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Victorian Popular Forms and Practices of Reading and Writing

‘Ordinary authors, extraordinary writings’

« Auteurs ordinaires, écrits extraordinaires »
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay et Fabienne Moine

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  • 1 More than 50 participants from France and overseas attended the online conference.
  • 2 The papers given by Pr. Kirstie Blair and Pr. Fabrice Bensimon were respectively entitled ‘Prating (...)

1The selection of essays presented in this volume was originally intended to be the outcome of the annual SFEVE (Société Française d’Études Victoriennes et Edouardiennes) conference organized at the Université Paris Est Créteil in January 2021. Due to the extraordinary health conditions of the past year, the annual onsite conference of the SFEVE was moved online and its format substantially altered. Transforming the conference into an online seminar on January 29 was our best option to safeguard the forty-three-year-old tradition of the annual SFEVE conference. Though we deeply regretted not being able to meet in person with colleagues from France, Europe and the US, we saw the online conference as an opportunity to gain a wider reception from all over the world.1 The two keynote speeches2 were maintained, with stimulating interactions with respondents and the audience, and were followed by general discussions on the chosen theme of the conference.

  • 3 This conference was organised by the SFEVE member and Scotland-lover, Pr. Christian Auer †, a Victo (...)

2This conference and the present volume aim at addressing the notion of the ‘popular’ in the specific context of reading and writing; this notion has been examined by the SFEVE only once in 40 years and only in connection with elite culture. Indeed the 2009 SFEVE conference in Strasbourg was dedicated to the confrontations and interactions of Victorian high-brow culture and popular culture (‘Culture savante, culture Populaire’).3 Our objective in 2021 was to focus on popular forms of culture for their own sakes, not in a high versus low approach. The purpose was not to contest traditional critical distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’, or to study the forms of popular literatures and cultures against the aesthetic, intellectual and social norm of the ‘high’. Our focus, specifically on the minor voices of ‘ordinary people’, those of the working class, the marginalized, or the undervalued, is to enable the words of the voiceless to be heard and their works to be better known.

3The notion of ‘the popular’ is a wide-ranging, multi-layered, ambivalent, and ideologically connoted one. It pertains to three main fields that intertwine and cross-fertilize: the social and sociological fields (related to the working class and the ‘people’, in accordance with its etymology), the literary and generic fields (popular art and culture), and, broadly, that of reception, when ‘popular’ means well liked, or in vogue and fashionable. The notion of popular constantly hovers in the collective imaginary between the positive (when it is seen as a common, vigorous, level-headed heritage shared by the people), and the negative, as cheap, lowbrow, unrefined, or even vulgar and ‘plebeian’. Popular works and texts are ‘intended for or suited to the understanding or taste of ordinary people’, ‘as opposed to specialists in a field’ (OED entry 4.a).

4Popular culture has amply been rehabilitated by both ‘history from below’ and Cultural Studies from the 1960s onwards. Raymond Williams included the term ‘popular’ in his Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), an essential concept in ‘the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society’ (Williams xxvii), but also one of the most difficult terms to define. For him, the word takes on a specific dimension in the 19th century as it characterizes ‘the culture actually made by people for themselves’ (Williams 180). He adds that ‘[p]opular was being seen from the point of view of the people rather than from those seeking favour or power from them’ (Williams 180). This switch to the ordinary man or woman was the starting point of the conference and of the volume so as to explore this important term for the Victorian lower classes who were immersed in the popular culture meant for them.

  • 4 For a detailed and useful bibliography on the history of reading and reading practices, see Marie-F (...)

5This volume follows in the footsteps of those who first conducted research on the practices of reading, particularly among the working class, such as Richard Altick or Jonathan Rose, but also Martha Vicinus in The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth-Century British Working-Class Literature (1974) and David Vincent in Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914 (1989). In the 1980s and 1990s Roger Chartier in Pratiques de la lecture (1985) and in Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental (1997) and Martyn Lyons in Le triomphe du livre, une histoire sociologique de la lecture dans la France du XIXe siècle (1987) pioneered comparative studies of book history and reading practices in France and Europe.4

6The title of this introduction is an allusion to Martyn Lyons’s opening chapter of The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, c. 1860–1920 (2012), his book examining the sudden explosion of ordinary writing and the new challenges of literacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the chapter entitled ‘“ordinary writings”, extraordinary authors’, Lyons explores how writing became ‘an everyday necessity’ (Lyons 3), a kind of commonplace urgency at every level of society and particularly for less educated authors in European societies. By reversing the terms and entitling this introduction ‘Ordinary authors, extraordinary writings’, we wish to highlight the exceptional character of writings for and/or by ordinary people. What is exceptional is their forms as well as the circumstances in which they came to existence.

7Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) addresses the practices of ‘ordinary readers in history’, a category of people whose reading and writing practices had been too little explored before the early 21st century. For Lyons and Rose, ‘ordinary’ and ‘popular’ are generic terms for ‘untutored writers’ of the working classes, ‘the semi-literate and partly educated’ (Lyons 2–3). Guest books, prison writings, Chartist autobiographies or trade magazines, to name four of the very specific and too little examined sources discussed in this volume, allow us to gain an insight into the distinctive, extraordinary reading and writing practices of working-class people.

8The notion of ‘agency’ is at the core of this volume as it concerns the creative agency of ordinary people. Social historian E. P. Thompson’s key concept in his whole work, in particular in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), is about restoring the position of these ordinary people, against would-be great men, as subjects rather than objects of history. But, above all, it is Stuart Hall’s presence that looms large in this volume. His ‘Notes on Deconstructing “The Popular”’ (1981) discusses the problematic meaning of the term ‘popular’ as used in ‘popular culture’. These notes illuminate our understanding of popular reading and writing forms and practices. Indeed, Hall strongly objects to the essentialist divide between popular culture and elite culture. The diversity of approaches and practices and the variety of materials are evidence that popular culture was not monolithic. For Hall, and this also is the starting point of this volume, there is no binary opposition and confrontation between the two so-called forms of culture. There is a mutual relation, or rather a constant power struggle as well as a cross-fertilization between these forms of culture, both nourished by the culture of the other. Hall leans on Gramsci’s view of power relations and hegemony, but he refuses to acknowledge that popular culture is absorbed by hegemonic culture: ‘Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for or against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in this struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured’ (Hall 239). ‘The people’ construct their own culture outside the canon and yet continuously beside (but not in opposition with) high-brow culture. What Kirstie Blair wrote about the verse of the labouring poets applies to other forms of popular writing: ‘eighteenth and nineteenth-century poets and critics were [conscious] of the ongoing task of shaping both a recognizable image of the “labouring-class poet”, and a labouring-class canon, while defining the relationship of both to established poets and established literary genres and forms’ (Blair and Gorji, ‘Introduction’ 13).

9The special emphasis of this volume is, thus, on the production and consumption of popular writings by and for the people. The favourable context in which these forms and practices of reading and writing by and for the people emerged was that of a dramatic increase in literacy rates, a large circulation of cheaper books and newspapers after the repeal of the stamp and the paper duties—hence the crucial role of low-priced editions and of periodicals as the vehicles of these popular forms of writing in the Victorian period,—the development of lending libraries and the growing interest for reading which fostered a high demand for popular works across the social spectrum and more particularly among the working classes. For Richard Altick, this context was that of ‘the democracy of print’ (Altick 1). In a way, these popular forms and practices are those whose loss, due to the development of new classless entertainments, is documented by Richard Hoggart in his 1957 book, The Uses of Literacy: the cultural fabric of working-class people disappeared, their commonly shared values declined and the close-knit communities were undermined by the advent of mass culture in the 1950s.

10The contributions in this volume deal precisely with this cultural fabric which emerged where it was not always expected a hundred years before Hoggart’s pessimistic assessment. The working infrastructures, not traditionally seen as environments conducive to a culture of reading and writing, encouraged cultural activities among popular circles and created ties between groups that shared social norms, literary ambitions, sometimes radical views and certainly forms of sociability.

11The essays gathered here address the various motivations accounting for the emergence and development of these popular practices in these specific environments. This collection measures how forms and practices of reading and writing could have an improving mission; besides, they were frequently vehicles for integration, encouraging or reinforcing forms of sociability, shaping political awareness and consolidating the working-class identity. Or, alternatively, they could also respond to more individual needs and be escapist pastimes and modes of entertainment. It is now widely acknowledged that some popular cultural productions in the Victorian era were instrumental in the alienation of the popular classes by providing the ‘opium of the people’ or by offering opportunities to escape from a difficult life or simply to fill empty moments. Alan McNee’s article examining entries in hotel guest books and messages on picture postcards certainly attests to the rise of mass tourism, but all his unpublished sources are also evidence of the multifarious experiences of working-class tourists and help us interrogate class conflict from a different angle.

