A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: History

The King’s Library at The British Museum

Bookcases in the King's Library, The British M...

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George III (1738-1820, reigned 1760-1820) was by no means an intellectual monarch but through a well-rounded education he developed an appreciation for learning. As Prince of Wales, heir presumptive, he was tutored in a broad range of subjects. He became well-read in literature, both English and non-English, spoke many languages, was interested in theatre, music, architecture, astronomy, and agriculture. Not only did he read and study these things but also contributed to various periodicals of the day, especially on topics of husbandry.

Upon ascending the throne in 1760, George III discovered that there did not exist a royal library. There had been an ‘Old Royal Library’ that had been added to since the 15th century but since the late 17th century was largely neglected. It had been given to the British Museum in 1757 by his grandfather George II. Almost immediately upon coming to the throne George III began an intense policy of collecting.

George III: Book Collector and Building the Collection

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George III sought to found a Royal Library following a very distinct protocol. He did not just want a library of self-aggrandizement of his reign but one that followed the principles of Enlightenment, a ‘universal library’. He sought a collection which transcended genres, languages, periods, and subjects and through the study of its books would add to scholarship and not constrain or restrict.

The King spared no expense and working with his librarians sought the best from all over Europe and England. Early in his reign he acquired with the intent to build up the collection and did so without a disciplined approach. Still, some very important additions to the Library were made at this early stage of collecting. In 1762 he acquired the Thomason Tracts, a series of broadsides and pamphlets made during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods (1640-60) and in 1763 acquired from the collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, many printed editions of Italian literature and history. Besides printed material, the King also collected drawings, prints and paintings.

The Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, ...

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By 1767, the adding to the Royal Library was approached in a more methodical manner. Intending the Royal Library to be a working library, the King avoided the mundane list of written material and instead sought English literature, early English printing, philosophy, and the classics, Italian, French, and Spanish literature, geography and topography, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Two magnificent acquisitions at this time were the Gutenberg Bible produced in Mainz, c. 1455 and Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed in Westminster, c. 1476 the first book to be printed in England. The King also included books on subjects which interested him personally, including agriculture, astronomy, and the natural sciences.

It was also a well-known fact that the King was advised by Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who met with the King at the Library in 1767. He suggested material in the classics, literature, law and topography. He also advised against the purchasing of whole library collections thus preventing the unnecessary acquisition of duplicates. It is a testament to Johnson’s knowledge of the world of letters that his advice for the collecting of material for the King’s Library was heeded.

Sir Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830), the King’s librarian after 1774, was given the task of scouring the booksellers of France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, in addition to the purchases being made in the London book trade. By 1769 the collection kept at Buckingham House (the future Buckingham Palace) numbered over 10,000 books.

The Use of the Collection

As the Royal Library was established as a working scholarly library, it admitted those whose genuine credentials as scholars to use the collection. George III was especially generous by allowing even those he did not particularly agree with to have access to the library. Two such figures were the scientist Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) whose radical ideas of theology and politics were opposed to those of the conservative King and his former enemy, the American revolutionary and founding father, John Adams (1735-1826). Adams was deeply impressed by the Library and exclaimed his disappointment that he didn’t have more time to read in it.

Gift to the Nation

The King’s Library was built up solely from George III’s upon his own resourcefulness and solely with funds from his won privy purse but always with the intent to its use as a ‘national resource’ as a scholarly universal library. By the time of George III’s death in 1820 the library consisted of over 65,259 printed books, supplemented by periodicals, pamphlets, prints, drawings, musical scores, maps and topographical drawings, as well as coins and medals.

His son and heir, George IV (1765-1837, reigned 1820-1837), made it known that he wished to present the library to the British nation. On January 15, 1823 George IV wrote to the Prime Minister stating his intentions and the stipulation that it be housed at the British Museum and the library was to be ‘kept entire, and separate…in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.

The British Museum found its original building to be too small to accommodate the collection. A building project was undertaken. The King’s Library was the first wing to be designed and built by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). It was completed in 1827 and is the core of the familiar Quadrangle building.


