I was lucky enough to visit this very fascinating exhibition at Chawton House Library on Friday.

Chawton House Library

It is based around a the discovery of a fascinating document, the sale catalogue of the bookseller, John Burdon who had premises in College Street, Winchester. When he died in 1803 , his sons failed to carry on his business and thus his entire stock was sold at auction in 1807.  By studying the catalogue- which lists over 5,000 individual titles- we can deduce what reading material was available to his customers in Winchester and the surrounding area.

We can also deduce what Jane Austen might then have read and had access to, in addition to the books we know she referenced in her novels and letters.Burdon was entitled to be called the Austen family’s bookseller, because it would appear they had an account at the shop. In her letter to Cassandra Austen, her sister, of the 25th November 1798 she makes the following comment, referring to her father’s account at Burdon’s bookshop:

We have got “Fitz Albini”; my father has bought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however, do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed — I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is is told in a strange, unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognise any of them hitherto, except Dr. and Mrs. Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated…We have got Boswell’s “Tour to the Hebrides” and are to have his “Life of Johnson”; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon’s hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper’s works. 

The exhibit very carefully leads the visitor around the story of what could be available to purchase in a provincial booksellers like Burdons. And the choice was surprisingly vast and varied:  local authors, international big hitters, travel journals, political treaties, theological works, poetry, fiction, plays. And not all of this material was produced in London and distributed locally by the bookshop, after ordering them from catalogues. Burdon was a producer as well as a supplier. He supplied newspapers, pamphlets, single volumes, and lavishly produced multi volume sets. Neither was he alone: Winchester had several booksellers, stationers, bookbinders, private libraries and circulating libraries. The press that printed the weekly-produced Hampshire Chronicle from 1778 was on show in the Oak Room,which you can just make out in the photograph below, to the right.

The Display in The Oak Room at Chawton House Library

The exhibit was set out in two rooms at Chawton House: the Oak Room, where part of the room was set up as a Gentleman’s Library of the period…

The Table Display in the Oak Room

…his desk chair  left momentarily empty as he is seemingly suddenly called away from his books…

The Table Display in the Oak Room

And then the Map Room….

The Displays in the Map Room

The “hands-on” Table Display in the Map Room

where, in addition to the intriguing displays set around the walls, the central table was invitingly set with some 18th and early 19th century  examples of the books that the Austens might have read. Such as the  works of the poet, William Cowper, the purchase of which was anticipated by Jane Austen in her letter to Cassandra, above.

Poems by William Cowper in Two Volumes

And the table was also set with the wonderfully refreshing invitation to Touch the Books

An Encouraging Notice in the Map Room

Each book was accompanied by a laminated card printed with thought-provoking statements and  questions relating to each book.

The Young Misses Magazine

One of my favourite books on show was the Winchester College Borrowers Book, below

The Winchester College Borrowers Book

The Librarian at the College would carefully record each book borrowed by each Fellow, making it possible for the researchers to attempt to discern the individual reader’s taste and habits. The page was open at the page recoding the borrowings of George Isaac Huntingford,who seems mostly to have preferred theological works. The catalogue of Mr Burdon’s stock was on display via a slideshow on a monitor in the Oak Room: I was glad to see  John Baskerville well represented ( and do note you can enlarge any of these photographs, in order to read the details, simply by clicking on them):

The Digital Slide Show of a “Catalogue of the Stock in Trade of the Late Mr Burdon, Bookseller (1807)”

I do hope this is available either to purchase or view online soon, as it would be wonderful to speculate about the type of books Jane Austen might have purchased and not mentioned in her letters….

And in the famous alcove in the Oak Room,  The Winchester Bindery, which operates from the current P. and G. Wells bookshop in Winchester, where Mr Burdon had his premises in the late 18th century…

The famous alcove in the Oak Room where Jane Austen is reputed to have enjoyed sitting

produced an explanatory display about the bookbinders art, which included some 18th century tools – see the mind-blowingly large set of card cutters, below:

Display of Bookbinding Tools and Materials, including the enormous Card Cutters

How many children were employed in the use of these, I wonder ?…The exhibition,which runs until Friday afternoon does have a simply produced but very informative catalogue, which is  reasonably available at the cost of £1.

The Exhibition Catalogue

I do hope some of you will manage to get to this exhibition. It is very illuminating, and shows that though a family like the Austens might live in a remote and tiny village like Steventon, provided they had some spare money for books, they could keep up to date with the latest fashions in literature and be kept well supplied with news items. They would not want for variety, and would not have to rely upon London booksellers to supply their wants.
I really enjoyed the exhibit, and would like to thank Eleanor Marsden for her hospitality and Christopher Knight who was a very sensitive, patient and kind steward of the rooms as I wondered around the displays, squeaking
( very quietly, mind)  in delighted surprise at the depth and inviting nature of the exhibits.