The Cookson Story

Stefan Collini

  • The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose
    Yale, 534 pp, £29.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 300 08886 8

Reading may not make the world go round but it can make it go away, for a while. If one’s world is dirty, poor, oppressive and unfair, then that may be no small service. Books furnish the mind in a form that the bailiffs cannot repossess. If we could recover the reading practices of past generations, we would be in touch with an experience that was at once intimate and formative, on a par with, even part of, the history of love. But reading is, for the most part (at least in recent centuries), a private activity. What can we know of all those quiet hours that have left so little direct trace in the historical record? The literary tradition yields some evidence for select members of the well-connected, articulate, document-preserving classes, but what of the little recorded majority? In Britain, the ‘working classes’ (pragmatically defined) made up more than 70 per cent of the population until at least the middle of the 20th century. Can there be a proper history of working-class reading?

Jonathan Rose believes that there can be, and after five hundred pages, 24 tables and more than 1600 footnotes it’s clear he has a point. His introduction (still more the publisher’s blurb) makes much of the book’s ‘innovative research techniques’, the need to shift attention from text to reader, from elite readers to working-class readers, and so on. Such work has not been unheard of in the last decade or so, but Rose certainly demonstrates how much can be learned by the energetic and resourceful combing of some familiar, and some less familiar, types of evidence. The sources on which he relies most heavily are the various kinds of autobiography and memoir written by those from working-class or other modest backgrounds, people who had usually received very little formal schooling, at least until the middle years of the 20th century. He also makes good use of library records, educational archives, oral histories and Mass Observation and early social surveys.

The real subject of his book is not ‘the intellectual life of the British working classes’, but ‘the reading habits of the autodidact tradition within the British industrial working class from the early 19th century to the mid 20th’. It’s still a big and underexplored subject, and the results of his enterprising research make fascinating reading. But his attempts to arrive at historical generalisations run aground on the awkward, indeed insuperable, difficulty that the autobiographers on whose testimony he so largely relies were, by the very fact of their writings, exceptional. At times he acknowledges this, and tries to get round it by supplementing their testimony with other forms of evidence. But the fact remains that what we mostly have here is anecdotal evidence, drawn from those who had a particular fondness for telling this kind of anecdote about themselves later in their lives.

No doubt experts in the burgeoning field of the ‘history of the book’ will want to take issue with Rose on this and similar grounds, but his work provides a great deal of information enlivened by often moving individual stories – weavers propping books up on their looms, miners disputing the merits of their favourite poets while digging coal, office boys reading far into the night to sustain themselves through the tedium of another day in the counting-house. We hear of feats of reading that would merit a place in some literary equivalent of Wisden (‘the largest number of multi-volume histories read by a Lancashire cotton-spinner’). And on a few occasions we stumble on episodes that would be more at home in the Alice books or even Monty Python, such as this account of a group of London police constables between the wars:

They clubbed together to buy used BBC classical records from a Shaftesbury Avenue shop. They circulated among themselves copies of the New Statesman and a collective season ticket to the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. They read Proust and Spengler, Macaulay and Gibbon, Tom Paine and Cobbett, Hume and Herbert Spencer. They never missed a Harold Laski public lecture. They went in a solid phalanx to hear Shaw, Belloc and Chesterton debate at Kingsway Hall. And they formed an archaeological group to look for relics of Norman and Roman London whenever they happened to have freshly excavated building sites on their beats.

Policemen don’t only look younger these days: they read less Proust, too.

Rose concentrates on male readers, but makes some effort to illuminate that even darker recess, the history of working-class women’s reading. Lacking cultural endorsement, less often encouraged by family and workmates, often more isolated and burdened, rarely invited to publish accounts of a rise from obscurity, women tell fewer tales of love in these pages. But just occasionally, especially when the chronicles of the poor and unknown intersect with the life stories of the rich and famous, Rose strikes gold. Catherine McMullen was the daughter of a washerwoman who had been in the workhouse. A chance reference in a popular romance led her to make her first visit to a public library in order to see for herself what the book referred to was like. Improbably, she was entranced by The Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son, and this, in turn, ‘launched her into a lifetime course of reading, beginning with Chaucer in Middle English, moving on to Erasmus, Donne, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and even Finnegans Wake’. In this case, the visit to the local library was repaid with interest: under the name of Catherine Cookson, McMullen went on to write more than ninety novels, and ‘at one point she was responsible for one third of all the books loaned by Britain’s public libraries.’

