The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, Book Review

Left Central Book Review

Jonathan Rose has provided a service to the working class, an increasingly ignored and demonised section of UK society; clearly there is more to this maligned group than the sobriquet, Chav. Although such hostility is not new; as the working class portrayal by EM Foster in Howard`s End indicates, the caricature of Leonard Bast, soundly critiqued in this text. Rose compares Leonard Bast with Manchester clerk Neville Cardus, he and a companion we are informed, “talked and talked…not to air our economic grievances, not to spout politics and discontent, but to relieve the ferment of our minds, our emotions after the impact of Man and Superman, Elektra, Riders to the Sea, Pelleas and Melisande, Scheherazade, Prince Igor”. Cardus a brilliant autodidactic represents a highly prevalent though largely forgotten feature of our industrial past. Today readers assimilate classical literature by first buying a`Beginners Guide`, it can only be imagined what the Scottish weavers of the Industrial Revolution would have thought of this. Mill workers carrying out intricate and tough manual labour, while next to them perched on a reading stand was a copy of the Iliad or the Odyssey. They read an entire canon of classical literature this way, an army of working class autodidacts, learning at their work station. Jonathan Rose like the Scottish weavers he so eloquently describes has seamlessly woven a vast collection of working class memoirs into a compelling piece of prose with an essence of John Clare.

While contemporary readers seem overburdened by choice, purchasing books but rarely reading them, the autodidactic of the past read what they could, when they could. Will Crooks, who lived in the slums of the East End of London also read Homer, it was after all the quickest route out of poverty and his dismal early existence. On picking up the text he was elevated to another world; this is literature as narcotic. But if this is true it`s a powerful drug with transformative powers as the life of Will Crooks testifies. This autodidactic tradition, Rose explains, extended beyond the humanities to the natural sciences. Exemplified by working class scientists such as Thomas Edward, who devoured the Penny Magazine, he “eventually discovered twenty-six new species of crustacean in the Moray Firth”. And Allen Davenport also cited by Rose, who believed there were “nearly fifty groups in and around London where working men and women were studying chemistry, geology, mathematics, and astronomy, with all the gravity and deliberation, and confidence, of old and experienced professors”.

The memoirs outlined by Rose, are written by gifted and successful members of the working class. Though, the less famous are also cited, such as Margret Perry, a Nottingham dressmaker who read “four or five books a week all her life but had no one to discuss them with.” She read all the classics, an appetite for learning not satiated by her local library. While people read to escape the tedium of their circumstances the activity also empowered them, even the marginalised, unorganised and disposed like Elizabeth Ashby, who heroically struggled through life after giving birth to an illegitimate son in 1859. She voraciously studied the Bible and when scorned by a Vicar in favour of a rich parishioner, Elizabeth shocked the parish. She cited scripture in the face of injustice, “thou shalt not even secretly favour persons” and then saying, “No respect of persons with God, no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all that call upon Him.” This is reading as subversion, where even the Bible becomes a revolutionary document. Of course this depends on the readers circumstances, but the Social Gospel can be found. Erving Goffman (cited by Rose) argues we employ a reading frame, when we engage with the written word. The lack of such a reference point, explains why working class audiences who flocked to the theatre to watch Shakespeare in the nineteenth-century, tended to view the performance in a literal way. John Clare, Rose explains, attacked an actor playing Shylock because the poet, overawed by the experience, thought he was watching a real event – a common reaction at the time. The same literal interpretation applied by readers of Pilgrims Progress and Robinson Crusoe. Although, it`s worth remembering that a mass of people in the 1930s thought Martians were about to invade New York, after hearing a radio play produced by a genius. New technology takes time to bed in, the contemporary example of the internet illustrates the necessity of a well tuned reading frame.

Clearly then the working class read for reasons other than escapism. Knowledge is power, but this maxim has inherent dangers for the poor, as the rich become fearful when the masses read. As Rose explains, Francis Plaice, the radical tailor in 1821 was ridiculed by a wealthy customer after discovering that the tailor had a vast personal library. Sarcasm turned to vindictiveness and the wealthy client withdrew his custom. According to Plaice at least half his customers would have boycotted his services if they had known he was a “bookish man”. When Scottish working class autodidactic, cotton spinner and sailor Charles Campbell encountered educated slaves in the West Indies he was forced to reassess the situation, “slaves who were conscious of the birth-right of human nature, and eyed their degradation with just but silent indignation”. As Rose illustrates, reading empowered them, as it did J.R. Clynes an extraordinary autodidactic who brought an industrial dispute to a successful conclusion by reciting Julius Caesar. His commitment to Shakespeare profound, while awaiting the electoral count which would take him to Parliament, he read according to Rose, A Midsummer Night`s Dream. Manny Shinwell, Rose informs us casually read, `Paley`s Evidence of Christianity, Haeckel`s Riddles of the Universe, Herbert Spencer`s Sociology, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. One cannot imagine today’s cohort of Oxbridge educated Labour MPs reading with such depth.

The autodidactic tradition wasn’t as one might expect an exclusively singular activity. The role of the Mutual Improvement Societies is a key aspect of this text, a largely unrecognised aspect of working class culture. The contentious issue and debates around the Workers Educational Association and the emergence of Ruskin College, provides illuminating reading. What is crucial is that working people learnt together, it was often a collective experience evident in the sharing of books such as Shepherds leaving literature hidden in stone walls for others to read, or by individuals reading aloud to companions. The emergence of organised education in the form of the 1870 Education Act ironically put something of an early block on the autodidactic tradition. The competition for working class scholarships helped undermine the collectivist learning spirit. However, the left played a part in diminishing the autodidactic tradition as Rose explains a depressing aspect of the book that will resonate with many, not just former CPGB members. The left finding it necessary to apply a Marxist doctrinaire view, which Rose explains alienated (no pun intended), many including Jennie Lee and the brilliant TJ Murphy, he resigned from the CPGB in 1932. Ironically, TA Jackson a colossal CPGB figure pointed out that only fifty people in Britain had actually read the whole of Das Kapital. Jackson a working class genius had a vast intellectual hinterland how this was developed is outlined. His biography which Rose explains was published by Lawrence and Wishart had the revealing title, Solo Trumpet.

This book conveys a significant message, that even when everything has been taken away from an individual, their indomitable spirit remains. Cuts in education can come and go but the autodidactic tradition provides a template for self improvement and cultural enrichment. This is an empowering, even revolutionary message, beautifully conveyed in this important and essential portal to the past and road map for the future.

Dedicated to Louise D – The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Class, Jonathan Rose (Second Edition 2010) Yale University Press 534 pp


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: