A reader in the 1870s and 1880s: Molly Hughes’ recollections of her childhood books

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A Reader in the 1870s and 1880s: Molly Hughes’ recollections of her childhood books
Alexis Weedon
A curious fact which can easily be overlooked from the vantage point of today’s aging population, is that in the Victorian period the average age of the population in the second half of the century was around 25 years and the majority of reading public were younger. Through the spread of education, more children in each generation of Queen Victoria’s reign were able to read. In addition the demographic trend was for larger families and overall population growth.1 Therefore the market for children’s books, school books and juvenile literature was an especially important one and publishers who supplied the market needed to be imaginative and innovative to attract their younger readership.
The consumption of such literature — how these books were read and circulated — was intimately bound up with family life. Some books were gifts, others handed down from sibling to sibling or adult to child, some were the subject of family discussion and became part of the family culture, others were for use in schools and read in class or for homework. Some had a profound influence on their readers, others were shelved never to be consulted. Reader’s reactions to them, the ways in which they were shared and read, reflect the social mores of the time. The autobiography of the educationalist M. V. Hughes is an example of this. Her three-volume work is a rich source of information on the books she read and loved as a child growing up in the 1870s and as a school girl in the 1880s.2 Her recollections are vivid and illustrate the varied roles books played in her life and because her memories were influenced by her later interest in education, she recalled her own school books with some clarity.3 Scattered throughout the volumes are references to the books she remembered and enjoyed and they fall broadly into three categories: school or educational books, children’s fiction and Sunday reading. Her commentary captured the appeal of the books for the child and her autobiography is a good indicator of the attraction these books held for children of her class and generation, while also providing us with some insights into the determinants of the marketplace for publishers.
Molly Hughes’ educational reading
Molly was the child of middle-class parents in mid-Victorian London. Her father was a stockbroker and the family suffered ups and downs in prosperity as his income fluctuated. He was killed in a road accident in 1879 and his death meant that the family’s income was considerably reduced. However, with the help of her aunt Molly followed her elder brothers to private school, studying, borrowing and being handed down the family’s collection of books. Her autobiography recalls the changes in pedagogic practice in the last quarter of the century, as her education fell in the middle of Victoria’s reign and straddled the revisions of the 1880s. As a girl her education was considered less important than that of her four elder brothers, and illustrates the gender differences both in subjects taught and in school culture. However, her school career caught the beginning of the movement to improve secondary and tertiary education for women.4
The books she remembered so intensely from her home and school education, were the common fare of many middle-class children of her day. Up to the age of 11 she was taught at home, reading aloud daily from the bible with her mother, and reciting poetry in French and English. The latter she readily learnt, and declaimed about the house. The size of her books remained in her memory, as if it were associated with the difficulties of learning. For instance, her English history came from ‘a little book in small print that dealt with the characters of the kings at some length’ while she had an ‘enormous atlas almost as big as the hearth rug’ that had to be read on the floor. First lines were also memorable and she recalled her ‘little geography book’ opened ‘“The Earth is an oblate spheroid” and the statement that there are seven, or five, oceans’ (A London Child, p. 42). Illustrated texts enchanted the child and ‘for sheer pleasure’ she browsed A Child’s History of Rome.5 Her science book was Dr Brewer’s A Guide to Science (26th edition 1869) which taught scientific truths in the form of a catechism without any experimental practice. This was a common format before the Scientific Instruction Commission put science as a subject on a surer footing after 1875.
Molly’s Achilles’ heal was arithmetic. Both her mother and her school teachers showed a tendency to be dismissive of its importance to a girls education. At home she had done little arithmetic, and that mostly addition for, she recalled, her mother’s ‘arithmetic was at the level of the White Queen’s’ (A London Child, p. 43). They had in the house ‘a badly printed, dilapidated old Colenso’s Arithmetic. Published in 1843 by Longman, it had been stereoplated five years later and went on to be reprinted in many editions and was widely used in schools. However, Colenso was vaguely connected in mother’s mind with some one who doubted the creation of the world, and ‘not reliable, or at least not to be encouraged.’ She was probably recalling the furore in the periodical press after the publication Colenso's The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua critically examined (1862) which questioned the veracity of the Holy Writ.6 Molly’s school also reflected the lack of importance of arithmetic: a large part of class time allocated to arithmetic for boys, was given over to needlework for girls. Such gender bias was explicitly spelt out in the guidance to H. M. Inspectors who were specifically asked to be lenient on girl’s answers to their sums.7