12Moreover, popular writing and reading were very likely to have a liberating and integrating role as in the case of marginal/ized subjects such as prison inmates, whose few cultural practices are illustrated in Alice Bonzom’s contribution on Victorian and Edwardian English prisons. But as Hall pointed out through his neo-Gramscian approach, they also nurtured the working-class reactions to classic literature, and yet fostered a sense of liberation from classical writers, creating a new link between knowledge and power. Kirstie Blair’s keynote address which dealt with the networks of literary culture among miners in the North-East of England illustrated this complex relation with the canon and with figures of authority, the support of the worthies being essential to the poetic endeavour. Finally, popular forms and practices of reading and writing were also vehicles of political and social debate. They provided a forum—a circle of workers or a textual space to be shared—where social issues were presented and where the people’s causes could sometimes be advanced.

  • 5 The Journal of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association published since 2009 is dedicated to under (...)

13There has also been a recent thorough examination of popular writings and popularization, the role of W. T. Stead’s Penny Poets or Penny popular novels for example, but these fictional works written for the mass publishing market were not specifically produced by working-class writers, as is the case with many of those presented in the Companion to Victorian Popular Fiction (2018).5 That is why the class question is of such crucial interest in this volume, chiefly in two articles: first, Rebecca Nesvet’s on G. W. M. Reynolds’s popular penny periodical Reynolds’s Miscellany and his use of fraudulent identities in his quest for awakening the Chartist awareness of the working-class readers. Second, the question of popular fiction for and/or by ‘the people’ is also tackled in Michael Sanders’s article on John Monk Foster’s fiction. His romantic tale set against an industrial backdrop is illustrative of the significance and the role of fiction written by and for the working class and, more particularly, the community of Lancashire miners.

  • 6  Jane Humphries’s upcoming research project integrates the gender dimension in order to document an (...)
  • 7  The presentation can be accessed here.

14We should here evoke, even if briefly, another important aspect, namely the recent surge of interest for popular personal writings. Research on working-class autobiographies has been quite active and abundant over the last forty years and even more so since the 2000s. In the 1980s Nan Hackett in XIX Century British Working-Class Autobiographies: An Annotated Bibliography (1985) together with John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall in The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography (1984–1989) did pioneering work gathering and exploring working-class autobiographies. Regenia Gagnier in Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832–1920 (1991) and Cassandra Falke in Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820–1848 (2013) followed in their footsteps, as have recently done Emma Griffin in Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013) and in Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy (2020). The same goes for Jane Humphries in Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2011). All these studies explore working-class autobiographies and provide valuable information on the lower classes’ finances, family lives and children.6 Fabrice Bensimon, one of the two keynotes of the SFEVE conference presented working-class autobiographies that, in his opinion, historians cannot ignore anymore. They can be used as historical sources, unusual ones, sometimes unreliable, but certainly challenging, to unravel the real (and sometimes extraordinary) lives of ordinary people.7 Bensimon’s view is perfectly illustrated in this volume, with Madeleine Pham-Thanh’s article on working-class poet John James Bezer’s Chartist autobiography (1851), an interesting counterpoint to Charles Kingsley’s and the Christian socialists’ stance.

  • 8  See also Fabienne Moine in the CVE: ‘Voices in the Machine: Class, Subjectivity and Desire in Vict (...)

15Within the larger area of popular forms and practices of writing, working-class poetry, published in periodicals or in book form, has certainly been one of the most fertile fields of interest of the last two decades. To name only a few landmarks in the reappraisal of popular poets, we can cite Brian Maidment’s The Poorhouse Fugitives: Self-taught Poets and Poetry in Victorian Britain which opened up a new path in 1987 when he recovered Chartist and radical poetry. He was followed by John Goodbridge, Susan Zlotnick, Gustav Klaus, Judith Rosen, Solveig Robinson among others who all contributed to the (re)discovery of working-class men’s and women’s poetry. Florence Boos’s 2008 anthology of poetry, Working-Class Women Poets of Victorian Britain (2008), consolidated the position of working-class women poets at the centre stage of academic research on popular poetry.8 A host of promising researchers, such as Meagan Timney, Julie Wise or Catherine Elizabeth Birch, will no doubt go on giving impetus to this stimulating research on many forgotten poets and on popular poetical practices.

