top of page
  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Austen and folios, quartos, and octavos, oh my!

…and the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present…was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with, into a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper…

Emma chapter 9

In Jane Austen’s time, standardized paper sizes didn’t exist. The terms used then are the ones still widely used in book cataloguing and archives today, especially for books from the hand-press era (about 1450 to 1830), when books were printed on hand-made sheets of paper. Books were categorized according to their formats, and the most common ones are: ‘folio’, ‘quarto’, and ‘octavo.’ These terms describe the size of a book in relation to the number of folds of the original sheets.

To create a folio, the largest format, the sheet is folded once. This results in two leaves and four pages. A quarto consists of two folds, four leaves and eight pages. An octavo has four folds, eight leaves, and sixteen pages. This can continue down to duodecimo, sextodecimo, octodecimo, and so on. At that point, there are a lot of folds and the book is only a few inches in height.

The reading order of a book emerged later in the process, when sheets would be folded in a certain pattern, and then those folded sheets were gathered in a certain order. To keep track of the order, printers labeled each sheet with a letter of the alphabet or other characters. After the sheets were folded and bound together in order, the page edges are cut so that the book can open. If the book remains uncut, the reader cannot read the individual book pages, but only the leaves.

Since the size of the original sheet could vary, the terms indicate only the approximate book sizes. But generally speaking, a folio was about 12 x 19 inches, an quarto was around 6 x 9 inches, and an octavo about 5 x 7.5 inches.

In case you’re wondering what recto and verso means: The front or face of a single sheet of paper, or the right-hand page of an open book is called the recto. The back or underside of a single sheet of paper, or the left-hand page of an open book is known as the verso.

What can we learn from Austen by knowing a little more about folios, quartos, and octavos? From the quote at the top of this post from Emma, we know that Harriet’s book about riddles is very small. It’s a thin quarto, so it’s small in size and it’s since it's thin we know it's not very long.

Austen mentions the folios in Mr. Bennet’s library:

…for thither Mr. Collins had followed him after breakfast, and there he would continue, nominally engaged with one of the largest folios in the collection, but really talking to Mr. Bennet, with little cessation, of his house and garden at Hunsford. Such doings discomposed Mr. Bennet exceedingly.

P&P Chapter 15

Today, a folio can mean an oversized book, a book in folio format (one fold), or one of the first four editions of Shakespeare's collected plays. But in Jane Austen's time, it was generally used to describe the height of the book. This format was usually reserved for history, religious topics, and other important subjects. Most high status books produced prior to the early nineteenth century are in this format. Fitting for Mr. Bennet’s library, and not fitting for pawing through by the not-so-literate Mr. Collins.

Austen’s own letters mention reading octavos versus quartos.

I am reading a Society octavo, an "Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire," by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written and highly entertaining… Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick quarto volumes which one always sees in the breakfast parlour there must be acquainted with everything in the world. I detest a quarto. Capt. Pasley's book is too good for their society. They will not understand a man who condenses his thoughts into an octavo.

Feb 9 1813

Jane has no patience for large showy quartos that might not have anything interesting in them, but she does admire shorter octavo.

The quarto format was common for early modern texts. It was conventional for some publications, including newsletters and pamphlets, to be complete within one quarto sheet. As far as books go. quartos were often used for illustrated and plate productions, and also for many nineteenth century travel books. Octavo was the typical size for the books on a library shelf.

You might think I did a lot of research into this, and of course I did some, but once upon a time, I earned a masters in information science. I wanted to go into archives and records management and, although I ended up in public libraries, I took several classes on rare books and on managing collections. Terms like folio, quarto, octavo were used all the time.

If you come across these terms in your reading and want to know what the character is looking at, just remember a folio is big, octavo was little, and quarto was average size.

256 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All

2 opmerkingen

19 feb. 2023


Heather Moll
Heather Moll
19 feb. 2023
Reageren op

Thanks for reading!

bottom of page