Reading: Native Readers

Selected passages and summaries from Macgill (1914), Hillyer (1967), Acorn (1912), Burnham (1969), John Clare (1983), Miller (1854), and Clynes (1937). These are examples of readers who appear to have had no formal education in literary reading. They illustrate the kind of evidence discussed by Jonathan Rose (2001).

Macgill, Patrick. Children of the Dead End. Toronto: Musson, 1914. (An autobiographical novel)

Born in a crofter's family in a poor part of Donegal. Father could neither read nor write. At village school the master beat pupils frequently or fell asleep by the school fire (15). While Macgill disliked most of what he learnt, "I liked to read the poems in the more advanced books and could recite 'Childe Harold's Farewell' when only in the second standard" (16). He left age ten the following year. MacGill (1890-1963). First publication, Gleanings from a Navvy's Scrapbook (1911)
After working for a while in Ireland, he emigrated to Scotland. At 18 he was a platelayer in Glasgow. He reports picking up a leaf torn from an exercise book on which were written a couple of verses. "While hardly understanding their import, the words went to my heart. They expressed thoughts of my own, thoughts lying so deeply that I was not able to explain or express them" (137). He realizes the power of writing, of books. "A new and unexplored world lay open before me." He read Victor Hugo, then Sartor Resartus, Sesame and Lilies, and Montaigne's Essays. He bought a ticket for the Carnegie Library, and bought books from a secondhand bookstall each payday. "The bookseller would not let me handle the books until I bought them, because my hands were so greasy and oily with the muck of my day's labour. . . . Soon my books were covered with iron-rust, sleeper-tar and waggon grease, where my dirty hands had touched them, and when I had a book in my possession for a month I could hardly decipher a word on the pages." (138-9).  
Several years later, while working as a navvy at Kinlochleven in the highlands, he wrote a few pieces about the work and had them published in a London newspaper; he eventually worked for a while as a journalist in London.  

Hillyer, Richard. Country Boy. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967.


Hillyer born 1901, his father a cowman in a poor Northamptonshire village, Byfield near Billington. He attended elementary school in the village until about 11 years old. Hillyer says the lessons meant nothing to him, but the teacher, Mr Wickens, had a question period on Wednesday afternoons. Hillyer asked what a poet laureate was, a term he had seen in a newspaper. The question interested Wickens,

So, for ten minutes, he let himself go on it, and education began for me. There was Ben Jonson, the butt of canary wine, birthday odes and all the rest of it. I was fascinated. My mind was being broken out of its shell. Here were wonderful things to know. Things that went beyond the small utilities of our lives, which was all that school had seemed to concern itself with until then. Knowledge of this sort could make all times, and places, your own. (29)

Hillyer: pseudonym of Charles James Stranks

In addition, the children were allowed to choose from a small library of books for half an hour of reading on Friday afternoon.

Among them were a few poems of Tennyson, printed on brittle, brownish paper, with a gaudy cover. It said on the title page that he was 'Poet Laureate' and that set me wanting to read them. The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in the mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab, and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time. (30)

Other reading followed, adventure books, Dickens, whose novels he borrowed from other houses in the village, "knocked about old copies that had been picked up at a rummage sale for a penny, or thrown in with a heap of odds and ends to make a bargain for sixpence" (31). He also enjoyed the Bible for its stories and language.  
His sensitivity to words is shown in another incident. At the village flower show he overheard in a conversation the word "autumnal." "Autumnal! I had never heard the word before. It had a good sound, a golden sound, a sound of colour, and ripeness, and the maturity of things" (58). His father also appreciated the sound of words: "Somebody told him once that the railway lines at Crewe were like a spider's web. He was fascinated with the thought. . . . The thought of railway lines being like that quite entranced him" (58-9). With words, he adds, "You just had to let them have their way with you. They were spells to call up glowing visions. They goaded the imagination. They could bring together shreds and remembered pieces of scattered pleasures, and make them into one, delightful whole" (59).  
At about the age of 11 he began doing odd jobs in the house of a middle class inhabitant of the village, Mrs Blore. One day she gave him a broken-backed book as paper to light a fire: he saw that it was Waverley. He had read a chapter or two of it in school on Fridays, "and I was passionate for the rest. You don't use gold mines to light fires with. I laid this one down, where I thought she wouldn't spot it, and got the blaze started without it." Discovered by Mrs. Blore, he is allowed to take the book home. His mother patched it up. "It was the first real book of my own that I ever had, and I have it still" (85). Mrs Blore went on to lend him the rest of the Waverley novels.  

