Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the rise of literacy during the Industrial Revolution



A Facebook friend posted an old link from The Economist magazine on Mary Shelley whose birthday it was. She prefaced it with "When Frankenstein was published only 10% of people could READ and WRITE, /there is a big historical tell."
The Economist,  August 30, 2016 · The author of “Frankenstein”—who was born on August 30th 1797—was marked out from the beginning. As a child, Mary Shelley was intensely interesting to intellectuals for being the creation of an anarchist political philosopher, William Godwin, and a feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died—like Dr Frankenstein?— in giving life.  Mary Shelley: complex and unpredictable, a woman of hidden fires. The poet was born on this day in 1797 The Economist 
The 10% literacy rate figure grated upon what I knew of 18th and 19th c. England. So I said: That's not entirely true. It is estimated that literacy was about 12% worldwide. And how would anyone ever be able to figure that out? It's some scholar's guesstimate.

I'm sure literacy was significantly higher in Great Britain, and Ireland. People who could read, read aloud to their families. Reading aloud was a family social affair in Europe. And, thanks to John Knox's teachings, the Bible was read aloud in many households. Direct experience to the Word of God, and all that.

During the Middle Ages, in Ireland, the need for literacy became significant. Especially after the Viking invasions. True, only the learned scholarly class would have been literate. But the Irish went on to found the universities of Europe.

So I let my fingers do the walking, erm, Googling. I discovered that by the end of the 17th c., the Industrial Revolution (which began in 1760) created a new class of male readers (read how the Mechanics' Institutes, Mechanic's Museums, and Mechanic's Libraries were founded in the 1790s).

Also, concurrently when gaslight illumination was introduced in 1825, literacy went way up. The former darkness of night was suddenly illuminated. People could read by gaslight. Think how that must have changed people's lives. Gaslight changed night into day. By 1825, most middle class and upper class boys went to elementary school in England, and there was also education for the poor. By 1900, school was compulsory for all.

The rise of the serial novel drove newspaper publication as it was still expensive to produce books in the 1700s. (In France, L'Astrée ran from 1607-27, and the TEN volume Le Grand Cyrus ran from 1649–53). I'm sure they were rambling, confusing tomes. I dare say literacy rate was higher than 10% in western Europe during 1810 when Frankenstein was published.
"The wild success of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature... In literature, a serial is a printed format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and are either issued as separate publications or within sequential issues...  Serial (literature) - Wikipedia
Well, unbeknownst to me, my friend took umbrage that I: a) challenged her statement, and b) gave examples to support my thoughts. As if it were a personal affront.
She said: Depends on where you read I guess you seem to believe everything you research but facts are reported differently by different people...I used this as a teaching tool for 8th grade English Summer School for the students who had failed. The two best A+ students were from China and Mexico wow in a class of 30
Still oblivious to the fact that she was upset by my posting of facts, I replied:  And I'm sure the literacy rate was different in China as well (books were published during the T'ang Dynasty). The literacy facts are entirely dependent upon which group you're looking at. I hate sweeping generalisms, so, yes, I do tend to research to understand the story behind the sweeping 'facts'. The Industrial Revolution radically changed social customs. And reading became a critical thinking skill.

The more I delved into the literacy issue, the more, fascinated I became, and the more I uncovered. And the more I shared (I tend to revise my comments, so I don't post too many separate comments—just long ones): My bad. I was on a roll. I said: Also, in Ireland, England deliberately quashed all education for the Irish, hence the rise of scoil chois claí, or "hedgerow schools." My family was a part of that movement.
Catholic schools were forbidden under the Penal laws from 1723 to 1782...The laws aimed to force Irish Catholics of the middle classes and gentry to convert to Anglicanism if they wanted a good education in Ireland.... Subjects included primarily the reading, writing and grammar of Irish and English, and maths (the fundamental "three Rs")." Hedge Schools, —Wiki
I explained to her: You see why that 10% literacy rate figure grates...there's too much proof otherwise, to suggest that people attended school, and it was not just the aristocracy. My Irish teacher was the chair of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, so we learned early on to ask questions, and to examine the basic tenants.


(I later discovered that according to East Yorkshire parish registers, 33% of grooms and 66% of brides in the 1750s were illiterate (60% average in England); by the 1800s that percentage dropped to 50% for women, then 0% illiteracy rate was achieved by 1900. "...many children in the eighteenth and ninteenth century could read by the age of seven or eight." University of Leeds. But, writing (like math) was taught only to boys, never to girls. So this Leeds literacy study only measured who could scribe their names, not IF they could read.)

