The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class

Alan Morrison | Published in

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose

Yale University Press  ix + 534 pp. ISBN 0-300-08886-

Jonathan Rose’s celebratory history challenges many cultural stereotypes and fashionable academic assumptions. He proposes an approach to the history of audiences which enters into ‘the minds of ordinary readers in history to discover what they read and how they read it’.

Rose brings into play evidence from oral history, library and school records, social surveys, correspondence and, most importantly, autobiographies and memoirs. He presents a world in which literature and print culture in general were perceived as liberating and empowering.

While many self educated memoirists testify to the importance of literature in often solitary lives, Rose argues that ‘mutual improvement drives home the lesson that no autodidact is entirely self-educated’. The tradition of collective self help, evidenced in Scottish weaving communities, mutual improvement societies, Welsh mining libraries, the WEA and clerical office culture forms the core of this study.

Working class self education has often been characterised as culturally and politically conservative. Certainly the most popular authors, Shakespeare, Bunyon, Defoe, Dickens, Scott, Macaulay, Samuel Smiles, Carlyle and Ruskin appear to re-enforce this image. However, Rose demonstrates the liberating effect such writers produced in the lives of working class readers. Moments of inspiration and epiphany could lead to a lifetime of reading and a growing self-confidence. The link between knowledge and power was one that was readily made by working class people and the influence of Ruskin on the development of the Labour movement is beyond question.

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