Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Victorian Past Time

A Victorian Past Time

The tradition of reading aloud, which is now an activity mostly reserved for children, was an important social gathering for the Victorians. Though the oral history of reading aloud or performing stories aloud is one dating back to ancient civilizations, literature to be read aloud became much more accessible to members of lower classes during the Victorian era. In the hundred years before the Victorian era, reading was reserved for the upper classes who could afford to learn. By the early 1800s, it became more common for the lower classes to read; although, they did not purchase books as paper was still very expensive. As the population became more literate, it was becoming common for one person to read aloud a newspaper or a serialized novel in public houses. In the 1830s and 1840s, long pieces of prose started being published and sold for a very low cost. The installments were typically adventure stories, or some other attractive subject, to capture an audience’s interest week after week. The penny weekly novels were very successful with the increasingly literate population. 

Evenings with Charles Dickens

Enter Charles Dickens, and many other authors, who took advantage of the success of penny stories to cheaply sell their own novels to a wider range of classes. Dickens was one of the authors most widely read aloud to members of the family. After dinner or tea, middle class families would assemble in front of the fire in the drawing room and engage in the past time of reading aloud. Other family gatherings, such as at Christmas time, were also occasions where books were read aloud. 
“[My cousin] had begun to read aloud to my mother the new, which must have been the first, installment of David Copperfield. I had feigned to withdraw, but had only retreated to cover close at hand, the friendly shade of some screen or drooping table-cloth, folded up behind which and glued to the carpet, I held my breath and listened. I listened long and drank deep while the wondrous picture grew, but the tense cord at last snapped under the strain of the Murdstones and I broke into the sobs of sympathy that disclosed my subterfuge.” – Henry James, Henry James Autobiography, (1956)
Writers like Dickens knew their work was being consumed by being read aloud. In recognition of this, Dickens often assisted the reader with punctuation and phonetic spelling to properly demonstrate a character’s accent. In many cases of Dickens’ work it is often easier to read the dialogue aloud than to read it in silence. In addition, Dickens often includes indicators to the reader on how each character was to sound when being read out loud. Many, if not all, of Dickens’ characters have marked speech patterns that make their language specific to their personality, situation, or class. For example in David Copperfield, Mr. Pegotty has a distinguishable accent compared to David’s speech which Dickens emphasizes:

“'I'm much obleeged to her, I'm sure,' said Mr. Peggotty. 'Well, sir, if you can make out here, fur a fortnut, 'long wi' her,' nodding at his sister, 'and Ham, and little Em'ly, we shall be proud of your company.'”

Dickens even describes the volume and quality of the voices of his characters like Mr. Creakle: “. . . He had no voice, but spoke in a whisper.”

Such a detail would be somewhat extraneous if not for its necessity for the oratorical reader. Dickens’ writing style was consciously written for reading aloud his distinctive characters. For authors who realized their works would be read aloud, their style of writing and literary devices were specifically chosen for the way they would sound as opposed to how they would be read on the page. The structure of the sentences varied the pace of the narration in order to slow or speed the way in which the text would be read aloud, adding a range of effects on the audience. 

The Many Purposes of Reading Aloud

By the mid-1800s, reading aloud was a well-established evening activity. In The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Isabella Beeton highly values the time spent with the family reading aloud as it is the job of the parent to make the home “the happiest place in the world.” As with everything else that goes on in the home, reading aloud serves a dry, practical purpose: “It has often been remarked, too, that nothing is more delightful to the feminine members of a family, than the reading aloud of some good standard work or amusing publication. A knowledge of polite literature may be thus obtained by the whole family, especially if the reader is able and willing to explain the more difficult passages of the book, and expatiate on the wisdom and beauties it may contain. This plan, in a great measure, realizes the advice of Lord Bacon, who says, ‘Read not to contradict and refute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.’” Reading aloud was a source of education as well as a source of entertainment though Mrs. Beeton would have recommended reading aloud more as an improvement to the mind to her readers. 

The teenagers at the time might have had a different motive in mind for reading aloud. 

Teens or young adults had few means of spending alone time together or being able to fully get their feelings across to stay within the realms of polite society. Reading aloud became one such outlet. Reading together close to the light of a candle, required leaning in and getting close to one another which could certainly spark some feelings. Even the voice could act as a romantic oratory device. Inflection upon certain words or an emphasis on a certain passage could subtly indicate some feelings of affection. A popular means of seduction lies in the reading aloud of a volume of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters whose prose attracted readers such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.
"The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself -- the art is imperfect which is visible,-the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement."
       - John Ruskin, Modern Painters I, (1843)
"All the great men see what they paint before they paint it -- see it in a perfectly passive manner -- cannot help seeing it if they would; whether in their mind's eye, or in bodily fact, does not matter; very often the mental vision is, I believe, in men of imagination, clearer than the bodily one; but vision it is, of one kind or another ...."
       - John Ruskin, Modern Painters III, (1856)
 The Importance of Voice and the Emergence of Technology

“She particularly enjoyed reading aloud some of the finest chapters of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and St Paul’s Epistles. With a naturally rich, deep voice, rendered completely flexible by the constant practice; with the keenest perception of the requirements of emphasis; and with the most subtle modulations of tone, - her reading threw a glamour over indifferent writing, and gave to the greatest writing fresh meanings and beauty.”
 – J. W. Cross about George Eliot (1908)
The voice was a powerful devise of the reader capable of creating all sorts of atmospheres for the listener. Of course, the best kind of voice to be listened to is, paradoxically, one that can be ignored. To be able to drift into a completely different world for a moment is the power of a good oration. It was Dickens who felt that his work could only be properly heard and appreciated through reading out loud. Voice and speech for Dickens was what he considered to define his novels and himself as an author. He believed in the idea of his work needing to be read aloud so much so that he began another career of reading his own books aloud. For Dickens, his work was intended to be a literary performance.

