Local strawberries, cream, and the master of the house reading aloud – these were on offer for those who visited John Ruskin, the eminent art critic and professor, at his summer residence. According to Edmund Yates who reported about the breakfast for The World, Ruskin entertained his guests by reading aloud extracts of the letters he had just received, samples of his ongoing work, or stories from Walter Scott. Ruskin’s elevated breakfasts were just one example of how texts were consumed in the nineteenth century. The cultural history of reading has attracted increasing attention during the last decades and historians have started to ask how readers invested texts with their expectations and constructed meanings against their intertextual baggage, how the act of reading was done, and how books and other texts shaped the identities of their readers. Thanks to this burgeoning research, we know now that books were consumed alone and together, silently and aloud, privately at homes and publicly in railway carriages and omnibuses where they provided a welcomed and socially acceptable excuse for not socializing with co-travelers. We also know that the readership diversified during the nineteenth century thanks to the increasing literacy, spreading of libraries, and decreasing production costs that lowered the price of books and other printed material.
The historians of reading are, however, confronted by methodological challenges and the harmonious breakfast at Ruskin’s house is one example of the problems historians have to solve: the limitations of the source material. There is no shortage of similar accounts of the edifying reading habits of the gentile and educated society. Often these are idealized and conventional pieces promoting books and reading as a means to cultivate the mind and moral character. Apart from this, the source material is sporadic at the best. While ransacking the archives and exploring the published letters and diaries of Victorian historians, I have come across occasional letters from readers or historians’ comments about encounters with their audiences. Despite the fragmentary nature, the material opens a tiny window to the world of reading non-fiction in Victorian Britain. It is also fascinating because it provides some clues about historians’ strategies for responding to their readers’ comments. We already know perfectly well that historians anticipated the reactions of their readers while they wrote their books and that they were anxious about book reviews. We are, however, less acquainted with their private interaction with the readers of which these sources talk about.
The thirst for historical knowledge did not know any limits in some cases. Readers wanted to know more about this and that and tested historians’ patience with their enquiries. In spite of the fact that Edward Freeman had published five thick volumes about the history of the Norman Conquest and packed his narrative with every scrap of detail he had discovered, at least one reader thought that he had left some important questions unanswered. Freeman was astonished to receive a letter from a painter asking about the weather on the day of the great battle. He could not believe the odd things readers wanted to know about and impatiently remarked that of course he would have reported the weather conditions had the sources told this to him.
Readers were quick to spot mistakes, blunders, and conclusions that they considered incorrect, and they were equally quick to report their discoveries to the historians. Thomas Babington Macaulay complained in 1848 that he was “pestered with many letters” that commented in good and bad his History of England. In similar vein, Freeman received mail from his readers who wished to share their opinions about his historical oeuvre with him. Thomas Kirkup who introduced himself as an admiring and interested reader of Freeman’s works had carefully studied Freeman’s General Sketch of European History and sent him now a three-page long list or errors he had discovered in the book.
These letters tell us, first, that there were readers who studied history books pen in their hand. They annotated, added marginal notes, and took notes while they were reading the text. For them, reading was an active mental process in which they processed the historical narrative within the context of their existing knowledge on the topic. This enabled them to identify errors and alternative ways to interpret history. This was certainly not passive activity: readers did not only receive knowledge, but they actively constructed and evaluated it. Second, by mailing the lists of blunders to historians they challenged the boundaries between the producers and consumers of historical knowledge. The letters were written in a hope that historians corrected their mistakes in the next edition. Readers, thus, assumed agency in the process of producing historical knowledge. Kirkup, apologizing his presumed discourtesy, defended his interception with a wish to offer readers a more accurate account of history.
Historians were, in general, grateful to these Kirkups who informed them about their embarrassing blunders in details such as dates and spelling. These were promptly corrected in the subsequent editions whenever such was issued. Historians were, however, less susceptible to alter their interpretations and conclusions when readers found something to criticize about them. Readers tended to evaluate the “fairness” of historians’ views in rather emotional terms. Macaulay recorded in his diary how Lady Theresa Lewis had been vexed about Macaulay’s depiction about one of her ancestors, Lord Rochester. Macaulay defended himself by noting that he told nothing but the historical truth, that it was not his duty to puff anyone’s ancestors, and that therefore he had not “willingly’ hurt Lady Theresa’s feelings. Again, reading was not a passive activity. Historical narratives were pregnant with patriotic, political, and religious references which stirred readers’ emotions. There were many Lady Theresas who were provoked by what they judged as an insensitive treatment of their ancestors. Their passionate responses betray the spectrum of emotions reading could involve.
Readers were eager to let historians know whether they did or did not like their books. Freeman was perplexed about the frankness of his young American audience. He reported to his friend John Richard Green from Baltimore in 1881 how it was droll to meet girls who came to talk to him only to tell how much they hated him because they had to read his General Sketch of European History. Freeman had, however, also more appreciative readers. He received in 1872 what could be called fan mail. The sender was Miss A. V. Ponsonby, a ten-year old girl, who found his Old English History for Children better than any other history book she had ever read. She encouraged him to write more histories for children because she was certain that they would be “so much clearer, truer, and more interesting than what other people write.” This must have tickled the vanity of the eminent historian.
Readers processed, constructed, assessed, approved, and rejected the historical accounts they read. Reading was invested with intellectual and emotional responses and reaching out to authors turned readers into active participants in the production of historical knowledge. The mail that historians received tells us also that scholars were public figures whose lives their audiences followed. While most of the correspondence from readers concerned with historical details, sometimes the interest was not limited to strictly historical questions. Historians’ private lives, habits, and interests beyond history aroused curiosity in the public. Macaulay, for instance, was approached by an American reader who was concerned about his health. He received other curious mail as well. One painter, appealing to Macaulay’s lover for fine art, adjured him to “buy him a cow to paint from!”
British Library: The Macmillan Papers
Hull History Centre: The letters from Edward A. Freeman to Edith Thompson
John Rylands Library: Edward A. Freeman archive
Stephens, W. R. W., The life and letters of Edward A. Freeman D.C.L., LL.D. (London: Macmillan, 1895).
Thomas William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. II (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008).
Yates Edmund, Celebrities at Home, 2nd series (London: Office of ‘The World’, 1878).
Colclough Stephen and David Vincent, “Reading” in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. VI, ed. David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 281–323.
Garritzen Elise, “Revise, Edit, and Improve: Writing and Publishing History as an Unending Process in Victorian Britain”, Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 45:3 (2016): 289–314.
Hammond Mary, “Readers and Readership” in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1830-1914, ed. Joanne Shattock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 30–49.
Price Leah, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012).