Lady Bell devotes a whole chapter of her At the Works to the subject of literacy, suggesting that the spread of literacy does not necessarily lead to the enjoyment of literature. At the time of the French Revolution, there was a great fear in Britain of the poor learning to read, but especially to write, as they could spread rebellion, and yet there was much encouragement for the poor to be literate, starting with the Sunday School movement which was aimed at controlling noisy children on Sundays. Lady Bell claims education is spread rather thin, and that most people reads whatever came their way, that many were intimidated by grand public libraries, so were unwilling to go there in their shabby clothes and fill out the necessary paperwork to get access to books there.
Bell claims that 1/4 of the poor claimed to read both books and newspapers, 1/2 read one with the remaining 1/4 read nothing; this last group were mostly married women as they felt reading was a waste of time – there was always work for them to do. Bell provides a list of some 200 people and their reading habits, which shows an incredible range of interests and abilities from the illiterate to highly educated:
1. Husband and wife cannot read. Youngest girl reads the paper to them sometimes, but ‘she has a tiresome temper and will not always go on’.
4 Tries to teach himself German
5 Husband reads newspapers only, particularly racing news. Wife spends much time in reading penny dreadfuls, illustrated peers which she considers ‘thrilling, as they give such a good account of “high life and elopements”‘ Husband disapproves of his wife’s tastes.
9 Great reader, particularly of history, ‘sea battles and their results.’ His wife reads Shakespeare and revels in Hamlet. For lighter reading, likes Marie Corelli and Miss Braddon.
10 Very fond of reading books relating to his work, which he borrows from his brother. Wife does not care for reading.
11. Great reader, saved up his money to buy engineering and theological books.
18 Great reader; prefers above all to read of was, in which he takes the greatest interest. He has ‘often been mistaken for a soldier from his conversation and great knowledge of battles.’ Wife very energetic woman, doing her own baking, washing, papering etc, and no time to read.
20 Only cares to read about sports, anything else he considers trash. Wife cannot read.
21 Husband cannot read. He says when he as young he was tongue-tied and no trouble was taken with him; he still has impediment in his speech. Wife always reads to hm n the evenings, and bytes means keeps him at home, but he will listen to nothing but romances.
23 Neither husband nor wife can read. The wife was brought up by an aunt who would not allow her to go to school. Her boy is going to teach her to read.
26 Both husband and wife are great readers – novels – which they get from the Free Library and borrow from their neighbours. Husband reads aloud to wife.
29 Does not read much, as his eyes were burnt in an accident at the works. Wife no time to rad, and prefers too ‘be lazy on Sundays’.
30 Great reader, and has quite a collection of books on various subjects, which he has bought cheaply at the market.
33 Is devoted to books, spends all his spare time reading. Is a member of the International Library of Famous Literature, and has a small bookcase full of splendid looks which he does her every night to his intense enjoyment. He also gets books from the Free Library on science, blast-furnaces, etc. His wife cannot read and refuses to learn, although he is most anxious to teach her
38 Reads to his wife as she is nearly blind
43 Reads a great deal at the workman’s club to which he goes but will not bring any books home
48 Talks intelligently about current events, and reads all the newspapers he can get hold of to his wife at home.
50 Wife fond of reading exciting novels, which her husband considers a waste of time
58 Whole family fond of reading, especially fairy tales. They all read aloud in the evening, and the children repeat the stories to their playmates.
73 Not great readers; wit prefers knitting and sewing
77 All the men,3 lodgers, are fond of reading and get books from the news-room library.
79 Goes frequently to the Free Library and reads all the better magazines, also Plato, Aristotle etc; considers their works ‘such splendid food for a man’s mind’. Has learnt a little French
84 Not a reading family at all
91 None of the family her read, which the old grandmother thinks ‘a sad pity’97 Daughter’s husband reads aloud to the family in the evening
108 Wife puts in the days reading and sewing
113 Spends Sunday in bed and reads all day
114 Son reads all his spare time,. Tit-Bits and Answers, and goes in for the competitions,especially those to do with football. 128 Neither he nor his wife can read, as, though they were respectably brought up, they were sent out to wrk very young.
130 Neither he nor his wife care in the least for reading – she prefers sewing, he plays with the children or sleeps over the fire
131 wife a good scholar and likes reading story books. Husband can hardly read at all but listens to his wife reading. 134 Reads a great deal but only books on ‘religious disbeliefs’
138 Both fond of reading, especially Rider Haggard
142 Wife eery fond of reading, stories and the customs and modes of living in other lands.
148 Both are fond of reading nice tales of home-life. Girl-wife appreciates poetry
169 The second son is ‘very intellectual’ ad a great and enthusiastic reader of what his mother calls ‘such dreadfully hard books’. He is a greek scholar, and possesses numerous Greek books, besides Ruskin, Browning, Shakespeare, biographies etc
176 Fond of reading about travels; very loath to lend his new boss to the neighbours
180 Both fond of reading; he reads aloud to her while she makes the childrens’ clothes
185 This woman, at the age of 50, made a desperate attempt to learn to read, and being asked what sort of books she would prefer, said, ‘Something with a little love and a little murder’
186 This woman asked what she liked to read, ‘Something that will take one away from oneself’.
188 This family never ‘wastes time’ ver reading books, but the father and so take an interest in the political news in the papers.
191 A rather delicate young man, fond of reading, especially books about his work; explaining his love for it by the fat that his ‘father was the same, and had more brains than he knew what to do with’
196 This woman, when asked if she never read, answered she ‘was no scholar’ and she www often glad she had never learnt to read, as if she had she might have ‘put off’ – i.e. wasted – the time, instead of doing needlework.
200 Husband and wife have a Canadian paper sent to them every week by relatives and read every word of it.