The elite—the aristocratic, noble and rich merchant males—were almost totally literate by 1600.
Obviously, as literacy grew so did the desire for books. A spurt in publishing—due to the relaxation of the crown and conservatism—started in the late seventeenth century to meet those needs.
Books in the past were rare, usually of a religious bent, and treated as sacred. Cookery and herbal books were found in many households. Sermons and poetry were the most widely published literary forms in this era. History books were national or Eurocentric, with an emphasis on understanding France (and do we yet understand the French?).
Books became widely available from lending libraries, booksellers, and even itinerant peddlers sold abbreviated versions of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, or Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones.
Periodicals, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, advertised what new novels were available to order and purchase from the booksellers. These books could also be borrowed for a nominal fee.
|Library at Margate|
The fee of three shillings a quarter, kept the poorer people at bay. But libraries were still a bargain because books weren’t cheap. By the third quarter of the century one novel could cost three shillings.
Unfortunately, libraries earned the reputation as places full of fictional pap served up for rich ladies with nothing better to do than read romantic nonsense. Though men remained the majority subscribers, visiting to read or discuss religious and political controversy.
Church libraries offered books to the poorer in the parish, though probably not the variety.
Coffee houses maintained collections of books for their patrons, which had to be read on the premises. Any man, merchant or laborer, could wander in, order a glass of punch, and read a newspaper—a sign of English liberty.
Even the illiterate were encouraged to buy books so their more literate friends could read to them. People read aloud in taverns for the enjoyment of the less educated.
Well-appointed homes had private libraries for the use of family and guests. In 1650 few country houses had a room set aside for books and reading, while in the late eighteenth century a house without a library was unthinkable.
Books became icons. In paintings, the depiction of a man with books became as common as with his spouse or dog. And though men would never admit it, the frivolous novel reader was as much male as female.
With this wider reading public, more women romantic writers emerged, such as Fanny Burney (Evelina, 1778; Cecilia, 1782) and Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794). But men also wrote romantic novels: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, 1749; Amelia by Henry Fielding, 1751.
Everyone profited from increased literacy, education and the availability of the written word to broaden the mind in the sciences, philosophy, history, and of course, those romantic novels for pleasure.
Source: The Pleasures of the Imagination, by John Brewer, 1997
Diane Scott Lewis writes historical fiction with romantic elements. Visit her website: