DISNEY'S "Beauty and the Beast" has an interesting underlying theme. The heroine, Belle, is a bookworm. In the never-never-land castle, as its enchanted inhabitants are not slow to realize, there is one room above all which would appeal to this spirited young lass. When the Beast wants to be kind to her (having already heroically saved her from a pack of wolves) he takes her to this room and just gives it to her, as a present.
It is the library. But what a library! A gigantic, hyperbolic, amazing fantasy which has in it billions more books than imagination can compass, tiers upon tiers of shelves crammed to the gills, galleries rising above galleries, climbing endlessly up into incalculable heights with - of course - ladders for accessibility. The Disney studio never could do anything by halves, and the 1990s are no exception. This is meant to be the ultimate in private libraries.
The assumption is that Belle will find in this mind-boggling room everything her literary heart could desire. It is a sign that, despite his unpromising appearance, Beast is sensitive to the finer aspects of home life. In this he contrasts markedly with the vain and macho suitor in the village who is determined to have Belle for a wife by fair means or foul, mostly foul. His brand of crassness is chiefly demonstrated by a hatred for books. Belle should stop stuffing her head with stories and be his good little undistracted and mindless spouse. He treads the book she is reading into a puddle to make his point.
So books and the traditional room afforded them become crucial symbols in this modernly re-jigged folk tale.
It's a nice touch.
Libraries in our century are most frequently public. Reasons of space and cost alone militate against the library in the home being a commonplace. Kitchens, bathrooms, even TV rooms, seem established enough. However, the library, though reaching its peak in houses of the wealthy or scholarly in the 18th and 19th centuries, has never really been an absolute essential in the home.
Even at its most popular, when it was certainly a status symbol to own and display books (the 20th-century coffee-table book remains as our version of this harmless vanity), the library in the home still had a rather undecided character.
In the 18th century, what had been a room with a fairly exclusive function for perhaps a century had in some cases evolved into a kind of family room. A William Hogarth portrait of the Cholmondeley family (1732) presents them all - children and dog too - in the library. Indeed, the kids are mucking about with the books. In other large houses, the library as pictured by artists or, later, by photographers, has become quite clearly the living room. The walls may be lined with book cases, but the central sp ace is filled with capacious and comfortable furniture.
THE wonderful habit of reading aloud to the assembled family for an evening - television has done that idea in forever - may have been a factor in bringing living room and library together in this way. In other houses, the billiard table somehow found its way into the library. So then which was it primarily, a games room or a reading place?
It is interesting that in the Disney fantasy, the library is thought to be just the place for a young lady. If the presumed period is sort of medieval, this is a remarkably inaccurate notion. Not only most women, but also most men were illiterate, even among the wealthy classes. The ecclesiasts were literate and had their libraries. But not the gentry or aristocracy. One early 16th-century English gentleman is said to have observed: "I'd rather that my son should hang than study letters. For it becomes t he son of a gentleman to blow the horn nicely, to hunt skilfully and elegantly, to carry and train a hawk. But the study of letters should be left to the sons of rustics."
Until well into the 17th century, there was simply no call for a separate room for books in the majority of homes. Even some of the wealthiest and cultured still had a very few volumes of their own, and kept them in a chest, or perhaps in some small room adjoining the bedroom or family chapel.
When libraries started to become a standard expectation of properly equipped houses, they were still not large, containing usually no more than a few hundred books. It became a matter of hospitality that a friend or visitor would be given free access to the library; the books were collected to be shared.
Such generosity was counterbalanced, in some cases, by the distinctly fostered idea that the library was a place of escape, particularly for the man of the house. This may have been partly because "library" and "study" were not always clearly separated, and the master's study was quite certainly his domain.
In Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (first published 1813), the father of the five eligible Bennet girls seeks quiet and solace by reading books, and, in time of greatest need, by disappearing into his library. Unfortunately for him, though, the door is not locked against the importunities of his troublesome wife, who invades his sanctum and demands that he insist his daughter Elizabeth accept the marriage proposal of Mr. Collins.
Unmoved among his books, he explains steadily to his favorite daughter her predicament: If she does not accept Mr. Collins she will fatally alienate her mother, but if she does accept him, she will lose the love of her father. She must decide. The implication, I believe, is that the place in the home to be Solomon-wise and witty is the library.