16The centrality of periodical poetry in the understanding of working class lives and social practices no longer needs to be proved today. The compelling Spring 2014 issue of Victorian Poetry on this subject, and the three exceptional studies on working-class verse by Michael Sanders in The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (2009) and Kirstie Blair in Poets of the People’s Journal: Newspaper Poetry in Victorian Scotland (2016) and in Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community (2019) have confirmed that periodical poetry has become a key domain in Victorian studies.

17The present issue is an incentive to take a fresh look at the notion of working-class cultural practices by zooming in on the mutual interactions and the collaborations of the collective and the individual. First it purports to place the notion of community at the core of discussions on Victorian popular culture. While this collection of essays focuses on distinctive individuals and works, Victorian popular forms and practices of reading and writing are always a collective endeavour by the same token. Unlike educated people’s solitary experience of literature, these popular practices are grounded in a communal experience originating from the tradition of collective self-help, the importance of location and locality, and the meaningfulness and influence of the labour environment and of specific trades. In this volume, Kirstie Blair’s article shows that collaborative practices and a shared professional trade identity are central for the operation of a mining library. Likewise, Françoise Baillet examines the collaborative columns of The Compositors’ Chronicle (1840–1843), a typographical trade journal. She borrows Benedict Anderson’s concept of the ‘imagined community’ emerging thanks to print capitalism, to show how central the creative contributions of these columns were in the construction of a trade community. Popular forms—poems, fictions or autobiographies—and practices of reading and writing, the essential driving forces and vehicles for the dissemination of these forms, certainly arose from and reinforced ‘imagined communities’, but they also strengthened real communities of workers or like-minded individuals.

18Yet the increased sense of belonging to a community which is fostered through popular writing and reading practices does not entail monolithic or ‘essentialized’ (Hall) groups. Indeed, one has to bear in mind that the working class was anything but a solid and undifferentiated group with uniform interests and responses. As a matter of fact there are working classes just as there is a wide range of different popular forms and practices. Some of the articles in this collection underline the specificities of the self-teaching tradition in the various working environments. An intersectional approach, coalescing locality, trade and gender, is actually necessary to better understand the daily lives of the Victorian working class.

19Finally, the prominent idea emerging from all the essays is that popular practices and forms cannot be dissociated. Miners’ poems cannot be explained and enjoyed without a clear understanding of their conditions of emergence, production, publication or recitation. Conversely, the cultural and social practices of artisans influenced the type of form they chose for their own writings. Therefore, what clearly emerges is that the study of the processes and of the networks of production and creation cannot be separated from the practices of consumption themselves.

20Many more questions related to the interconnection of popular forms and practices of reading and writing have been raised or only touched upon in this volume but need to be further addressed, which will be a very fruitful line of investigation for future research on the subject: for example, the practice of collective reading aloud on the workplace; the role played by local poets in championing political causes; the local literary contests; all the resources present in popular microtexts. We nevertheless hope this volume of the Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens will successfully demonstrate that ordinary people did create and share extraordinary writings.

21‘Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a “Somebody”—why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth’.

Charles Pooter
The Laurels,
Brickfield Terrace,
Holloway. (Grossmith 13)

22For all its cultivated triteness, seemingly pedestrian concerns and overall comic dimension, the late-Victorian The Diary of a Nobody (1892) by George and Weedon Grossmith, the title of which is polemically programmatic, humorously exemplifies the democratization and re-appropriation of genres, such as autobiography or diary writing, that had so far been considered as (upper) middle-class preserves. The introduction by Mr Pooter, a lower middle-class clerk living in a suburban ‘residence’, is a humorous vindication of the worth of nobodies and of the value of writings by ordinary people.