Although there is a progression from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th, Rose’s book is really a loosely knit series of studies on topics ranging from ‘cultural literacy in the classic slum’ to the popularity of Bunteresque school stories even among those who could never dream of setting foot inside an actual Greyfriars. Three broad themes can even so be identified, though Rose does not isolate them as such: the cultural conservatism of the autodidact tradition; the emancipating power of great literature, whatever its ideological colouring; and, somewhat undercutting this, the sheer uncontrollability of readers’ responses.

The cultural conservatism of autodidact literary taste is abundantly illustrated. Once certain authors acquired ‘classic’ status, they were not easily displaced. Defoe, Swift, Scott, Dickens, Hardy figure in almost every story of a life transformed by reading, along with the major poets (Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson), dramatists (none matched Shakespeare and Shaw in popularity), discursive prose writers (Carlyle and Ruskin are the constant companions of the earnest seeker after light), and the great unclassifiable, John Bunyan. The composition of this canon changed somewhat as new names established themselves, though working-class reading always lagged a literary generation or two behind. (Penurious readers, picking up their books from second-hand stalls, could rarely afford the new literature of the day.) But it is the durability of certain names, and still more of certain books, that emerges most strikingly, as well as the fact that the canon, at least as recognised by readers with little formal education, petrified in the Edwardian era: no serious, as opposed to ‘popular’, writer after that period earned a place alongside the immortals. The increasing datedness of the autodidact canon could itself become a handicap: the young V.S. Pritchett (though hardly working class in origin) dreamed of entering literary bohemia in the late 1910s, but ‘all my tastes were conventionally Victorian . . . I seemed irredeemably backward and lower class and the cry of the autodidact and snob broke out in me in agony: “Shall I never catch up?”’

For much of the 19th century, the three books most commonly found, even in homes that contained no other books, were the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress and, somewhat less predictably, Robinson Crusoe. This trinity was progressively supplemented, though never entirely displaced, by the work of later novelists, but as Rose records, ‘only one other author ever matched the steady and overwhelming popularity of Defoe and Bunyan’: namely Dickens, and here the earlier, lighter novels, such as Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, were preferred to the darker, more complex works of the later 1850s and 1860s. Both the reading public and the supply of reading matter expanded dramatically later in the 19th century, partly fuelled by the education acts of the 1870s, partly by improvements in technology and distribution. But Rose’s evidence suggests that although these developments extended the range of working-class reading, they had an even more marked impact in increasing the numbers of readers for already established classics.

The greatest single engine of diffusion was the Everyman Library, launched in 1906. The publisher, J.M. Dent, was himself a product of the autodidact tradition, and he hit on a winning formula (later exploited on an even grander scale by Penguin): large print-runs, low prices, handsome design, classic authors. The last of these was the key to the prestige of the Everyman series: Rose describes Dent’s literary tastes as ‘naive, old-fashioned, petit bourgeois and blindly worshipful’, but he was shrewdly advised by his general editor, Ernest Rhys, another self-made man of letters, and between them they correctly judged the deferential seriousness of their potential market. Rose finds it both understandable and impressive that ‘Dent was willing to invest in so many lengthy and intimidating classics: George Grote’s History of Greece in 12 volumes, Hakluyt’s Voyages . . . in eight, J.A. Froude’s History of England in ten, 15 volumes of Balzac and six of Ibsen.’ No less impressive was the stamina and catholicity of the implied Everyman reader, and the viability of such publishing ventures speaks of a hunger for reading on a mammoth scale.

On the emancipating power of great literature, whatever its ideological colouring, the testimony of actual readers was unanimous: the more serious and ambitious the book, the more it opened worlds, expanded horizons, stirred imaginations. Many working-class autobiographers made the point that they had been encouraged in their political radicalism more by the rich panorama of life opened to them in Shakespeare or Milton or Macaulay than by reading approved ‘left-wing’ authors. Robert Blatchford’s socialist newspaper, the Clarion, was truer to working-class experience than Fabian pamphlets: Blatchford realised, as Rose puts it, that the Labour Party’s ‘doctrinal texts were nothing less than the whole canon of classic literature’.

Rose’s discussion of the Workers’ Education Association and Ruskin College in (but not of) Oxford engages with another long-running debate in working-class history: did such institutions stifle proletarian radicalism by ‘buying off’ its leaders, seducing them with the delights of bourgeois culture and the means to advance themselves at the expense of their efforts to right the collective wrongs of their class? Rose tackles this question at its most obvious level, by showing that there was no single ideological bias to the material studied in such settings, that the students themselves wanted the best of traditional culture, not a selection of politically congenial texts, that WEA and Ruskin tutors were often to the left of their students, and so on. The subtler point, however, is that while the texts studied may well have nurtured a healthy political radicalism, they stimulated several other powerful responses as well, with the psychological if not strictly logical consequence that the more the world came to seem a rich, complicated and wonderful place, the harder it was to channel all one’s energies towards the practical tasks of radical politics.