Well, hand me down in a hand basket, she had lost her shit and claimed I was harassing her. And here I thought we were having a conversation. Silly me. My first clue that something was amiss was when she began deleting my comments. Luckily, I managed to save this paragraph. (She then attempted to undermine the veracity of my posts because I used Wiki, as if the dates would be wrong).

I reiterated: That by the time Frankenstein was published only 10% of the English-speaking populace could read, simply isn't true. Look up the foundation of the Mechanics' Institutes, about the time Mary Shelley was born...main emphasis? Reading. Libraries. Books. Periodicals. The Industrial Revolution changed literacy rates. That has nothing to do with the veracity (or lack of) of Wikipedia. Dates are fairly accurate.

She then messaged me: Please stop trying to undermine my osts  (stet)

Stunned, I replied: Got it! Truth be known, I don't necessarily note whose post it is when I reply, so I didn't notice it was yours. If you post it in the newstream, it is a public forum, BTW. So, I'm no longer "following" you which means I won't see your posts in my newsfeed. That should resolve the problem. Done!
Her reply: Just drop me as a friend ever heard of rounding off to the nearest 10 Actually you made me feel HARASSSED in your mind you are the winner...I have a different style  (And this woman is a teacher.)
I had to laugh as it was a case of coming full circle, and said to her: Well, you also harassed me every single time I posted in the traditional Irish music group. So I just gave up. I guess it all depends upon the context. It's not about winning or losing. My intent was not to harass, but to share. And for that I do apologize. It was not my intent.

I was responding to an unsupported fact that was wildly inaccurate. I said: I didn't even know it was your page. It said The Economist on it. A repost. I assume the 10% figure was from The Economist?

FWIW, By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, lots of people could read...because of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the Mechanic's Institutes. (Glasgow was in the forefront). Mostly men belonged to these clubs, mind you, but that was also during the era of the wildly popular serial novel. Newspapers flourished. It was a very literate time. People were not illiterate troglodytes like the 10% figure suggested...

Anyway, not too sure why you're so upset as it's not your original post but The Economist is a known right-wing rag that often skews facts to the point of clickbait. 

I mused on: I guess one could count Maria Edgeworth's first historical novel, Castle Rackrent as the forerunner to widespread popularity of English historical fiction (1800)....because she published a 2nd book the next year! And a 3rd book in 1805. Wow. And of course, Jane Austen began publishing as well.

It always amazes me, as those books were writing in longhand with goose quill pens. At first I hated 18th c. literature, but as I began to learn of the era, my opinions changed. I grew to like Castle Rackrent. Thaddy's line Yes sor! for sir (it meant louse, in Irish).

I said to her: I know you don't like Wiki, I also don't lean on its veracity, but it's a copyright-free handy reference for dates. Check out the 1800 in literature link. See what was being published in 1800, or 1810 or 1818 Not only Mary Shelley, but also Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, and Walter Scott—not to mention the poets Gordon Ramsey, aka Lord Byron, and PB Shelley).

It really gives a wider perspective of the era. Lots of books were being published, which means people were buying them. (Over a hundred books of fiction were published in ten years (1800-10), not counting all the children's books, and non-fiction). Doesn't sound like an illiterate populace to me. (The reason why Scotland became literate earlier during the Enlightenment, was because of John Knox wanting the populace to read the Bible first-hand.)

Well, I guess I should thank her for this rather one-sided exchange, because because in my trying to over-explain (and support) why I thought that unsubstantiated fact was just plain wrong, I seem to have the makings of a blog post. Who knew?

And her loud response was to unfriend me. I guess my apology was not accepted. She is now a former Facebook friend. Apparently she's not too keen on facts or differing viewpoints. Oh bhuell.

M. 




