Long before the days when Palgrave’s Golden Treasury mediated my grandparents’ courtship, books loomed large in my grandmother’s emotional life. In old age she repeatedly recounted an incident from her girlhood. She was, perhaps, thirteen years old, engrossed in Mrs. Henry Woods’ East Lynne, with her tears dropping onto the page. Her hands were arched over her face to conceal her weeping, but suddenly her blurred view of the page was intercepted by the appearance of her sister Lizzie’s face. They both burst out laughing at Mary’s book-provoked tears being detected.
Remarkable that such a tiny shard of memory was preserved throughout her life, yet her retellings never provided clues as to why the incident remained so memorable. Understanding the permanency of this incident in her memory requires a re-imagining of her circumstances. Presumably Mary’s tears were shed over the death of young William whose “busy little heart had ceased to beat” in the arms of his unacknowledged mother. What lived on in her memory was less the book itself with its preposterous plot, but the flood of feeling it evoked. For those of us who live in a daily textual deluge, the intensity with which such works as East Lynne were once read in rural households is nearly impossible to recreate imaginatively.
No doubt East Lynne’s setting with its cast of aristocrats was part of the book’s allure. But as well as providing a glimpse of the exotic, Mary’s reading must also have been an act that, in itself, represented an avenue promising a wider world of experience than that of her parents. The novels that came into the house as Sunday School prizes or as gifts were only mute objects for her illiterate father. Her mother, while capable of signing her own name, was probably unable to read with sufficient fluency for it to give her any real pleasure. Their children, however, benefitted from a rudimentary public education system that conferred at least functional literacy. While the four oldest sons followed their father into the mine, the younger daughters seem to have seen the school system as an avenue to new possibilities enabling them to earn small salaries as “pupil-teachers.” The act of reading must have been one freighted with very different meanings for the various members of the Nicholls household. Literacy in itself was becoming a more significant personal skill by the last decades of the century.
Even in the labouring classes, illiterates like Mary’s father were becoming more and more a disadvantaged minority. Determining precise literacy levels is notoriously difficult. Marriage registers, the most frequently cited yardstick, give no clue as to whether the individual’s ability extended any further than the ability to execute a signature. Certainly they offer no clue as to how the act of reading may or may not have figured in the signatory’s daily experience. By the time James Nicholls died in 1906 the number of the national population still unable to sign a document had shrunk to a tiny proportion, so dependence on others for letter-writing or interpreting written documents, while not yet regarded as deeply humiliating, may well have begun to weaken James’ paternal authority.
Literacy rates in Cornwall were markedly below the national average. Nevertheless, by the time James reached early middle age, an inability to read and write often crops up in local court records to be noted as a practical and social disadvantage. In the late 1880s, around the same time my grandmother was weeping over East Lynne, a Penryn shopkeeper declaring bankruptcy was deemed by the court to have become helplessly dependent on her son’s unreliable account-keeping because of her inability to read and write. In Redruth, the nearest town to Mary’s village, another shopkeeper is reported as falling victim to forgery because of being unable to read. At the start of the decade the Royal Cornwall Gazette’s editorial was lauding the “considerable progress” made in the “education of the masses” and was hoping “that in the next generation a grown-up man or woman who cannot at least read and write intelligently will be a curiosity.” Editorial wishful thinking aside, it’s probable that, in the mining districts, many more years would elapse before an illiterate individual would be automatically regarded as “a curiosity.” But, even in the mines, illiteracy would soon begin to be a practical disadvantage. As the century drew to a close, the Gazette was offering “A Caution to Cornish Miners,” using as an example the case of a miner who had forfeited a portion of his wages through failing to give notice of his intention to quit his employment. Unable to read the printed notice stipulating the required two weeks’ notice, he lost £1 10s in back pay––a significant sum, representing about a third of what miners were paying for passage to mines in Australia and South Africa at the time. Indeed the ships that carried Cornish miners to these far-flung destinations routinely advertised “a well-stocked library” along with other supposed comforts for the long voyage. So it seems inevitable that James must have encountered social and practical disadvantages arising from his illiteracy and may have had to rely increasingly on his offspring for some negotiations involving the printed word. We can only guess at the ways in which the dynamics of power and authority within the family may have been shifted by the gulf between the reading sons and daughters and their father for whom print remained a mystery.
More about East Lynne . . .
The intensity with which episodes from sentimental fiction were absorbed and then fondly recalled for a lifetime as well as the way in which a poetry anthology like The Golden Treasury could mediate courtship reflects the both the scarcity of print and the way in which the experience it offered was shared collectively. By the closing years of the century being “lost in a book” was becoming a socially-approved activity for young women, endlessly depicted in illustrations to such popular publications as the Girls’ Own Paper. Mary Nicholls shared the tears she shed over East Lynne, not only with her sister Lizzie, but with many thousands of other young women. Between its publication in 1861 and the end of the century it sold 430,000 copies. The copy that came with her when she came to live with us after her husband’s death proclaims “Four Hundredth Thousand” in Gothic typeface on the frontispiece. The actual readership, however, would almost certainly have extended into the millions. Even those who had never read the novel itself had numerous chances to familiarize themselves with its story through its reincarnations on stage. Long after the success of the dramatized version in London theatres, touring companies continued to offer performances in church halls and public rooms. It was still a staple of travelling companies’ repertoire in the century’s last years. Individual scenes from the dramatized version were also featured on concert programmes along with recitations and sentimental songs. In the spring of 1898 a Madame Moody and Mr. Manners gave a concert to standing room only in a nearby town’s public rooms, including an East Lynne scene. In the same concert Madame Moody also offered a dramatic recitation of “The Maniac” suggesting a performance somewhat reminiscent of “the unrivalled Miss Pewtowker” and her Crummles company recitation, “The Blood Drinker” in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Newspaper readers were evidently assumed to be sufficiently familiar with the East Lynne story-line that its title was evoked in actual news stories. A brief 1898 “human interest” story extracted from an American newspaper is headed “East Lynne in real life.”
Other favorite novels . . .
In addition to East Lynne, other sentimental novels originally published four decades earlier were Mary’s girlhood favorites. Like thousands of others she read and re-read Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World and Maria Cummins’ The Lamplighter. In 1854, Hawthorne, in a letter to his publisher, had professed himself mystified by “these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter and other books neither better nor worse” produced by the “d—d mob of scribbling women.” Nearly a decade later in The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley ridiculed these best-sellers clumsily caricaturing their titles, “Squeeky . . .the Pumplighter . . . [and] the Narrow, Narrow World” . . . “little books” written by “the little people in the world; probably because they had no great people to write about.” The Lamplighter, a particular favorite of my grandmother’s, retained its status as a work of risible sentimentality into the next century. In Edith Wharton’s 1917 novel, Summer, Charity Royall, the barely-literate and ferociously anti-intellectual village librarian, uses “the buckram back of a disintegrated copy of “The Lamplighter” to support her half-yard of crude crocheted lace—Wharton’s shorthand to indicate Charity’s disdain for even the lowest levels of print culture. The Nausicaa section of Joyce’s Ulysses elaborates Gerty MacDowell’s fantasy with “her dreams that no-one knew of” in a pastiche of Cummins’ style as Gerty, who shares the first name of Cummins’ main character, tries to configure her world along the lines of “that book THE LAMPLIGHTER by Miss Cummins, author of MABEL VAUGHAN and other tales.” The Lamplighter and similar popular sentimental novels were tagged for well over half a century as the preferred reading of uneducated female readers. But however the literati characterized their favorite authors, or how they derided them, such derision, had they been aware of it, would probably have had little effect upon my grandmother and her sisters over whom Warner’s and Cummins’ tales exercised such compelling charm.
