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Matthew Bradley & Juliet John (eds), Reading and the Victorians

Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, The Nineteenth Century Series, 2015, 180 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-4080-2
Marie-Françoise Cachin
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Matthew Bradley & Juliet John (eds), Reading and the Victorians, Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, The Nineteenth Century Series, 2015, 180 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-4080-2

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1After the publication of Robert Altick’s seminal book, The English Common Reader in 1957, other important books such as Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader 1836–1914 (1993), Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier’s Histoire de la lecture dans le monde occidental (1997) or William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) prove that the field has become a major one in Western countries over the last decades, together with the history of publishing. The nineteenth century is a favourite period for researchers in that field as it saw the unceasing development of literacy as well as the industrialisation of publishing, with an unprecedented level of book production. Written by specialists of reading history, the collection of essays Reading and the Victorians throws light on the various angles through which the subject can be tackled, as appears from its three parts: ‘The Public Aspect of Reading’, ‘The Reading Relationship’ and ‘Reading the Victorians’.

2Three papers concern Charles Dickens in different ways. Examining the manuscript of David Copperfield, Philip Davis stresses the importance of the author’s revisions and corrections and comes to the conclusion that they make ‘the writer his own best reader’ (69), an assertion that might have been questioned. For Sheila Cordner, illiterate characters in Our Mutual Friend reveal Dickens’s concern with the process of acquiring textual literacy. Clare Ellis relates the current experience of shared reading in Liverpool through the Reader Organisation’s Get Into Reading Group and the reactions to Great Expectations of readers suffering from a variety of mental health problems.

3Unsurprisingly, women as readers are examined, first by Beth Palmer who analyses the reading of periodicals by female reformers of the Langham Place Group in the 1850s, in particular The English Woman’s Journal, Victoria Magazine and The Englishwoman’s Review. Catherine Delafield’s paper discusses the reading of women’s diaries in the 1890s and shows the development of the diary market at the end of the century. Though not meant for publication at the start, women’s diaries have progressively become legitimate as documents and material for history.

4No book on Victorian reading could exist without references to Charles Mudie’s Select Library and one of the major specialists of the history of reading, Stephen Colclough, the author of Consuming Texts: Readers and Reading Communities 1695–1870 (2007), uses a so far neglected archive, Mudie’s Library Circular: A Monthly Register of Current Literature, whose surviving run at the British Library covers the period April 1862–April 1864. Designed for the use of subscribers, the Circular seems to have been an unusual publication meant to facilitate the choice of books thanks to reviews of most of them, but necessarily excluding some works for moral reasons. The Circular was also used to ‘reposition the Library in the market’ and as such was ‘a vital part of an innovative strategy of audience control that allowed Mudie’s to halt the loss of subscribers to its rivals in the early 1860s’ (44).

5If the importance and impact of Mudie’s Select Library on Victorian reading are well-grounded, the actual material conditions of reading are often forgotten. In this respect the topic of Simon Eliot’s essay, in which he reminds us of the necessity to have enough light to read as many people’s long working hours did not allow them to read by daylight, is quite unprecedented. Eliot relates the evolution of domestic lighting, from the oil lamp and the candle to gas lighting and the use of kerosene or paraffin, stressing the cost of reading and concluding that ‘a candle flame recorded implicitly the consumption of money, and the passing of time’ (27). Eliot’s unusual approach gives his paper a definite originality.

6The other essays deal with the consequences of the development of digital technology as they bring about new ways of getting information about readers, and allow for the establishment of databases, some of which are presented in Reading and the Victorians. They show the importance of information gained by deciphering annotations and marginalia left by readers as potential records of what and how people read. K. E. Altar’s essay is based on the study of printed catalogues at the Senate House Library, University of London. He samples three readers who have all left their marks on them, the mathematician and mathematical historian Augustus De Morgan (1806–71), the Greek historian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of London George Grote (1794–1871) and Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). Though Altar acknowledges that standard library catalogues cannot be a final reference for recording reading, he invites librarians to pay more attention to the presence of annotations as evidence of reading. In her paper entitled ‘Query: Victorian Reading’, Rosalind Crone begins with remarks on the reading experience of Queen Victoria, in particular of Walter Scott’s works, as an example of the data gathered in the Reading Experience Database, or RED, launched in 1995 at the Open University by Simon Eliot and W. R. Owens. As an active member of the RED team, Rosalind Crone explains the methodology used, that is the recording of an engagement with a written or printed text in the form of marginalia and annotations. Over 30,000 individual records of reading have been stored in UK RED, among which some 55% describe the tastes and habits of nineteenth-century readers. Several tables, for example on socio-economic groups of readers or on genre and/or subject matter, provide precious information, and diagrams throw light on the links between readers and texts, or between readers and links between texts. The site of UK RED (​Arts/​reading/​UK/​) can easily be consulted. The limits of such a database are not ignored but RED remains an interesting tool for research on reading history. Matthew Bradley, one of the book’s editors, gives a precise example of such a database as he discusses Gladstone’s reading database established from his extensive annotations to over 10,000 volumes. GladCAT, as the database is called, now contains over 10,000 records of the writer’s own books on a vast array of subjects. Commenting on them, Bradley sketches ‘some potential “pathways” through the database regarding Gladstone’s views on the later life itself’ (135) and concludes that generally speaking annotations to books give us glimpses of the Victorian ways of reading.

7With its bibliography listing all the primary and secondary sources used within the volume and the diversity of its collection of essays, Reading and the Victorians contributes to our understanding of an aspect of Victorian culture which is too often neglected or underestimated.

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Marie-Françoise Cachin, « Matthew Bradley & Juliet John (eds), Reading and the Victorians »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2016, consulté le 31 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie-Françoise Cachin

Université Paris-Diderot

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