House Library. It was an extremely lively session and we discussed whether it was a Gothic novel, the history of the Minerva Press, stock characters, Restoration comedy and whether or not it was a morality tale.The demand of a reading public for novels in the eighteenth century and the advent of Gothic and romance novels brought a need for libraries accessible to the general public. William Lane took advantage of this and opened a lending library in 1763 in Whitechapel, moving to Leadenhall Street in 1790 where he set up Minerva Press. Minerva Press dominated the novel publishing business for the next fifteen years and Ashton Priory is one example of its output. Ashton Priory, written in 1792 and published anonymously, is not a Gothic novel, it is melodramatic but it has no element of horror. Its stock characters are reminiscent of Restoration comedy and the novels of Henry Fielding, such as Sir Bevil Grimstone, an old fop well-past his best and the malapropisms of the tyrannical Butterfield matriarch. Money and society, female education and the promotion of meritocracy are the central themes woven around the romances of the young and the subterfuges of the covetous. The trials Charlotte and Eliza face result from the greed of others: Charlotte narrowly escapes a forced marriage to a licentious nobleman who has offered to ‘buy’ her from her guardian; Eliza, the erstwhile romantic novel reader, faced with the fragility of respectability when she is left destitute by her husband evades prostitution. Eliza dies tragically, punished for the fanciful notions that she develops from her reading, and the well-balanced, irritatingly virtuous Charlotte is rewarded by marriage to the man she loves. She merits reward in this tale, as do her brother, members of the Sanders family and the man who becomes her husband, George Danby. They all are hard-working, socially responsible characters. The villains of the story: the avaricious, the lustful, the lazy, the conceited, have to change or loose status, die and face disgrace. We had to conclude it was a morality tale and an emphatically middle class one. Over the year we will several more of the books that form part of the Novels-On-Line project including The Castle of Tynemouth by Jane Harvey and Cava of Toledo; or, the Gothic Princess, Augusta Amelia Stuart.

Friday, 3 September 2010

A Case of Mental Courage

David Brooks has written in the New York Times about mental character and rigour in thought quoting Frances Burney as an example of mental fortitude:

To quote Brooks: 'In 1811, the popular novelist Fanny Burney learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia. She lay down on an old mattress, and a piece of thin linen was placed over her face, allowing her to make out the movements of the surgeons above her.' Burney suffered physically and mentally for months after her operation but forced herself to face it, and write about it with moral fortitude. Brooks presents her as a role model for all of us now in how we should step back and think about our own weaknesses in thinking.

The image above shows a photograph of the Frances Burney books in the collection at Chawton House Library and we also have a developing collection of critical works of and about Burney.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

That 'known scribbler': Frances Burney in the collection at Chawton House Library

Chawton House Library has first and early editions of Frances Burney's work and the titles of her novels are known from references in the writing of Jane Austen, her contemporary and fan, and the endeavours of feminist scholars to 'rediscover' the works of early modern women writers in the second half of the twentieth century. Burney was, in the closing years of the eighteenth century, a renowned and influential novelist, but after her death she became known primarily as a diarist. After Pepys she may well be the second most important social commentator with her journals and letters (1768-1839) reflecting upheavals in British and European culture and history. Her life-writing also reveals her concerns about her literary ambitions and achievements as an eigtheenth-century woman writer.

The Library's Frances Burney holdings can be found on the catalogue:

Friday, 14 May 2010

'Adorn'd with Cuts': the Illustrated Book in the Eighteenth Century

We held at conference at Chawton House Library today that drew on the growing interest and debate about the use of images to illustrate texts in the flourishing print culture of the eighteenth century. The conference drew together different approaches to book illustration in order to consider the production, purpose and interpretation of images in books of this date. The photograph above shows an exhibition of a number of the Library's most intriguing illustrated texts curated for this event.

The day's speakers included Helen Cole, University of Southampton and Chawton House Library; John Feather, University of Loughborough; Ann Lewis, Birkbeck College, University of London and Brian Alderson, Institute of English Studies. The presentations had one overriding theme in common: questions about how readers used images in their understanding of the texts, and what publishers were trying to communicate with their use of images.