At another moment in the same wonderful book, Austen makes humor out of the notion of a particular room demanding particular kinds of talk and thought; Elizabeth banteringly tells Darcy (for whom she is destined), as they dance and make awkward conversation: "No - I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else."
The fact seems to be that a library as part of the home seems to be as varied in concept as that home's owners, apart from the basic idea that it is the place where books are kept when there are sufficient numbers of them to demand attention. So in one Victorian house - in the English county Northumberland - what is called the library has in it several low shelves along the walls, but a host of china and ornaments as well, and pre-Raphaelite paintings taking up all of the upper half of the walls. Books h ave their place, but they hardly dominate.
The late 17th century library in Ham House, Surrey, on the other hand, had two rooms for books. Not enormous, they were nevertheless full of shelving - the "library" and the "library closet." They were placed somewhere between the private and the more public parts of the house, accessible to both. In one grand late 19th-century house, one of the children later recorded that it was the library into which visiting prime ministers were ushered.
Literati, naturally, have their own attitudes toward libraries. Thomas de Quincey, 19th-century essayist, for example, dreamt of an ideal library (which was apparently a long way from his actually chaotically messy set-up). He called on an imaginary painter to "paint" it for him: "Paint me, then, a room seventeen feet by twelve .... Make it populous with books ... a good fire and furniture plain and modest, befitting the unpretending cottage of a scholar. And near the fire, paint me a tea-table ...."
James Henry Leigh Hunt, another essayist and book lover, figured out an essential difference between the library as a sizeable (but never large enough) space where books are stored, and the room where books are most enjoyably read. Some people think that room is the bedroom, or even, for uninterruptable solitude, the bathroom. But Leigh Hunt proposed a "small, snug" study. There, he said, "I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather."
Where the library was in a house may not have been clearly delineated. And it was capable of being anything from a selfish indulgence to a utilitarian and needful reference, to a room of considerable sociableness and sharing. There are cases where the wealthy house owners deliberately made their libraries accessible to their upper servants; where children were encouraged to develop an early delight in books. Others were no-go areas. Some owners of private libraries were outgoing to a fault, lending and b orrowing books being part of their pleasure. Others are said to have never parted with a book during their lifetimes.
"Borrowed" books can be a bone of contention between collectors, or simply a matter of forgetfulness, sometimes for a decade or two. Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century English diarist, is known to have borrowed more books from his friend John Evelyn than Evelyn borrowed from him. Some of Evelyn's books have stayed permanently, I believe, in Pepys' library of 3,000 volumes which is now housed in perpetuity at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Pepys was a more than enthusiastic owner of a private library par excelle nce; he loved the subjects of his books, but he also just plain loved books. "My delight is in the neatness of everything," he said. He loved bindings. In one of his rearrangements of his library he organized them in order of size! But for appearance he had little wooden plinths, disguised with gilt leather, made so that they would all look the same height on the shelves. He also had a library stepladder - a sure sign that the library is truly worthy of its title and is not just some room where the books ha ve all washed up. Pepys was a short man, and needed his steps. But tall book collectors need them too if their upper shelves are higher than eight feet up.
Some book-collectors buy books for their private libraries one or two at a time. But others, J. Pierpoint Morgan, for instance, also bought whole libraries. He rapidly had space problems in the cluttered basement room of his Madison Avenue house. So, at vast expense, a new building next door was built, connected by an underground passage.
Historian Edward Gibbon was one of those who made a library for himself for sound scholarly reasons. His nearly 7,000 volumes were what he needed to write his magnum opus, "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." He claimed (I think rather prissily) he was not "conscious of ever having bought a book from a motive of ostentation."
It has been said more than once that a sure way to poverty is to collect books. It is equally true that to collect books - and have a private library for them - requires a lot of money. While Gibbon's boast is impressive, no less impressive is the contribution of some writers who have been light years away from having a library. Today you don't need one, with all the lending and reference libraries so easily usable; though it is observable that bookshops have become larger and larger, and the thirst for book ownership evidently increasing rather than abating. But where in the house are they kept?