John Britton 1771-1857: Reading and Writing

Reading and Writing

From reading John Britton’s autobiography, it is clear that, he was an avid reader, who spent much of his time reading and learning from his fellow authors. Britton was also a particularly keen reader of other autobiography’s. An example of his appetite to read other authors autobiographies from his own autobiography is as follows, “and though it has been often said that memoirs of literary persons must be devoid of interest, as Authors are usually confined to a dull routine of study, abstraction, and exemption from the accidents and adventures to which men of the world and of enterprise are liable; yet, on the other hand, the Auto-Biogrpahies of Brydges, Coleridge, Cumberland, Cobbett, Franklin, Gibbon, Hume, Holcroft, Hutton, Pemberton, Scott and many others, are not only interesting to the general reader, but constitute valuable and important documents for the philosopher and the historian to study.”

From this quote, we can see that Britton was not only an avid reader of ‘Auto-Biographies’ but was also judging on them on their quality. Britton claims that the above 10 authors have both interesting and valuable auto-biography’s as well as many others but he also implies that some autobiographies are dull and ‘devoid of interest.’ Having read Britton’s own autobiography his in my opinion is most certainly on the interesting and valuable side as it is far from dull and certainly isn’t devoid of interest.

The nature of how this autobiography even came into existence is testament to just how important reading and writing was to Britton. I have addressed this in more detail in a previous blog post (Purpose and Audience) but essentially a committee came together and gathered a huge sum of money, £900 which at the time was a much larger amount than it sounds now, in order to give Britton a gift in recognition of all the brilliant work he had done throughout his life. A few ideas were thrown around such as a bust of Britton or commemorative coins but all of this was considered to grand, so instead Britton decided to write an Autobiography for his friends and family in the committee. It’s important to note also that this Autobiography took many years to make and often Britton was dealing with a very debilitating illness (bronchitis) as well as losing his wife, this proves just how important writing was to him.

When Britton was a young man he endured a ‘cheerless period of apprenticeships’. Britton wrote the following in regards to this period, ‘The long, dreary, cheerless period of apprenticeship, which it was my fate to endure for nearly six years, embraced a series of privations and mortifications of a most serious and depressing nature. A few gleams of cheerful sunshine, however, broke occasionally upon my murky gloom, from the books which I sometimes obtained and read with avidity.’ From this quote, it is so apparent just how important reading is to Britton, for him books bring light into a previously dark existence. Britton was clearly miserable during this apprenticeship period and his only solace was reading.

Britton again writes of the importance of reading during his apprentices which he describes as slavery to him again in his autobiography in the following quote, ‘but all the reading I could indulge in, during my term of legal English slavery, was by candle-light, in the cellar, and at occasional intervals only. Not of leisure, but of time abstracted from systematic duties. To compensate for this time, I was compelled to labour with additional exertion, and to adopt the most rapid modes of performing my tasks. This quote like the previous quote from Britton highlights just how important reading was to him, essentially Britton would work as hard as possible at a job he hated just so he would have some time to read a book by candle light.


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