In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Texts

Victorian Literature Literacy
Rosalind Crone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0140


Critical to an understanding of Victorian literature is an awareness of the participants in literate culture. Hence the importance of the study of literacy. Moreover, the 19th century marked the period when many Western states, including the United Kingdom, achieved mass literacy. This process was far from homogeneous or straightforward. Yet its consequence produced the transformation and unprecedented expansion of literate culture and a revolution in communication. Literacy comprises two skills: the ability to read and the ability to write. An awareness of these two components is important because even well into the 19th century, the skills were taught separately and sequentially. The existence of large numbers of readers has complicated definitions of literacy and attempts by historians to measure its presence in society. Moreover, closely related to literacy is numeracy, or the ability to count and do basic arithmetic. As the 19th century progressed numeracy gained increasing prominence in drives to educate the masses as arithmetic was joined with reading and writing to form the triumvirate of the 3Rs. However, the study of numeracy is not included in this article, in part because, at the present time (2015), numeracy has received scant attention from scholars and also because the skills of reading and writing dominated the attention of 19th-century commentators and policymakers and were used to establish a dividing line between the ignorant and the civilized. The study of literacy in the 19th century has occupied scholars from a range of disciplines (including the social sciences, education, literature, and history) as well as subdisciplines (including social and cultural history, book history, the history of reading, and the history of writing). Because of this multidisciplinary interest, a diverse range of methods has been employed to uncover the scale and assess the impact of the expansion of literacy between c. 1750 and c. 1950. The broad interest is also reflective of the importance of literacy as a field of study in its own right. Scholars have shown how the study of literacy helps us to understand the growth of the state, the nature of the state’s relationship with its citizens, the operation of agency by individuals, and the nature of the emergence of modernity. Furthermore, David Vincent in “The Invention of Counting: The Statistical Measurement of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England’ (Vincent 2014, cited under Alternative Perspectives on Counting) and Harvey Graff in Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present (1995) demonstrate the usefulness of studies of 19th-century literacy to debates about literacy today: The 19th century not only provides a laboratory for learning about literacy (Graff), but also creates a legacy of counting and language of assessment that continues to shape public policies (Vincent).

General Overviews

The drive toward mass literacy in the British Isles during the 19th century is best understood in the context of the history of literacy in the Western world more generally and in modern Europe in particular. Such contextualization has helped scholars to avoid attaching special importance to time periods, preconditions, and drivers. Vincent 2000 uses geographical comparisons to break down any simple assumptions about the relationship between literacy and economic growth and about the role of the state, but, at the same time, this is an excellent survey text that succeeds in making sense of, and finding overarching trends in, competing national narratives. Lyons 2010 takes a different approach to the history of literacy. The author treats the subject on the basis of the history of reading and writing, prioritizing the study of the use of literate skills over the study of their measurement and acquisition. In the context of these two works, Gardner 2004 presents a very readable account of the rise of literacy in Britain largely from the point of view of the history of education.

  • Gardner, Philip. “Literacy, Learning and Education.” In A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain. Edited by Chris Williams, 353–368. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631225799.2004.00023.x

    A brief chapter that expertly sums up the rise of literacy in largely focusing on how skills were acquired. Gardner usefully introduces some of the main debates, identifies some of the leading scholars in the field, and highlights the value of qualitative sources in directing attention to the complexities of the process.

  • Lyons, Martyn. A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    A survey of the uses of reading and writing in Western societies from the ancient and medieval worlds to modern states. Often controversial turning points (e.g., Gutenberg’s printing revolution, the Protestant Reformation, the growth of popular literacy, etc.) are used to highlight changes and continuities in the relationship between readers and writers and their texts.

  • Vincent, David. The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000.

    Vincent addresses both how mass literacy was achieved in most European states by the beginning of World War I as well as its impact on societies and individuals, its contribution to economic growth, the role played by the state, and the extent of popular demand.

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