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The Readership of Books in Ireland, 1700-1800

Livres et lecteurs en Irlande de 1700 à 1800
Máire Kennedy
p. 39-54

Résumé

Cet essai se place du point de vue du lecteur en tant que centre du circuit de communication et se propose  d’observer comment tous les autres processus se déterminent à partir de lui.
En Irlande, le XVIIIe siècle fut l’époque où l’accès à l’éducation commença à s’élargir, et un  nombre croissant de personnes issues des classes moyennes ou supérieures de la société étaient non seulement capables de lire, mais en avaient aussi l’occasion.
En s’appuyant sur les listes d’abonnements et sur les informations sur leur provenance contenues dans les livres, il est possible d’identifier ces lecteurs, et à travers des journaux intimes, des lettres ou des récits personnels, de se faire une idée du type de réactions suscitées par les textes chez leurs lecteurs. Cet article donne des exemples  à travers lesquels on découvre la lecture telle qu’elle se pratiquait à différents niveaux de la société et dans diverses circonstances.
Les textes lus dans l’enfance laissent des souvenirs particulièrement vifs et les lecteurs du XVIIIe siècle discutaient parfois des textes qui les avaient séduits. A l’inverse, la lecture à l’âge de l’adolescence était sévèrement contrôlée et il se trouvait nombre de gardiens des bonnes mœurs désireux de donner leur avis. Dans les milieux populaires, il n’était pas nécessaire de savoir lire pour que les informations et les nouvelles se transmettent efficacement ; un seul lecteur dans un groupe suffisait pour que tous soient informés. Les ordres religieux encourageaient la lecture comme faisant partie de la vie dévote et les lecteurs faisaient souvent part de leurs réactions aux textes religieux.

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Texte intégral

  • 1  Pollard, M., Dublin's trade in books 1550-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Pollard, M., A dict (...)
  • 2  Cunningham, Bernadette, and Máire Kennedy (eds.), The experience of reading: Irish historical pers (...)
  • 3  Sharpe, Kevin, Reading revolutions: the politics of reading in Early Modern England. New Haven and (...)

1Research carried out on the 18th-century book trade in Ireland has outlined the nature and extent of the trade, its production methods, and its distribution channels.1 Because of the difficulties associated with the recovery of past reading practices and the reception of texts, work on these topics is only beginning.2In the wider context, too, the reader has only recently come centre stage in the theory of literary criticism.3 It is the nature of reading and the levels of meaning gleaned from texts that now interest researchers in the field, questions of whether reading took place in company or alone, whether it was silent or aloud, and whether an audience listened passively or participated. Where the act of reading took place could also influence the way the text was received. The initial stages of a study of the reception of books in Ireland may come down to the accumulation of individual responses, covering a broad spectrum of social classes, educational levels and age groups, which will point to the diversity of ways in which readers chose their reading and reacted to the subjects read. A reader’s response to certain authors or subjects may change over time: the response of a young man or woman to an author such as Rousseau, to lyric poetry, or romantic tales, may not be the same for that reader twenty years later.

  • 4  Darnton, Robert, ‘What is the history of books?’ Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Scie (...)

2If we look at the reader as part of the communications circuit,4 we see his/her crucial role, not just as “end user” in the book production line, which includes author, editor, typesetter, printer, binder, wholesale dealer, bookseller, circulating library, shopkeeper, or pedlar, but as someone who could influence how that book is produced, how many copies will be printed, in what format or binding, which titles will be published and sold, how they will be advertised and otherwise promoted; the reader may become an author and create a text influenced by his/her own reading. If we can learn how the reader related to the text, discover if it was a two-way relationship, we might be able to see how reading could affect the creation and production of texts.

  • 5  Dublin Mercury (26 October 1723).

3Subscription editions have a particularly close relationship with the purchaser or reader, as subscriptions were very often gathered through personal contacts. A book could be published by subscription for a number of economic reasons. Names were collected as pledges to purchase the forthcoming volume; generally a deposit was required in advance. This method of publication ensured a certain market for the book and advanced money towards publication costs. Subscription lists are usually not a random collection of names, the persons tended to be linked in one or more ways. Subscriptions could be gathered by the author, or by his/her friends or patrons. In some instances subscription gatherers could expect some benefit for their trouble, for example an advertisement for Roderick O’Connor’s History of Ireland in 1723 offered “whoever gets ten subscriptions, shall have one book gratis”.5 A subscription list does not prove that a book was read, but it can show the level of support for an author’s work, and where that support was concentrated.

4Books yield up names of owners, and sometimes annotations, underscoring of texts, or longer comments on blank pages or endpapers. These physical traces provide evidence for reading not easily found in other sources: engagement with the text, and levels of comprehension can be deduced in optimum cases. This type of reader response is limited to the individual and needs to be interpreted with care. Provenance research, too, is problematical and requires a great deal of patient trawling through library collections. Provenance gives an indication of a book’s previous ownership, a special binding, a bookplate, a signature, a gift inscription, a library stamp, or a bookseller’s label provide a history of one particular copy of a book. Owners often included their address and a date. In this way we can determine contemporary ownership in a more positive and detailed way. Building up a picture of ownership in this manner, however, is slow and painstaking, but it can be very rewarding.

