The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction

The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction

The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction

The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth Century British Fiction

Synopsis

"[Brantlinger's] writing is admirably lucid, his knowledge impressive and his thesis a welcome reminder of the class bias that so often accompanies denunciations of popular fiction." --Publishers Weekly

"Brantlinger is adept at discussing both the fiction itself and the social environment in which that fiction was produced and disseminated. He brings to his study a thorough knowledge of traditional and contemporary scholarship, which results in an important scholarly book on Victorian fiction and its production." --Choice

"Timely, scrupulously researched, thoroughly enlightening, and steadily readable.... A work of agenda-setting historical scholarship." --Garrett Stewart

Fear of mass literacy stalks the pages of Patrick Brantlinger's latest book. Its central plot involves the many ways in which novels and novel reading were viewed--especially by novelists themselves--as both causes and symptoms of rotting minds and moral decay among nineteenth-century readers.

Excerpt

If it is true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preced
ing, the great multiplication of Novels probably contributes to
its degeneracy. Fifty years ago there was scarcely a Novel in
the kingdom.

—Viccssimus Knox, “On Novel Reading” (1779)

In Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop orders her niece “to illiterate” her lover from her memory. Lydia replies that “our memories are independent of our wills,” which causes Sir Anthony Absolute to declare that Lydia’s willfulness “comes of her reading” (Sheridan 49). He means, of course, Lydia’s novelreading, but her behavior provokes him to suggest that it would have been better if she had remained incapable of reading anything. Indeed, he would like “to illiterate” young women in general; he tells Mrs. Malaprop that “all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!” (50).

Sir Anthony goes on to say that “a circulating library in a town,” from which young women such as Lydia obtain novels, “is as an ever-green tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last” (50). Sheridan, no doubt, viewed Sir Anthony’s opinions about novel-reading, circulating libraries, and female education as both silly and extreme. But, as John Tinnon Taylor long ago demonstrated, between about 1750 and the 1830s many people objected to novel-reading as an abuse of literacy likely to do moral damage to readers and, indeed, to the national culture., “Where the reading of novels prevails as a habit,” opined no less an expert reader of novels than Coleridge, “it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind.” Novel-reading, Coleridge continues, “is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time”:

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.