23Like some of the tourists evoked by Alan McNee in ‘“Overcrowded with tourists”: Guest Books, Postcards, and Other Popular Forms as “Micro-Texts” of Travel Writing’, Mr Pooter spends a few days’ holiday at the seaside (Broadstairs), and goes on a day trip to Margate, a resort that, at that period, was already associated with a rather low class clientele, unlike the more elegant and exclusive Bournemouth. So as to shed light on the under-researched field of working-class tourism, McNee examines original source material, namely entries in hotel guest books, personal diaries and journals, or messages on picture postcards. All these unpublished ‘micro-texts’ actually provide an unfiltered (and uncensored) picture of the experiences of these ‘nobodies’ who, far from being the passive objects of (possibly critical or condescending) discourse about them, were also quite capable of writing for, and about, themselves, and of ‘writing back’ and mocking their social superiors. The two Macgregor brothers’ travelling narrative of their 1892 bicycle tour through Scotland is a case in point. It is not only a rare exception to the scarcity of working-class travel accounts (the Macgregors were millers by trade) but also a particularly useful example of how working-class experiences of tourism could assume complex, varied and heterogeneous forms, a far cry from the clichéd vulgarity and boisterousness of the lower classes, as opposed to middle-class respectability. For McNee, their text ‘combines irreverence and conventional respectability’ but we should bear in mind that working class respectability was anything but monolithic and could be assumed as a role. However, while the Macgregor brothers are unmistakably working class narrators, defining the exact class profile of some of the authors of entries in guest books is actually challenging and complicates their interpretation. Indeed, ‘was H. D. Harris really “a bloke in a straw hat” from West Ham, or was he simply parodying the popular image of a “tripper”?’ Sociological evidence on the authors of these micro-texts is often frustratingly absent, but perhaps more importantly, the performative dimension of these texts shows their writers’ adoption of a persona presumably at odds with their actual lives and suggests their ‘sophisticated understanding that they were writing for an audience, rather than simply faithfully recording their impressions’.

24The adoption of a persona is the very rationale of ‘Reynolds and Rymer’s Political Hoax’, namely their fictitious ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’ in Rebecca Nesvet’s article on the popular penny periodical Reynolds’s Miscellany which launched Lady Clara’s serial romance The Woman of the World by a new ‘authoress’ as Reynolds introduced her in the Miscellany in late September 1858. Lady Clara’s romance immediately attracted readers’ attention but she was actually one of the personae of Reynolds’s employee, James Malcolm Rymer, the author of Varney, the Vampyre and ‘Sweeney Todd’ in the 1840s, and she served a didactic and political mission. Indeed, Reynolds had been committed to Chartism in its heyday in the 1830s and 1840s, but after it had foundered in the mid-1850s, it was essential to awaken or revive the Chartist awareness of the Miscellany’s (disillusioned) working-class readers in order to promote political change. Penny fiction successfully engaged a mass reading audience on a level as yet unprecedented in Britain and the weekly periodical Reynolds’s Miscellany was actually a prominent ideological vehicle. Yet, many of its contributors remain elusive, shadowy figures, among whom ‘Lady Clara Cavendish’, an aristocratic insider of the 18th-century Hanoverian court. Her supposed productions, combined with paratextual material (especially Reynolds’s advertising) articulated a consistent personality. The hoax rested on the rhetoric of ‘Old Corruption’ to support Chartist ideals and achieve the political energization of the ‘industrious millions’. The fact ‘Lady Clara’ was an aristocratic court insider invested Reynolds and Rymer’s political critique with the authority that they could not otherwise have achieved. Far from being an escapist fantasy, the Cavendish hoax was a potentially persuasive affirmation of the ideological commitments Reynolds and Rymer had long shared, a key facet critics are only beginning to recover and re-appraise. Although ‘Lady Clara’ may probably not have altered British political or social life in the way the two men had hoped for, she took on a life of her own, outliving and outlasting them and, even today, vigorously stoking the transatlantic imaginary.

25The post Chartist radical movement is also at the core of Madeleine Pham-Thanh’s paper on ‘John James Bezer’s Autobiography of One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848 (1851)’. The eponymous ‘rebel’, Bezer (1816–1888), was born into poverty from a London working-class family and he presents himself as a Chartist and a former inmate of Newgate prison, where he was convicted for sedition in August 1848 and spent two years in the aftermath of the April 10th ‘monster demonstration’ on Kennington Common, called by Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor. The paper sheds light upon the struggles of this popular, self-taught, unrepentant radical, striving to find a way out of anonymity and invisibility through autobiographical writing, in order to regain the agency he was denied as a social and political marginal. Bezer’s unfinished autobiography was published anonymously in instalments (Numbers 45–59) in The Christian Socialist: a Journal of Association, but it was cut short in December 1851, owing to the demise of this cheap (one penny) weekly, launched in 1850. Its serialisation accounts for the fact it is made up of a succession of more or less self-contained episodes which not only document Bezer’s difficult life but substantiate his radical discourse as something drawn from lived experience and the ‘Condition of England’. His text oscillates between the individualistic ‘I’ of autobiography (endowed with a unique personality), and the generic subject indissociable from collective destiny (‘One of the Chartist Rebels of 1848’). It provides a personal testimony of his personal hardships as child-labourer, beggar and pauper, and all the circumstances shaping his contemporary self as ‘Chartist Rebel’. This constant balance between the public and private spheres is a typical feature of working-class autobiographies. So is the strong influence of the Protestant tradition of the spiritual memoir (Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress being paradigmatic), which Bezer would read in his Sunday School and later in Newgate, and which he secularizes, politicizes and re-appropriates in the light of popular radicalism. What impact could his Autobiography have had if he had finished it, it is impossible to say, but it was unquestionably part of the collective endeavour not to let Chartism be forgotten and become extinct.