Acorn, George. One of the Multitude. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912.

A cabinet-maker; born and grew up in south-east London in severe poverty, the whole family (eventually six children) living for a while in one room (43, 68). At school from age of 3 to 12 (1, 105); learnt to read and write early; but parents were illiterate (4). He joined the school library: despite limited time "I read an extraordinary number of books, and -- quite unaided in my choice -- many masterpieces." And read some the books to his parents. The first age he mention is 9, when he was reading "all sorts and conditions of books, from 'Penny Bloods' to George Eliot. I particularly remember Treasure Island, which I thought was the usual penny blood sort of story, with the halo of greatness about it. Rising nine in age, I was presumptuous enough to consider that the author had the makings of a great writer within him!" (49-50). He mentions that Stevenson died this year (1894: hence Acorn was born c. 1885). "George Eliot in those days I read solely for the story. I used to skip the parts that moralized, or painted verbal scenery, a practice at which I became very dextrous" (50). In passages earlier in the book he mentions having read Uncle Tom's Cabin (14) and David Copperfield (i.e., this reading probably occurred at or before age nine).  
He describes how he came to buy David Copperfield which he had seen in a tattered copy, lying in a shop window: priced at 4d, he was allowed to buy it for 3 d, which was all he had. He began reading it at once in the street: "I read the first few chapters with absorbed attention" (32). Eventually he read it to his family: "we all cried together at poor old Peggotty's distress! The tears united us, deep in misery as we were ourselves. Dickens was a fairy musician to us, filling our minds with a sweeter strain than the constant cry of hunger, or the howling wind which often, taking advantage of the empty grate, penetrated into the room" (35).  
At about the age of 12, after winning at throwing cigarette cards he had made 9d, and was able to buy a complete Shakespeare for 6d, as well as visit the local music-hall (99).  
After he began work as a joiner, he became a member of a local club and cadet force, the Webbe Institute (140). He continued to use their library after giving up the cadet force, where he "read, I believe, every interesting book it contained, from the Boys' Own Paper to Thackeray, and the Waverley Novels to George Eliot" (155). A little later he speaks of "reading Smiles's Self-Help in the small hours of the morning, and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus by day." He "fancied himself a Teufelsdrockh" and dreamed of becoming either "a second Shakespeare, or a Prime Minister," or perhaps outdoing Dickens (193).  

Burnham, Dorothy. Through Dooms of Love. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Born south-east London at Lewisham in 1915 (204); family lived in one room (18). Trained for domestic work at 14, although singularly unsuccessful at it. Not clear what contribution her schooling would have made to her interest in literature.  

One reference arising from the visit to a park, Hilly Fields, at age 9 with her older sister for which she bought a pomegranate:

Pomegranate -- what a magical sound! There was no knowing what could happen if you kept on repeating it to yourself. Yes, I liked words, they seemed to have a life of their own. Sometimes odd little words and phrases would detach themselves from the surrounding context and become a kind of touchstone for all sorts of different experiences. In one of my books there was a picture of a girl with flowing hair. She was leaning out of a latticed casement. Far below, tall black fir trees fringed a heaving sea. Underneath the caption, in quotes, read: "Ugh, shut the casement, Madeline, the wind blows cold from the lake." Somehow that simple sentence held for me a whole chill world of sorrow and desolation. It was as if my mind were anchored to some far past which had once been real and close, and was even now in some strange way immediate and present. It was like a shadow or a mirror image, yet somehow more real than either. (91)


A memory of school at about the age of 11, of being asked to learn a poem by heart. She was contemptuous of the poem in question and turned instead to a later page in the book:

I turned quickly to page fifty-eight. My hands shook with excitement. There it was! It was still there; it would always be there. Happiness glowed within me like light along a filament, as I read Yeat's poem: 'Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths . . .'

