John Castle (1819 – 1888): Reading & Writing

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

John Castle makes no mention of him reading anything in his memoir. Reading in the 19th century was definitely a middle and upper class activity. Work generally took precedent over education for working class families. The choice for families at a young age was whether to send their children to school or to work. Economic restraints meant that school won more often than not, Castle attended school for a short while at the age of eight. Prior to the Education act of 1870 literacy rates were not documented but would have been very low. This means that for working class people reading would have been unfeasible for time reasons of time constraint, cost of books, and simply not being able to read.

The only instance relating to any reading is always of the bible. The Bible is the constant throughout the memoir and proves to be both the moral compass and the guiding hand. In one of the rare intimate family moments Castle describes he talks of the pain he feels when his second daughter Esther is dying. Through this difficult time it is clear to see the solace gained from both of them reading the Bible. The Bible would have been the only book consistent in the lives of the whole working class during the late 19th century and certainly the assurance in its teachings much comfort through dark and tragic times. He describes his daughter as ‘a girl that read the Bible and often seemed in deep thought’ (29). Castle leaves this extract from a hymn to mourn her passing.

‘And did my Saviour bleed

And did my Saviour die

Could he devote his sacred head

For such a worm as I’ (29)

Hymns and Castle’s use of hymns tell us something about the reading practices of working class communities in the 19th century, because of low literacy rates and poverty church would have been the only opportunity for many people study the bible and hymns would have been learnt by ear mostly rather than read. The influence of the Bible is evident as a tool for writing too. The Bible is used throughout as an indicator as a way to express emotions about situations that Castle feels he cannot express himself.

‘What shall I say of God the Lord

He hath fulfilled His promised Word;

What’eer He seth that will he do

His Word hath proven for ever true.

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A Witness to His Word I’ll be

Who hath through life protected me;

Oh may I ever sound His praise

While I have voice and heart to raise.

A sinner vile I will confess,

Yet shall my praises be no less,

But raise my praises but higher and higher

Til I hath seen my heart’s desire.

Then in that world of spirits bright

I’ll sing his praises with delight,

My song shall be unto the lamb

Who hath declared the great I am.

A sinner saved, washed in His blood;

Who on the subtle serpent trod;

Then to his father’s throne arose;

His children for to interprose.’

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