King George III library at British Library

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The King’s Library Today

The King’s Library has been housed since 1997 at the British Library at St. Pancras. It inhabits its own space at the heart of the building called the King’s Library Tower. It still maintains its function as a working library.

The rooms built for it at the British Museum are now used as a gallery space, still called the King’s Library, and houses the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.


Jefcoate, Graham. “‘Most curious, splendid and useful’: the King’s Library of George III”, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London, The British Museum, 2003)

Winter Is Coming

Cover of "A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ic...

I recently finished reading the first book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series,  A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.  I enjoyed it immensely and have just started the second book, A Clash of Kings.

I felt it appropriate, in honor  of George R.R. Martin’s epic to offer, for your perusal, my winter reading list.  Winter is coming.

  1. The Cranford Chronicles  Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. The Children’s Book   A.S. Byatt
  3. The Queen of Fashion:  What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution  Caroline Weber
  4. You Can’t Go Home Again  Thomas Wolfe
  5. Jane Eyre  Charlotte Bronte
  6. Jane Austen’s Christmas  Maria Hubert
  7. Elizabeth’s Women  Tracy Borman
  8. Divergent  Veronica Roth
  9. Birthright:  The True Story That Inspired “Kidnapped”  A. Roger Ekirch
  10. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion:  1795–1815  Christina Beneto and Martin Lancaster

The Rape of Nanking December 13, 1937

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Today marks the 74th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, an event so horrific that to even peripherally think on it brings feelings of anger, sadness, and horror to me.  Growing up as an American with Chinese ancestry I never heard of this “forgotten” atrocity.  It wasn’t until college when I took an Imperial Chinese history course that I began to delve into the history of my mother’s country and even later than that did I happen upon Iris Chang‘s seminal book on the subject of the massacre in Nanking which began December 13, 1937.

The Rape of Nanking:  The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II tells of the massacre and atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of the former capital of the Republic of China, Nanjing (Nanking).  Iris Chang, in writing and publishing this book, brought to light a neglected bit of history and opened my eyes to the horrifying events that took place.  The book is written in three parts:  the first, telling of the events leading up to and during the massacre; the second, describes the aftermath and western perception and reaction to these events; and the third, chronicles Chang’s theories of why this extreme barbarism committed by the Japanese still does not make it into the public consciousness.  This is some intense reading.  It has been some years since I’ve read this book but the memory is still very vivid of the detailed descriptions of rape, mass murder, live burials, mutilations, and torture.  I remember reading this book with feelings of intense horror and most of the time found myself weeping.  I kept asking myself why and how humans could commit such cruel acts on other humans.

And my disbelief doesn’t end with the tragic particulars of this dark part of Chinese history but the continued revisionist history coming from the Japanese government.  In 1995, the Prime Minister and Emperor offered speeches giving apologies for Japan’s merciless role but there has never been a formal written apology by Japan for the Nanking Massacre where approximately 300,000 Chinese were brutally murdered.  In 2007 Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party flat out denied the massacre ever happened, arguing that the events in Nanking are a fabrication.  The controversy continues to this day.

This book stands as a touching memorial, a strong testament, to those Chinese men, women, and children who were murdered during the Japanese occupation of Nanking.  These gruesome events are not to be swept under the carpet and denied, to forget would be a disservice to the victims dehumanized in a time of war.  I, for one, am reflecting on the victims and their murderers because to forget dooms us to repeat such savagery.

Jane Austen Knits

I picked this magazine up because clearly I am crazy.  This Jane Austen obsession is becoming all consuming.  I can’t even knit but the projects in this magazine are so enticing that I could not resist.  I want to learn and I am told that learning to knit is not that difficult.  So perhaps I will give it a go if only because I really, really want a knit Spencer to go with my Regency day dress.  But perhaps, it is best if I start off simply beginning with a scarf or a pair of mitts.

Did Jane Austen knit?  And if she did, what would she have knit?  In a period before industrialization it is not unlikely that women knitted blankets, shawls, scarves, cushions, and stockings.  Austen makes mention in Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Jenning’s plans for a knitting project and in an 1807 letter she describes her own knitting of a lap rug.

