Anyone who scans Victorian publications for the term “literacy” is likely to come up more or less empty-handed. While people were sometimes described as “literate” in Shakespeare’s time and even earlier, it meant that they were generally “learned” rather than merely able to read and write. Similarly, when newspaper reports during the nineteenth century refer to individuals, or more often groups, as “illiterate” it usually means “uncultivated” or just badly behaved, as in “the illiterate mob.” “Literacy” doesn’t start to occur in print until 1893.
Despite having no single word to refer to reading and writing skills, Victorian literature repeatedly puzzles over what distinguishes readers from non-readers. In Our Mutual Friend (1865) Dickens constantly locates characters on one side or the other of the literacy divide. Interestingly, the newly-literate class which formed a significant segment of Dickens’ own audience is painted as either venal (Charley Hexam), ridiculous (Miss Peecher), sinister (Bradley Headstone) or conniving (Silas Wegg). All of these characters, though “literate” in the sense of being able to read and write, are far from literate in the older sense of being “learned.” The first three are products of an inadequate school system that relied on rote learning. The last, Silas Wegg, is barely literate purveyor of a soon-to-be-defunct variety of street literature.
“Literacy” in Victorian Cornwall
Social historians have relied heavily on marriage registers, gathering the statistics on the number of individuals who signed their names with an “X,” but they acknowledge that it’s a crude and unreliable guide as to how people might function in a world in which an understanding of the printed word was becoming more and more important. Some of those who produced a signature on a marriage register might be at the outer limits of their orthographic skills. More rarely, those capable of producing a signature might still sign with an “X” to avoid embarrassing a less capable partner. Dickens records one such face-saving gesture in Bleak House under the heading “A Touching Incident” where a “labouring man’s daughter” who had “quite distinguished herself in . . . school” signs the marriage register with the same “rude cross” as her new husband.
Court records provide clues as to the ways basic activities might be hobbled by being unable to read and write. The Cornish courts in the last quarter of the nineteenth century heard numerous cases in which the defendant’s inability to read and write is given as grounds for acquittal. Other cases record the ease with which non-readers could be defrauded.
Cornwall, however, had the lowest rate of school attendance of any county in England—a phenomenon that the 1887 Royal Commission on Education attributed to the “very low class of children.”
Once schooling had become compulsory after 1880 a lack of what would later be called “functional literacy” became the subject of comment in news reports. It’s also clear that improved literacy might well be driving a wedge between children and their unschooled parents. A few weeks before the century’s close the Royal Cornwall Gazette editorialized on “Respect to Parents” admonishing “the younger generation” with their “superior advantages.” “Nothing so tells against a young man or woman as the evident feeling of shame they manifest because of an old-fashioned or illiterate father or mother.”