Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): Reading and Writing

Lavender Hill's public library
Lavender Hill’s public library

H.G. Wells, in A Short History of the World, expands on the progress made to the literacy levels of the working class by the end of the Victorian period as a result of wider state education: ‘The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid advance in popular education throughout all the Westernized world. There was no parallel advance in the education of the upper classes—some advance, no doubt, but nothing to correspond—and so the great gulf that had divided that world hitherto into the readers and the non-reading mass became little more than a slightly perceptible difference in educational level’ (Wells, 369). Elizabeth’s memoir certainly captures her enjoyments as an avid reader, relaying a great part of her childhood days browsing the library: ‘Our reading was really catholic and entirely at our own choice. We both belonged from a very early age to the huge public library on Lavender Hill’ (Rignall, 21).

The Wallypug of Why, by George Edward Farrow, published in 1895
The Wallypug of Why by George Edward Farrow, published in 1895

Reading appears to be hobby that was encouraged in her family, with it being common practice for Elizabeth’s relatives to pass on and share the weekly newspaper supplements and comics amongst the family: ‘By Saturday morning the papers had been read and discarded by all these young adults, and we were let loose on them, being allowed to take them home’ (Rignall, 21). In particular, Elizabeth has fond memories of the popular penny weekly comic paper, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, identifying herself with the daughter character of Tootsie: ‘these were my own firm favourites, dealing with Tootsie…I cannot remember anything that any of them did, but I shall continue to love them all my life’ (Rignall, 22). With the exception of Sunday reading, which was limited to the Christian literature of Pilgrim’s Progress, Elizabeth was granted much freedom and independence in her scope of reading and her exploration of the literature canon: ‘Each Saturday I spent a considerable time choosing a book that looked promising, for I could read at a remarkably early age. Many of the books were real classics that I devoured eagerly; but my prime favourite of all was an extravaganza called “The Wallypug of Why” that I took out time and time again, in the same way as later on in my teens I read and re-read “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” countless times’ (Rignall, 31).

The ruins of Top Withens
The ruins of Top Withens

James Hinton argues that working class writers ‘were anxious to deploy a taste for high culture as a means of distinguishing themselves from their self-assigned class’ (Hinton, 199). However, Elizabeth’s love of the Brontë sisters’ work seems to eclipse any conscious decision to classify herself or her reading as high culture. The fact that Elizabeth felt a close affinity with the Brontë sisters, having a shared connection in that she too hailed from Haworth, meant that she found great significance and relatability to the sites and landscapes in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre that were inspired by her hometown: ‘Wycoller Hall is, of course, the Ferndean Manor of Jane Eyre…where the two lovers were brought together in such a delightful passage in the book- a passage which even now I can recite almost word for word, so many times have I read it’ (Rignall, 72). Julia Swindells argues that nineteenth century female autobiographers called on the literary, ‘to inherited models of melodrama or romance’ (Kramarae & Spencer, 98), in their writing style. This sense of adopting a romantic persona is certainly reflected in All So Long Ago through Elizabeth’s use of poetic language, as demonstrated in her dramatic description of the ruins that were sites used by the Brontë sisters as domestic settings: ‘Americans and other tourists seem to favour Upper Withins (Wuthering Heights), though it has fared the worst of all, situated as it is, open to all weathers, on the very top of the bleak, windswept mountain. Little of it now remains, and what there is may be soon swept away, or taken, bit by bit, by souvenir hungry tourists’ (Rignall, 73).


Hinton, James. ‘The “Class” Complex’: Mass-Observation and Cultural Distinction in Pre-War Britain’, Past and Present, no.199, May, 2008

Kramarae, Cheris and Dale Spencer, Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge, Routledge, 2004

Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Swindells, Julia Victorian Writing and Working Women. Cambridge: Polity, 1985

 Wells, H.G. A Short History of the World, New York: Cosimo, 2005

Image References:

Lavender Hill library (Accessed: 27/01/2016)

The Wallypug of Why (Accessed: 27/01/2016)

Top Withens (Accessed: 27/01/2016)


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