Magazine article The Spectator

Brows-High, Middle and Low

Magazine article The Spectator

Brows-High, Middle and Low

Article excerpt


In 1926, Catherine McMullen, born in 1906, the daughter of a workhouse washerwoman and herself a workhouse laundress, was struggling to improve her mind but did not know what she should read. She chanced on a novel of Elinor Glyn, the story of a romance between a duke and his secretary. The secretary is advised to read the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son. Catherine herself followed the advice. She wrote later:

With Lord Chesterfield I went travelling the world. I would fall asleep reading his letters and awake around three o'clock, my mind deep in the fascination of this new world, where people conversed, not just talked.

The Letters launched her on Chaucer, Gibbon and Donne and on her career as a writer. As Catherine Cookson, she reached sales of 100 million copies, sometimes constituting a third of all books loaned by Britain's public libraries. `Dear, dear Lord Chesterfield,' she recalled, `snob or not, I owe him so much.'

Her experience was common to the working-class self-improvers who are the subject of this long, wonderfully perceptive book. Flying blind by night, by chance they land on an author who transforms their lives. They remain committed to the lifelong pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. No one can fail to be moved by these working-class readers of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. They found in books a liberating experience that conferred independence of mind, dignity and 'respectability' - a key word in working-class discourse. In the early 19th century, shepherds in the Cheviots built up modest circulating libraries, leaving books they had read in designated crannies in boundary walls for others to enjoy. Self-help became mutual improvement and was institutionalised. The miners' institutes of South Wales were `one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by the working class anywhere in the world'. By the 1930s there were some 100 miners' libraries in the Welsh coalfields, with an average stock of 3,000 volumes ranging from Ibsen and Chekhov to G. B. Shaw and Mrs Henry Wood's sentimental novel, East Lynne.

What did these working-class readers read and what did they make of what they had read? Jonathan Rose argues that they were bred on the classics of world literature, that their tastes were essentially conservative. Chartists in the 1840s peppered their speeches with Shakespeare. Asked what books had influenced them, the Labour MPs who entered parliament in 1906 cited Ruskin, Dickens, the Bible, Carlyle, Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Macaulay. Ramsay Macdonald, to become the first Labour prime minister in 1924, claimed that the Waverley novels of the Tory Scott `opened the great world of national life to me'. Macdonald's fellow MP, J. R. Clynes, who rose from the textile mills of Oldham to become deputy leader of the House of Commons, was the last man to settle a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare.

Given this cultural conservatism Rose has little sympathy with the postmodernists of the academic establishment for whom literary excellence is an irrelevance. `There is no evidence,' writes one of these mandarins, with whom I have struggled, `that Middlemarch is a greater artistic achievement than the cartoons of Bugs Bunny.' No working-class reader, illuminated by great literature, would understand such arrant and evil nonsense. Another of the mandarins claims that the works of classic literature `do not have value' for those who have not received an orthodox education. How, then, do we account for Will Crooks, a Labour MP, who, growing up in extreme poverty in the East End, spent 2d on a translation of the Iliad? He was dazzled by this `rare luxury for a working lad. He knew he had struck on a great work.

It comes as a surprise that Rose traces back what we now call in academia `cultural studies' to George Orwell's great essay, 'Boys' Weeklies'. …

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