Levels of literacy

  • 6  Ó Ciosáin, Niall, Print and popular culture in Ireland, 1750-1850. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997, 3 (...)

5The earliest figures for literacy among the whole population are derived from the census of 1841, over half a century after the period under discussion. Literacy figures for males over 16 years increased from 50% to 55% from mid to late 18th century, while figures for women rose from over 30% to 34% in the same period.6 These percentages disguise major regional differences, and more significantly, ethnic and economic variations. The need for adult literacy was greatest in the cities and towns, where all dealings with commercial and civil institutions required a degree of literacy in the English language.

6The ability to read among nearly 50% of adults in the second half of the century does not imply a high level of literacy. Many may have been able to decipher shop signs and advertising, the familiar texts of scripture, or the simple narratives of chapbooks and street ballads. Advanced reading ability and comprehension was necessary to understand and derive meaning from the literary and historical publications available from Dublin bookshops and printing houses from the early years of the 18th century. This degree of reading literacy was achieved through prolonged schooling, and practice in perfecting the skill of reading. There was a growing availability of education during the 18th century, although access remained restricted. From the early years of the century those living in Dublin could visit the city’s many bookshops, and privileged individuals could gain access to research libraries: fellows to the library of Trinity College, graduates and gentlemen to Marsh’s library, founded in 1701, and members to the library of the Royal Irish Academy established in 1785. Economic status played a major role in providing the space and leisure in which to practise the skill of reading.

Availability of books

7The business of parliament, the governance of the city, the organisation of trade and commerce, and the life of the university, depended on the availability of books, pamphlets, government publications, and newspapers which brought news from abroad. It is clear that books and other printed materials were available to those who could afford to purchase them or could borrow them, and who were capable of reading them, or could listen to them being read. By the 18th century many potential readers existed, whose education and circumstances meant that they had the ability and opportunity to read. Books were imported from London and the continent, there was a thriving second-hand trade based on importations and the dispersal of private libraries, and local printing became a major feature of the Irish book trade.

  • 7  English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), CD ROM version, (1998).
  • 8  Kinane, Vincent, and Charles Benson, ‘Some late 18th- and early 19th-century Dublin printers’ acco (...)
  • 9  Herbert, Dorothea, Retrospections, 2 vols. London: Gerald Howe, 1929-1930, i, 35.

8In the region of 25,700 editions of books, pamphlets and papers printed in Ireland have survived from the period 1700 to 1800.7Edition sizes are unknown for most of the century. They could have ranged from one to two hundred for books published by subscription, to several thousand copies for schoolbooks, chapbooks and devotional texts, aimed at the popular market and the country trade. The ledgers of the Graisberry printing house show print-runs of one to five thousand copies of schoolbook titles printed from the 1770s to the early 1800s and from six to ten thousand for Catechisms.8 Religious works and sermons were often sold at wholesale rates to encourage purchasers to distribute them to the poor. Auction notices for the sale of houses and their contents from mid-century indicate that books played an increased role in country life. In the last two decades of the century books and libraries featured in country house sales, showing an increase in book ownership as reading became a cultural activity noted with approval by commentators in the second half of the century. Living in Tipperary in the 1770s and 1780s the Herbert family had no difficulty in surrounding themselves with books.9

  • 10  Kennedy, Máire, ‘Eighteenth-century newspaper publishing in Munster and South Leinster’, Journal o (...)

9Advertising, geared towards the book purchaser and periodical subscriber, reached both the urban and rural public thanks to the newspaper press, especially in the second half of the century. Dublin and London newspapers were supplied to the country towns by post from the end of the 17th century, and local newspaper publishing expanded after mid-century.10 Readers in the remotest areas could become aware of the latest publications issued by Dublin and provincial booksellers through newspaper advertisements, and orders could be placed through the local newspaper office or agent. Throughout the century booksellers also used the book catalogue as a means of reaching a dispersed reading public. Catalogues were delivered with newspapers and periodicals through the post, or carried by private couriers.

10Coffee houses were established in the main urban centres outside Dublin from the early decades of the century where newspapers and periodicals were available to customers. Some taverns were also in receipt of newspapers and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were read aloud, allowing all customers to participate. At an elite level Mr Mathews provided current reading matter at his seat in Thomastown, county Tipperary, noted by Dean Jonathan Swift when he visited. He had a large room

  • 11  Sheridan, Thomas, The life of Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, 2nd edition. London: Printed for J.F. and C (...)

fitted up exactly like a coffee-house, where a bar-maid and waiters attended to furnish refreshments at all times of the day. It was furnished with chess-boards, Backgammon Tables, Newspapers, Pamphlets &c. in all the forms of a City Coffee-house.11

  • 12  Campbell, Revd. T., A philosophical survey of the south of Ireland. Dublin: Printed for W. Whitest (...)
  • 13  Trinity College Dublin: Ms.3939 Tradesmen's receipts, Thomas Conolly, 1778-1785.

