A Mirror of Jane Austen’s Reading Library

– What was Jane Austen reading?

Several university classes this semester have explored this question by means of a dedicated display case in Rare Books and Special Collections.  Shakespeare – Bacon – Hume – Johnson – Burney – Voltaire – Rousseau are just a few of the highlighed authors from the long eighteenth century.

Between 1798 and 1813, four years before her untimely death at the age of 41, Austen visited her brother’s estate housing a splendid private library at Godmersham Park. McGill Rare Books and Special Collections, in partnership with the  McGill Burney Centre, is showcasing a sampling of books that Jane Austen and her family were enjoying, featuring titles from the long eighteenth century. Our choices were based on exact matches to the imprints once held in the Godmersham Library, and, only those works in their original bindings.  The books effectively reflect the look and feel of the Library aided by a scenography that recalls the interior of the re-imagined Library.

The display offers a glimpse at contemporary female writers held in the library, such as Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) in five  volumes, and Jane Austen’s prized first edition of Sense and Sensibility (1811) printed in three volumes with the original half-title, making it worth several tens of thousands of dollars today.  Inside the front cover on the fly-leaf of this very copy is an inscription indicating that it was first owned by a resident of Quebec as early as March 10th, 1816, revealing that the circulation of popular novels across the Atlantic occurred at relatively good speed.

McGill is an important centre for Enlightenment-era authors as a whole. From the République des lettres françaises, we were able to make exact matches to eight titles by Voltaire of a possible 24,  including one of the first French editions of Candide (1759), being an untampered copy from an eighteenth century bookseller, still in its original blue paper wrappers. We also matched four titles by Rousseau of a possible seven. For instance, Emilius (1763) is a match in the English language edition in two volumes; while Julie (1761), is in the original French produced by Rousseau’s exclusive publisher Marc-Michel Rey, in three bound volumes. It would appear that either language sufficed as readings copies in this private library.

From the literary and historical classics we present a leather bound pocket book edition in 24-volumes of Bell’s Shakespeare with copious “ copper plate embellishments” and a long subscribers list (1788), along with the first English-language edition of Bacon’s Of the Advancement and Proficience of Learning, (1640) representing the earliest publication in the display. From the Scottish Enlightenment, we matched readily enough Hume’s History of England in six volumes in-quarto (1762). In fact, McGill owns three copies of this edition demonstrating the in-depth collecting that is has been achieved for the Hume Collection over the past 75 years, making it the best institutional library outside of Edinburgh for Hume research.

The absolute star item of the exhibit is The American Gazetteer (1762) published in London in three volumes, the same set formerly sitting on the shelves of the Godmersham Library. With its many fold-out maps, this resource would have been a key resource on the British colonies and of great interest to British landowners.

This copy  was quite probably held in the hands of Jane Austen. Moreover, it is the only Godmersham Library book identified in Canada to date.

Historical traces in books led researchers to uncover this title by the evidence of a highly stylized bookplate of Jane’s family relation (Montagu George Knight of Chawton) along with an accompanying shelf mark.

The set came to McGill by way of Lawrence Lande, an avid collector of British colonial books. Our research to date indicates that this book was one of the first editions he purchased between 1955 and 1965, the date on which Lande donated the results of his Canadiana collecting to McGill Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections. It is now known as the widely esteemed  Lande Collection of Canadiana.  Professor Peter Sabor suggests that this scenario fits perfectly with the biography of Edward Knight III who funded, right at this time, the private school tuitions for his sons by selling parts of the Library as of 1935.

The Godermersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), is seeking to locate the rest of the scattered volumes. Search your library catalogue for the bookplates of “Montagu Knight” in the notes or provenance section of the search page. Contact the McGill Burney Centre if you would like more information or would like to report a match.

The exhibit was created to accompany an event hosted by ROAAr Reading with Austen with the Director of McGill’s Burney Centre Peter Sabor and PhD Candidate Catherine Nygren on the occasion of the launch of the Burney Centre’s new website:

Reading with Austen   (www.readingwithausten.com).

Curated by Ann Marie Holland, Rare Books and Special Collections with the precious collaboration of Willow White, PhD Candidate in English Literature at McGill University , the display is on view currently and through to Dec 24 2019 in the Reading Room of  Rare Books and Special Collections, 4th floor, McLennan Library Building.

Opening hours 10 am – 6 pm. Monday to Friday.

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