[The following passages come from the author's How to do things with books in Victorian BritainGPL.]

The myth that books are always the “refuge of the powerless”

The few Victorian novels that have entered our canon associate wealth with anti-intellectualism, poverty with a love for literature. In making books the refuge of the powerless, these bildungsromans forget that access to books requires a minimum of economic power: enough money to "obtain such works," along with . . . enough money to afford the time in which to read them. The bildungsroman's association of reading with childhood. Wood reminds us, masks a reality in which adults had more access to books than children, and heads of households than dependents. Indeed, a second 1860s rewriting of Jane Eyre, Emma Worboise's novel Thornycroft Hall, associates reading instead with evil minor characters, in particular a cousin (the counterpart to the Reed children) "who keeps novels under her pillow and in a pocket," "who covers them with schoolbook covers." Where Jane calls John Reed a dunce, Worboise's orphan accuses her rich cousins of excessive reading: "Who took The Secret Marriage to church, and read it all through the sermon?" she taunts them (104). By casting books as objects that need to be bought or borrowed. Wood and Worboise question the bildungsroman's assumption that reading is free, in both senses. [87]

Literacy a force for liberation or oppression?

Where American slave narratives make literacy both symbol of, and means to, freedom, contemporaneous British tracts make receiving books a sign of servants' dependence. And where American slave narratives blame masters for forcibly withholding books, secular British novels blame mistresses for forcibly distributing them. It speaks at once to Harriet Martineau's eccentricity, conscientiousness, and obsession with unwanted paper that she worried about the effect on servants of her own discards, complaining of the "curious assortment of religious books and tracts sent to me by post... too bad in matter and spirit to be safe reading for my servants; so, instead of the waste-basket, they go into the fire" (Autobiography 111). [184]

The immorality of reading at the wrong place and time

The immorality of reading at the wrong place and time is limited neither to servants nor even to working-class characters. . . . When the fear that the book will distract women from their domestic tasks extends beyond servants, it comes to reflect a tension between the self and the social, as much as between work and leisure. Think back to the middle-class women whose novel handling distracts them from cleaning their houses or acknowledging their husbands. A different Jane's daydreams of "pleasant places far off" are prompted by her idling with books that John Reed reminds her belong to someone else: "You have no business to lake our books; you are a dependent, mama says . . . I'll teach you to rummage in my book-shelves". In fact, the same pastiche of Jane Eyre that asked just how a persecuted dependent would lay her hands on the books needed to furnish her imagination also noticed that language enough to repeat it for a third time, making a daughter of her employer's family say of the governess: "she has not the run of the house, to go about it as she likes; she has no business in the library" (Wood 100).

Books pit reader against family

Religious tracts equate picking up a book with asserting a self. [The novel] Little Servant Maids makes the narrator, rather than an unsympathetic character like John Reed, the source for the comment that Caroline "had no business to open these books." Once "having business to take" or "no business to open" books (note that neither text speaks of whether the servant has "business to read" them) becomes a synecdoche for membership in the middle class, the opening scene of Jane Eyre comes to look like less like a psychological meditation on readerly interiority than like a prefiguration of the narrower social questions that critics like Elizabeth Kigby responded to: the application of John's claim that dependents have no right to pick up books to subcategories like "orphan," "servant," "governess," and "village schoolmistress." Yet whether that individualism is attacked (in the conversion narrative) or endorsed (in the bildungsroman), both genres pit reader against family. The only difference is that as tracts continue to define "family" as an economic unit joining masters with servants, novels place that in tension with the modern sense of a nuclear household where gender and age replace class as sources of difference. [193]


Price, Leah. How to do things with books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. [Review by George P. Landow]


Last modified 1 May 2013