26The Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan, who had himself been imprisoned, is one of the main threads of Bezer’s autobiography and was part of the authorized and prescribed texts for (non-conformist) prisoners, read in the solitude of their cells and ‘meant to foster self-analysis and redemption’, as Alice Bonzom shows in her paper ‘The “one bright light” of Life in a Dark Cell: Reading and Writing in Victorian and Edwardian English Prisons’. There was ‘a hierarchy of proper and improper writings and readings’ which itself combined with the classification of inmates ‘on a scale ranging from proper to improper prisoners, from redeemable to hopeless cases’. From the Victorian period to the eve of the First World War, the history of the institutional restriction or promotion of reading and writing practices, and of the balance between punishment and reform, shows many fluctuations but prison libraries filled up and the inmates who were able to, wrote poems (often anonymously), private letters (under surveillance), secret diaries or notes, graffiti (on walls, dishes and cooking utensils, or even gaslight and toilet papers, or their own skins). These approved or clandestine and ‘pirate’ productions were ‘coping strategies’, together with a means of escape, self-assertion or subversion and protest. Studying the history of prison reading and writing from above and from below, A. Bonzom examines the institutional criteria for selecting some books (the allowed ‘healthy’ ones, as a key to moral elevation and a means of control, versus the forbidden ‘trashy’ ones), what the prisoners were allowed (or forbidden) to write, and more importantly, what they actually read and wrote. The sociological origins of inmates were as varied as their degrees of literacy (from working-class, semi-illiterate offenders to political prisoners or suffragettes) but in this world where talking was mostly prohibited, written words, whether consumed or produced, were the ‘one bright light’. In this context, they represented a form of ‘bibliotherapy’ and an open window enabling prisoners to escape the tedium and dreariness of life in a cell, keep their sanity, assert themselves, leave traces of their passage and existence, and regain a sense of agency. These reading and writing practices fostered a sense of fellowship within an actual and imagined community.

27Just as the ‘popular’ could itself be sociologically protean, as the diversity of inmates shows, authorship could take extremely varied forms, using ingenious and unexpected media, so that popular writing could itself be multifaceted and generically protean.

28Mike Sanders’s paper ‘Producing the Popular: John Monk Foster and the “Industrial Romance”’ deals with the generic hybridity of A Pit Brow Lassie (1889), a novel first serialised in The Comet in 1889, and so far, just as under-researched as its author who is hardly a household name today but enjoyed a degree of popularity in Northern England and abroad. Monk Foster was a Lancashire miner who started working at the age of nine. His exemplary career as a popular writer and his intellectual development resemble that of many Victorian working-class autodidacts. In 1888, he embarked on a very prolific full-time and very prolific professional writing career (numerous short stories, articles and over 30 novels, serialised in newspapers in the North of England, Australia and New Zealand). Most of his works, which Monk Foster defined as ‘romances of industry, wherein are set forth the conditions under which the toilers exist, the hardness of the common lot, the success and power the chosen few may win’, deal with the working class, especially the Lancashire coal-miners, and present hardship as a collective experience. His career richly illustrates the concept of the popular as a multi-layered, dynamic process resting on the interplay of individual cultural production (his personal writing practices), the formal pressures of serial publication (A Pit Brow Lassie was to be published in 25 weekly instalments of between 4,000 to 6,000 words), circulation and reception. Each delivery not only had ‘to advance the plot’ with at least ‘one moment of heightened interest’, but ‘end on a cliff-hanger’ to captivate and capture readers. The various instalments included marriage, inheritance, murder (and even supernatural) plots, numerous (occasionally improbable) developments, but also realistic descriptions of mine-work with ‘a near-journalistic quality’. This generic variety is partly ascribable to the influence of late Victorian sensation fiction and melodrama (themselves hybrid genres), to the importance of ‘variety’ in working-class entertainment (attested by the transition from music hall to ‘variety theatre’ in the late-1880s), to the essential incompatibility between working-class lives and the forms of the highbrow Victorian novel available at the time. Indeed, the close structural kinship between Monk Foster’s novels and folk tale testifies to the survival and appeal of the oral tradition and ‘of older narrative modes’ in late Victorian British popular culture. A Pit Brow Lassie does not merely rest on ‘a shrewd commercial’ or ‘aesthetic strategy’. It actually cemented a sense of community by offering shared knowledge and values, as well as a ‘culture of consolation’, whereby social mobility, but above all happiness, were ‘a matter of just deserts’, and the result of hard work ‘allied to intellectual and moral qualities’.