Martha’s rug is just finished, & looks well, tho’ not quite so well as I had hoped.  I see no fault in the Border, but the Middle is dingy.–My mother desires me to say that she will knit one for you, as soon as you return to chuse the colours & pattern.

The knitting of stockings was an undertaking easily employed by the poor to supplement their meager incomes.  It is probably not an unlikely supposition that Jane Austen and her sister, as daughters of a clergyman, may have knitted stockings for charitable distribution amongst the impoverished members of their village.

And besides, how can one not want to undertake some of these very beautiful pieces?

Downton Abbey

Ah, if there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.  If there’s a remedy for this, I’ll run from it.  Think about it all the time; never let it out of my mind.  Cause I love Downton Abbey.

For those not familiar with it (have you been under a rock?) it is an English costume drama set on an aristocratic estate and follows the trials and tribulations of the fictitious Grantham family and their servants in the early 20th century.  Season 1 begins in 1912, April 15, 1912, to be precise and the family is shocked to have learned that the male heir to the entailed (all Jane Austen fans will know what this is) estate has died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  This throws the household into a dither because the next in line to inherit is in “trade”.  This is very hard to stomach by the three unmarried daughters who are not entitled to inherit.  The season ends as war is declared against Germany on August 4, 1914.  It has a stellar cast, beautiful clothes, exquisite manners, and a stunning country house.  It spotlights the last hurrah of the British upper classes before the devastation of war.  Right from the start, I was hooked.  I’ve always been a sucker for this type of entertainment and no one does this form of drama like the Brits.

Poor little rich girls

So now I’ve been watching Season 2 on my laptop.  It is not something I do normally and usually am against watching anything on such an inadequate screen.  But for this I made an exception.  It could not be helped; it simply had to be done.  And I have not been disappointed.  Season 2 takes place during the years 1914–1918 when Britain is torn apart  by the brutality of trench warfare and English society, class structure, and way of life changed forever.  I cannot wait for the PBS airing in January so I can watch it properly.

Maggie Smith (a real scene stealer) as the Dowager Duchess, Lady Grantham is delicious!

 It is a soap opera and a well done one despite a few too convenient and shoddy plot lines.  So no, I do not want a cure for this obsession with Downton Abbey.  There are few pleasures in life and this is an extraordinary one. 

Probably one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever set for myself

I am in the midst of writing a one-page abstract for a break-out lecture I would like to present at the 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting to be held in Brooklyn, NY.  Editing down a 40 minute lecture into a page is extremely difficult, harder even than childbirth!  As you probably have guessed Jane Austen is involved and since the theme is Sex, Money & Power in Jane Austen’s Fiction those who know me will assume that sex is involved too.  And they would be right!  Stay tuned to see how I manage to introduce a topic not usually associated with the gentle world of Jane Austen.

In the meantime, back to writing!!

‘with ships and sailors she felt herself at home’

Detail from a modern reproduction of an 1805 p...

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It is, perhaps, not known Jane Austen’s personal connection to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Those at home always await patiently for word from their loved ones at sea and this was especially true 206 years ago when Jane Austen eagerly awaited the letters of her brother Capt. Francis W. Austen on board Canopus in the Mediterranean.  Canopus was a prize ship (formerly L’Admiral) captured by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile; Nelson subsequently was responsible for Frank taking command of this ship.

“You may rely upon all attention in my power to Capt. Austin [sic].  I hope to see him alongside a French 80 gun ship and he cannot be better placed than in the Canopus, who was once a French adl.’s ship and struck to me.  Capt. A. I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.
I am, &c
Nelson and Bronte”

The French fleet had been alluding the British for months and the situation had become precarious.  On board was Admiral Louis, Nelson’s second in command.  Frank and the Admiral would be shocked when on September 28 Nelson arrived off Cadiz and gave orders for Canopus to sail to Gibraltar to fetch urgently needed water and stores.  Louis complained of being sent away with hostilities promising to escalate.  Nelson, assuring Canopus of its role as his right hand, promised that they would be back before the French dared to come out.  Frank wrote home of his disappointment.