Molly’s four older brothers went to school. The eldest, Tom boarded at Shrewsbury public school and the younger three attended the Merchant Taylors boarding school in London as day pupils. The syllabuses reflected old and new methods: at Shrewsbury Tom learnt Latin and Greek, and the ancient history and geography pertaining to them, but not modern classics or geography. Here the disapproval of the adult educationalist comes though distinctly in her autobiography: ‘The only English literature that reached him were lines to be put into Latin verse, while [copying lines of] Milton was used for punishment’. Similarly, the ‘only modern geography he knew was the map of Scotland, because this too was chosen as a punishment’ (A London Child, p. 55). At the Merchant Taylors, her younger brothers were taught a wider range of subjects such as maths, French and painting, as well as the Classics.
Molly herself went to an ‘Establishment for young ladies’ at the age of 12 where she was set one of the most successful history books of her day: Maria Graham’s (Lady Callcott) Little Arthur’s History of England, originally published in 1835 by Murray. Through this book Molly gained ‘a fair idea of the flow of events and the stories of leading people without boredom’ (A London Child, p. 62). It was a verdict many shared and by 1866 Murray was advertising the 49th thousand. In 1879 James Rowley revised and updated the work to include the reign of Queen Victoria and it may have been this edition that Molly Hughes read. It continued to sell and the book was still being used a century after its original publication when it was up-dated by C. E. Lawrence in 1936 to include the accession of Edward VIII. Murray claimed that the firm had issued 70 editions totalling c800,000 copies. Such school books could be enduring works selling steadily with only the extra outlay for revisions for many years.
At her school Molly did music and drawing — which she disliked because it was mere copying while her brothers painted. However, such drawing was seen as ‘the best kind of technical education at present available’ and ‘the foundation of all industrial pursuits’ by the Assistant Secretary to the Royal Commission on Education.8 Her English lessons were from Henry Butter’s The Etymological Spelling Book, originally published in 1830 by Simpkin & Marshall. It had reached its 205th edition by 1856 according to the publishers, and it continued to be published until 1941. Butter was also the author of Whittaker & Co’s Gradations in Reading & Spelling (1829) which ran to 21 editions in ten years. She learnt English grammar by parsing ‘The Tempest’, which, she said, ‘seems absurd to do [with]... Shakespeare, but it was better than being bored with the learned notes at the end of the play’ (A London Child, p. 66). She, like others of her generation, took the Oxford Senior Local exam.
At the age of sixteen she joined the North London Collegiate where Miss Buss was headmistress. She found the procrustean regime stultifying, though as she got older she got used to it and enjoyed school more. Here she learnt a range of languages. She ‘had to buy an expensive and appallingly dull book by Van Laun’ for her French lesson and translate X. B. Saintine’s Piccola, which made her regret the lively, illustrated volume Les Malheurs de Sophie she did at her previous school (A London Girl, p. 29). She was also taught German, learnt her Euclid and Todhunter and read Caesar and Livy, having had the excitement of being addressed in 1884 by ‘an author’ of at least three of Macmillan’s textbooks, Henry John Roby.9 Rote learning was continued at her new school: before prayers every day she had to recite what she had learned the night before: Psalm on Monday, an English verse for Tuesday, some French for Wednesday, and German on Thursday and finally two lines of Virgil for Friday.
Looking back on her time at the North London Collegiate, Molly reflected that Miss Buss ‘was a pioneer, and almost single-handed, in getting some kind of systemic education for girls’. She had:
seized the tempting instrument at her hand — the stimulus to mental ambition afforded by outside examinations. By this means the curriculum was ready made. (A London Girl, p. 35)
After her matriculation exam she left to join a newly established teacher-training college in Cambridge. Here Molly valued her training in the classroom above books on education, however she mentions some of the small but growing market in works on the theory of education which she read in the last two decades of the century. At the training college Molly read James Sully’s Outlines of Psychology, with special reference to the theory of education, (1884) published by Longman and revised and largely rewritten in 1892 (D. Appleton & Co. issued it in New York as a textbook for colleges in 1886). Longman had a large share of the textbook market. She also read one by Joshua Fitch, but other works on school systems in Britain and abroad and on class management passed through her hands, but without special comment.