29Kirstie Blair also deals with miners’ communities and reading practices in ‘Working-Class Readers and Literary Culture in North-East England: The Allendale Lead-Miners’ Libraries’. Using previously unstudied archival materials, she focuses on the surviving records and borrowers’ catalogues (c.1850–70) of the Allendale lead-miners’ workplace libraries in Northumberland, ‘investigate[d] here as a case study’, also likely to be transferrable to other mid-Victorian workplace libraries and reading rooms in the North-East of England. These records show how miners used libraries, whether founded through management initiatives or run by miners’ committees, and what kinds of literature were available (and considered appropriate) in the reading rooms of their institutes and societies. They document popular reading habits, preferences (often at odds with the priorities of employers or the patrons of the libraries and reading rooms) and borrowing patterns—the favourite items being periodicals, travel literature, and narratives of adventure and romance. Reading rooms were so popular because they gave their users some knowledge of the world, and more self-respect. They were ‘bottom-up’ educational initiatives encouraging forms of associational culture to emerge. The Allendale records provide valuable information on local practices, and on collective ones, thereby giving an insight into mid-Victorian working-class networks of literary culture. The West Allendale 1851 anthology, The Poetic Treasury, presumably compiled by local lead miners because poetry was improving, demonstrates ‘considerable literary capital’. It was a wide selection of inspirational verse, of pieces by canonical authors, popular contemporary and working-class ones, and anti-slavery (abolitionist) poems, presumably encountered by the compilers in a transatlantic magazine or a British reprint. These poems struck a chord because of the frequent parallels drawn in strike and union songs and verse between the status of North American slaves and miners in Northern Britain. Because of the isolated rural locations of the mines, workplace libraries and reading rooms were one of the few solutions for aspirational working men and their families ‘at the periphery of the literary cultures of London and Edinburgh’ to get access to the books, periodicals and newspapers they could not have afforded. This enabled them to entertain, educate themselves, and to ‘keep in touch with culture, politics and society in Britain and farther beyond’, developing ‘a cosmopolitan outlook and an awareness of other possibilities’, which would be of service to their children once the mines closed in 1896, an effect of the waning of the lead-mining industry in Britain.

30As the Allendale ‘case study’ clearly demonstrates, the working-classes’ access to (a reading) culture had to be facilitated. Likewise, beyond the possible obstacle of literacy, the access to writing was restricted and difficult for many reasons, primarily financial ones because procuring writing material was far from simple, and costly, as lighting also was. This, together with the lack of spare time, accounts for the fact popular forms of writing frequently rested on short(er) formats. Therefore, poems were particularly suitable forms since their writing was not too time-consuming, and could be achieved in relatively cheap material conditions.

31As Françoise Baillet points out in her paper on a monthly typesetters’ trade journal, ‘“Gall and wormwood”—The Compositors’ Chronicle (1840-43) as Collaborative Journal’, many nineteenth-century printers ‘versified despite their long working days’, because the writing of poetry was seen ‘as an elevating and highly regarded pursuit’. In the wake of the foundation of the London Union of Compositors (LUC) in March 1834, and thanks to decreasing costs (of press production, and of the stamp duty), many emerging unions backed the creation of trade journals across Britain, among which The Compositors’ Chronicle, launched in September 1840. Many print workers were faced with unemployment owing to mechanization and the competition of unskilled, poorly paid boy and female labour. Therefore the journal aimed to protect its readers and the trade members from the injustice and tyranny of some master printers, and pledged in its opening address that it would be ‘gall and wormwood’ to these hard taskmasters. In order to fulfil its mission, namely improving the moral and social condition of the working classes, The Compositors’ Chronicle published varied ‘informative pieces’, most of which were a space for political and social debate at a time when the franchise was still reserved for a minority. The utilitarian ideology and ‘wider ideological networks’ nourished the various sections and columns—(unsigned) editorials, readers’ letters, historical essays, or biographies of famous members of the printing trade (such as Benjamin Franklin or William Blake) which extolled domestic harmony, craft pride, discipline, self-respect and respectability. Poetry was ubiquitous in Victorian periodicals, covering a wide range of themes and subjects, from sentimental compositions to political or social pieces. All this formed ‘a serialised and continuous narrative meant to expand the printers’ culture, but also to elevate their minds’. The Chronicle helped to create an ‘imagined community’ of print workers because it was ‘a cooperative medium’ meant to ‘sustain a shared professional trade identity’, foster bonds between printers, typesetters and pressmen within the journal and nationwide, and to counter the threats to their working conditions. Yet, the community was not solely virtual or ‘imagined’: it was also an actual one because many of the poems published in The Compositors’ Chronicle (and in other typographical journals) had initially been read in public at key functions in the print trade and ‘working-class poetics could attract local, regional and sometimes national recognition’.

