Popular Books of the 1760s as Found in an Inventory of Thomas Lowndes’ Circulating Library taken in 1766 (the year prior to Eliza Draper’s voyage)
Many of the popular works of the eighteenth-century have been left discarded and unstudied by the modern university canon, their literary merit often brought into question. Generally considered “low” or overly romantic and scorned by the intelligentsia, these works were nevertheless hugely popular. Many cheap romantic fictions flourished alongside the more “respectable” works of Defoe, Fielding, Pope, Richardson, Smollett, Swift et al. Of course there is every chance that Eliza may have read the canonical classics that we still enjoy and study in the 21st century; however a long voyage may have required something a little more ephemeral, lighter and trashier to pass the time
Circulating libraries were hugely popular as a source of fiction, especially amongst the leisured class of female readers. The Lowndes inventory gives us a clue as to the types of books Eliza may have taken with her on her travels. An eighteenth-century voyage to India would have taken at least seven months to complete, ample reason for the majority of cabins to be fitted with a small book shelf along with an accompanying oil lamp. Eliza would have been able to stock her shelf with enough works to keep her mind and spirit sated during her long passage east.
Thomas Lowndes, bookseller and library owner
-Though, as book historian James Raven notes, ‘few of the pioneer libraries [of the eighteenth-century] survived for more than a few years’ (Raven, 2007, p. 124), Lowndes’ library proved to be an exception to the rule.
- A bookshop and circulating library owner, Lowndes (born 1719, died 1784) traded on Fleet Street for nearly 30 years (1756-1784).
- Lowndes is believed to have provided the real-life model for Briggs the bookseller in Frances Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia.
- Raven describes Lowndes’ circulating library as one of ‘the earliest and most extensive’ (Raven, 2007, p. 163)
- Lowndes’ library focused on providing purely populist fiction. Lowndes himself was not a university educated man, but he made up for this in business acumen. His contemporaries described him as ‘a strong minded uneducated man; rough in his manners, but of sterling integrity’ (Raven, 2007, p. 213).
- Like the great Robert Dodsley, Thomas Lowndes originally came from outside London (in Lowndes case, Cheshire). He arrived in the city to seek his fortune in the book trade.
- Thomas Lowndes’ business model proved highly successful. The key to Lowndes success lay in his ability to link his circulating library to his interests as a bookseller and publisher. As Raven notes, the interconnection that Lowndes established between his business interests allowed for a ‘rapid and profitable response to changing tastes’ (Raven, 2007, p. 240).
Selected Works Available in Lowndes’ Circulating Library
Anon, Memoirs of Sir Thomas Hughson and Mr. Joseph Williams (1757) – The novel that Oliver Goldsmith slated, Memoirs of Sir Thomas Hughson and Mr. Joseph Williams nevertheless remained popular in the circulating libraries and its author remains mysteriously unknown!
Henry Brooke, Fool of Quality Vols I and II (1765 and 1766) – Abandoned by his decadent father, Harry Clinton must make his own way in the world. The first two volumes of his adventures established this sprawling work as the exemplary novel of sensibility.
John Cleland, The Surprises of Love (1765) – From the infamous author of Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, one of the most salacious, bawdy and downright scandalous novels of this or any period. A collection of tales to reaffirm the power of romance.
Mary Collyer, Felicia to Charlotte: Being Letters from a Young Lady in the Country, to her friend in Town (1744-1749) – Having established a successful career translating popular French works, Mary Collyer presented her first original epistolary novel; a timely reminder of the old sentimental adage that ‘the seeds of virtue are implanted in the mind of every reasonable being’.
Ann Louise Elie de Beaumont’s The History of a Young Lady of Distinction (1754) – Mme Elie de Beaumont’s lavish epistolary novel, sure to satisfy fashionable London’s craving for all things French.
Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) – The sentimental pastoral novel that everyone (including the great Dr. Johnson) was talking about. Goldsmith introduces us to Charles Primrose, the country vicar in dire need of the patience of Job.
Eliza Haywood, The Husband: in Answer to the Wife (1756) – Current or prospective husbands take heed! Sound moral advice for the men of the house from the eighteenth century’s most popular expert on the arts of love.
Eliza Haywood, History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753) – One of Eliza Hayood’s last novels and her most true-to-life; a sprightly tale of courtship and marriage amongst the leisured classes of the eighteenth century.
Eliza Haywood, The Invisible Spy (1755) – Inspired by the works of Richardson, Haywood created this unsettling chronicle of scandal and secrecy. Narrated by an invisible observer recording dialogues on to a magic tablet, this is the popular female novelist at her most outré!
Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote (1752) – This picaresque classic follows the exploits of Arabella, a high-class lady of virtue who develops an unhealthy obsession with cheap romantic fiction.
Robert Paltock, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man (1751) Paltock’s romantic and marvelous island tale was described by Coleridge as ‘a work of uncommon beauty’ and proved to be hugely influential on the latter’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. From the horrors of cannibalism to the wonders of flying women, Paltock’s imagination knew few bounds, attracting the later admiration of Walter Scott and Charles Lamb.
Henri François de la Solle, Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure, or, The Adventures of Versorand (1751) – As the great Lady Mary Wortley Montagu herself observed, novels dismissed as ‘trash, trumpery, &c.’ are often the most entertaining. She was of course talking about Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure, translated from the French by Mr. John Hill.
Benjamin Victor, The Widow of the Wood (1755) – From the pen of Benjamin Victor, poet laureate of Ireland and Drury Lane treasurer, The Widow of the Wood is a wonderfully salacious take on the ups and downs of marriage and widowhood. Described by James Boswell as a man of ’a great many anecdotes’, Victor is the ideal chronicler of Ann Northey’s numerous dalliances and marriages. A novel considered so offensive by the Wolseley family that William Wolseley (5th baronet of Staffordshire) attempted to destroy every copy he could lay his hands on.
ALEXANDER HARDIE – FORSYTH (Shandy Hall intern).
Edward Jacobs, Publishers of Fiction in the Circulating Library Catalog of Thomas Lowndes (1766)
James Raven, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Booktrade 1450-1850 (London: Yale University Press, 2007)