I read it over and over again until I was lost. The magical words chanted themselves in my head like a litany, 'The blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half light'. (135)


Age 13, following another of her illnesses (she had bouts of pneumonia):

At the Convalescent Home - which was to be the last convalescence of my childhood -- I had found, wedged tightly in among the Marie Corellis and Hall Caines, a slim volume of Keats and a thicker book of Tennyson. Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous. I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written specially for me. Although I spoke -- in my back-street urchin accents -- of La Belly Dame Sans Murky, yet in Keats's chill little poem I seemed to sense some essence of the eternal ritual of romantic love. And Tennyson's 'Morte D'Arthur' bowled me over. I read it again and again until I fairly lived in a world of 'armies that clash by night' and stately weeping Queens. (174)

Clare, John. John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.  

First reading with pleasure mentioned is from the bible, but only a part of it. The practice of learning by heart from the bible required at school he disapproves of as discouraging reading. Continues with reading he obtained from hawkers:

About now all my stock of learning was gleaned from the Sixpenny Romances of 'Cinderella', 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'Jack and the bean Stalk', 'Zig Zag', 'Prince Cherry', etc and great was the pleasure, pain, or supprise increased by allowing them authenticity, for I firmly believed every page I read and considerd I possesd in these the chief learning and literature of the country. But as it is common in villages to pass judgment on a lover of books as a sure indication of laziness, I was drove to the narrow nessesity of stinted oppertunitys to hide in woods and dingles of thorns in the fields on Sundays to read these things (5)

John Clare (1793-1864) published his first volume of poetry in 1820: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery

He thinks he was 13 years old:

this summer I met with a fragment of Thompsons Seasons a young man, by trade a weaver, much older then myself, then in the village, show'd it me I knew nothing of blank verse nor ryhme either otherwise than by the trash of Ballad Singers, but I still remember my sensations in reading the opening of Spring I cant say the reason, but the following lines made my heart twitter with joy:

Come gentle Spring ethereal mildness come
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud
While music wakes around, veild in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend.

I greedily read over all I coud before I returnd it and resolvd to posses one my self, the price of it being only 1s/6d I expressd my supprise at seeing such a fine poam so carlessly handld, most part of Winter being gone, but the owner only laughd at me and said 'twas reckoned nothing of by himself or friends'

Obtaining a copy of the book for one shilling at Stamford, he reads it on the way home; prompted to his first attempts at verse (6).  
Borrows Robinson Crusoe from a boy at school: it "was the first book of any merit I got hold of after I coud read"; reads it, and "new ideas from the perusal of this book was now up in arms new Crusoes and new Islands of Solitude was continually mutterd over in my Journeys to and from school but as I had not the chance of reading it well I coud not come at the spirit of the thing to graft a lasting impression on the memory"; also reads Pilgrim's Progress (13). And he is writing poetry himself by now.  
Miller, Hugh. My Schools and Schoolmasters; or, the Story of My Education. New York: Hurst, 1854.  
Born October 1802. Dating of events unclear: Miller gives no dates.  
Goes to dame school, where he learns the elements of reading, including parts of the bible; but "the process of acquiring learning had been a dark one." "when at once my mind awoke to the meaning of the most delightful of narratives, -- the story of Joseph. Was there ever such a discovery made before! I actually found out for myself, that the art of reading is the art of finding stories in books; and from that moment reading became one of the most delightful of my amusements. I began by getting into a corner on the dismissal of the school, and there conning over to myself the new-found story of Joseph." Followed by other bible stories; then he collected fairy tales (27); and with no sense of difference, Homer: "Old Homer wrote admirably / for little folk, especially in the Odyssey" (28) - in Pope's translation. The power of imagery in Homer superior to any other writer: "I could see the momentary gleam of the steel, ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide" (28). The he discovers Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Radcliffe's Udolpho, etc., (28), and books of voyages: Anson, Drake, Raleigh, Dampier, Captain Woods Rogers, "and my mind became so filled with conceptions of what was to be seen and done in foreign parts, that I wished myself big enough to be a sailor, that I might go an see coral islands and burning mountains, and hunt wild beasts and fight battles" (29). Miller's influential work on geology, The Old Red Sandstone, appeared in 1841
Reads Blind Harry's Wallace, modernized by Hamilton, around his tenth year; highly impressed by it (38-9).  
Quits dame school after one year having learned to read; transferred to grammar school. Becomes a story-teller for his small Latin class.  
At about this time also finds stocks of books in homes of local mechanics and trades people (48). The reading that he is enabled to do again appears untaught -- but its effects on Miller are not described.  
Clynes, J. R. Memoirs: 1869-1924. London: Hutchinson, 1937.  
Father was illiterate, but "he and my mother taught me the essentials of knowledge. Two sisters by their great helpfulness increased my chances. My schoolmaster taught me nothing except a fear of birching and a hatred of formal education." (28) "My school days have no pleasant memories" (28). Clynes went to work part time at 10 in a cotton factory at Oldham (29) while continuing to attend school. At school "When we had been set poetry to learn at school I had furtively read on and on, avidly anxious for more, careless of punishments earned because I refused the drudgery of repeating one passage or another until it became a mere meaningless chant" (31). Clynes (1869-1949) became a union leader and Labour cabinet minister
While in factory he remembers some lines of Milton from Paradise Lost, learned before "because I loved them": situated amidst the machines, "I stood there, transfixed and dazed, while the 'horrid front of dreadful length and dazzling arms' swept forward at me, and only just in time did I skip swiftly back out of reach." // "After that the machinery had a different meaning for me; dimly I perceived the ordained perfection of its sweetly-running, magnificent rhythm" (31). And he recites poetry to himself while working to the rhythm of the machines.  

