Kate Chisholm in The Spectator:
‘I have nothing to doe but work and read my Eyes out,’ complained Anne Vernon in 1734, writing from her country residence in Oxfordshire to a friend in London. She and her circle of correspondents (who included Mary Delany, the artist and bluestocking) swapped rhyming jokes, ‘a Dictionary of hard words’, and notes on what they were currently reading. Their letters are suggestive of the boredom suffered by women of a certain class, constrained by social respectability and suffering the restlessness of busy but unfulfilled minds. But that’s not their interest for Abigail Williams in this fascinating study of habits of reading in the Georgian period. Her quest is rather to discover how they read, in which room of the house, who with, out loud or alone and silently, as entertainment or education. A professor of English literature at Oxford University, she has turned her attention away from the content of books to focus on the ways in which that content is received and appreciated.
How books are read is as important as what’s in them, argues Williams persuasively, and her book charts her exhaustive forays into a multiplicity of sources, reading between the lines of diaries, letters and library records to glean an understanding of ‘what books have meant to readers in the past’. It has long been thought, for instance, that the print revolution of the 18th century resulted in a shift from oral to silent reading, from shared reading to indulging in a book of one’s own, as books became more available to a wider range of people while leisure time also increased. But, says Williams, such a clear-cut transition is difficult to trace.On the contrary, reading aloud remained as popular as it had ever been because it was sociable and gave participants a glancing acquaintance with books that might otherwise take weeks to read (such as Samuel Richardson’s five-volume novel Clarissa or be beyond the budget of a housemaid or stonemason. Sharing of books and communal reading staved off the boredom of long, dark winter nights while at the same time providing opportunities for self-improvement. (The Margate circulating library, we discover, had 600 sermons in its collection.)