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The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945

RED Letter: The Newsletter of the Reading Experience Database


Edited by Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey

Seasonal good wishes from the RED team! As the December freeze takes hold across Britain, our last newsletter, written in the warm afterglow of the RED summer conference, “Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence,” seems a long time ago. But we have not been idle at RED HQ since then. We have been busy discussing the possibilities for publishing selected conference papers. Those of you who gave papers at the conference will be hearing from one of us about this shortly, if you have not already done so. We have also been gathering and collating the information provided by users of the database on our RED Questionnaire, in preparation for launching Version 3.0 of the database next summer. Thanks to all those who filled in the questionnaire; we will endeavour to implement the helpful suggestions you have made. The Questionnaire is still available on the RED website. Do please fill it in if you have a moment free. And, because organising one conference just isn’t enough for us, we are currently finalising the arrangements for another event, a one-day symposium on Women’s Reading in the Nineteenth Century, which will take place on 26th March 2009 at the Institute of English Studies in London. Further details can be found below (on p.4) and on our website, at

Much of our time recently has also been occupied in making a concerted push to release more data into the live database, and to build more new search functions, making it possible to search the database in substantially more targeted ways.  In addition to all pre-existing ways of searching, our new “Advanced Search” allows users to locate various new types of information more easily. It is now possible to search by the exact time and place of a reading experience, the form in which the work was read, the nationality of the reader, and even by the provenance and publication details of the text being read.  We are delighted by the possibilities these new searches open up, and encourage all readers of REDLetter to experiment with them.

The new Advanced Search page can be found at, and allows me to present the following evidence about seasonal reading in the past. Reading matter throughout the centuries is extremely diverse, though the reading of Dickens’s Christmas books is much in evidence in the database. On 27th December, 1843, Elizabeth Barrett confided to Mary Russell Mitford that she disliked “the machinery” of A Christmas Carol, “which is entangled with allegory & ghostery” but wrote “I like & admire the mode of the working out – & the exquisite scenes about the clerk & little Tiny [Tim]; I thank the writer in my heart of hearts for them.”  In 1854, George Eliot spent a miserably wet Christmas Day in Berlin, reading the Taming of the Shrew. Three years later, she and G.H.Lewes enjoyed the Christmas number of Household Words together in Richmond. Religious reading, naturally, features in our material – eighteenth-century shopkeeper Thomas Turner read seven of Tillotson’s Sermons during the day and evening of Christmas day, 1756, while, in 1835, in his home in Wellingborough, the publisher John Cole spent Christmas day reading “several Carols from the collection pub. by Parker.” It seems that there is much that does not change over time; an unidentified respondent to a Mass Observation project survey paints a vivid picture of Christmases then and now: “Christmas Day my father was reading his paper. His glass of beer was at his side. He fell asleep and when he woke up his glass was empty. That's how I had a drink.” In the past, as now, Christmas was not always an easy time of year. Robert Louis Stevenson clearly did not enjoy the festive season, but consoled himself with Thackeray’s The Adventures of Philip in Bridge of Allan on Christmas day of 1872: “I have had all things considered and thanks principally to Phillip, a very passable Christmas day [...] then went upstairs and read Phillip till lunchtime (you see I adhere to my own views as to how Philip should be spelt).” Like Stevenson, coffee-broker Gerald Moore found Christmas trying, in Liverpool in 1926, but found a book could make things more bearable: “Scrambles among the Alps (Whymper) Trying to get the proper atmosphere in a snow-less Christmas. Certainly, if any book could give it, it is this one. Today has been rather a bore. The usual heavyweight dinner made everybody too somnolent to allow of any attempt at enjoyment. So we slept and read and ate and finally slept.” We hope that all readers of REDLetter will enjoy a relaxing, though perhaps less somnolent, festive season.

As always, we have much cause to be grateful to people who have contributed to the RED project in different ways. Many thanks to Kate Macdonald, Tom and Elizabeth Heydeman, Caroline Dakers, John D'Arcy, Alistair Morrison, 3rd Baron Margadale, and Sandra Cummings for help in sourcing useful archival material and permission to use it. Thanks to our technical team, in particular to David Wong, for working so hard on the new searches. Thanks to DeNel Rehberg Sedo for photographs of the RED conference, and to Simon Frost for helping to disseminate our questionnaire. We are constantly delighted by the enthusiasm of our volunteers, and we would like to thank them all for their contributions. Particular thanks most recently must go to Marilyn Ashworth, Gillian Bingham, Helen Chambers, Anna Charlton, Olive Classe, Karen Hedger, Barbara Ryan, Margaret Thomas, and Julie Watt, and to our two indefatigable research assistants, Jenny McAuley and Sarah Johnson.

The winner of the RED caption competition is Robert Falconer, who wins a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader and a lovely RED bag.  Thanks to all who entered the competition.

Lastly, in a bid to save trees and costs, all future REDLetters will only be available via e-mail, or to download from our website:  If you currently receive a hard copy of REDLetter, and would like to continue to hear about the project, please send details of your email address to, and we will add you to our e-mail list.


Contact Details:  
Dr Rosalind Crone
Department of English
Faculty of Arts
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
Dr Katie Halsey
Institute of English Studies
School of Advanced Study
University of London
Malet Street
Email: Email:


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from: William Hone, ‘The Yearbook’, 1832
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