That the WEA and similar ventures did indeed transform lives is well attested, and by women scarcely less often than by men: ‘I did not know the joy of living until I was enabled to understand the problems of life . . . Even if it had made economic conditions more difficult for me, I think I would not regret the time given it. It has made life so much more interesting . . . This is happiness.’ Rose is quick to press his case: ‘Far from doping the workers by imposing middle-class cultural hegemony, Ruskin College and the WEA did precisely the opposite: they made their students happier but less content.’ The true sources of working-class radicalism, he insists (he does quite a lot of insisting), were to be found in such experiences, not in the tomes of socialist theorists.

Going further, Rose argues (in one of several echoes of Orwell) that nothing put people off Marxism more than meeting a few Marxists. Championing his ‘ordinary readers’, he delights in what he takes to be their indifference to ideological purity. ‘The primary motive of autodidacts had always been intellectual freedom.’ This perhaps makes too little of working-class readers who were driven to master difficult works of economics and social analysis by a desire to understand the causes of, and possible remedies for, the great historical injustice suffered by their class, though it is true that this category of readers has already received considerable scholarly attention, not least in the more celebratory accounts of ‘the labour movement’.

Rose’s third theme is the uncontrollability of readers’ responses. He is always eager to point out that theoretically sophisticated accounts of ‘social control’ and ‘cultural hegemony’ are undercut by the maverick unpredictability of readers who missed the bourgeois, patriarchal, racist values they were supposedly being indoctrinated with, and read the books quite differently. Actual readers can fail to bear out cherished generalisations in other ways, too. The common soldiers who demonstrated the cultural sway of literary Englishness by reading Palgrave’s Golden Treasury in the trenches during the First World War are familiar, but Rose has found a Glasgow woodcarver, James Murray, who responded to the horrors around him by carrying a different volume of poetry in his kitbag – Goethe, in the original.

Reading could be uncontrollable in other ways. Female readers read books for boys without adopting ‘masculinist’ values; religious readers read secular books without finding their faith threatened; radical readers found inspiration in the authoritarian Carlyle, and so on. Rose has a particularly good chapter on the failure of school stories and books for boys necessarily to inculcate an imperialist and racist perspective in their readers: boys (and girls) screened out whole aspects of such stories, reading in a narrative-devouring way, finding (as one reader recorded) that ‘the interestfulness was terrific.’ And that reader did not need to be lectured about the pernicious social consequences of making Hurree Jamset Ram Singh such a thin caricature: thin caricature is a staple of many forms of comedy, and it would be rash to assume that readers cannot recognise and allow for that.

The three themes I have identified help to bring a certain coherence to this rather sprawling book, but they do not exhaust its interest. For example, in reading, as in other matters, a special romance seems to attach itself in retrospect to the culture of the Welsh mining communities. In this case ‘intellectual life’ does seem to be the right description: issues of philosophy, politics and literature were debated underground, as well as in more conventional settings. The tradition of self-improvement was strong and the appetite for ideas could be keen. Wil John Edwards (b.1888) recalled the education he began to receive once he had left school: ‘Guidance in the choice of good books came to me deep down in the pit, in the darkness and dark dust of a narrow tunnel more than a thousand feet below the earth’s surface.’ On one shift he listened to an informed discussion of the merits of Meredith over Kipling: ‘That evening he tried to borrow Meredith’s Love in a Valley from the Miners’ Library, only to find 12 names on the waiting list for a single copy.’ (It’s possible that the author’s Welsh-sounding name and topographically apt title produced a few disappointed borrowers.)

Miners’ institutes were funded by a levy on wages, supplemented after 1920 by the Miners’ Welfare Fund, which helped to finance various benefits, including libraries. For Rose, the particular interest of the surviving records of these libraries lies in the fact that they were administered by the miners themselves; the acquisitions and patterns of borrowing reflected the tastes of the readers rather than the do-gooding intentions of local worthies. These libraries flourished in the pre-1914 heyday of the industry, and by 1934 there were more than a hundred in the Welsh coalfields, with an average stock of about three thousand volumes. But the savage levels of unemployment between the wars hit these libraries hard: by the late 1930s many of them had bought no new books in ten years. They fell into decline as rival sources of recreation increased and as the proud tradition of the ‘miner intellectual’ dried up. By the 1950s and 1960s, most of those with any intellectual ambition sought other routes of self-advancement, while even the less ambitious tried to make sure their sons didn’t have to go down the pit.

Only three usable registers of these libraries survive, and they tell interestingly complicated stories about reading habits. Shakespeare and the major poets had their place, and Victorian and Edwardian classic novels didn’t do badly, but in the years after 1914 borrowings were increasingly of popular fiction and romances; books on economics and politics, for all the reputation of the Red Rhondda, figured little. Representative of the taste for traditional romantic fiction was Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne, first published in 1861, which had sold close to a million copies by 1909. On Rose’s analysis, Mrs Henry Wood was the fourth most frequently stocked novelist in the miners’ libraries, behind Dickens, Scott and Rider Haggard. He is, as always, quick to point the moral: ‘Any historian of working-class culture in early 20th-century Britain must deal with this inescapable fact: the readers of Marx and Lenin were infinitesimal compared with the fans of Mrs Henry Wood.’

In fact, the moral his evidence suggests is that all generalisations on this subject are vulnerable. There was enormous variation in reading habits even among neighbouring communities, and of course the surviving records tell only a small part of the story. It looks as though Joyce, Woolf and company made no impact on the traditional canon in the first half of the 20th century, at least as far as places such as Treharris and Cwmamam were concerned. But who knows: as Rose engagingly concedes, ‘perhaps across the valley, they were reading Mrs Dalloway.’

The question of whether working-class readers in Britain were reading Mrs Dalloway, or any of the other classics of Modernism, is one Rose returns to at greater length in his penultimate chapter. His argument here is reminiscent of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (the echoes of Orwell and Carey accurately suggest the plain-manishness of Rose’s literary persona, as in his table-thumping endorsement of ‘the only true test of literary greatness – borrowing from the public library’). Rose seems to regard Modernism as a snobbish conspiracy to preserve the rarity value of literature by making it difficult, but as others have shown, the impact of Modernism on the structure of an already changing market was complex. An important part of the story must also be the way in which social changes from the 1940s onwards, including the spread of secondary education, eroded the foundations of the traditional autodidact culture before it had a chance to adjust to the literary innovations of recent generations.

Rose’s hostility to Modernism (part, perhaps, of his more general distaste for intellectuals, literary theorists and Postmodernists, categories he at times comes close to equating) shapes his account of the early 20th century. Attempting to disarm Lord Salisbury’s sneer at the ‘new journalism’ that it was ‘written by office boys for office boys’, Rose tries to rescue an ‘office-boy intelligentsia’, represented (unrepresentatively) by such figures as Neville Cardus, later music (and cricket) correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, and Richard Church, a prolific author and subsequently poetry editor for Dent. This leads him into a fierce attack on E.M. Forster for his supposedly condescending portrait of Leonard Bast in Howards End. He quotes one of Cardus’s fond retrospective accounts of the rich intellectual and artistic life he and his fellow clerks lived in early 20th-century Manchester, and then asks: ‘Why isn’t there a scene like that in Howards End?’ But this is more street-corner oratory than literary criticism; one might as well ask why the novel contains no portrait of a deeply cultivated businessman or a creatively fulfilled intellectual. Some of the autodidacts whom Rose champions were, as he repeatedly makes clear, better readers than this.

Rose hits an elegiac note in his last chapter: ‘The old classics-educated autodidacts have disappeared with the factories that employed them.’ This is to allow synecdoche to stand in for explanation: there is no reason why the substitution of, say, call centres for production lines should of itself produce such a change. If this book does describe a tradition that has come to an end, it may lead us to reconsider what it was a tradition of and what, if anything, has replaced it in ‘the intellectual life of the British working class’. Of course, no so-called ‘autodidact’ was ever literally self-educated: this book is also a history of the sustaining social processes behind heroic feats of individual self-improvement. There have certainly been fundamental changes in those processes over the last half-century or so: contemporary working-class readers have had more formal schooling than their predecessors; they have access to vastly more sources of information and entertainment; and they are far less imbued with an ethic of cultural deference. We live in a less ‘didactic’ society, auto or otherwise, and the proportion of ‘classics-educated’ people at any social level is becoming vanishingly small.

In this age of ‘access’, Jude would not have had to scrawl on the walls of Christminster: he would already have been the target of an ‘initiative’ aimed at ‘mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds’. If the ‘mute, inglorious Miltons’ are taking creative writing courses and the ‘village Hampdens’ are doing part-time law degrees, the meaning of ‘autodidact’ will have to be stretched to accommodate them. Nonetheless, there remain other forms of ‘exclusion’ than those dreamed of in Whitehall, and less material forms of ‘aspiration’ than those now given official benediction. There will always be those who, in Richard Hoggart’s phrase, ‘are still looking for larger meanings’.