Picture books and Sunday reading
As an educationalist herself Molly Hughes was likely to remember her own school books and her mixture of fondness and horror is indicative of her mature judgement of the inadequacies of some of these works. The same widely different emotions characterised her recollections of the picture books of her childhood, for which she had fondness, and the books deemed suitable for Sunday reading for which she had some horror.
Molly remembered the quality of illustration in her children’s books ‘The pictures in our books were well drawn, but colour was very rare and highly prized’ she recalled (A London Child, p. 51). She had a copy of P. J. Stahl Little Rosy’s Voyage Round the World (1869) in English, it was a ‘prime favourite’ because each adventure was accompanied by a full-page illustration by Lorenz Frolich. Her ten-year-old brother Charles had a copy of F. W. Caroue’s The Story without an End (1834, new edition 1868) whose full-page colour pictures by Eleanor Vere Boyle delighted him. All the children ‘knew practically by heart’ Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). In the later 1870s her brothers obtained a copy of Henri Bué’s translation of it for Molly who was learning French at the time. Bué was their French master at Merchant Taylors. Similarly, receiving Through the Looking Glass (1871) for her birthday was a red-letter day for the young girl.
It is also evident that the children shared their books, passing their enthusiasm to one another. They read Tom Cringles Log (1833 reprinted 1869) by the Glaswegian author Michael Scott, Robert Ballantyne’s tales of the North American Rocky Mountains, Arctic adventures and of ships and the sea, and Ungava a tale of Esquimaux-Land (1858). The latter led them to buy The Iron Horse (1871) which they mistakenly believed was also about horses. They also shared their magazines. For the younger ones they bought Sunshine, and Little Folks, whereas all the family read Cassell’s Family Magazine. ‘It had to last us a month,’ Molly recalled, ‘and I think every word of it found some reader in the family’ (A London Child, p. 130). On the other hand the Sunday newspapers were not considered respectable enough for the children and her father was horrified to hear the servants reading to Molly out of Lloyd’s Weekly, though she noticed that he discretely read it.
Sunday reading was a class of its own and Molly vividly recalled what she was allowed to read. Her treasured books were typical examples of the genre. For instance, F. L. Bevan’s The Peep of Day was a popular gift which in two years sold 22,000 copies and went into several illustrated editions. Molly’s copy dated 1872 was one of 347,000 according to the publisher. It retold bible stories explicating their morals, reinforced by a collection of verses at the back. She recalled that it was ‘very insistent and realistic about hell, and apparently there is only one virtue, obedience to parents and kind teachers, which leads itself to a life of bliss “beyond the sky”’ (A London Child, pp. 52-3). She had a copy of another popular gift for children, Hesba Stretton’s10Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), published by the Religious Tract Society. Not all these gifts were a success with the lively young Molly, she found little entertainment in one from a particularly religious aunt. The Narrow Way, being a complete manual of devotion for the young (1868) written by ‘EB’ was issued in the Churchman’s sixpenny library and then reissued in 1874 in their shilling library. Though Molly ‘tried hard to cope with its suggestions,’ she found ‘it had no pictures, and endless prayers for every occasion’ (A London Child, p. 82).
Molly relished the illustrations in these books: as a seven-year-old she liked ‘gold and bright-coloured borders’ in her colour-in Scripture text-book and general favourite with the children was picture of St Lawrence on his gridiron in Fox’s Book of Martyrs. When tired of reading from a prayer book ‘we could get laughter out of its absurd pictures of fat angels and cupids on clouds, saints in immanent peril but elegantly arranged clothes ... and (a great find) a service for Charles the Martyr and another for the Gunpowder Plot, each with a picture of the critical scene’ (A London Child, p. 123). Another attraction were the stories which the children found in the unlikeliest of places. The Bible was a particularly good, and bound copies of Good Words for the Young ‘were not so bad as the title suggests, and contained plenty of stories’ (A London Child, p. 72). Similarly, some improving tales permitted by her mother had good stories: Mary Butt’s The History of Henry Milner (1823-37) a three-volume tale about the upbringing of Christian gentleman, was entertaining because it also related the scrapes that his school-fellows got into. The children also read Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), Robinson Crusoe (1719), Hans Andersen’s Tales (1846), Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress (1678), R. H. Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends (1840), Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’ (1798) and Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836) (which slipped through because her mother considered it to be ‘papers’ not a novel!), four of which appeared on George Bell’s eminently respectable list.

