The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?
Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze.
But it was a visit to the Leeds Library during the RNA Conference last month which really started me thinking hard.
Authors Kate Walker and Juliet Bell (a.k.a. Janet Gover and Alison May) gave a panel discussion there, considering whether any of the Brontë sisters’ novels could be called romantic to an audience of 50% romantic novelists and 50% library subscribers. All had written modern versions of Wuthering Heights. The consensus was — passionate and intense, yes; romantic, no.
Leeds Georgian Library
Leeds Library is in the middle of a shopping street and its truly wonderful reading rooms are situated above the shop, as it were. We were looking for No 18, but the shop hoardings had no numbers. We flew up and down the street, frantic, as the minutes ticked by and the Hour of the Lecture approached.
in fact, this siting of the library was deliberate, according to their own website. The rental for the shops in what was then the most fashionable shopping street in Leeds, provided useful income to support the library.
For the Leeds Library is the oldest surviving subscription library in the UK. It was founded in 1768, purchasing books which could be lent out to paying members for a period of 10 days at a time. The library ticket states that if the books were not returned, the fine was sixpence a day. This was a lot. (One scholar suggests its purchasing power in 1760 would be equivalent to £5-£7.50 today.)
But then books were seriously expensive, which is why even prosperous people wanted to read more books and journals than they could afford to buy. And the Library was furnished so that the patrons would feel comfortably at home, as the bill for 20 green chairs attests. Twelve still survive!
Georgian Library Secretary
The blue plaque helpfully explains that the first secretary of the Library was Joseph Priestley. Now, this threw me. Surely not the Joseph Priestley who was one of the Lunar Men, friend of Josiah Wedgwood and Benjamin Franklin?
I had heard of him among Enlightenment scholars of the West Midlands and also in London, where he met Franklin and went to the Royal Society. But Leeds?
A Yorkshireman by birth, he lived and worked in Leeds for some years. Indeed he organised a local census in 1771 and was supported in the endeavour by many Leeds Library members according to a talk at the Library earlier this year.
I’ve always been fond of Priestley. He was a grammarian and wrote the most widely used grammar book of the day. He sounds like a born teacher, which was a role he took very seriously. He invented soda water. He was a Dissenting cleric who didn’t believe in life after death. He sort of discovered oxygen — before galloping off madly in the wrong direction, propounding the phlogiston theory.
He was an optimist. When Priestley had the brilliant idea of using electricity to decorate pottery, Wedgwood teased him affectionately, “Heaven’s dread bolt is now called down to amuse your wives and daughters — to decorate your tea-boards and baubles.”
And in the end, his radical pro-revolution views forced him out of England (via Hackney where he also gets a blue plaque, incidentally) to spend the last ten years of his life in Pennsylvania.
I really like thinking of Priestley organising this delightful library. I just bet he adored it.