Library Blog

Jane Austen (1775-1817), colored portrait.
Jane Austen (1775-1817), colored portrait.

Austen's Emma in Hammond's Circulating Library

Wednesday, August 9, 2017
July 18th marked the 200th deathiversary of beloved and renowned author Jane Austen (December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817). Wanting to note the occasion somehow, I went digging through our collection looking for something with an eye to post about it. I was delighted to discover that the Library holds a first American edition of Emma, a tricky but brilliant novel. A difficult character to appreciate for much of the novel, Austen commented to family about the eponymous protagonist at the outset of her writing, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”  

Title page of Emma, Vol. 2, first American edition.

Reception of Emma was mixed, receiving several glowing reviews while other critics complained about a disagreeable heroine and lack of plot and romance, overlooking (or ignoring) the biting critique of British gentry and social realism. Regardless of the critics, the novel was quickly published in America and then France, playing on the author’s notoriety by listing on the title page “By the Author of Pride and Prejudice.” Emma was published in London on December 29th, 1815, and the first American edition was published soon after in Philadelphia in 1816 by M. Carey. The Library’s copy is quite rare, with only five known surviving institutional copies.
 
The Library’s copy of Emma came to the collection in 1868 through the gift of James Hammond’s circulating library, now our Hammond Collection. James Hammond was a successful merchant who ran the largest circulating library in New England out of his dry goods shop in Newport, Rhode Island from 1811 until his death in 1866. Circulating libraries were for-profit endeavors, charging patrons either a small daily rental fee for each book borrowed or an annual membership fee that was significantly less than the membership fees for social or subscription libraries. Circulating libraries remained popular because they provided affordable access to expensive commodities (books), were accessible to women, and stocked books that their customers wanted, when they wanted them. Circulating libraries were the public’s main source for fiction and novels, subjects unpopular with the librarians and clerks of social libraries. (Social libraries generally held the conservative view of fiction, common up through the mid-19th century, that reading fiction “leads to impiety and the moral disintegration of society.”) Social and subscription libraries tended to purchase books that would promote a culture of learning, necessitating members interested in novels to either purchase their own, or to borrow from a circulating library. 
Image of James Hammond's Circulating Library bookplate.
 
Hammond did not build his library from scratch; the original collection belonged to William R. Wilder who established his library in 1798. Wanton & Rathbone of Providence and Newport purchased Wilder’s library in 1806, and then sold it to Hammond in 1811. Following tradition, Hammond continued to add popular fiction titles of the day to his library, attracting more members and allowing him to grow the collection up to (and surpassing) 10,000 volumes. Upon his death, Hammond’s assistant managed the library for some time before auctioning off the collection. Robert Lenox Kennedy, a relative of James Lenox (one of the founders of the New York Public Library), purchased part of the collection and gifted it to the Library. The Library has 1,153 titles (comprising a total of 1,852 volumes) in our Hammond Collection. 
 
I believe the Library’s Emma is a truly special specimen in our collection. Worn and battered, this copy indicates its popularity among the New England readership, and the popularity novels enjoyed in general during the early to mid-19th century despite the fiction nay-sayers. These two volumes are notable for the sheer amount of annotations found within. Written in several different hands, readers actively engaged with this text, offering a glimpse into the 19th century reading experience. Many of the annotations appear erased, and some have faded over time. In some areas comments appear over previously erased remarks, only faint pencil marks remaining underneath or around the more discernible writing.

A reader writes, “This book is not worth reading. [illegible] the author is their time had better been spent in reading than inventing [illegible].”

It appears the people who frequented Hammond’s library were disenchanted with Emma, finding some characters disagreeable or intolerable. While the first volume is relatively free from marks, the second volume bears the brunt of the readers’ ire. On page 43, one person remarks, “I wonder who likes this book.” Another reader takes their critique a bit further, writing on page 20, “This book is not worth reading. [illegible] the author is their time had better been spent in reading than inventing [illegible].” It appears this reader did finish the novel, as a note in a similar hand appears on the last page, “I am delighted to get through with Emma Woodhouse or Mrs. Knightley.” Annotations in the novels in the Hammond Collection are a source of a wealth of information about the American reading experience. While wrapping up this post, I came across this blog post by Madeline McMahon, which posits her interpretations of the American readership’s experience of Austen via these annotations.
                            A reader's annotation, "I wonder who likes this book."
Despite the above readers’ criticisms, and the mixed reception of the novel, Emma has continued to persevere over the past 202 years, sparking numerous film, stage, and television adaptations. Have you read Emma? Do you identify with the comments of these 19th century readers? Let us know your opinions in the comments!  While this copy of Emma is too fragile to access, the Society Library holds a trove of Austen material, ranging from biographies to critical editions of the novels, criticisms to adaptations and more, for members to browse and enjoy.