The story books Molly recalled in her autobiography dated largely from the 1860s and 1870s, they were modern and presented in contemporary style. Her recollections show how she treasured their material form as well as their content.11 She was impressed by their size, by the colourfulness of their illustrations and the quality of the drawings, drawing humour from those she found over-earnest. Many of her works date from ‘the great period of the 1860s when the quality of English book illustration reached a peak also influenced children’s books’.12 As a child the stories she found within her reading provided her amusement in a period when the entertainment suitable for a respectable middle-class girl was restricted.
However, it is curious that, going to school during the period when more publishers were entering the education sector, Molly recalls by name some much older school books. This may be because she recollected the well-known authors and titles best such as Butter, Colenso and Little Arthur’s History. As a teacher herself, she would have come across their names and this may have reinforced her memory. However, it might also indicate that, while new publishers were entering the sector, there was not a parallel influx of new elementary school books. Rather, new publishers revised and reissued old books and expanded pre-existing series.
Molly’s Latin and French texts were more recent, as were her books on the theory of education. New texts of course meant living authors able to promote their books. One sale at least — of Henri Bué translation of Alice — was due to the author’s presence, and even Molly felt curiosity in meeting celebrity author-teacher Roby in the flesh. The professionalisation of authorship in this period has been widely discussed in relation to authors of literature, however, these incidents point to the status of the author-teacher and use of the author’s name as a branding and marketing device became a sophisticated weapon in the battle for market share. Through her school career she was recipient of school prizes13as well as being given many of her brothers’ unwanted ones. And this was a market which publishers used to promote and shift backlist titles.
Approximately one third of the books Molly recalls in her autobiography of her ‘ordinary, suburban middle-class Victorian childhood‘ were for Sunday reading. Deprived of everyday fare, sabbath reading was of an ‘improving’ nature, religious in tone and this created a specific market. Not everyone, of course, was able to or wanted to indulge in the sabbatarian ‘day of rest’ but the majority did at least attend church. This gave rise to several markets: books for use in church, Sunday school scripture books and gift books for children, and generally ‘improving’ works suitable for Sunday reading. The standards of respectability both in terms of religious conformity and gender expectations were in force within Molly’s family, yet was moderated and on occasions undermined by their reading practices. She, her brothers and her parents read Sunday newspapers illicitly and undermined the moral pomposity of the prescribed sabbatarian texts (even Tennyson) by reading them with humour, ‘against the grain’. Her attitude to such reading shows how as a child she found amusement in the stories and illustrations of the driest of books. A lesson she evidently turned to her advantage in her teaching career, and one which shines though in the prose of her highly engaging autobiography.