Listen to A Christmas Carol just as Dickens read it here.

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and began experiments with sound recordings. It was not until 1888 which Edison began recording writers Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. (The video below is of Alfred Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1890). The tradition of reading aloud no longer needed a physical presence and the very early elements of the audio book were produced.

“I have read aloud my death-cycles from Walt Whitman this evening. I was very much affected myself, never so much before, and it fetched the auditory considerable. Reading these things that I like aloud when I am painfully excited is the keenest artistic pleasure I know: it does seem strange that these dependant arts ? singing, acting and in its small way, reading aloud ? seem the best rewarded of all arts. I am sure it is more exciting for me to read, than it was for W.W. to write: and how much more must this be so with singing!”
- Robert Louis Stevenson, 1874

For the Victorians, reading aloud meant an intimate gathering with friends or family. The atmosphere created by the fire with the family together enjoying a relaxing past time made an impression upon many people of the time. The prevalence of reading aloud was certainly influenced a great deal by Charles Dickens and his works as there is much evidence of his different classed readers. The rise of cheaper forms of literature and of a literate populace led to emergence of reading aloud as one of the past times that Victorians enjoyed most. By the end of the Victorian era, it was becoming possible to not need to the presence of someone to enjoy the reading aloud of a piece of literature. The intimacy of the shared family space was not yet extinct though as forms of technology advanced. Instead, the collective experience of listening to projected voices remained for several generations afterward. 

Works Cited

Victorian Publishing History by Charlotte Barrett at publishing-history. Accessed on Wednesday, February 24, 2016.

Dickens, Charles, and Hablot Knight Browne. David Copperfield. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Lai-Ming, Tammy Ho. "Reading Aloud in Dickens’ Novels." Oral Tradition 23.2 (2008).

"Newgate Novels: "Rookwood" (1834)." Here Begynneth A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood.
Mar. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. 19
Nov. 2003. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Giaimo, Cara. "I Made My Friends Test the 19th Century's Hottest Dating Tactic: Reading
Aloud." Atlas Obscura. 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

"John Ruskin Quotations." John Ruskin Quotations. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

"The Writings of George Eliot: Together with the Life by J. W. Cross. : George Eliot, John
Walter Cross : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive." Internet Archive.
Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Harris, Muriel. "On Reading Aloud." The North American Review 214.790 (1921): 345-52.

Kreilkamp, Ivan. "Dickens, Phonography, and the Reform of Writing." Voice and the Victorian Storyteller. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. 88-90. Print.

Rubery, Matthew. Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Print. Stevenson, Robert Louis. "The Experience of Reading in Britain, from 1450 to 1945..." UK Reading Experience Database. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.


"Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christmas Carol Just as Dickens Read It." Open Culture. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

"Alfred, Lord Tennyson "The Charge of the Light Brigade"Wax Cylinder Poem Animation."
YouTube. YouTube, Web. 24 Feb. 2016.


  1. Hi Carrie,

    This is a great post. I found your writing very engaging and your inclusion of images are ideal for articulating your points - I particularly like the first image!

    Your reference to Dickens is fascinating. I did not know that he consciously stressed a character's accent for the purposes of reading aloud. It's quite ironic that, for modern readers, this adoption of accents is now quite challenging to read aloud.

    Did many other authors usethis technique? I'd be interested to see how common this technique was among Victorian writers.


  2. Hi Carrie,

    This is a great blog post! You make some interesting points throughout to really focus on the importance of reading aloud. An ability I am certain most of us today take for granted and, like you say, an activity now associated with children. Such a shame!

    I agree with phoebe. I also didn't pick up on accent being depicted through a stress in punctuation, the only other instance I can think of this is Shaw's play, Pygmalion - published just after the Victorian era. Do any modern writers do this now?


  3. Hi Carrie
    I really enjoyed reading this, it was fascinating to find out how Victorian novels interacted with their audience and vice versa. It's easy to read these novels in a vacuum and forget that many of them, particularly Dickens' novels, were written with the aim of entertaining a contemporary audience firmly in mind. Reading this blog really brought this home, in a way that I'd never thought of before -- it's clear now that much of Dickens' dialogue was written exactly to be imitated.

    I think you hint towards it in your concluding paragraph, but I wondered if you thought that the dawn of the cinema and other forms of visual entertainment played a part in nudging novel-reading out of the sphere of popular entertainment?

  4. Hi Carrie,

    This is a very interesting blog post. I never knew how large of a role reading played in the social lives of people during this time. I loved the quotes you found from David Copperfield to show how Dickens' novels would explain how to read his words aloud.

    This was a really interesting read.

    Thank you, Sylvia