Touring Ireland in 1776 Rev. Dr Thomas Campbell mentioned a “public news or coffee-room” at Castletown House, county Kildare, the estate of Thomas and Louisa Conolly, for the “common resort of his guests in boots”.12The accounts from Castletown show numerous bills for newspapers; that of 5 January 1783 amounted to £1.14s.1½d. for 273 newspapers.13

  • 14  Jennens, Charles, Messiah, an oratorio. Compos’d by Mr. Handel. Dublin: George Faulkner, 1742. (ES (...)
  • 15  Dublin News Letter (5-9 January 1741/2; 26-30 January 1741/2). Esther. An oratorio: or sacred dram (...)
  • 16  Morell, Thomas, Judas Maccabeus, a sacred drama, as it is perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Covent (...)

11During the theatrical season Dublin audiences flocked to the theatres at Smock Alley and Crow Street, and other venues for dramatic and musical performances. The book trade, not slow to take up a marketing opportunity, reprinted plays from the London stage when they were in performance in Dublin and the level of interest was at its peak. Handel’s Messiah was published in Dublin in 1742 to coincide with the performance at the new Music Hall in Fishamble Street in April.14 Earlier that year, in February, Handel’s oratorio Esther was performed, the newspaper advertisement announced: “Printed books are to be had at the said place, price a British shilling”.15 In 1748 Judas Maccabeus was published in Dublin and the performance was announced at the end of the volume, the proceeds of which were “to be devoted to the Lying-in Hospital in George’s Lane”.16 Certain plays were staples of the Dublin stage and were reprinted there throughout the 18th century. Authors such as Isaac Bickerstaffe, Arthur Murphy, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were reprinted regularly. Here we see an instance of the interaction between public performance and private readership (either individual or group reading), each supporting the other.

Reading in childhood and adolescence

12Happy memories of childhood reading were frequently expressed by readers. Locke, in Some thoughts concerning education, recommended for the child

  • 17  Locke, John, Some thoughts concerning education. Dublin: R. Reilly, for G. Risk, G. Ewing, and W. (...)

some easy pleasant book suited to his capacity, wherein the entertainment that he finds might draw him on, and reward his pains in reading, and yet not such as should fill his head with perfectly useless trumpery, or lay the principles of vice and folly.17

He suggested Aesop’s Fables and Reynard the fox as most suitable, recommending especially books with pictures. Jonah Barrington, thinking back on his early reading in the library of his grandfather, read “such of them as I could comprehend or found amusing; and looked over all the prints in them a hundred times”. From this early delight he felt “confident of the utility of embellishments in books intended for the instruction or amusement of children”. Outlining his chosen books he mentioned

Gulliver’s travels, Robinson Crusoe, Fairy tales, and The history of the Bible were my favourite authors. I believed every word except the fairies, and was not entirely sceptical as to those good people.

  • 18  Barrington, Jonah, Personal sketches of his own times, 2 vols. London: George Routledge & sons, 18 (...)

His early education was “a regular course by horn-book, primer, spelling-book, reading-made-easy, Aesop’s Fables etc.; but I soon aspir’d to such of the old library books as had pictures in them”.18

13Dorothea Herbert described her early reading when her brothers returned from school, “we were all book mad - Dido and Aeneas, Hector and Paris fired our brains, a sixpenny voyage of Lord Anson, and old Robinson Crusoes tale completed our mania”. Their games centred around the stories,

  • 19  Herbert, Retrospections, i, 16.

one time we fancied ourselves thrown on a desart island till a fight who should be Crusoe and who Fryday ended our play. Another time we were a set of sailors thrown on the delightful island of Juan Fernandez.19

Maria Edgeworth noted the pleasure of her brothers and sisters when their father brought home a volume of fairy tales:

  • 20  Barry, F.V., Maria Edgeworth: chosen letters. London: Jonathan Cape, 1931, 60.

he has related, with various embellishments suited to the occasion, the story of Fortunatus, to the great delight of young and old, especially of Sneyd, whose eyes and cheeks expressed strong approbation, and who repeated it afterwards in a style of dramatic oratory!20

14William Carleton recalled that as a boy he found an odd volume of Tom Jones in the house of a school friend

  • 21  Carleton, William, The Life of William Carleton: being his autobiography and letters and an accoun (...)

I have not the slightest intention of describing the wonder and the feeling with which I read it. No pen could do justice to that. It was the second volume; of course the story was incomplete, and, as a natural consequence, I felt something amounting to agony at the disappointment - not knowing what the dénouement was.21

Theobald Wolfe Tone described how reading changed his brother’s choice of career. William, who was born in 1764,

  • 22  Tone, Theobald Wolfe, Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, compiled and arranged by William Theobald Wolfe (...)

was intended for business, and was, in consequence, bound apprentice, at the age of 14, to an eminent bookseller. With him he read over all the voyages he could find, with which, and some military history, he heated an imagination naturally warm and enthusiastic, so much that at the age of 16 he ran off to London and entered, as a volunteer, in the East India Company’s service.22

15Reading with “elegance and propriety” was regarded as a polite accomplishment for boys and girls by at least mid century. Guides for reading aloud were published for the benefit of young persons to enable them to distinguish themselves in company. The following advice was issued to a young lady in 1740:

  • 23  Wilkes, Wetenhall, A letter of genteel and moral advice to a young lady. Dublin: for the author, b (...)

