History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past
History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

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History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

5 Childhood reading in the 1870s and 1880s: the recollections of Molly Hughes

By Alexis Weedon

The three volumes of autobiography published by the educationalist M.V. (Molly) Hughes (1866–1956) are a rich source of information on the books she read and loved as a child. Originally published as A London Child of the Seventies (1934), A London Girl of the Eighties (1936), and A London Home of the Nineties (1937), they were republished in 1991 as a single-volume trilogy, A London Family, 1870–1900. The childhood books read by Hughes fall broadly into three categories: school or educational books, children’s fiction and Sunday reading. Her commentary on them captures the appeal of these books for the child reader, and her autobiography is a good indicator of the attraction these books held for children of her class and generation. The inclusion of more than forty of her documented reading experiences in the UK RED site allows us to search them in many different ways.

Molly Hughes
The Library Thing
Figure 13 Molly Hughes (1866-1956)

Up to the age of eleven, Molly was taught at home. She recalled how, every day her ‘mother would summon me to her side and open an enormous Bible. It was invariably at the Old Testament, and I had to read aloud the strange doings of the Patriarchs’ (UK RED: 410 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). The size of many of her early books remained in her memory, as if it were associated with the difficulties of learning. By contrast with the ‘enormous Bible’, for instance, her English history came from ‘a small book in small print that dealt with the characters of the kings at some length’ (UK RED: 412). Illustrated texts enchanted her. So, for example, she says that ‘it was entirely due to its colour that another book became my constant companion… an illustrated Scripture text-book, given to me on my seventh birthday, and still preserved’ (UK RED: 552). Another ‘prime favourite’ among her early books was P.J. Stahl’s Little Rosy’s Voyage Round the World (1869), in which each adventure was accompanied by a full page illustration by Lorenz Frolich. But narratives were important too: ‘Not as a lesson, but for sheer pleasure, did I browse in A Child’s History of Rome, a book full of good stories’ (UK RED: 414).

At the age of twelve she went to school, where she remembered being ‘placed in the lowest class with three other little girls of my own age, who were reading aloud the story of Richard Arkwright [the famous inventor of the water-powered spinning frame]’ (UK RED: 557). Among her set school texts was one of the most successful history books of her day, written by Maria Graham (later Lady Callcott): Little Arthur’s History of England, originally published in 1835. To Molly, it could be ‘read like a delightful story’ (UK RED: 558). She learned English grammar by parsing The Tempest, and remembered spending a whole term on the first two scenes (UK RED: 559).

It is evident that Molly and her four elder brothers shared their books, passing their enthusiasm to one another. She describes borrowing from her brother a lavishly illustrated book entitled The Story Without an End (1872), which had been given to him as a birthday present: ‘The story itself was an allegory, and was too subtle for us, but it is impossible to describe the endless pleasure given us by those full-page pictures’ (UK RED: 551). They were equally keen on R.M. Ballantyne’s The Iron Horse (1871) which was the first book they bought together with their own pocket money: ‘Surely no book was ever read and re-read and talked over as that first new volume, although we went on to buy many more’ (UK RED: 916). They also shared their magazines with each other, and indeed the whole the family read Cassell’s Family Magazine: ‘I think every word of it found some reader in the family’, Molly recalled (UK RED: 918).

Cassell’s Family Magazine, November 1897
Figure 14 Cassell’s Family Magazine, November 1897

Sunday reading was a class of its own and Molly vividly recalled what she was allowed to read on that day. Her treasured Sunday books were typical examples of the genre. For instance, F.L. Bevan’s The Peep of Day was a popular gift book of the time. It retold stories from the Bible, explicating their morals and reinforcing them by a collection of verses at the back. Molly thought that, like many others, she had ‘imbibed [her] early religious notions’ from this book (UK RED: 554). By contrast, she found little entertainment in a Sunday book she was given by a particularly religious aunt, The Narrow Way, being a Complete Manual of Devotion for the Young (1868), declaring that ‘no one could really be as good as this book wanted and that it was a fearful waste of time’ (UK RED: 913).

There are other examples of what we might call ‘resistant’ reading, or ‘reading against the grain’. A particularly improving tale given to Molly by her mother was Mary Butt’s The History of Henry Milner (1823–37), a three-volume account of the upbringing of a perfect Christian gentleman. Molly and her brothers, however, only liked ‘certain parts’ of the story: ‘I believe he [the hero Milner] never did anything wrong, but his school-fellows did, and all their gay activities shone like misdeeds in a pious world’ (UK RED: 886). Her attitude to such reading shows how attempts to inculcate conventional standards of respectability could be undermined by resistant reading practices. It is also clear that as a child reader Molly could find amusement in the stories and illustrations of the driest of books.

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