Margaret Scutt: the Importance of Literacy

Reading is a process and a concept that has been studied by many years. What, why, and how people read has been of great concern to many literary historians. Since the escalation in literary publications during the nineteenth century, reading became more accessible with the variety of new texts to read. However, it was not until almost a century after the industrial revolution that reading became completely and universally accessible. Because during this time period, it was commonplace to find more working-class families sending their children to workhouses rather than schools.

Punch front cover (1907), famous periodical

For many years, literary historians ‘have tried to discern the ideological messages that books transmit to readers’ (Rose, 1992, 48), but have found it difficult to truly capture the essence of reading because it is so subjective. Rose states how it was ‘[a]round 1800 (…) when reading became a daily habit rather than a special occasion, and when communal reading aloud gave way to silent and solitary reading’ (1992, 48). For Margaret Scutt, the experience of reading was always an objective experience, as she remembers how most of the literature that was taught ‘we learnt an awful amount by heart (…) [w]e learnt by chanting them over and over’ (1). Her recollections of this group experience appear to be the time of transition Rose highlights, a progression from collective to subjective reading experiences.

Margaret may be able to narrate this as an aspect of her late nineteenth century childhood because of her upbringing in a rural area. In more urban areas, such as London, where the locations of publishers could be found, the transition would have been much quicker due to how easy it was to circulate information in these areas compared to the countryside. The slow transportation of newspapers containing periodicals to rural areas would have meant that the circulation, and access to these types of literary texts was much slower. Therefore, this would have made the progression to solitary reading much slower than what was the norm in large towns and cities.

Margaret’s precise and fond recollections of what school was like imply that she was a teacher and was well educated in reading and writing. This proves itself in her position in the WI, where she was clearly regarded high enough to have been allowed to give a speech, but also in the reading of her memoir. Margaret’s memoir has almost no grammatical errors, implying that the skill set she developed as a teacher was passed on to her child, because they are the one scribing Margaret’s speech. 

Reading also appeared to exceed the boundaries of the classroom, and into their leisure time during the summer holidays. ‘There would be readings from Pickwick Papers by the Rector, songs, duets, etc.’ (8) at the Hamworthy village fetes, further showing how collective reading was still traditional in these rural areas. She also makes sure to note how this way of reading was ‘not up to present day standards, but we were quite happy about them’ (8), possibly because it was a shared experience, something which allows everyone to hear the same text at the same time. These readings show how rural cultures encourage experiences such as these as a way of bonding with fellow members of the community, which may have also been a contributing factor to why collective reading had not yet died out by the time Margaret started her education.

Dymock village fete 1907

The form of reading and writing has changed over the centuries, from the early modern palimpsest to twenty first century texting, but what Margaret captures in her memoir is the enjoyment that sharing literature can bring. Essentially, what she has captured in the essence of reading.


1:0886. Scutt, Margaret. (c.4,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography

Rose, Jonathan. Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992. Vol. 53, No. 1. pp. 47-70.


Punch magazine cover:

Village fete:

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