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The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945

‘How fared the growth of this child's mind?’: Childhood Reading in the Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945

My relationship with reading began with C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when I was introduced to it aged five. Eleven years later and I found myself the sole adult in a cinema having dragged my little brother to see the movie with me. Thus I came to consider the importance of childhood reading, which has undoubtedly exerted a substantial influence over me, extending to both my reading habits and, as the incident with the cinema shows, even my actions.

Fortunately for me, my work experience last summer taught me that I was not alone. For it involved reading two books for the RED database, Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson and The Hard Way Up by Hannah Mitchell. Both books are excellent examples of the importance of early reading, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, Hannah Mitchell cites reading as her main form of education, writing; ‘I cannot remember a time when I could not read. I was passionately fond of books, which as events turned out were to be almost my only source of learning.’ She then goes on to describe examples of this reading; ‘some curious and unsuitable matter, old-fashioned theological works, early Methodist magazines, cookery books and queer tales of murder and robbery. One such, entitled “The Castle of Otranto”, haunted my dreams for many a night.’ As well as this ‘unsuitable matter’, however, Mitchell was also a fan of some more classic literature, reading books such as the History of England (see note 1) which she describes as ‘a veritable godsend’ as well as Scott’s Kenilworth (1821) and Gaskell’s Cranford (1853). One text however which distinguishes itself from the others for her is Wordsworth's Poems, not only for its own sake, but also for the circumstances in which she obtained it. One ‘wet Sunday morning’ she recalls a ‘gentleman in a rough tweed suit’ who visited her home. He enquired as to whether she enjoyed poetry. ‘I knew it meant reading matter, so I said quickly: “Yes, we like it.” He then took from his knapsack a copy of ‘Wordsworth’s Poems’, saying that he would leave the book with us until he came again. The whichever of us knew most of the poems by heart should have the book for their own. What a godsend that book was to me!’ Although Hannah never again met her benefactor again, she did make contact with him many years later when she discovered, written upon the fly leaf, ‘From Hans Renold, Manchester, April ’79.’ She then wrote to him ‘recalling his visit and his gift, thanking him, even after sixty years, for the joy it had brought to me.’ Flora Thompson too, recalls a reading experience with fondness as she remembers how she was ‘lucky enough to be given a bound volume of Good Words’ and how she ‘galloped through all the instalments immediately to pick out the places mentioned by her dear Sir Walter Scott.’

Sadly however, it seems that not all children remember their early reading with such fondness. Patricia Beer writes in her autobiography: ‘Either at school or at home I read all the classics considered necessary for children: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Little Women, David Copperfield, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe … on the whole the themes appeared completely abstract and impersonal, even when the author intended a message to strike home. Uncle Tom's Cabin did not cause me a moment's concern for the plight of Negro slaves in America, and neither did The Water Babies for the sufferings of the child chimney-sweeps, not because these situations had been done away with, but because no book stirred me in that way...’ Dorothy Wordsworth remarks on another child who does not enjoy his reading: the poet’s son Willy Wordsworth. In a letter of 14 December, 1820 to Thomas Hutchinson, Dorothy writes: ‘...he seems yet to have little or no satisfaction in reading alone. He draws and writes of himself but never takes up a Book except when I require it [of him].’  She adds, however, ‘I must say he always does it cheerfully.’  Perhaps Willy Wordsworth, unlike Flora Thompson and Hannah Mitchell, simply needed someone else’s prompting before he would turn to a book.

Nevertheless, happily, most accounts in the database seem to recount a positive experience of childhood reading as opposed to an unpleasant one. Indeed, in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose writes of an entirely beneficial experience: ‘Robert Colyer, who rose to become a celebrated Unitarian minister, deliberately chose to dwell upon the moment when, as a child labourer in a Fewston linen factory, he bought his first book, The History of Whittington and his Cat:... “in that first purchase lay the spark of a fire which has not yet gone down to white ashes, the passion which grew with my growth to read all the books in the early years I could lay my hands on, and in this wise prepare me in some fashion for the work I must do in the ministry... I see myself in the far-away time and cottage reading, as I may truly say in my case, for dear life”’. Therefore it seems to me, both from my own experience and from examples such as this, that the potential of childhood reading to shape and influence an individual are boundless and that as such, reading represents a vital part of almost everyone’s childhood. Hannah Mitchell would seem to concur with this view as she wrote of a similar experience concerning the much beloved copy of ‘Wordsworth’s Poems’ she had received and of its donor: ‘Of all the good deeds in his long and useful life, none was kinder than this little act of generosity, when he sowed his tiny seed of culture, which did not fall on stony ground. I can never be thankful enough for the chance which led me to discover the identity of this good fairy in my book-starved childhood.’

Laura Lambert, St Paul’s Girls’ School


1. Hannah Mitchell does not specify which History of England she read.  Although a number of works bearing that title exist, it is most likely that it was Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (5 vols, 1848–61).

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