That novels like The Lamplighter and The Wide Wide World set in far-off America should be such favorites with a young girl who had travelled no further from her birthplace than the distance that could be covered on foot or, occasionally, by pony and trap, and whose lifetime travels would take her less than a hundred miles away seems odd. Yet, America was probably less psychologically distant than London or Manchester. During her girlhood, as a consequence of the decline in Cornish tin and copper mining, one in five Cornishmen, emigrated to the US and Canada, or to Australia or South Africa. In the previous generation, news of the California gold rush had reached Cornwall before it reached the mining districts of Northern Michigan. The massive scale of the Cornish diaspora enabled the young men to travel within enclaves of their neighbours and resist outside influences. Many travelled much like the “knot of Cornish miners” that R. L. Stevenson encountered on the Central Pacific Railroad keeping “grimly by themselves, one reading the New Testament all day long through steel spectacles, the rest discussing privately the secrets of their old-world, mysterious race.” Mary’s own brothers went, not to America, but to South Africa, and returned home in early middle age. Apart from a few stories and a handful of souvenirs –a Kruger medal and a brooch shaped like a shovel bearing a tiny nugget of gold—they were strangely unmarked by their travels. As far as I can tell, Mary, in her old age, never re-read the American sentimental novels that had so absorbed her in her girlhood, but she frequently fondly recalled the pleasure of those early readings, repeating in slightly awestruck tones the alliterative title of Warner’s Wide Wide World.
The gulf between her own educational status and that of the previous generation left my grandmother with some odd notions about the wider world of knowledge. She regularly claimed, in her old age, that she had been “the first woman in Cornwall to study science.” Though she firmly believed this to be the case, it was, of course, quite untrue. For example, Caroline Fox (1819-1871), daughter of mineralogist Robert Were Fox, had been privately tutored in science earlier in the century and had travelled to London with her father to attend meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. But such examples were well outside of Mary Nicholls’ frame of reference. She trained in the pupil-teacher system which entailed her walking several miles to the next village each evening to take extra classes at least one of which was in “Science.”
The science curriculum, offered through what T.H. Huxley referred to, at the time, as “that wretched imposture, the pupil teacher system,” was rudimentary at best, deemed by some social historians as a subject that “could be said scarcely to exist,” relying on woolly general textbooks providing “object lessons” rather than any systematic knowledge. The Royal Readers, which remained one of the most widely-used textbooks for at least two generations, offered such perfunctory articles as “Notes on Minerals” with a line or two explaining the use of each in industrial processes. Botany and zoology had been watered down for the school system and reduced to something called “Nature Study” which called for no concept of species classification or systematic observation of plant or animal physiology.
Most publications of the day mirrored this approach, notably best-sellers like the Rev. J.G. Wood’s Common Objects of the Countryside (1858). Taxonomy was evidently regarded as too challenging for the newly literate and was shunned in favour of marveling at “the wonder of” or “the romance of” Nature in its various forms–an approach which is reflected in the titles of many “nature study” books of the period. Not surprisingly this approach merged with missionary zeal so that by the end of the century the Religious Tract Society was publishing such works as “Insect Lives Told by Themselves”. As David Elliston Allen has remarked “Nature Study” was “pressed into service as a sort of auxiliary Scripture.” As far as I can tell, my grandmother did not acquire any type of taxonomic guide to plants until her daughter went to college and brought home wild-flower identification guides. She had been born too early to benefit from the enthusiasm for Nature Study as a school subject which burgeoned following the 1902 exhibition at the Royal Botanic Society Garden and resulted in the foundation of the School Nature Study Union.
Her own generation had also been subject to worries that the study of geology and zoology might lead to some “disturbance of their religious belief.” For the most part, however, these worries had focused on the potential for propagating religious doubt among upper class youth rather than the children of the working class. In any case, the science studies for working class children was determinedly directed towards a technical education. Such an approach could be justified as benefitting “the industrial progress of the country” as the deputation from the British Association for the Advancement of Science led by Thomas Huxley phrased it in their submission urging the inclusion of science in the elementary school curriculum.
When she came to live with us soon after my grandfather’s death in 1947 she brought only a few books with her. The most treasured of these was a six volume set of Natural History books published by Cassells with the deceptively comprehensive title of The Nature Book. From time to time a volume from this set would be brought out for our entertainment as a special treat. Their charm for us, however, lay, not in the articles extolling the “wonders of nature,” but in the frontispiece of each volume which allowed the reader to vicariously “dissect” a specimen by lifting numbered miniature pages reproducing internal organs. The many-layered female rat with her nearly two hundred numbered parts in the series’ first volume was the most popular of these as its tape-repaired tail still suggests. We were scornful of the simple oyster whose parts were displayed to begin Volume Five, unmoved by the display of four pearls inside its upper shell.
