The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

This book was a birthday gift from a friend, and I can say without doubt that it was the very best gift I received this year. I love books, I love libraries and I love country houses. How could I not love this book, when it is about three of my very favorite things in all the world? I suspect that many Regency authors and aficionados of the period will also enjoy this book, either as a source of information for an upcoming novel, or simply to better understand the place of books and libraries in the English country house in times past.

Just a little of what I love about The Country House Library . . .

Most importantly, the author of The Country House Library, Mark Purcell, served as the libraries curator for The National Trust for more than fifteen years. During that time, he was responsible for the study and care of over one hundred and seventy libraries in country houses which were owned by the Trust. In addition, over the years, he has been the guest of a number of owners of privately-held country houses which contain important libraries. Therefore, Mr. Purcell is the ideal scholar to write a study of this significant and civilized feature of many British country houses. There have been a number of books published which focus on the country house. However, the majority of those books concentrated on the architecture, art and social history of those houses. Even when the contents of a country house are discussed, they are typically treated as quite subordinate to the physical structure or the people who lived within it. The focus of Purcell’s book is quite the opposite. This book is all about the libraries and the books they contained, the houses and their occupants are discussed primarily as backdrops and caretakers of the libraries.

Something which really surprised me was to learn that libraries in country houses originated much earlier than I had assumed. Purcell shows that there were libraries in some of the Roman villas built in Britain, and that many country houses in the centuries that followed also had significant collections of books. I was always under the impression that it was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that a small number of wealthy and educated gentlemen had enough books that they began to include a library or book room in their country house. In fact, it turns out that quite a number of country houses had dedicated rooms for books several centuries before that. And many of these early libraries included old and valuable books which were often handed down in families through the generations. Therefore, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for the library in a country house of an old family during the Regency to contain at least a few bibliographic treasures.

Something else which both surprised and pleased me was that Purcell makes it clear that most libraries in country houses were not included in the design simply as a matter of course, or to follow the fashion of country house construction. He shows that most libraries and book rooms were important spaces for the families who lived in those houses. Many of the residents of these houses valued and read the books in their collections, while the room itself was of great importance, both to the family and to the owner of the house. The libraries and book rooms in many country houses were inviting and comfortable places to relax with family members or close friends. These same rooms also often served as an office or study for the owner of the house, where they transacted the ongoing business of their estate, and/or pursued their intellectual avocations. Since Purcell considers libraries in country houses in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as England, this survey covers all of the British Isles. Thus, the reader can easily understand the differences and similarities between the country house libraries in each country.

Purcell has augmented his study of extant country house libraries with extensive research into the libraries of country houses that have since been destroyed or demolished. Just as regrettable, some of the subjects of his research are grand libraries for which the house still exists but the books have been dispersed, either due to lack of interest by later generations, or to bring in needed income which the estate could no longer provide. Since a number of these impressive collections were sold at auction, and the auction catalogs still exist, though the books may no longer be together, it is possible to know which volumes were in a given library. In a few cases, the bulk of a country house library collection was sold, or donated to a single institution, like a university or public library. In those instances, though the collection is no longer housed in the library of the man who built it, at least it remains essentially intact. Most scholars of country houses have given only cursory attention to the libraries in those houses, but little attention to the books which made up those collections. Purcell has provided information which makes it possible to better understand which books occupied the shelves of many of these country house libraries.

Several wealthy, well-educated gentlemen had amassed so many books that their country house library spaces ran to multiple rooms. In a few cases, there were actually two separate libraries in a house, in order to house the books belonging to two different people. For example, in one great home, the duke and the duchess each had their own book rooms, separate from the main library of the house. Another interesting distinction was the housing of printed materials separately from estate records and legal documents. In quite a number of houses, from at least the late Middle Ages, estate and family records, as well as important legal documents, were stored in what had come to be known as evidence rooms. The term evidence room in this context fell out of common use in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is now generally used only to refer to the secure rooms in which evidence in criminal cases is stored. But during the Regency, these family record rooms were still often called evidence rooms.

In order to manage such large collections of both books and family records, professional assistance was sometimes needed. In smaller country houses, the local clergyman might be employed on a part-time basis to manage the contents of the library or the book room. There were also book sellers who offered librarian services to their best customers. Some wealthy families employed full-time librarians to catalog and care for their extensive collections of printed materials. There were a few avid book collectors whose librarians also served as their advisors, and even their agents, in buying the books they wished to add to their collections. Some of those families might expect their librarian to manage the contents of their evidence rooms as well, while others hired a dedicated archivist to deal with those valuable family records. Both of these positions existed in a number of country houses during our favorite decade. Therefore, a professional librarian or an archivist might make an interesting character in a Regency romance set in a country house. However, it must be noted that these positions were nearly always held by men rather than women. A female librarian or archivist would have been rare indeed during the Georgian era.

