I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of a salon – and the women who ran salons in the eighteenth century, such as Madame Geoffrin, Mlle de Scudéry, Madame de Staël, and Madame Necker in France, and Elizabeth Montague, Mary Berry, Lady Holland, and the Countess of Blessington on this side of the English Channel.
Many years ago, I edited a collection of essays on the subject of conversation in the long eighteenth century, and realised then how central and important salons were in the cultural imagination of the period. I was delighted, therefore, when the ‘Books and Borrowing’ team’s proposal to host a virtual salon at the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) conference was accepted. Historically, people gathered in salons to share news and gossip, to network and intrigue, and to discuss the burning intellectual questions of the day. Sadly our salon had to take place online, rather than in the glamorous surroundings of Holland House or Strawberry Hill, but we very much hoped that we’d still be able to stimulate if not replicate, some lively and exciting discussions like the ones held in those locations long ago. ‘The communication of knowledge and the exercise of wit’ was the explicit purpose of the Bluestocking Club, and we hoped our salon would fulfil a similar purpose. We hoped it would not replicate the scenes in Rowlandson’s famous caricature.
We decided that our most burning intellectual question – and thus the one we’d like to structure our own salon around – was ‘which books were really circulating in the Romantic Period’. Before the salon, we asked participants to look at four images, taken from the borrowers’ registers of four of our partner libraries. We hosted these on our website, and gave a little bit of context about the libraries and their registers.
The salon was held on the morning of 18th August. 21 people attended in total, 4 of them project team members (Katie Halsey, Gerry McKeever, Matt Sangster and Jacqui Kennard). A special thanks to North American colleagues, who joined us at the extremely unhospitable hour of 4:30 in the morning! The conversation was extremely interesting, reflecting the research interests of the participants, which ranged from the reception of individual authors such as Keats, Shelley and Frances Burney, to questions about differing levels of access to libraries by different social groups and genders. The project team was delighted to be able to share some of our early research findings (reported in earlier blogs) relating to the popularity of Scottish authors, the importance of Rollin in the early period covered by our project, the stratospheric popularity of Scott from the 18-teens onwards, the importance of the historical novel, and history more broadly in our records, and the extent to which women and labouring-class readers are represented across our dataset. We also discussed how our resource would eventually be structured and organised. Together, we hypothesized that subscription libraries in remote areas such as Wigtown, Orkney and Selkirk might have felt especially motivated to buy the newest works of literature in order to remain current, and we considered what borrowers’ records can and can’t tell us, both about patterns and trends in reading practices, and about how and why readers read.
We’re very grateful to everyone who joined us on Zoom – your thought-provoking ideas will help us to refine our eventual user interface, and will inform the publications we’re all working on at the moment. We enjoyed your company, your conversation, your knowledge, and your wit! Thanks also to the BARS Romantic Disconnections/Reconnections Committee (Matthew Sangster, Daniel Cook, Amanda Blake Davis, Gillian Dow and Andrew McInnes) for all their hard work and dedication in making the conference happen.
 See Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830, ed. Elizabeth Eger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.3, for more on the bluestockings and their salons.