Some months ago I wrote about Google Book Search. But Google was not the first to digitize books and other documents and make them available online. Thirty-three years before Google scanned their first book, in 1971, Michael S. Hart digitized a copy of the American Declaration of Independence. This was barely two years after the first ARPANET message was transmitted, which means the precursor of the internet as we know it had only taken its very first baby steps. Yet, Mr. Hart had the vision to see into the future, when books and other important documents of our culture would be freely available to all, regardless of their location. Thus was born Project Gutenberg, named for the man who first used moveable type to print books in Europe, Johannes Gutenberg.
And what does all of this have to do with the history of Regency England?
At the Project Gutenberg site you can find many of the important novels, poetry and plays which were popular during the years of the Regency. Of course, all of the works of Jane Austen can be found here. Among the other novelists whose works are available are Fanny Burney, a Regency-era cancer survivor as well as a novelist, Maria Edgeworth, novelist and estate manager, and Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. The work of earlier novelists whose work was popular during the Regency which can be found at Project Gutenberg are Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, Henry Fielding, Matthew Lewis, and William Beckford, to name just a few.
Poetry and plays were also very popular during the Regency, and there are a number of poets and playwrights whose works are available at Project Gutenberg. Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the other Romantic poets. The delightful plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith are also to be found here, as well as the complete works of William Shakespeare, which have been popular since they were first published.
Works of literature are not the only volumes available at Project Gutenberg. Here you can also find the writings of William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Thesaurus by Peter Mark Roget and the works of the great lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, are among the many reference works available. The published military dispatches of the Duke of Wellington are there for you to read, should you be so inclined.
A number of books are also available at Project Gutenberg, written about those who lived in the Regency. James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote a memoir about his famous Aunt Jane. Benjamin Disraeli wrote about British political figures, as did George Canning and Henry Brougham. All the links I have provided here are to Wikipedia pages. However, if you look at the bottom of the Wikipedia page for any of these authors, in the external links section, you will see that there is a link there to their works on Project Gutenberg. In addition, there is a link on the Project Gutenberg site to the Wikipedia page for any author who is included there.
At last report, Project Gutenberg has over 30,000 titles online. Though this is less than the hundreds of thousand of titles which Google Books has online, the great thing about Project Gutenberg is that every single title they have available is the complete book, because they are all out of copyright and in the public domain. Google has many books for which they only provide a few pages, or just the bibliographic information because so many of their books are still under copyright. One area in which Google is still superior, as you might expect, is in search. At Project Gutenberg the most effective searches are for author or title. They do have several search options for searching by subject, though I have not found them particularly useful. I often do subject searches at Google Books, and once I have a list of books on my search subject, I then have author names and titles which I can use to search for the complete book at Project Gutenberg.
Another superior feature of Project Gutenberg over Google is that they offer most books in multiple formats, while Google only offers their books in PDF format. These different formats mean that if you have an ebook reader, you may be able to download a copy of a book you like in a format that you can read on your particular device. And unlike Google, Project Gutenberg offers audio versions of some of the books on their site. All of Jane Austen’s books are available in audio format, as is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Though not of the Regency era, there are a number of classic children’s books available in audio format, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Wind in the Willows, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Black Beauty, Pollyanna, Heidi, several Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the Anne of Green Gables series. If you have children who like to listen to stories, Project Gutenberg is a good source. Classic works by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Henry Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells all have audio versions. You can browse all audio books, either human-read or computer-generated, by author or title. All audio books are available in multiple formats for free download with unlimited play.
Project Gutenberg is a treasure trove of histories, novels, plays, poetry and other literary works from the era of the Regency. But there is so much more to be found there, it is well worth the time taken to browse the site. And even better, all of the books there are available in multiple formats, with free downloads, which you can use in any way you see fit. Project Gutenberg is truly one of the best examples of the benefits the internet, making classic works available to anyone with a computer, regardless of their location, or the time of day they want to get a book. It is a huge virtual library, open to the world, 24×7, with no late fees, ever. Stop by soon and choose a book, or two or three, or …