At 12 his schooling ends and he becomes a full-time worker at the factory. "Even now I am not quite clear how I first came to realise that the lovely passages of poetry which had mixed themselves up in my work at the mill were no more than messengers from a land of fairy beauty to which I could escape whenever I pleased when Oldham grew too grim and grey. I could already read and write in simple words. All I had to do was to become familiar with other words, and then buy books" (32). Determined to read more, he find his way to bookshops and buys himself an old dictionary for sixpence (33). He works his way through the dictionary for months every evening, studying the unfamiliar words.

Some of the words I loved, and these I wrote down far more often than I need have done, because of the pleasure they were to the eye, and the caress of the syllables to the ear. Each time the roll and rush of them delighted me more.

Merely words, and the beautiful sound of the best of them; the swinging rhythm of perfectly-balanced sentences that grew out of them; the emotions they could call forth - it was with these intangible playthings that I spent my evenings during one of the happiest periods of my life. My days at the mill seemed dreams; only the evenings were real.

I became like a character from an old romance, my body walking and talking by day, but my soul coming to life only at nights under the potency of the magic words I culled from my sixpenny dictionary. (34)


He wants money to continue his education, and takes work reading the newspaper to three blind men.

Reading aloud was a new joy to me. Some of the articles I read from the local Oldham papers of the time must have been pretty poor stuff I suppose, but they went to my head like wine. I tried to stress the right syllables and put in the light and shade, the pauses and the quickening that the authors of those articles had intended.

Then I began to feel the power of words; that strange magic which can excite multitudes to glory, sacrifice or shame. As blindly as my blind hearers, I began to conceive that these words that I loved were more than pretty playthings: they were mighty levers whereby the power of the whole world could be more evenly and fairly distributed for the benefit of my kind. (35)


He earns enough to go to evening classes two nights a week where he "gained a working knowledge of how to read and what to study" (36). He stands in bookshops reading books he can't afford: Emerson, Ruskin.


He buys Renan's Life of Jesus (this is 1882) after being struck by the beauty of the language:

That little book has helped to shape my life. Without its quiet strength to aid me I should have gone down underfoot and been trampled into insignificance, and the hurrying march of progress in which I have taken part would have swept on, leaving me crippled and flung aside as it has left so many others who have counted on their own strength to carry them on. (37)


Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

And see notes towards an analysis of literariness

return to course page

Document created March 4th 2005 / Additional materials, August 9th 2005