To read well is the first and greatest article in a young lady’s education ... there is a certain beauty and harmony of voice requir’d in reading that without a nice attention and frequent application is not to be obtain’d.23

Another set of guidelines, published in Dublin in 1779, advised:

  • 24  A museum for young gentlemen and ladies. Dublin: James Hoey, 1779, 6. (ESTCN60877)

Let the tone of your voice be the same in reading as in speaking. Never read in a hurry ... Suit your voice to the subject. Be attentive to those who read well, and remember to imitate their pronunciation. Read often before good judges, and thank them for correcting you.24

16Young men and women had their reading closely monitored. In 1740 young ladies were warned:

  • 25  Wilkes, Advice to a young lady, 105.

novels, plays, romances and poems must be read sparingly and with caution; lest such parts of them, as are not strictly tied down to sedateness, should inculcate such light, over-gay notions as might by unperceiv’d degrees soften and mislead the understanding.25

Bishop Edward Synge, writing to his daughter, Alicia, in 1750 recommended:

  • 26  Synge, Edward, The Synge letters Bishop Edward Synge to his daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1 (...)

your general reading ought to be books of instruction, in virtue, politeness, or something that may improve your mind, or behaviour. With them you may mix all books of innocent entertainment. In this description I do not include romances.26

Margaret Pike found unsuitable reading matter among her brother William’s books in 1784:

  • 27  National Library of Ireland, Ms.5987, A collection of autograph letters from Margaret Christy, aft (...)

Joseph and I have just finished a job of book burning ... ‘twas Lucretius it was directed against ... [I] thought it best in the first place to sacrifice this to the flames, my mother heartily approved it, and so I believe would William if he were here ... but fearing lest delays might be dangerous, we thought it best not to wait his return.27

  • 28  Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, The Rivals. Dublin: R. Moncrieffe, 1775, act I, scene II. (ESTCT59194)

Yet, in some instances a reading underground must have existed among young people, when less approved books were discovered and consumed. Sheridan’s The rivals suggests just such a scenario, where the forbidden reading is smuggled in from the circulating library.28

Reading at popular levels

17The inability to read did not cut the individual off from the written word. Reading aloud in public and private spaces allowed a whole group of listeners to participate. This was particularly the case in church where the word of God, in the printed Scriptures, was made available to all. The literate world could reach every level of society irrespective of the individual skills of its members. Newspapers read aloud in taverns or other public places, letters read aloud in company, songs sung or recited by chapmen or women on street corners or at fairs, to advertise the sale of printed song sheets, equally reached non-readers, and allowed them to be part of a literate culture.

  • 29  First report of the Commissioners on Education in Ireland, 1825, appendix 221. London: ordered by (...)

18Chapbooks, made up of “little histories”, romances, travels, natural history and popular piety, and costing as little as a penny or halfpenny each, were within the reach of all but the very poor. They were distributed in Ireland by chapmen or pedlars, and stocks were carried in town and village shops throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Chapbooks figured prominently among books used by children learning to read.29 As already noted, chapbooks and small devotional texts were printed in runs of several thousands and were reprinted regularly. This indicates a vibrant market at popular level. Chapbooks were written exclusively in English, and there were many persons living in town and country whose only language was Irish. This meant that a substantial proportion of the population had no access to this reading matter, the barrier being linguistic rather than economic.

  • 30  Dublin News Letter (6-10 April 1742).
  • 31  Berry, H.F., ‘Notes from the diary of a Dublin lady in the reign of George II’, Journal of the Roy (...)

19There was a divergence between what was considered suitable reading for the poor, and what readers may have chosen for themselves. Works of piety and morals were recommended by clergy and figures of authority, while chapbooks, with their entertaining and sometimes scandalous subject matter, were possibly more appealing. Advertising suggests that religious works were sold in bulk for distribution to less well-off readers. Edward Exshaw advertised his list of religious titles at Easter 1742 as “books very proper to be given away at this season”, offering an allowance to those who intended to distribute them free.30 In 1751 Mrs Katherine Bayly of Peter Street, Dublin, purchased three books for the use of servants and family: The pious country parishioner, The great importance of a religious life, and New week’s preparation,31 all intended for their moral improvement. In 1729 the editor of The Tribune denouncing the lack of reading taste among the gentry, was equally disparaging when describing the books which were likely to belong to the lady’s servant:

  • 32  The Tribune, ed. by Patrick Delany. Dublin printed: London reprinted, and sold by T. Warner, 1729, (...)