1 Though by the 1870s the middle-classes were beginning to limit their family size.

2 Two of which are referred to here. Mary Vivian Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s and A London Girl of the 1880s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946 reprinted 1979).

3Reading historians have found that the very evidence — the documentary sources, library records, marginalia etc — is fraught with problems. It is partial, fragmentary and rarely reflects the actual experience of the reader. In the autobiography, for instance, the sifting of memory has an effect on what is recalled, and the conscious choice of the author then selects the evidence presented to the reader. The author is entering M.V. Hughes documented reading experiences into the Reading Experience Database online at www.open.ac.uk/arts/RED/index.html

4 Gillian Avery, The Best Type of Girl: A History of Girls’ Independent Schools (London: Deutsch, 1991) and Carol Dyhouse, Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).

5 It was one of a group of similarly titled works which included Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England (1853) published by Chapman and Hall and Mrs Oliphant’s A Child’s History of Scotland (1895). Unfortunately she does not specify which Child’s History of Rome, though it may have been Dean Farrar’s popular work.

6John William Colenso was Bishop of Natal. His book provoked several responses including Charles Freshman's response The Pentateuch. Its genuineness and authenticity proved and defended by facts and arguments against the hypothetical theories and the conjectural criticisms, historical and literary, of Bishop Colenso (1864).

7 E. Herbert Lyon, Royal Education Commission 1886-88: A Summary of the Final Report Containing the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Commissioners (London: National Society’s Depository, 1888).

8 Lyon p.50.

9An Elementary Latin Grammar (1862) A Grammar of the Latin Language, from Plautus to Suetonius (1871) A Latin Grammar for Schools (1880). Hughes recalled how he regaled the five hundred pupils of the school with an anecdote about how he sat next to Matthew Arnold during the Education Commission of 1868 and set him a sum to try by the New Method he was so proud of. It was 'a good long one, with plenty of trench-digging and men with unusual hours (you know the kind, don't you girls?)'. They forgot all about him until they went down stairs for tea. 'Presently a voice was heard calling over the banisters: "Roby, Roby, is this a real sum?"' (A London Girl pp. 50-51)

10 Pseudonym for Sarah Smith.

Edward Bell, George Bell Publisher, A Brief Memoir (London: Chiswick Press, 1924).

11 For further discussion of educational publishing see Alexis Weedon, Victorian Publishing: The Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market 1830—1916 (Forthcoming, 2003).

12 Joyce Irene Whalley, Cobwebs To Catchflies: Illustrated Books for the Nursery and Schoolroom 1700—1900 (London: Elek Books, 1974), p. 21.

13 The prize books they choose themselves were much more successful: Molly won Brachet’s French Dictionary in a needlework competition (A London Girl p.68).

Directory: westbury -> paradigm
paradigm -> Paradigm, Vol. 2, No. 6 (August, 2003) a comparison of the development, organization, management and preservation of old school book collections in New Zealand and the United States
paradigm -> Culture Wars: Japanese History Textbooks and the Construction of Official Memory Dr. Keith Crawford
paradigm -> History, Memory, and the Representation of Britain’s Experience of Strategic Bombing in Survey Textbooks
paradigm -> Literacy instruction and the town school in seventeenth-century New England
paradigm -> Americans recall their school history texts since the 1960s
paradigm -> Of Classrooms, Walls, and Textbooks: Ideology in gdr geography Schoolbooks
paradigm -> The Treatment of the Subjunctive in Eighteenth-century Grammars of English
paradigm -> Textbooks at war: a few notes on textbook publishing in former Yugoslavia and other communist countries
paradigm -> From Dialectic to Didactic (with curriculum and textbooks in mind)

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