Fear of Books, Reading & the ‘Great Unwashed’ in 19th London

Books could kill in the 19th century.

Books were generally thought to be ‘plague carriers’ throughout this period [and with cholera raging all around there may have been a reason to fear human contact of all kinds]. Articles in the medical journal Lancet recommended both the disinfecting of returned books ad that patrons be forced to declare their households free from disease.” (p. 40)

In the chapter entitled, ‘The Great Fiction Bore’: Free Libraries and their Users, the author looks at the contradictory views, motives and fears behind the emergence of a new institution, the public lending library.

A spirit of self-help was in vogue shortly after the 1848 revolutions – this manifested itself in the public library movement to help improve the lives of the working poor. However, the Public Library Movement wasn’t the result of popular pressure, but aligned with middle-class concerns, which at the time revolved around trade, Chartism, England’s future, social control and the public space, particularly in the wake of the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

victorian poorThe Commons debates ranged from those which viewed the spread of literacy as dangerous, through those which stressed the need to provide the poor with decent housing, food and jobs. Rather than improving literature … (p. 29)

“Reading and vice were inextricably linked”

All of this suspicion, apathy and restraint meant that adoption was extremely slow in the early years. It wasn’t until the late 1880s as wealthy philanthropists began donating funds that the movement started to move.

The great fear was that the working population would be tempted to use the libraries as places in which to pass a rainy hour in idleness, or worse still, the reading of trash worked powerfully against the provision of all popular forms of reading for many years.  (p. 31).

It seemed for a time, the middle classes had little to worry about, the standard, acceptable ‘serious’ works approved by donors included history, religion, essays and the classics rather than the lighter kinds of reading likely to attract readers.

These types of books did attract the middle classes, but unfortunately for the nascent development of the public library, the louts and the great unwashed that prowled around the library scared off the middle classes (the better class of readers), so they were left with very few patrons. To survive, they had to attract both classes — libraries needed to provide fiction. However, fiction was considered dangerous, linked to addiction drink, to crime, to theft, to idleness, to unproductivity. Fiction reading had come by this period to stand in a metonymic relation to a number of social ills … In an ironic reversal of one of the man impulses behind the library movement – that of providing working people with an alternative space to the public house – the reading of ‘ephemeral fiction’ … is frequently likened to an addiction to drink. (add a few more examples, pp. 32-33)

In the chapter entitled, Sensation and Sensibility: W.H. Smith and the Railway Bookstall, the author looks at the railway bookstall — a very different type of public space in which a range of books were both widely available, and anxiously viewed as potential corrupters of women, lower class readers and the mental health of the nation.

Bram Stoker's Dracula originally sported a yellow cover to warn readers of its pornographic contents. Stoker never intended it to be pornographic and modern reader's would certainly find it hard not to concur.  Of Dracula, Stoker wrote to William Ewart Gladstone that:     The book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to “cleanse the mind by pity & terror.” - http://1890swriters.blogspot.ca/2015/01/pornography.html
Bram Stoker’s Dracula originally sported a yellow cover to warn readers of its pornographic contents. Stoker never intended it to be pornographic and modern reader’s would certainly find it hard not to concur.
Of Dracula, Stoker wrote to William Ewart Gladstone that:
The book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors but I trust that these are calculated to “cleanse the mind by pity & terror.”
http://1890swriters.blogspot.ca/2015/01/pornography.html

The railway bookstall was where two dangers – the shock of modernity (anxieties of social and political effects) and the unknown power of literature (particularly fiction) – joined forces and lay in wait between yellow covers for the naive and unwary passer-by (p. 51)

Sensation fiction supplanted self-help reading, and fit perfectly into the new modernity. It has been suggested that ” in the sensation genre [there was] an attempt to register and accommodate the newly speeded-up world of the railway age … through its deployment of nervousness – shown in its characters, elicited in its readers –

Source: Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880-1914 / Mary Hammond

Covering 19th c views of the working poor and the threat they posed to society. Look into the public lending libraries, the geographies of drunkenness, emergence of public baths, cholera.  Alcohol as medicine.

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