Novels reproved and reprieved
It was said by Fletcher of Saltoun, 'Let me make the ballads of a nation, and I care not who makes the laws.' Might it not be said with as much propriety, Let me make the novels of a country, and let who will make the system?
Anna Lætitia Barbauld, An Essay on the Origin and Progress of Novel Writing (1810)
A rhetoric of opposition to the spread of reading, and to the educational and distributive processes that seemed to facilitate it, grew steadily throughout the eighteenth century. This was generally a rather petulant and sporadic resentment against the trickle down of a literary competence, but it occasionally found a tighter focus. Institutions which could be painted as inventions only of the present iniquitous age were seized upon as simultaneously causes and symptoms of the problem. Chief amongst these were the circulating library, the Sunday or charity school, and the novel. In the conservative imagination, the Sunday school taught the illiterate to read; the circulatinglibrary enabled them to do so affordably; and the novel enticed into the habit those who had previously been unwilling. What these institutions have in common is that they could all be arraigned for spreadingthe readinghabit to new sections of society, to the lower orders, to women, to children. 1 It was the spread of literature to these inexperienced and susceptible readers which was to be condemned, conservative commentators were careful to point out, not readingitself, which few Protestants, few believers in the past glories of English literature, and few who read themselves, would be prepared to do. New readers were, they insisted, not sufficiently discriminating to distinguish between the wholesome food and the poison into which literature had always been divided.
This suspicion and hostility to readingand its agencies received new impetus from the French Revolution and the British radical response to it. The bout of conservative introspection brought on by the Revolution