In The Country House Library, Purcell has presented his survey of these important rooms dedicated to books in chapters focused on the various historic periods which he addresses. However, he has also included chapters devoted to specifically book-related topics. There is a full chapter on private librarians through the period under discussion. He provides details on their responsibilities and working conditions, as well as their background and training. This includes information on how librarians were referred to, or applied for, these positions. Another chapter focuses on the furnishing and use of libraries in country houses during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many country house libraries became one of the most elegant rooms in the house and were not only richly furnished, but were also decorated with fine works of art. Private libraries were not restricted to country houses, so Purcell includes a chapter on the relationships between the libraries in country houses town houses and suburban villas.

Having worked in libraries myself during my college years, I was intrigued by the "Reading and Borrowing" chapter. The myth that most of these country house libraries contained books which were bought by the yard simply to fill the shelves is thoroughly debunked. Purcell reports that most of the people who bought books for their libraries actually read them, the volumes were not acquired merely as decoration for their book rooms. Though I was aware that a few scholars were given the privilege of studying in a country house library, according to Purcell, the use of these country house libraries by those outside the family has been significantly underestimated. Friends and neighbors were not only allowed to visit the library of a country house, they were also often given borrowing privileges. This was most common in Scotland, but it also took place in other country houses across Britain. Purcell explains how the borrowing of books was handled in a number of country houses.

One of my favorite chapters in this book is dedicated to "Bibliomania," the condition which began afflicting a number of book collectors in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, but reached its peak during the Regency. This craze achieved an almost cult-like status among a small number of book collectors, all of whom competed with one another to acquire prized rare books. There were instances when bibliomania bordered on insanity with some collectors. It even destroyed the fortunes a few who could not control themselves and continued to buy more and more books, even when they no longer had the financial resources to do so. There are so many ways in which bibliomania might feature in a story of romance during the Regency.

This book is richly illustrated with a wonderful selection of pertinent images. Fortunately, it is a large format book and many of the best illustrations are full-page. Of course, there are many illustrations of country houses and their libraries, including some which are now lost. There are a number of illustrations of some of the most important books which were found in these country libraries. In addition, there are illustrations of designs for country house libraries and designs for some of the specialized furniture which was created for these rooms. One of my favorite illustrations is of very old books lying on there sides on a shelf and have their titles written on the fore-edge of the text block, as was done in the days before it was common to shelve books with the spine out and the title on the spine. Another favorite illustration is of an intact broadsheet from the eighteenth century which can be cut up to create book labels. I also love unique library furniture, and there are illustrations of many such pieces to be found in the pages of this book. Regency authors seeking something special for a fictional library in one of their stories will enjoy browsing through this book.

The Country House Library has a substantial bibliography, which will be of great use to those who want to pursue research on any of the topics covered in the book. The Index is extensive, which enables the reader to find a specific topic very quickly. Though each chapter of this book could be read on its own, reading the entire book will give one the most complete picture of the libraries which were part of many country houses in Britain, from Roman times through the modern era. Though this book does cover a broad range of historical periods, the country house library was especially important during the Georgian era, which includes the Regency. Any one interested in books, libraries and country houses will want to read this book, if not add it to their research library.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

  1. Went straight on my wish list.
    I had always understood that estate records were held in the muniment room purpose built next to the owner’s study or steward’s office to be on a north facing aspect to prevent the ravages of prevailing westerly winds, spiteful east winds or direct sun. from the south to heat and damage old parchments. Is evidence room just another term for muniment room, or was it a later name for it?
    I wrote a short story which went into ‘Belles and Bucks’ about a young lady who had managed her own father’s library and took a job with a wealthy distant cousin as his librarian, relying on her name, Jocelyn, to be assumed to be a man’s name, which was the more common use at the time, though it has always been a unisex name. She had a filing system he was anxious to get hold of, and she needed a job to avoid having to sell the incunabula collection her father had bankrupted himself to buy for her [as well as being a bad manager generally]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I do hope you are able to get a copy of the book soon. I think you will enjoy it!

      So far as I can tell, the terms muniment and evidence rooms were very similar. Both were used to store legal documents and family records. According to the OED, both terms originated in the mid-seventeenth century, when country homes began to be built on a wider scale, and both terms seem to have been used interchangeably. I suspect that each term may have been used regionally, though I have not found enough information to suggest in which regions each was more heavily used. I loved your explanation of where and why a muniment room was constructed. There was nothing like that in the book, but the concept is fascinating.

      The plot points in your story are spot on, both with a character who works as a librarian in a private home and a character who may have been suffering from bibliomania, since he purchased more incunabula than he could afford. I particularly like the twist that the librarian is a woman. You are welcome to post a link to your book here, if you would like to make it easy for RR visitors to find it.



      • That would totally make sense, local usage of terms is very prevalent, like the use of the word ‘carracute’ in the East to denote a land measure of around 120 acres, which is a ‘hide’ in the west and I understand both used indiscriminately in Oxfordshire.
        thank you! this is the link for Belles and Bucks, 11 short stories

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