Book of the week: what the workers read

13th July 2001 at 01:00

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes
By Jonathan Rose
Yale University Press pound;29.95
TES Direct pound;28.95

The working class has never been short of investigators scrutinising its mores, often showing its members to be feckless, culturally deprived, linguistically disabled and philistine. There has been another tradition going as far back at least as Matthew Engels and Henry Mayhew (who get short shrift in Rose's book), which has striven to avoid a condescending stance and to develop alternative methods.

Now here is Jonathan Rose, turning to one aspect of working-class culture centred on the books read by its members across a century and a half (approximately 1800-1950). It is a novel approach based on what has come to be known as reception theory: "A history of audiences [which] reverses the traditional perspective of intellectual history, focusing on readers and students rather than authors or teachers." He attempts the difficult task of penetrating what working-class readers made of what they read.

Having decided it is possible to eavesdrop on the thinking of workers, he immerses himself in an impressive array of sources - autobiographies, diaries, school records, library records, interviews and oral history. This is the great strength of the book. We can hear from his pages the voices of hundreds of workers speaking of their lives, their discovery of books and through them the opening of new worlds.

But it is overwhelmingly through autobiographies that his "history of audiences" emerges, and he is obliged to admit that these are disproportionately the work of skilled workers and of the even smaller proportion who wrote memoirs. Women are almost entirely absent.

A further limitation is that the "intellectual life" of British workers is seen as predominantly what they read. A picture emerges of a minority who steep themselves in the classics and science writing and the majority who, with the advent of universal literacy, abandoned the Bible and Bunyan for penny dreadfuls, cowboy stories, school stories, the Boys' Own Paper , the Gem and the Magnet .

Rosenbsp;is bent on subverting many of the ideas which have been current in contemporary cultural studies and literary theory, the proponents of which he calls "intellectual elites" and "the dominant cultural class". He rejects their critique of the literary canon of classics, their description of adult education as a form of social control and their argument that "the ideology of race, class, empire and gender is embedded in all kinds of texts". His usual testy response is a handful of quotations and repeated appeals to reader response. This is a useful corrective to text-based judgments, but the argument is too serious to be dismissed so lightly.

In spite of numerous reservations, I do feel that readers will find this book packed with unusual and compelling documentation and ideas worth engaging with, so long as they bring with them a sceptical and critical frame of mind.

Harold Rosen is emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London

  • Picture: a class for the unemployed in the 1940s
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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