The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
Jonathan Rose
Yale University Press, 2002

In some novels and films of a certain period, members of the British working class are portrayed as servile slum-dwellers always ready to tug the forelock at the "guvnor", and looking forward to nothing more than the next 'arf-crown tip and a pint o' bitter.

Professor Rose’s study shows that this stereotype is merely a facile generalisation. While some workers may indeed have been hurrying to t'pub after a hard day down t'mine, others were making their way home to read Marx, Bunyan and Dumas or to teach themselves mathematics, or to the nearest WEA (Workers Education Association) for night classes in literature, politics, and music among other things.

This is a wonderful account of what British workers have spent their leisure time reading and learning and thinking about. The author begins at the 16th century or so, when reading and writing in Britain broke out of the bounds of the clergy and politicians and spread to all classes and types of person. At that time, peasants used their newly-allowed literacy to further their study of the Bible; and future generations spread their wings into various areas including poetry, journalism, novel-writing and political representation. Autodidactism spread despite the attitudes of those employers or family members who furrowed their brows over servants or kin who wanted more than a life scrubbing grates or slaving on a factory line. Unfortunately, the beginning of the second half of the 20th century saw a decline in the enthusiasm for self-directed learning, due to the post-war spread of affluence, television, and society’s new emphasis on the "new" and "fashionable" and "cutting edge".

What makes Professor Rose’s book so fascinating is the mass of detail he gives about several autodidacts through the centuries who, through struggle and determination, became something more than they were born to be. An example is the writer Catherine Cookson, who was born at the start of the 20th century to a washerwoman and seemed destined to be one herself. It was as a result of reading Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (1750) after a hard day in the washing sheds, that she set out on the road to self-improvement and ended her long life as a prolific author honoured for her services to literature.

Professor Rose has drawn on various sources, such as contemporary articles on reading and leisure habits across the centuries, and surveys performed by various organizations in the last 150-or-so years. There are tables on topics that include the books read by surveyed members of the class in question, hours people devoted to reading, and the radio programs they listened to in 1938. Best of all are the vivid first-person accounts, derived from autobiographies or memoirs, of how certain books, pieces of music or educational events affected lives. This is a study that can be re-read with no loss of enjoyment, and which in itself can inspire the reader to go in new directions.

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