FWIW, this transcript is, for the most part, verbatim. I added transitions and explanations for clarity. Thanks to Margaret Maugham for the Coffee Party Movement meme!
Some links:

1800 in literature

Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution, which also spurred an agricultural revolution, marks a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced, a higher standard of living for the general populace, more income and population growth. Textile factory workers were unmarried women, children, orphans. It created a loss of women's status in the home, but also paved the way to emancipation. And the ensuing family consumer economy, and the rapid rise of the middle class, led to better education—and reading.
The application of steam power to the industrial processes of printing supported a massive expansion of newspaper and popular book publishing, which reinforced rising literacy and demands for mass political participation.
Mechanics' Institutes educational establishments founded in the 1820s throughout the British Empire (forerunners were established in the 1790s; previous to that subscription libraries were used), formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. The 'libraries' were the adult working class, were an alternative to gambling and drinking in pubs.
The Industrial Revolution created a new class of reader in Britain by the end of the 18th century, 'mechanics,' who were civil and mechanical engineers in reality. The Birmingham Brotherly Society was founded in 1796 by local mechanics to fill this need, and was the forerunner of Mechanics' Institutes, which grew in England to over seven hundred in number by 1850.
Small tradesmen and workers could not afford subscription libraries, so benevolent groups  created "Mechanics' Institutes" that contained inspirational and vocational reading matter, for a small rental fee. Later popular non-fiction and fiction books were added to these collections. The first known library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans' Library, formed in 1823.
I get that Frankenstein was published in 1818, a few years before the rise of the Mechanic's Institutes, but the writing was already on the wall, so to speak. The rise of literacy was formalized with the founding of the Mechanic's Institutes (at least for men.)

The Development of the Mechanics’ Institute Movement in Britain There was a concerted effort to educate the working populace. Even in Ireland there was "...a movement directed towards the scientific education of the working people." p. 23

History of British newspapers At the beginning of the 17th century, the right to print was strictly controlled in England. The first newspaper in the English language was printed in Amsterdam by Joris Veseler around 1620. The Civil War escalated the demand for news. News pamphlets or books reported the war. Following the Restoration there arose a number of publications, including the London Gazette ( 1665 as the Oxford Gazette),[2] the first official journal of record and the newspaper of the Crown.
There were twelve London newspapers and 24 provincial papers by the 1720s...The first English journalist to achieve national importance was Daniel Defoe. In February 1704, he began his weekly, The Review, which was eventually printed three times a week...The increasing popularity and influence of newspapers was problematic to the government of the day. The first bill in parliament advocating a tax on newspapers was proposed in 1711. Jonathan Swift expressed in his Journal to Stella on 7 August 1712, doubt in the ability of The Spectator to hold out against the tax.
The News Letter is one of Northern Ireland's main daily newspapers, published Monday to Saturday. It is the oldest English-language general daily newspaper still in publication in the world, having first been printed in 1737.
By the early 19th century, there were 52 London papers and over 100 other titles. ...The Daily Universal Register began life in 1785 and was later to become known as The Times from 1788....the circulation of English newspapers rose from 39,000,000 to 122,000,000 by 1854.


Newspapers (and literacy) were equally lively in Scotland as well. Check it out. By the 1700s, much of Scotland could read (thanks to John Knox's insistence that everyone needed to read the Bible firsthand). Here's a literacy quote from the University of Leeds (this would represent all walks of life, not just the aristocracy):

University of Leeds HIST2530 Building the literate nation: the historical debate In his 1961 study of parish registers in East Yorkshire, W. P. Baker was able to ascertain that: around 33% of grooms and 66% of brides in the 1750s were illiterate, that is to say, a third of grooms and two-thirds of brides marked the register with a cross rather than signing their names.
rates declined for men in the 1840s and the records indicate that illiteracy by this measure had been more or less eliminated by 1900.
there was a more gradual decline in illiteracy rates for women from the 1780s
male and female rates reached parity by the 1870s
Building on this work the 1973 Schofield study attempted to build a national picture, drawing on a sample of 274 parishes. In this study the rates of male illiteracy remained at approximately 40% through the late 17th century and declined from about 1810 until it reached approximately 33% by the time the Register General first began to collect figures in 1839. Female illiteracy rates in the 1750s were approximately 60%, remained more or less static until 1800 after which they reduced, reaching approximately 50% by 1840.

Whilst the 17th Century had seen the beginnings of popular literacy, driven by the Protestant emphasis on direct access to bible teachings, the 18th century saw the beginnings of a public debate on the merits of extending that education to the poorest members of society. Proponents of charity schools delivered sermons and published pamphlets, setting forth the argument and driving forward programmes of learning. Their central arguments rested on assumptions that:
increased familiarity with Christian teachings would improve the moral health of the poor
it was important to reach children before immorality and rough manners became ingrained
it was the Christian duty of those who were able, to extend their charity to those who were in ignorance and poverty
such schooling could only assist in fostering self-discipline and an acceptance of their place in society
only through education could the tendency towards criminality amongst the poor be countered.

No comments: