Victorian Literature Reading Practices
by
Jonathan Rose
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0208

Introduction

Victorian Britain offers unlimited opportunities for groundbreaking research in the history of reading. Thanks to the development of new printing, papermaking, and binding technologies, as well as the abolition of “taxes on knowledge,” reading matter became much cheaper and far more widely disseminated, and improvements in artificial lighting made reading progressively easier. The nineteenth century saw the creation of a global literary marketplace, where literature from Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and occasionally the nonwestern countries was translated and cheaply imported all over the world. Both middle-class and working-class readers organized “mutual improvement societies”—essentially seminars without professors, where “common readers” met to discuss books. Perhaps more than any other contemporaneous society, Victorian Britain left behind a wealth of source material that illuminates reading practices: memoirs, diaries, library records, letters to editors, authors’ fan mail, and some early social surveys. Utilizing these documents, we can learn a great deal about Victorian readers of all classes, right down to prison convicts who were subject to more severe restrictions on reading than other Victorians.

Surveys

The historiography of reading is a relatively new academic field, but it has already produced surveys that situate Victorian reading practices in the larger context of literary history. Altick 1998 actually devoted only one chapter to reading, but marked out the larger territory now known as “the history of the book.” Buckridge 2013 explored some early attempts at a history of Victorian reading. Scotland, which enjoyed exceptionally high levels of literacy, is covered in Bell 2007. Sutherland 1995 and (in greater depth) Waller 2006 situate reading in the larger frame of the Victorian book trade, and Rose 2012 provides a global perspective.

  • Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800–1900. 2d ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

    This landmark book, originally published in 1957 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), defined the history of reading as an academic field. It has been superseded by more recent scholarship, but it is still worth consulting as a model for researchers.

  • Bell, Bill, ed. The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland. Vol. 3, Ambition and Industry 1800–1880. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    See especially the chapters on “Gaelic Communities and the Use of Texts” (Donald E. Meek), “Reading” (Jonathan Rose), and “Libraries” (John Crawford).

  • Buckridge, Patrick. “The Fate of an ‘Ambitious School-Marm’: Amy Cruse and the History of Reading.” Book History 16 (2013): 272–293.

    DOI: 10.1353/bh.2013.0006

    A short biography of Amy Cruse, whose The Victorians and Their Books (London: Allen & Unwin, 1935) pioneered the historiography of reading.

  • Rose, Jonathan. “The Global Common Reader.” In The Victorian World. Edited by Martin Hewitt, 555–568. London: Routledge, 2012.

    A survey of the creation of an international literary marketplace, where British, French, German, and American authors were translated and cheaply disseminated throughout the world.

  • Sutherland, John. Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-23937-5

    A concise survey of 19th-century novels and their audiences.

  • Waller, Philip. Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    This voluminous survey of the late Victorian book world includes extensive discussion of the reading public.

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