Robert Langdon was, as discussed in the previous post, tragically uneducated. Opportunities to curl up with a good book were few and far between. However, two books in particular did play a big part in his life. The first was Pinnock’s Catechism on Astronomy. He worked in manual labor, pulling up weeds all over the parsonage, all in the hopes of buying a book being sold at Crewkerne, a distance away from his own village. He recognized the benefits of reading despite being formally uneducated, and sought it out using the means available to him; simple, honest hard work. But poor circumstances distracted his employer, and he was never paid. Curiously, he went literal years without plucking up the courage to remind his employer of the job he’d done, and thus never insisted upon being paid for his work. Such a notion seems almost ridiculous, or indicative of a crippling lack of confidence; we all quite rightly expect to receive compensation and appreciation for our efforts. But among the rural, small village of Chiselborough in the 19th century, not so. Hard work and effort were simply a way of life, and contribution to the overall health of the village was expected and accepted. Especially considering that he wanted this money for a book, a motive that not all his peers would be guaranteed to understand; economist Leone Levi pointed out in 1884, mechanics and skilled artisans were “as far removed from common labourers and miners as clerks and curates are from those who have reached the highest places in the liberal professions or wealthy merchants and bankers, all of whom pass under the category of the middle classes.” To put this into perspective, Atlick Richard Daniels estimates that the lower and lower-middle classes together “constituted at least three-quarters of the total population.” More importantly, “It was principally from among skilled workers, small shopkeepers, clerks, and the better grade of domestic servants that the new mass audience for printed matter was recruited during the first half of the century. These were the people who chiefly benefited from the spread of elementary education and whose occupations required not only that they be literate but that they keep their reading faculty in repair. And because these people shared more in the century’s prosperity than did the unskilled laborers, they were in a somewhat better position to buy cheap books and periodicals as these became available.” The increase in reading material was not aimed at Roger Langdon’s people. And while literacy and interest in books was increasing throughout this time period, it is still shocking how many people simply wouldn’t have understood Roger Langdon’s fascination with something so clearly unrelated to his duties.
The second book that had a major impact on his life, however, was far more relevant to the interest of Chisleborough. It was a Reference Bible, much more expensive than the Astronomy book that Roger Langdon had set his heart upon, and it was eventually provided to him for free by his employer, Mr Cornwall. Inscribed within were the words “Presented to Roger Langdon, for his good conduct at the Sunday school, by the Rev. P. M. S. Cornwall.” It wasn’t a reward for his hard work, since Mr Cornwall had long forgotten that job; it was simply a gift for exemplary service, faith, and out of the kindness of his heart. This gift was treasured by Robert so much that he kept it with him wherever he went, even after leaving home. He wouldn’t have parted with it at all were it not “stolen from my lodgings in Bristol.” Consider that this was the only book he owned that he cared to talk about or even mention within his own autobiography. This is yet another example of Robert Langdon’s life essentially evolving his education and faith at the same time; just as his religious stories and teachings fueled his love for astronomy, so too did religious scripture become the most important book this man ever owned. Bible quotes and religious stories are quoted in blocked text throughout his story, as pearls of wisdom he wishes to pass on to the reader, and to provide some insight into the most memorable passages that shaped his mind.
Robert Langdon was not a card-carrying intellectual. He did not boast about how well-read he was, ‘nor did he make an effort to educate himself and write about how well-educated he was. As we hinted at in earlier entries, many lower-class autobiographies feel the need to justify their own existence, and presenting themselves as well-read and well-spoken in-spite of their background is often something they feel the need to do in order to be taken seriously. Autobiography was (and to a degree still is) considered the domain of the famous, prestigious and expert, so working-class autobiographers essentially wanted to convince people that their life perspective was worth your time compared. Roger Langdon does none of this, and I still believe him to be a smart man, and that is simply because the quality of his writing speaks for itself. He maintains a solid train of thought throughout his storytelling, never straying on tangents to overindulge his mind, but peppered throughout are bits of wit (“I have no distinct recollection of my birth, although I believe I was a prominent actor in the performance”) that let me know he’s clearly thinking more than he’s writing; likely because, as also previously discussed, he never ended up publishing these writings and they were written largely for his own entertainment, nostalgia and introspection.
1:420 LANGDON, Roger, The Life of Roger Langdon, told by Himself. With Additions by his Daughter Ellen, with a preface by H. Clifton Lambert (Elliot Stock, London, ), pp. 104 [55pp. of autobiography, 20pp. written by daughter, 18pp. of appendices, 1.0420
Levi, Leone. Wages and Earnings of the Working Classes. 1885
Atlick, Richard Daniels, The English common reader: a social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998