Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is a work primarily based on the autobiographies/memoirs of individuals he claims have been least represented in the intellectual history of British society, namely the milkmaids and weavers of the proletariat working class. His book endeavors to shift the focus from the perspective of “authors and teachers” (3) to ordinary readers and students. By doing so, he wants to close the gap between the reader and text and consider a history of audiences he refers to as self-educated “plebian readers” (17), individuals who have formed a culture of autodidacts. Moreover, working class readers who tried to reach the status of authors and artists were undervalued and unknown. The genteel viewed their effort at self-education as an affront as artisans and tradesmen blurred class boundaries that distinguished the cultured from the illiterate (22).
Working class readers also developed a taste for classic literature, partly because such texts were accessible and cheap. Although some critics maintain that they appropriated literature in order to conform to middle class values, Rose contends that much of the canonized works, from Shakespeare to Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, was read for their potential to invoke revolutionary ideals that uplifts the common man out of his or her oppressed condition. Classic literature attracted plebian readers because it provided a remedy for illiteracy and social injustice (23).
Like all readers, Rose claims that ordinary readers understood fiction within a restrictive “frame” (6), and thus, could not distinguish fiction from nonfictional texts. In chapter three, “The Difference between Fact and Fiction, he explains,
The frame does for the human mind what a program does for a computer. It determines how we read a given text or situation: whether we treat Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a bedtime story or a Freudian fable, Finnegans Wake as densely meaningful or as gobbledygook….(6)
Rose maintains that we take for granted that notion that reading is not an innate performance but is something we receive training for. Some view the printed word with skepticism while others read it as a factual representation of reality. What distinguishes the former reader from the later? According to Rose, it is exposure. The common reader was exposed to texts that delivered the same message: “And the best-sellers of Hanoverian Britain – chapbook romances, the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe – all told essentially the same story” (94). If a reader is not exposed to texts that challenge these stories, then texts that are accepted as nonfiction, such as the Bible, cannot be distinguished from texts that are fictional, such as Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe (94). This also explains why some authors went to great lengths to validate the events that took place in their stories. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe, for instance, wanted to give the religious message of the story as much credence as the narrative. He went to great lengths to present his work as an autobiography rather than a novel. Moreover, serious authors pursue serious/realistic matters of life rather than the improbable/fantastical.
Working class readers did not perform their reading in a systematic/discriminatory manner – they were tolerant toward much of the popular literature that was circulating (371). The general assumption, as Rose contends, was and still is that the attitude of an audience toward literature is defined by the genre they frequent as readers. Hence, women enjoy romance novels because such novels are flighty and unrealistic, boys enjoy weeklies, and children read books that are age-appropriate. However, these groups read a vast array of texts. A particular genre cannot be fallaciously categorized as irrelevant, such as the romance novel, because it attracts certain types of readers nor can an audience’s attitude toward literature be deduced from the type of books they read. Working class readers’ tastes were diverse, and therefore, “no two individual histories were alike” (367). What Rose concluded from historical sources and previously conducted research is that plebian readers generally had a penchant for classical works but not because of its cultural value but rather because it was more accessible than contemporary literature and was read within a frame that legitimated their worth in the face of privileged classes.
Rose’s approach to an analysis of the British working class is one that significantly illuminates the complex relationship between the reader and text. We are liable to making the mistake of categorizing readers’ habits the way they were categorized during the time they lived. We assume that women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enjoyed the romance genre when their reading was diverse and their experience individualistic. Were we to treat readers as individuals who have been exposed to a myriad set of texts and were we to check our conclusions about one historical document against another, then our analysis of readers’ habits, attitude, and tastes would be more robust and representative of the cultural moment in which they lived.