Her woman also may happen to have a Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s travels, and Aristotle’s Master-piece, both for her own edification, and the instruction of the young ladies, as soon as they are grown up; not to mention Tommy Potts, Jack the giant-killer, the Cobler of Canterbury, and several other notable pieces of literature carried about in the baskets of itinerant pedlars, for the improvement of his Majesty’s liege people.32

Reading at elite levels

20Advertising allows us to recreate the target audience for certain books, to identify potential rather than real readers. Authors and publishers tended to address themselves to the ideal reader. Genuine reactions from real readers towards their reading are hard to come by, and where evidence is available it applies to an individual or group and cannot be representative of readers at the same social level or in the same circumstances. Caution is needed even where a reader gives his/her reactions to a text; in some instances a set response may be required. In an educational context, addressing a teacher or parent, the reader’s response may be the approved one rather than a personal interpretation of the text.

  • 33  National Library of Ireland, Ms.16091, Journal of Nicholas Peacock 1740-51.

21Readers are identified from their stated reactions to their own reading, and from physical traces to be found in books. The main sources for individual responses and commentaries are letters, diaries, journals, and other autobiographical writings. In the early 1740s Nicholas Peacock, a prosperous farmer in county Limerick and at this time a bachelor, noted in his journal days spent alone reading amidst the bustle of farming life; he spent about one day a month in what was at this stage of his life a solitary pursuit.33 Mrs Delany, wife of Rev. Patrick Delany, and friend of Dean Jonathan Swift, described a pleasant domestic scene in Dublin in 1745:

  • 34  Delany, Mary, The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. by Rt. Hon. (...)

Mr Green is an agreeable man to have in the house, as he is very well bred and easy, conversable, and reads to us while we work in the evenings, so that we spend our time very pleasantly.34

  • 35  Barrington, Personal sketches, i, 37.

22Jonah Barrington recalled that as a young man, in spite of leading a rather wild life, “I had a pretty good assortment of books of my own, and seldom passed a day without devoting some part of it to reading or letter-writing”.35 In the 1780s Dorothea Herbert told of communal reading during a period of quiet in her active social life in county Tipperary “Mr Matthews read plays to us and sang songs till one or two o’clock after supper” and

  • 36  Herbert, Retrospections, i, 103, 115.

we now sat down quietly in the domestic way, with no other company than Mr Gwynn ... We read poetry, novels, sermons, history, hickledy pickledy as they came in our way without any other system except a smattering of English and French grammar.36

  • 37  Sheridan, Betsy, Betsy Sheridan's journal: letters from Sheridan's sister, William Lefanu (ed.). O (...)

Betsy Sheridan’s reading took place both in company and alone, in 1788 she reported that her brother Richard’s wife “after tea got a book, which she read to us till supper. This I find is the general way of passing the evening”. The following year she described an unsatisfactory reading experience “I staid at home and alone, endeavoured to continue Zeluco, but when the spirits are oppress’d reading is not always the best resource”.37

  • 38  Leadbetter, Mary, Memoirs and letters of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, late of Ballitore, Irel (...)

23On winter evenings Elizabeth Shackleton used to bring some of the students from her husband’s boarding school into her parlour to read religious works and history to her while she worked.38 Joseph Cooper Walker, on a visit to England in 1789, brought appropriate books with him for the journey,

  • 39  Dublin City Libraries, Gilbert Library Ms.146, Joseph Cooper Walker, letters addressed to William (...)

I made my excursion to Buxton a classical one. In the Isle of Anglesea I read, as I approached Snowdon, Mason’s Caractacus, recited Gray’s Bard on a rock over Conway’s ‘foaming flood’, visited the raven-inn in Shrewsbury and enquired about the clock to which Falstaff alluded.39

  • 40  Barry, Chosen letters, 68.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth “pursued his way to Longford with Turner on crimes and punishments in the chaise with him” in 1794.40

24Rousseau was one of the most celebrated writers of the second half of the 18th century. Known to many only by reputation, readers came to his works with certain expectations and preconceived ideas, and his works divided his audience. Lady Emily Fitzgerald, Duchess of Leinster, and her sister Lady Caroline Fox, read Émile in 1762, shortly after its publication. Lady Caroline wrote

I hope you like it. I am delighted with it and yet wonder how a book setting out upon a principle I think false, viz., the possibility of happiness in this world, so full of absurdities and paradoxes, can please me so much,

  • 41  Fitzgerald, Brian (ed.), The correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, 3 vols. Dublin: Station (...)
  • 42  Delany, Mary, The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. by Rt. Hon. (...)

but later she changed her opinion, considering his works “destructive of all principles hitherto held sacred both moral and religious”.41 Mrs Delany considered his works dangerous “to young and unstable minds ... as under the guise and pomp of virtue he does advance very erroneous and unorthodox sentiments.”42A more mature Lady Louisa Stuart had less to fear. Writing to her sister Lady Caroline Dawson in County Laois in 1778, she described a reading of La Nouvelle Heloïse

  • 43  Clark, Mrs Godfrey (ed.), Gleanings from an old portfolio. Edinburgh: privately printed, 1895, 50- (...)

with which I am charmed, perhaps more than I should be, yet I do not think I feel the worse for it ... indeed I believe it might be very dangerous to people whose passions resemble those he describes ... I do think it, notwithstanding several absurdities, the most interesting book I ever read in my life.43

  • 44  The Drennan-McTier letters 1776-1793, vol i, ed. Jean Agnew. Dublin: The Women’s History Project i (...)
  • 45  Betsy Sheridan's journal, 193.