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1 More than 50 participants from France and overseas attended the online conference.

2 The papers given by Pr. Kirstie Blair and Pr. Fabrice Bensimon were respectively entitled ‘Prating of the Pit: Reading and Writing in the Northern Mining Districts’ and ‘L’histoire ouvrière au prisme des autobiographies en Grande-Bretagne au XIXe siècle’.

3 This conference was organised by the SFEVE member and Scotland-lover, Pr. Christian Auer †, a Victorianist colleague.

4 For a detailed and useful bibliography on the history of reading and reading practices, see Marie-Françoise Cachin, Une nation de lecteurs? : La lecture en Angleterre (1815–1945) (2010).

5 The Journal of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association published since 2009 is dedicated to under-researched popular writers (from the middle or lower classes).

6  Jane Humphries’s upcoming research project integrates the gender dimension in order to document and give an in-depth view on women’s wages and consuming trends.

7  The presentation can be accessed here.

8  See also Fabienne Moine in the CVE: ‘Voices in the Machine: Class, Subjectivity and Desire in Victorian Women’s Factory Poems’ (2018).

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay et Fabienne Moine, « ‘Ordinary authors, extraordinary writings’ »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay

Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay est Professeur de littérature britannique du XIXe siècle à l’Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC) et a publié sur divers auteurs victoriens et édouardiens comme Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle, et G. K. Chesterton, mettant en lumière les hybridations génériques et leurs effets. Elle s’intéresse aussi de près aux questions de style et de poétique (comme dans « Le Rôle de l’Hypallage dans Martin Chuzzlewit », Palgrave, 2017), et aux liens entre idéologie et représentation. Elle a écrit Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), traduit en français Lilith (1895) de George MacDonald en 2007, publié des articles sur Thomas De Quincey, et une monographie sur ses œuvres autobiographiques L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010).
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay is Professor of 19th-century British literature at Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC) and has published widely on Victorian and Edwardian writers (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton in particular), highlighting the cross-fertilization between genres, but also closely focusing on questions of style and poetics (as in ‘The Role of Hypallage in Martin Chuzzlewit’, Palgrave, 2017), and on the links between ideology and representation. She wrote Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), translated George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) into French in 2007, published various papers on Thomas De Quincey, and a monograph on his autobiographical works entitled L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010).

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Fabienne Moine

Fabienne Moine est professeure de civilisation britannique à l’Université Paris Est Créteil. Sa recherche porte sur la poésie victorienne, et plus précisément sur la poésie comme pratique sociale et culturelle et la façon dont les formes poétiques éclairent l’histoire sociale. Elle a publié Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (Routledge 2016) qui examine comment les Victoriennes abordent les principales questions sociales à travers leurs poèmes naturalistes, scientifiques et animaliers. Elle explore actuellement la poésie populaire et ouvrière, dont les poèmes qui sont écrits au sein des « workhouses » ou sur le lieu de travail et qui portent sur les pratiques culturelles et sociales de ces institutions, en insistant plus spécialement sur les réponses poétiques au paternalisme victorien.
Fabienne Moine is Professor of British Studies at the University of Paris Est Créteil. Her research interests range across Victorian poetry, with particular highlights in the social and cultural practices of poetry and the poetical forms of social history. She published Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (Routledge 2016) about how nature, science and animal poems address social questions. She is currently examining popular and working-class verse and specifically poems written in the workhouse and in the workplace and about the cultural and social practices of these institutions, with a special focus on the poetical responses to Victorian paternalism.

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