“Having borne our share in a tedious chase and anxious blockade, it would be mortifying indeed to find ourselves at last thrown out of any credit and emolument which would result from such an action.  Such, I hope will not be our lot.  ….if there has been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious of my life.”

On October 19 the French and Spanish fleets left Cadiz, led by Admiral Villeneuve, making their way along the coast to Cape Trafalgar.  On the morning of October 21 Nelson, glorious in his military honors hoisted the signal, “England expects every man to do his duty”.  By the end of the day the British were victorious and Nelson was dead.

Frank could not help but lament his regret at having missed the battle which was only intensified by the news of Nelson’s death.

“To lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience.  ….A melancholy situation, great and important as must be the victory, it is alas! dearly purchased at the price paid for it.”

And as the female members of his family enhanced their needlework with the ‘Trafalgar stitch’ Frank Austen wrote of Nelson:  “His memory will long be embalmed in the hearts of a grateful Nation, May those he left behind in the service strive to imitate so bright an example.”


The List of Books I Want to Finish Reading Before the End of Summer (but won’t)

I am always very ambitious about my summer reading list and I always start out very strong.  The problem is that by the middle of the summer I’ve added books not on the original list.  For example, today I stopped into Barnes and Noble to pick up Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I’m not really sure why I must read that book NOW but I am guessing it has something to do with my son’s sleepaway summer camp experience and the photograph of him with war paint on his face and painted handprints on his stomach.  Go figure.  Simple, right?  It’s only one more book, right?  Wrong, because I also picked up two more books, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (I’ve seen two random episodes of the HBO mini-series and I am intrigued, besides I’ve heard good things) and Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  The latter is because I am Jane Austen obsessed and I just cannot pass up any new book about her.

So in addition to my three latest acquisitions, here’s the rest my summer book list (this does not include the books I’ve actually read) which I will not be able to finish before the end of summer.

  1. American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis
  2. Jane Austen:  The Critical Heritage edited by B.C. Southam
  3. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood by Alison G. Sulloway
  4. Sex at Dawn:  How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
  5. Jane Austen:  A Life by David Nokes
  6. Room by Amanda Donoghue
  7. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:  Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. The Woman Who Could Not Forget:  Iris Chang Before and Beyond “The Rape of Nanking” by Ying-Ying Chang
  9. March by Geraldine Brooks
  10. Six Frigates:  The Epic History of the Founding of The U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

I think I need a 12 step program for book addiction.

Quote of the Day: Edward Gibbon

Portrait, oil on canvas, of Edward Emily Gibbo...

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“My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”  Edward Gibbon, 1737–1794

What is a bluestocking, you ask? Why let me tell you.

english pavillon

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Bluestocking, n.:  a term in use during the 18th and 19th centuries to describe a woman who exhibited a taste for learning, a woman who pursued intellectual and literary interests and was often derogatory.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term was in use in England as early as the 17th century and had a more mundane attribution.  Wearers of blue worsted stockings rather than the more fashionable black silk were held in contempt as not properly dressed and homely.  It was used often when referring to the plain puritanical dressed members of Parliament during the time of Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

In the 18th century and continuing into the 19th century, the expression was used to describe males and females who attended assemblies held at the homes of Mrs. Montague, Mrs. Vesey, and Mrs. Ord beginning around 1750.  These three ladies desired their gatherings to be less of card-playing and more about diversions of an intellectual slant.  Their parties were often frequented by the great literary men of the day.  Conversation was of literary subjects and formal dress was eschewed, many guests wearing home-spun blue worsted stockings, comfort rather than fashion being the objective.  The term gradually became the description of the learned ladies, having or affecting literary tastes, who frequented these gatherings.

It sounds to me, that these women were the nerds and geeks of their day and it is this notion that inspired this blog.  My intention is to create a cyber equivalent to these 18th and 19th century literary assemblies.

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