Dr William Drennan of Belfast recommended the Confessions to his sister Martha McTier in 1784 ‘I have been reading a most singular and entertaining book called the Confessions of Rousseau, which none but men or very learned ladies ought to read.’44 Betsy Sheridan began the last volume of Confessions at Bath in 1790 ‘which Harry is delighted with and has now made over to me’, but her reactions have not been recorded.45

  • 46  The common-place book, for the pocket: formed generally upon the principles recommended and practi (...)

25Serious readers kept commonplace books to record significant passages from their reading for personal reference. This pursuit had a long tradition among scholars, going back to the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome and the monks in the early medieval church. They were used as an educational device until the 18th century, in which selected passages from the classics were transcribed, and classed under different subject headings. During the 18th century, when their use was replaced as a pedagogical method, when less intensive reading practices prevailed, when reading spread down the social scale, and when more books were read for their entertainment value, this discipline declined. It did not disappear, however, and the practice was continued by clergymen, lawyers, doctors, poets, philosophers and historians, who employed this method of organising texts for research purposes. The study of surviving commonplace books from the 18th century gives an insight, not only into what was read by the compiler, but also which passages were considered significant and under which headings they were organised. As late as 1778 blank commonplace books, with printed introductions and advice for the arrangement and indexing of entries, were produced in Dublin in portable pocket size and in larger folio size.46

  • 47  Cooney, Dudley Levistone, The Methodists in Ireland: a short history. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2 (...)

26Certain religious denominations encouraged reading as part of the spiritual life, regarding it as a necessary discipline in a person’s moral development. The Bible and New testament were primary texts, supplemented by pious writings, sermons, catechisms, lives of the saints, guides to leading a better life, moral maxims, and instruction for children. In the religious sphere texts were not only read in private and in groups, but discussed and recommended. Thus letters and diaries of members of religious groups offer some evidence of readers’ reactions to these texts. Notes were often taken and suitable phrases transcribed; in some cases commonplace books were kept by readers to keep a record of their reading. In this way intensive reading practices continued in the religious area during the 18th century, when they had virtually disappeared in other genres of reading. John Wesley instructed his followers to read for “at least five hours in four and twenty”, the recommended texts being the scriptures, “the Christian Library, and other books which we have published in prose and verse.”47

Readers judging authors

  • 48  Memoires of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, 89-91.

27Authors’ reactions to the works of other authors, and the reactions of an author’s selected audience have survived in some cases in manuscript or printed form. An author gauged his/her audience through the reading of a selected few. In this way readers made a profound contribution to an author’s future works. Sending a copy of his History of Ireland (1773) to Richard Shackleton in Ballitore, Thomas Leland wrote: “the book has been read in England, and received with more favour than I hoped for. Here it has had a few attentive readers”. Shackleton read the history “with the best attention which I was capable of”, on the whole his reaction was favourable, but with some misgivings on the treatment of Quakers in the narrative.48 Shackleton offered gracious words on one of Edmund Burke’s writings, in a letter to Burke’s son, Richard, in 1785:

I have read it myself, and am reading it to my wife; I am entertained, informed and instructed by it. I am always glad when Edmund writes, because he then speaks not only to the present age of the world, but to future ages.

  • 49  Memoires of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, 175.

He continued: “it is hard for me to say what the general sentiment of people, who read and think in this country is, respecting the book, but I believe it is mostly approved of by such”.49

  • 50  Betsy Sheridan's journal, 34-35.

28Thomas Sheridan’s Life of Swift, published in 1784, was read by his two daughters, Alicia and Betsy. In a letter to Alicia, Betsy wrote: “I read my Father what you say of his life of Swift and he seem’d much pleased. As far as I have gone I agree with you but I have not been able to find time to get thro’ it”.50 Joseph Cooper Walker was very enthusiastic after reading The orphan of the castle by Charlotte Smith in 1789

  • 51  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 3, (2 April 1789).

It is indeed, as you justly observe, a wonderful production. Allow me to impose on you the trouble of making my warmest thanks acceptable to the fair author for the pleasure I derived from the perusal of it. It is universally read and admired here.51

He was a supporter of Charlotte Brooke’s work on Irish poetry from the start, pressing her to continue with the publication of Reliques of Irish poetry. In a letter to William Hayley concerning ‘our ingenious friend Miss Brooke’, he sought Hayley’s help:

  • 52  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 6, (26 December 1789).

I hope her Reliques meet your approbation? Would you recommend it to her to proceed? She has now some precious originals in her possession which I have been encouraging her to translate.52

Walker praised Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent when it was published in 1800:

  • 53  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 48, (23 November 1800).

an Irish production entitled Castle Rackrent has lately appeared in London. The pictures of life in this little work are allowed to be equal to any thing that has appeared since the days of Smollett.53

29The evidence for reading is obscure and fragmentary, difficult to uncover and even more difficult to interpret. It is impossible to generalise the experience of reading; the evidence is, by its nature, specific, therefore it is important to identify and record the common characteristics of a wide range of reading experiences. The majority of past readers have left few, if any, traces of their reading. Sometimes texts were mediated by others: clergy, teachers, or parents. In addition, evidence is most forthcoming from the well-to-do and highly literate elements of society, we rarely get glimpses of how texts were received further down the social scale. The difficulty is in recovering the individual’s response to texts - and in seeking to discover what meanings readers, or audience, took away from a reading of the text. For this we depend on very subjective sources, from which we are not in a position to generalise the experience. By looking at the various ways in which books were read, how they were read, the physical places in which they were read, some common factors begin to emerge.

