The Great Library of Pemberley: The Bodleian Influence
Updated: May 4
By Julie Cooper, author of Nameless
A key setting in Nameless is Pemberley’s library: a gentlemen’s library to end all gentlemen’s libraries and home to literally thousands of books. Of course, such a repository would not have been accessible to most people during the Regency era, and Elizabeth’s desire to share it with others gives a clue to her generous personality. While we do not, during the novel, learn where she developed an interest in libraries, there is a hint showing that she knew of and admired the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and a deleted scene reveals her father studied there, and would have happily never left it, had there been a choice.
The Bodleian, of course, is not a single library, but a collection of libraries: the 15th-century Duke Humfrey’s Library, the 17th-century Old Schools Quadrangle, the 18th-century Clarendon Building and Radcliffe Camera, and the 20th- and 21st-century Weston Library. In general, the books are not to be removed or even borrowed. The bronze bust of King Charles I that stands in the Duke Humfrey’s library is a subtle reminder—he too, the very king of England, was refused lending privileges in 1645.
“Harry—I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
“What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Who doesn’t love the scene in the first Harry Potter movie, where Harry, draped in his Invisibility cloak, sneaks into the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts Library? Go back and take another peek—it was filmed in the Duke Humfrey’s Library. Named after Humfrey, 1st Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of King Henry IV, the duke collected many manuscripts and classical texts throughout his lifetime. When he died in 1447, he bequeathed his entire collection to the University of Oxford. Owning only 20 books at the time, the University quickly built a room worthy of sheltering the duke’s priceless gift.
In the 16th century, during the reign of Edward VI, the library’s future looked bleak. A purge of ‘superstitious’ (translation: Catholic-related) literature meant that by 1550, only three of the original books belonging to Duke Humfrey remained in the collection. Many were borrowed but never returned and some, even, were burned by the King’s Commissioners. A letter in 1598 to the Vice Chancellor of the University reversed neglect and destruction:
“…where there hath bin hertofore a publike library in Oxford: which you know is apparent by the rome it self remayning, and by your statute records I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to his former use.”
Enter Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College and a diplomat at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Thanks to him, by 1602 there were around two thousand books in Oxford’s possession, and its passion for preserving the written word has never waned—hence its name ‘Bodleian Library’ (officially Bodley’s Library). Unofficially: ‘The Bod’.
Such was the value of literature, that when the Bodleian opened to scholars in the 17th century, its books had to be chained to the walls. Recognition of the incalculable riches therein is required of any who hope to use it. The ‘Library’s pledge’ has been translated into over a hundred languages—and if you wish to enter its hallowed halls, be prepared to recite:
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the library or to mark, deface, or injure in any way any volume, document or other object belonging to it, or in its custody nor to bring into the library or kindle therein any fire or flame; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library”.
Shakespeare’s first folio, third century gospels, one of only twenty-one complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the letters of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and four copies of the Magna Carta are but a few of many treasures preserved for future generations. With 5,000 new titles added every week, the library’s collection totals around 13 million books and manuscripts, much of it stored beneath Oxford’s streets in underground tunnels.
“A library is infinity under a roof. —Gail Carson Levine
Dr John Radcliffe was the royal physician to King William III and Queen Mary II, and in 1714 he donated the incredible sum of forty-thousand pounds to build the Radcliffe Camera, the first circular building in Great Britain. It is the Bodleian’s main reading room—known by all as the Rad Cam. (The word ‘camera’ is Latin for chamber or room.)
The general public is barred from entry. Bookcases hug the rounded curves of the walls, propped up by a collection of towering columns. The pillars sweep towards the high ceilings where they curve into arches, forming endless loops, one after the other. Above the columns, the library is crowned by a large glass dome, one of the most distinctive landmarks of Oxford. While architecturally, Nameless could not copy the Rad Cam, pictures of its interior, and that of the Duke Humfrey, inspired its Great Library of Pemberley—with its tall ebony shelves, soaring ceilings, pediments and peristyles, flutes and friezes.
“They found Mr Bennet still up. With a book he was regardless of time” —Jane Austen
It was not until the 1830s that book prices dropped into affordable ranges. Mr Bennet’s library was doubtlessly robust for a man of his income—and after all, what better way to exhaust the family’s annual two-thousand pounds? Circulating libraries had books available via subscriptions, certainly, but the literature therein would be novels and poetry, perhaps a travelogue or two, and not the substantial reference materials expected in a gentlemen’s library. Books were a luxury, true, but hardly beyond Mr Bennet’s ability to procure—especially if he did not put aside any of his income for future marriage portions.
Even so, when Nameless’s Elizabeth first sees Pemberley’s library, it is far beyond anything she could have imagined. In our modern abundance of accessible literature, perhaps such feelings are perplexing, but her awe would have been completely understandable to other bibliophiles of her day. As one journalist said, “At the time, industrialization hadn’t yet made printing affordable, so only the richest could afford books. The average three-volume novel cost the equivalent of $100 at the time, which makes Mr Darcy’s extensive library even sexier.”
In Nameless, the Great Library of Pemberley plays a role in both Darcy and Elizabeth’s conflict and its resolution. Images and the history of the Bodleian inspired both.
Notes:  This is the original oath, or to be specific, Do fidem me nullum librum vel instrumentum aliamve quam rem ad bibliothecam pertinentem, vel ibi custodiae causa depositam, aut e bibliotheca sublaturum esse, aut foedaturum deformaturum aliove quo modo laesurum; item neque ignem nec flammam in bibliothecam inlaturum vel in ea accensurum, neque fumo nicotiano aliove quovis ibi usurum; item promitto me omnes leges ad bibliothecam Bodleianam attinentes semper observaturum esse. Since originally conceived, a non-smoking rule has also been incorporated.  Blakemore, Erin, (2018-06-08) How Lizzie Bennet Got Her Books, jstor.org, Retrieved 2021-08-05  Bodleian Library, A Brief History of The Bodleian, Bodleian.ox.ac.uk, Retrieved 2021-0805
Nameless is now available on Amazon.