It became an Offence to some weak Minds that a Minister should be at the Head of a circulating Library, while it was ever deemed an Honour to be a Librarian to a standing one, notwithstanding the heterogeneous Mixture to be found in both.1
The reputation of circulating libraries has suffered from their association with the distribution of cheap fiction, particularly sensational and romantic novels. Their provision of fiction seems most to attract the attention of literary and other historians.2 But in the 1730s and 1740s fiction as we know it scarcely existed. Poetry and plays were the popular forms of literature when booksellers first began to lend out books to profit from merchandise that would otherwise sit unproductively on their shelves. Yet circulating libraries also catered for the lover of non-fiction, the reader who demanded education, not just entertainment. Booksellers, of course, responded to the fashion of the moment, like any other tradesmen. Before 1750 circulating libraries were dominated by three names, the heroes, as it were, of their early history: Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh, said to have founded the first circulating library; James Leake in Bath; and Samuel Fancourt in London. Fancourt's fame can be dated from an account [End Page 398] of his life and works published in the Gentleman's Magazine sixteen years after his death, in which he is described as having 'set on foot the first circulating library for gentlemen and ladies'.3 That is the claim to be explored here.
Booksellers had been lending books from their ordinary stock-in-trade since the 1660s, but there is no evidence that any bookseller had a separate lending stock before Allan Ramsay in 1725. As well as charging a fee per night, as other booksellers did, he offered an annual subscription, and had a permanent loan stock. This was Ramsay's second career: he had been a wigmaker by profession, a purveyor of perukes, and a published poet, well-known in Edinburgh's literary circles. As for James Leake, who was lending books by 1728, his library soon acquired a reputation as the literary and fashionable centre of Bath. Leake was Mr Sociability, hobnobbing with the nobility and pandering to their every whim. His circulating library was the first to become a more cultural, fashionable, and female-friendly version of the coffee house. His future brother-in-law was Samuel Richardson, who had been apprenticed to the Leake family's printing business and whose Pamela (published in 1741 by Leake) did so much to stir up a frenzy of novel-writing and -reading, which, in turn, encouraged the popularity of the circulating library.
Samuel Fancourt (c. 1678–1768) was the complete antithesis of Ramsay and Leake: he was Mr Unsociability. His life was full of gloom and despond. He was neither bookseller nor wigmaker, but a dissenting minister; his cloth was cut very cheaply indeed. Fancourt's library was stocked with improving literature, though he recognized the need to furnish more popular fare. Fancourt was not a purveyor of purple prose, nor was he interested in sociability. His ideal circulating library — his personal Camelot perhaps — was an engine for imparting knowledge and the Christian message in particular, though in practice he never ran (nor did he ever intend to run) a theological library. Significantly his first circulating library was set up on the model of Leake's library at Bath and contained much light literature. Leake and Fancourt may have been opposites, but the link in the chain is clear.4 [End Page 399]
Samuel Fancourt was born in Oakham, Rutland, in or about 1678, the son of Anthony, a merchant, and Hannah Fancourt. He was descended from solid Anglican county stock, but his mother, a dissenter, had converted...