30Borrowing and lending of reading matter occurred between friends and family. Less well-off members of society were sometimes in receipt of the benevolence of the charitable when religious and moral works were distributed among them. We can document reading and listening as a social activity among groups at different levels of society. At gentry and middle class level this was usually an activity where all could participate, the role of reader and listener could rotate, any member of the group was capable of performing the task of reader. In mixed literate and non-literate company, while all could participate as an audience, only the skilled members were capable of reading the text. Personal accounts show that evenings spent reading in company were common and were usually considered a pleasant way to pass the time. Contemporary accounts indicate that guests were frequently prevailed upon to read, no doubt to bring variety to the family’s evening entertainment. Good readers were appreciated and sought after, the skill of reading aloud was an important social accomplishment. Solitary reading also took place, especially in more elevated circles where people had the opportunity to spend time reading and where space was available to read without interruption. Reading was frequently combined with work, allowing it to be a useful pastime. Women, especially, could work at sewing while being read to. Among many religious denominations there was a perceived link between reading and moral improvement. We have hundreds of instances of the experience of reading among individual readers or listeners. All of these contribute to our understanding of the ways in which texts circulated, and of the reader’s central role in the communications process.

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Notes

1  Pollard, M., Dublin's trade in books 1550-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Pollard, M., A dictionary of members of the Dublin book trade, 1550-1800. Oxford: Bibliographical Society, 2000. Phillips, James W., Printing and bookselling in Dublin, 1670-1800: a bibliographical enquiry. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998. Kinane, Vincent, A history of the Dublin University Press, 1734-1976. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1994. McGuinne, Dermot, Irish type design: a history of printing types in the Irish character. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992. Adams, J.R.R., The printed word and the common man: popular culture in Ulster 1700-1900. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1987. Long,  Gerard (ed.), Books beyond the pale: aspects of the provincial book trade in Ireland before 1850. Dublin: Rare Books Group, Library Association of Ireland, 1996.

2  Cunningham, Bernadette, and Máire Kennedy (eds.), The experience of reading: Irish historical perspectives. Dublin: Rare Books Group, Library Association of Ireland and Economic and Social History Society of Ireland, 1999.

3  Sharpe, Kevin, Reading revolutions: the politics of reading in Early Modern England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000, 34.

4  Darnton, Robert, ‘What is the history of books?’ Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Sciences 111 (1982), 65-83.

5  Dublin Mercury (26 October 1723).

6  Ó Ciosáin, Niall, Print and popular culture in Ireland, 1750-1850. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997, 38.

7  English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC), CD ROM version, (1998).

8  Kinane, Vincent, and Charles Benson, ‘Some late 18th- and early 19th-century Dublin printers’ account books: the Graisberry ledgers’, in Peter Isaac (ed.), Six centuries of the provincial book trade in Britain. Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies, 1990, 139-150. Trinity College Dublin, Ms.10314, Daniel Graisberry’s ledger 1777-1785; Ms.10315, Ledger of Graisberry and Campbell 1797-1806.

9  Herbert, Dorothea, Retrospections, 2 vols. London: Gerald Howe, 1929-1930, i, 35.

10  Kennedy, Máire, ‘Eighteenth-century newspaper publishing in Munster and South Leinster’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 103 (1998), 67-88.

11  Sheridan, Thomas, The life of Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, 2nd edition. London: Printed for J.F. and C. Rivington [and 14 others], 1787, 355. (ESTCT90659)

12  Campbell, Revd. T., A philosophical survey of the south of Ireland. Dublin: Printed for W. Whitestone [and 17 others], 1778, 55. (ESTCT85072)

13  Trinity College Dublin: Ms.3939 Tradesmen's receipts, Thomas Conolly, 1778-1785.

14  Jennens, Charles, Messiah, an oratorio. Compos’d by Mr. Handel. Dublin: George Faulkner, 1742. (ESTCT124439)

15  Dublin News Letter (5-9 January 1741/2; 26-30 January 1741/2). Esther. An oratorio: or sacred drama. The musick compos’d by Mr. Handel. Dublin: [George Faulkner], 1742. (ESTCT124046)

16  Morell, Thomas, Judas Maccabeus, a sacred drama, as it is perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. The musick by Mr. Handel. Dublin: James Hoey, 1748. (ESTCT29247)

17  Locke, John, Some thoughts concerning education. Dublin: R. Reilly, for G. Risk, G. Ewing, and W. Smith, 1738, 165. (ESTCT155628)

18  Barrington, Jonah, Personal sketches of his own times, 2 vols. London: George Routledge & sons, 1869, i, 2, 32.

19  Herbert, Retrospections, i, 16.

20  Barry, F.V., Maria Edgeworth: chosen letters. London: Jonathan Cape, 1931, 60.

21  Carleton, William, The Life of William Carleton: being his autobiography and letters and an account of his life and writings ... by David J. O’Donoghue, 2 vols. London: Downey and Co., 1896, i, 74.

