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Life and Times of the Novel: Book Costs

Part 4 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at the changing costs of books over the centuries.

Even when I was grumbling recently about the price of books in the US, the rationale part of my brain told me to quit griping.  In reality we readers don’t do too badly, particularly when as a result of competition between online retailers, supermarkets and ‘real’ bookshops  means there are often heavy discounts on offer.  I noticed today for example that I could pick up a hardback version of Life after Life  by Kate Atkinson (which was published less than two weeks ago) for £10 at my local supermarket which is a huge discount from the cover price of £18.99. Average book prices in the UK do seem to be on a general downward trend — down by 10pence to £7.49 in 2012 apparently, as a result of widespread discounting. To put that in context it represents 1.46% of the average UK worker’s weekly income of £509 according to data from the Office of National Statistics.

While this doesn’t make it a luxury item, a regular book purchase still wouldn’t be something many families would contemplate in today’s uncertain economic climate. But for  the early readers of the novel form, it would have been an even greater burden. Although it’s difficult to generalise because —just as today – income levels varied greatly between regions and occupations,  various sources indicate that in the 1860s, a middle class worker at the low end of the income ladder would have earned around £150 a year (or 1125 shillings).  At the high end, doctors or successful lawyers could earn around £800. But labourers and governesses earned considerably less —Jane Eyre for example seems to earn just £30 a year while at Thornfield.  Although all her food and other expenses would have covered, its not a salary that gives much security let alone the independence Jane craves.

Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, book prices were high. The typical three-volume novel would cost between 15 and 18 shillings —more than most working class people earned in a week and around 25% of the weekly income of those at the bottom end of the middle class. Even allowing for inflation, deflation, decimalisation and any other kind of economic shenanigans between the early 1900s and today, that’s a huge difference in affordability.

So if you were as keen a reader as young Catherine Morland is in Northanger Abbey, but come from a lowly family and have no money of your own, how can you possibly get your hands on the Gothic adventures in which she revels? If you were lucky you had a wealthy relative who had built their own library though the books Jane Eyre reads at her aunt’s home, were more educative than the latest offering from Ann Radcliffe or Maria Edgeworth.

Step forward the hero of the day, the circulating library, through which in exchange for a relatively low  monthly or annual subscription, you could borrow the latest titles. It proved a godsend to male readers but even more particularly to women readers like the Bronte sisters who were regular borrowers. Then as now, the concept of a library helped to democratise reading. These libraries not only influenced the form of the novel (they liked the three volume novel because it meant they could loan one volume to three separate readers), they made reading a popular leisure activity, becoming fashionable places in which to be seen. Remarkably, they survived well into the twentieth century when the advert of free public libraries rendered the circulating version redundant.

About this article

This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

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