March 14, 2019
Where Does Self End, and Everything Else Begin?
March 28, 2019

A Very Short History of Literacy…

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

…in England, and a Possible Prescription for Insomnia

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write.

In Victorian England of 1820, the general literacy rate was a meager 53%, but by 1870, it had jumped to 76%. By the end of the Victorian Era (1901), English literacy was almost 100%.

Much of this increase was the result of Parliamentary legislation that mandated compulsory school attendance due to the impact of industrialization on cities. Children were part of the labor force at the time, and whether due to moral weight, or as a means to assimilate the thousands of adults that were transitioning to urban living, child labor was viewed with some alarm. In response, Parliament in 1844 passed legislation requiring six half-days of schooling every week for children. This was further strengthened in 1880 by a law that fined parents of children who did not attend.

Of course, the quality of education varied greatly depending on the school attended and social class, but by the end of the 19th century the ability to read was almost universal. With the multitudes armed with the hammer of literacy, the many searched for a nail. The result was the rise of printed matter to fulfill that demand. The most popular were serialized fiction stories and novels that came out in weekly or biweekly editions. Depending on the popularity, serials were reprinted as a whole. Breaking up stories in this way and then recombining them had the added positive effect on the publishing industry by allowing publishers to maximize profits across a number of outlets.

The most successful author of the time was Charles Dickens. His literary success started with The Pickwick Papers. Shortly after the initial installment, he had over 40,000 subscribers. Long considered the literary colossus of his age, his writing was so addictive that in 1841, his fans stormed New York harbor to get their hands on the last portion of The Old Curiosity Shop to find out whether Nell had survived or died in poverty.

He was not alone in getting out works to feed the literacy wave. Alexandre Dumas, the noted French author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, went so far as to have them translated into English. He set up a literary factory, where numerous assistants and collaborators worked to produce written products in the same way that master renaissance painters depended on their studios and numerous assistants to produce works of art in the quantities demanded.

As the English middle class rose in influence, many commuted by trains to London. With nothing to do but look out the window, the travelogue was a popular diversion and among them, published in 1889, was Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome. Initially, a serious travel guide of a river journey up the Thames, the humorous aspects took over, making it an overwhelming success in spite of lukewarm, if not downright hostile, reviews.

So successful was this little book that his publisher wrote to a friend: “I pay Jerome so much in royalties, I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.”

Still in print today, for me it marks the beginning of the rise of British humor that perhaps culminated in P. G. Wodehouse. Although tedious in parts, it is a wonderful tale, that still amuses after almost 200 years in a way that few stories of that age have managed. If you wish to read something at night that settles the mind and leaves you smiling as you begin to slumber, this might work.

If it shouldn’t, may I prescribe a healthy dose of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. Should neither of these suffice, call me in the morning by all means, just not too early.


  1. craig says:

    Thanks for the history lesson and the book suggestions. I’ll check them out.

  2. Candy Richardson says:

    I just got an education on English Literature, and I liked it. Do you think I can get a copy of Three Men in a Boat at the library? Ivan, the pictures you have posted here are absolutely stunning! I especially like the dark sky with the rainbow.

    • Hi Candy, Thank you for your comment. I’m sure you can find a copy at the library. It is also available on Kindle for a song. The pictures are amazing because the skies down here are spectacular in the extreme. I can’t get enough of them. I’ll be posting many more!

  3. Candy says:

    I will be looking forward to seeing more of your Photos!

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