22  Tone, Theobald Wolfe, Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, compiled and arranged by William Theobald Wolfe Tone, edited by Thomas Bartlett. Dublin: Lilliput, 1998, 11-12.

23  Wilkes, Wetenhall, A letter of genteel and moral advice to a young lady. Dublin: for the author, by E. Jones, 1740, 97. (ESTCT86936)

24  A museum for young gentlemen and ladies. Dublin: James Hoey, 1779, 6. (ESTCN60877)

25  Wilkes, Advice to a young lady, 105.

26  Synge, Edward, The Synge letters Bishop Edward Synge to his daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1746-1752, ed. by Marie-Louise Legg. Dublin: Lilliput, 1996, 210.

27  National Library of Ireland, Ms.5987, A collection of autograph letters from Margaret Christy, afterwards Pike, to Mary Shackleton, afterwards Leadbetter, 1779-1784, f.87.

28  Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, The Rivals. Dublin: R. Moncrieffe, 1775, act I, scene II. (ESTCT59194)

29  First report of the Commissioners on Education in Ireland, 1825, appendix 221. London: ordered by the House of Commons, 1825, 553-561.

30  Dublin News Letter (6-10 April 1742).

31  Berry, H.F., ‘Notes from the diary of a Dublin lady in the reign of George II’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol VIII, pt.II, 5th ser., (1898), 143.

32  The Tribune, ed. by Patrick Delany. Dublin printed: London reprinted, and sold by T. Warner, 1729, 73. (ESTCT135906)

33  National Library of Ireland, Ms.16091, Journal of Nicholas Peacock 1740-51.

34  Delany, Mary, The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. by Rt. Hon. Lady Llanover, 1st ser., 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1861, ii, 340.

35  Barrington, Personal sketches, i, 37.

36  Herbert, Retrospections, i, 103, 115.

37  Sheridan, Betsy, Betsy Sheridan's journal: letters from Sheridan's sister, William Lefanu (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 118, 164.

38  Leadbetter, Mary, Memoirs and letters of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, late of Ballitore, Ireland. London: Charles Gilpin, 1849, 24.

39  Dublin City Libraries, Gilbert Library Ms.146, Joseph Cooper Walker, letters addressed to William Hayley 1786-1812, letter 6, (26 December 1789).

40  Barry, Chosen letters, 68.

41  Fitzgerald, Brian (ed.), The correspondence of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, 3 vols. Dublin: Stationery Office, 1949-1957, i, 353, 522.

42  Delany, Mary, The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. by Rt. Hon. Lady Llanover, 2nd ser., 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1862, i, 76.

43  Clark, Mrs Godfrey (ed.), Gleanings from an old portfolio. Edinburgh: privately printed, 1895, 50-51.

44  The Drennan-McTier letters 1776-1793, vol i, ed. Jean Agnew. Dublin: The Women’s History Project in association with the Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1998, 184.

45  Betsy Sheridan's journal, 193.

46  The common-place book, for the pocket: formed generally upon the principles recommended and practised by Mr Locke. Dublin: printed for Robert Egan, 1778. (ESTCT231011)

47  Cooney, Dudley Levistone, The Methodists in Ireland: a short history. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2001, 147.

48  Memoires of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, 89-91.

49  Memoires of Richard and Elizabeth Shackleton, 175.

50  Betsy Sheridan's journal, 34-35.

51  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 3, (2 April 1789).

52  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 6, (26 December 1789).

53  Dublin City Libraries, Ms.146, Walker, letters, letter 48, (23 November 1800).

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Máire Kennedy, « The Readership of Books in Ireland, 1700-1800 », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°1 | 2005, 39-54.

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Máire Kennedy, « The Readership of Books in Ireland, 1700-1800 », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°1 | 2005, mis en ligne le 27 octobre 2009, consulté le 24 octobre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2509 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.2509

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Auteur

Máire Kennedy

Dr. (Dublin, Ireland)
Máire Kennedy is Divisional Librarian with Dublin City Public Libraries, responsible for special collections, early printed books and manuscripts. Her Ph.D. from University College Dublin was on the topic of French language books and readership in 18th-century Ireland. Current research is focused on the 18th-century book trade in Ireland, reading and reception of books during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Publications include French books in eighteenth-century Ireland (Oxford, 2001), The experience of reading: Irish historical perspectives, edited jointly with Bernadette Cunningham (Dublin, 1999), two chapters in Graham Gargett and Geraldine Sheridan eds Ireland and the French enlightenment, 1700-1800 (Basingstoke, 1999), two chapters in Andrew Hadfield and Raymond Gillespie eds The history of the Irish book, Vol III, 1550-1800,  forthcoming from Oxford, and numerous articles in Irish periodicals.

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