Books and Borrowing 1750-1830

Hallowe’en Reading

Happy Spooky Season to all our loyal readers! Having just come back from the USA, where Hallowe’en is everywhere throughout October, I thought I would see what kinds of spooky reading events I could find in our dataset. A quick keyword search in our new digital resource (soon to be fully open to the public!) for ‘devil’ turned up 209 entries, of which an impressive 149 (71%) were of William Gurnall’s The Christian’s Complete Armour; or, The Saint’s War Against the Devil, first published in London in 1658). This deeply serious religious text, dealing, as the title suggests, with spiritual struggles against evil, was borrowed at three of our libraries: Westerkirk, Innerpeffray and Dumfries Presbytery, with the vast majority of these borrowings (135) being at Westerkirk, largely in the 1810s. These Westerkirk borrowers represent a variety of the occupational categories in our dataset; it was borrowed by artisans, agricultural workers, students, masons, millers, textile workers, and tenant farmers, as well as, as might be expected, students of divinity, and ministers of different religious persuasions.

The second-most popular book with ‘devil’ in the title was Daniel Defoe’s A System of Magick (1727), whose subtitle, ‘a history of the black art, being an historical account of mankind’s most early dealing with the Devil, and how the acquaintance on both sides first began’ gives a fairly good sense of its contents. A System of Magick was one of three works on the supernatural published by Defoe in the years 1726 and 1727, and was again most popular at Westerkirk, which accounted for 27 borrowings out of the total 34 borrowings. The remainder were at St Andrews University Library.

The remaining ‘devil’ borrowings were of Alain René Le Sage’s Le Diable Boiteux (translated into English as The Devil on Two Sticks by William Combe, which was popular at Selkirk and Wigtown, two subscription libraries.

James Gillray, Le Diable-Boiteux, or, The Devil upon Two Sticks, conveying John Bull to the Land of Promise. Yale Centre for British Art, B1974.12.216. Reproduced here under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 licence. In this caricature, Gillray identifies Whig politician Charles James Fox (1709-1806) with the devil, and describes his current political situation using details from Le Sage’s work.

A new search for ‘ghost’ brought up 19 entries, ranging from Charles Churchill’s poem ‘The Ghost’, borrowed by 5 readers at Edinburgh and St Andrews University Libraries between 1771 and 1789, through Schiller’s fragment The Ghost-seer or Apparitionist (borrowed by William Dauney from the Advocates’ Library in 1830) to religious controversies surrounding the Holy Ghost (the majority of the remainder of the borrowings). A search for ‘witch’ brought up James Fenimore Cooper’s The Water Witch, published in 1834, and very popular at Wigtown Subscription Library, and Thomas Gaspey’s The Witch Finder; or, The wisdom of our ancestors. A romance, borrowed only once in our dataset, but interestingly again by William Dauney from the Advocates Library, this time in 1828. Dauney seems to have had a mild taste for works dealing with the occult or supernatural; he also borrowed Goethe’s Faust,  a second anonymous work on Dr Faustus, The History of the Wicked Life and Horrid Death of Dr John Faustus, Milton’s works (containing, of course, Paradise Lost, with its astonishing and vivid depictions of Satan and the attendant devils), and Jane Austen’s brilliant parody of the Gothic genre, Northanger Abbey.

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels (1808) from Milton’s Paradise Lost

I started to wonder whether any borrowings relating to witchcraft, devilry or demonology might turn up on or around Hallowe’en itself, and lo and behold, the first entry that came up for my keyword search for ‘demonology’ was Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, addressed to J.G. Lockhart, Esq (1830), borrowed on 30th October, 1830, by the Reverend James Reid of Kirkinner, from Wigtown Subscription Library. That certainly was a Spooky coincidence!

George Cruikshank, Elfin Arrow Manufactory (1830), one of the plates used to illustrate Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. From the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts.