Literature for the Masses

By Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Late 18th century Britain did not widely accept ideas that public schooling should be available to all or that literacy should be universal, says Assoc. Prof. Alan Richardson (English). These beliefs, in fact, were "considered rarefied and avant-garde, if not patently absurd," he said.

But such skeptical attitudes were about to undergo a transformation, one which would affect almost all of British society, as Richardson points out in his recent book on the Romantic Era in English literature.

Like the changes in schooling and literature that swept through Britain during the era, Richardson's book, Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice 1780-1832 , covers a wide range of subjects, opening up several new areas of scholarship. He examines many trends - from definitions of childhood, female education and publishing ventures aimed at working-class adults - to show how literary genres were enlisted in an ambitious program to transform social relations through reading and education.

The book has made an impact in Richardson's field: It was chosen from over 40 submissions internationally for the 1994 book prize of the American Conference on Romanticism.

"I started by talking about education and transformations in schools," Richardson said, "but as I did more research, I saw no way to leave out children's literature, since it had so much to do with new ideas in education. I found I couldn't possibly leave gender out because there were different systems in place for men and women, and that was so much of what people were concerned about in the period. Then the issue of class, with new publications and schools providing literacy and basic reading material to lower class readers, became essential.

"Much that we take for granted - education for all, the importance of imagination, the ideas that schools should divide classes by age and measure students' progress and proficiency with tests, and that children should read fairy tales - all had a lot to do with what happened in that era."

But while the Romantic Era played an important part in the formation of what we now know as modern education, the ideas and attitudes from which it originated were not necessarily progressive or altruistic, Richardson noted.

Proponents of women's education, for example, generally believed that if women knew more, they would be content to stay home rather than seek fulfillment in the workplace or elsewhere, he said. Educators appealed directly to the upper classes' interests in advocating schooling for all children, Richardson also found.

"They were told that they would be safer in their homes if children were educated and it would make for a more manageable population, a stronger nation and even for a better military," Richardson said.

While such arguments might raise eyebrows today, Richardson warns against looking for insidious political or social agendas among the figures in the Romantic Era. People of that age, he said "were up front about their motives."

Richardson found the era's children's literature striking, despite its arid reputation. He recounted one story where two girls and their caretaker find two young birds, one of which is dying because it has been injured by some other children. To end the bird's misery, the caretaker grinds its head into the ground. While Richardson found this story shocking given its audience, he was also impressed that people of that era felt children should not be shielded from the more troubling aspects of life.

Richardson also found that not all Romantic Era literature is politically conservative, as many people believe. Literature can often be liberating to readers and authors alike, he said, and thus always remains open to different interpretations. He looked to luminaries such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake and Yearsley to interpret the complex historical and social issues of the time.

"Wordsworth viewed the momentous changes occurring in education both critically and with enthusiasm," Richardson said. "He was excited about the growth of the reading public and what it could mean for poets, but was also concerned that the larger reading public could get out of hand by reading propaganda written by dangerous radicals."

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