The exhibition displayed books thematically: diagrammatic illustration, fashion and fiction, conduct literature, artists and engravers, portraits and tales of terror. The books displayed included Behn's translation of La Montre, Mirror of the Graces, Halifax's Advice to a Daughter, Blackwell's Herbal, Heywood's Examplary Women and Wilkinson's Lisette of Savoy.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Chawton House Library Reading Group 2010-2011

The Library runs a reading group for the discussion of the work of women writers, 1600 to 1830,The group meets each month, September to May, on the third Monday of the month at 2pm. Afternoon tea is available during the Reading Group meetings for £2.50 per person.

This year we are going to read some of the novels-on-line texts which will be available in paperback and we will focus on the Gothic. The profits from the books published by Chawton House Library go towards new acquisitions to continue the development of the library’s collection. As 2011the bicentenary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility that has to be on the list!

Chawton House Library Reading Group Schedule 2010-2011

Monday 20 September 2010 Ashton Priory, Anonymous. Chawton House Library Books £15.00

Monday 18 October 2010 The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. Stuart Curran. OUP USA; New edition edition £18.00 (A selection of poems from the book will be selected by Ruth Facer, a member of the group and an independent scholar.)

Monday 15 November 2010 The Castle of Tynemouth, Jane Harvey. Chawton House Library Books (price tbc.)

Monday 20 December 2010 The ‘Blazing World’ and other writings, Margaret Cavendish. Penguin £9.99

Monday 17 January 2011 The Princess of Cleves. An Historical Novel, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de la Verne La Fayette. Chawton House Library Books (price tbc.)

Monday 21 February and Monday 21 March 2011 Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists, Mary Pix, Susanna Centlivre, Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah Cowley. £9.99 (We will discuss 2 plays from this book for each of these 2 sessions.)

Monday 18 April 2011 Cava of Toledo; or, the Gothic Princess, Augusta Amelia Stuart. Chawton House Library Books (price tbc.)

Monday 16 May 2011 Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen. Penguin £3.99

Monday, 19 April 2010

Susannah Centlivre discussed on Radio 4

Centlivre's The Wonder is April's book for the Chawton House Library reading group. It is a lively, fast-paced comedy and you will be able to read a review later.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Chawton House Library Images

Chawton House Library has a wealth of illustrations, and decorative frontispieces, hidden away between the pages of the books, as well as stunning collections of paintings and maps. All of the images used on this blog are from these and are copyright to Chawton House Library. They can be provided by application to the Library for other publications, contact

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott

Millenium Hall is a book I have meant to read for years and when one of the Visiting Fellows at Chawton House Library likened the fellowships to having one's own 'Millenium Hall' - even down to the fruit and vegetables from the Walled Garden and the chickens (all the fellows at that point were women but it's not always so) . I knew it was time to read it and put it on the list for the reading group.

Sarah Scott creates a sanctuary for women at Millenium Hall and like Chawton House Library men are welcomed. Unlike Chawton House Library she seeks to reveal to men their abuses of women; Chawton House Library seeks to educate all equally about the neglected women writers of our literary history. The male narrator of Scott's novel provides a positive and engaging account of Millenium Hall as he and his companion, Lamont, discover it by accident on an excursion in the countryside. He describes it as an 'earthly paradise' and throughout the novel his glowing reports of the house and its inhabitants is interspersed with the stories of the women that live there.

The women at Millenium Hall have all suffered abuse by men: unhappy marriages, tyrannical husbands, attempted rape, the prejudice of fathers, illegitimacy and abandonment. Together they have created an idyllic female community and Scott's novel presents us with a utopian vision for another way of living other than the assumption that women must have their lives determined by men: husbands, or fathers and brothers if they fail to marry. Scott's women have not failed because they reject wedlock for themselves, instead they carve out fulfilling lives in a different and more independent way.

While utopian Scott's novel is not revolutionary; she does not seek to overturn the status quo - the women at Millenium Hall declare themselves in favour of marriage - which with the development of a Christian and philanthropic community, she in fact upholds conservative values. Her novel is semi-autobiographical, with her own experiences of an unhappy marriage, and a life-long deep female friendship, have been transformed into creating a vision of another way of living for those that wish to choose it.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Epistolary Literature

Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time website makes available a programme from 2007 on epistolary fiction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

It includes references to writers in the collection at Chawton House Library, such as Aphra Behn and Frances Burney. As a genre, epistolary fiction, was a hugely popular and novels by both well- and lesser-known authors are held in the collection. Many of these novels also remain anonymous and Chawton House Library has about 280 of these.