Cassell’s had published the series in 1906 and sold it by subscription, emphasizing its marketing method with a tipped-in quarter page assuring readers that the work had been “specially prepared for Subscribers” and was “not obtainable through the general Booksellers.” Bought in the early years of their marriage, the six volume set with its large format, gilt bindings and marbled endpapers may have suggested themselves to my grandparents as handsome books to display on their shelves. Their association with “Science” would also have appealed to my grandmother and she may also have had some notions about their possible future interest to my mother, then a year old. The books were also designed with an intent to appeal to teachers with every volume including a set of “Blackboard Outlines” printed on charcoal coloured paper with readily reproducible diagrams of such processes as seed germination.
For the most part, the content of the articles bears only the most distant relationship to biological or botanical “science.” The series’ sub-title promised “A Popular Description by Pen and Camera of the Delights and Beauties of the Open Air” seemingly exempting itself from any attempt to offer the reader anything beyond an “appreciation” of nature. The essays range over meterology (“How to Know the Clouds”), entomology (“How to Know the Insects”), and biology (“Pond Life”), interspersed with essays on nature as picturesque or restorative. The essays all assume a city-dwelling reader who is spiritually renewed by venturing into “Nature” in the country. The landscape of this “Nature” is nearly invariably that of the Home Counties surrounding London–markedly different from the mining districts of Cornwall.
Although the overall tone of the work is established by Walter Crane’s sentimental essay, “On the Love of Nature” which prefaces the first volume, many of the essays have a light sprinkling of technical terminology. Most of the articles, however, fit comfortably into the category of “Nature Study” of the kind being taught in the schools of the time. Many are by clergymen with an approach tilting towards “Nature” as a manifestation of a benign deity. Neither The Nature Book’s collection of essays nor her early study of “science” as a trainee teacher seems to have prompted my grandmother to take up the botanizing and amateur study of natural history that figured so prominently as a pursuit for the young women of her generation who belonged to a higher social class. Nor do I recall her reading anything of a scientific nature, although she was fond of citing all sorts of examples of “scientific progress” that she came across in newspapers and magazines.
Whatever rudimentary science instruction the young Mary Nicholls may have received seems to have left her with no particular grasp of scientific method or any specific range of knowledge. Instead, till the end of her life, she displayed an unquestioningly reverential attitude towards all aspects of science and technology. She looked forward to the worldwide greening of deserts and regularly admired my brother’s long-fingered hands, convinced that they augured a future career as a brain surgeon.
In the decade and a half of her old age in which I knew her, I never saw my grandmother read with anything like the absorption she described as her girlhood reading of East Lynne. By that time, reading was a laborious exercise, accomplished only by holding her palm over her right eye to allow the left to focus. Like many others of her generation in rural areas, she was convinced that reading glasses would do nothing to assist her poor sight because of the differences between her right and left eye. Presumably this belief arose from early unsuccessful attempts to use cheap glasses with identical lenses for each eye.. She subscribed to the Reader’s Digest and shared the breathless wonder with which its articles routinely treated “miracle cures” in medicine and “the power of the atom.” She did not, as far as I recall, ever visit a library or bookshop. Her early reading experiences, however, formed a large part of her reminiscences, and she would recount episodes from the popular novels of her youth with a sense of conviction that lifted them from their printed sources and placed them in the collective history of her generation.
Although many of the books she so fondly remembered from her girlhood—East Lynne, The Wide Wide World, The Lamplighter– continued to stand on our shelves throughout the time she lived with us, she never re-read them. Nor, more surprisingly, did she urge us to read them. It was as if the experience stood as distant from her and from us as John Bastion, the blue-covered edition of Palgrave in his pocket, coming with his pony and trap to court her before the end of the previous century.