Some historians talk about a “reading revolution” in the middle of the 18th century, during which literacy rates rose and people came increasingly to prefer reading silently over reading aloud—mainly novels, a relatively new literary form. In The Social Life of Books, Abigail Williams, a professor of 18th-century studies at Oxford, says the reading revolution was much weaker than historians have suggested; the old tradition of reading out loud remained alive and well. To support her argument, Williams cites myriad sources: diaries, journals, commonplace books, letters, library withdrawals—enough sources to justify her thanking five researchers for their help.
There were practical reasons for reading books aloud. “Domestic lighting was primitive, and prohibitively expensive,” Williams says. “Why strain the eyes with insufficient light and small print when a single person with a well-lit book could do the work of many?” Also, eyeglasses were rare until late in the 18th century, so it made sense for a person with good eyesight to read to people whose eyesight was poor. And reading aloud was a way of entertaining others—including people who were illiterate and could not read for themselves—while they were doing housework.
There also were moral reasons for reading aloud. Many observers thought it was dangerous for young women to read novels by themselves. Young women, one 18th-century moralist said, were susceptible to “giddy and fantastical notions of love and gallantry” that they imbibed from novels. Samuel Richardson recommended that his novel Pamela be shared among company.
Reading aloud stayed in vogue for other reasons. Eighteenth-century Britons admired good oratory. In the 1750s, so-called “spouting clubs”—debating and reciting societies—became popular with tradesmen. In these venues reading aloud was a spectator sport. And more generally, Britons prized sociability. Many people enjoyed reading aloud with their families or friends. A self-help book on marriage recommends reading aloud with one’s spouse. “And though you should not naturally be disposed to the same taste in reading or amusement, this may be acquired by habit, and by a hearty desire of conforming to his inclinations and sharing in his pleasures.” A satirical self-help book takes a different view. The author of AnEssay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting says you can torment your husband by continually interrupting him when he’s reading a Shakespeare play aloud.
Not everyone enjoyed being read to. William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, complained, “I cannot make the same use of passages I notice in books that are read to me as if I had read them with my own eyes, and could know them at a glance.” Some listeners grumbled that readers would drone on without noticing that no one was interested in what they were reciting. Williams quotes one woman griping that a houseguest insisted on reading the newspaper “aloud to us paragraph by paragraph, half of which are bad news of retreats of our army.”
Sometimes reading aloud was a punishment inflicted on children. The engraver Thomas Bewick remembered that when he got into a fight his parents required him to spend Sunday evenings reading “the Bible, or some other good book, to old Mrs. Beilby and her daughter, or others of the family.” One wonders how Mrs. Beilby felt about being reluctantly read to by a boy.
The subtitle of Williams’s book—Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home—is misleading; her book is not only about how 18th-century Britons read, it is also about what they read. Her conclusion is startling: Most Britons only read books “partially.” They mainly read abridgments, extracts, and miscellanies—that is, anthologies.
Until the invention of the steam-powered printing press in the mid-19th century, books were expensive, so most people read low-priced chapbooks, which were sold by itinerant hawkers. The contents “ranged from ballads, cut-down seventeenth-century romances, . . . stories of British heroes . . ., true-life criminal tales, [and] religious material to scaled-down versions of prose fiction.” People mostly read the famous 18th-century novels—Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones—in chapbook versions.
Britons also read abridgments of plays. “For a couple of pennies, readers could acquire heavily abridged forms of stage plays, shrunk into one act.” Williams mentions Thomas Bowdler—the man who took the bawdy passages out of Shakespeare and gave us the word “bowdlerize.” Algernon Swinburne, the decadent late-19th-century poet, defended Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare: “No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.”
The most popular compilations contained sermons, theological tracts, and religious verse. When Robert Burns was managing a small library in Lanarkshire, he was irritated that the patrons wanted him to order books of divinity that he called “damned trash” rather than such secular pleasures as Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews, and the Arabian Nights.
Many readers made their own personal compilations: commonplace books, in which they would write down passages from books for future enjoyment or reference. Commonplace books, which occasionally were read aloud, were “an eclectic and inventive hotchpotch of materials,” Williams writes; they’d sometimes include recipes. In keeping with the way the word was used at the time, Williams uses commonplace as a verb, referring, for example, to an 18th-century clergyman who “commonplaces useful observations” from the books he reads.
One might conclude from Williams’s survey that 18th-century Britons were mainly interested in hearing (or reading) extracts of verse or prose that were uplifting, edifying, moving, or heartwarming. The educator Hannah More attacked “the Swarms of Abridgements, Beauties, and Compendiums which . . . may be considered in many instances as an infallible receipt for making a superficial mind.” Williams says that commentators of the era “worried about learning bought too easily and readers who could no longer engage with whole texts.”
From the vantage of two centuries on, the view is sunnier and more democratic: Chapbooks, abridgments, extracts, and miscellanies made snippets of great literature available to the middle class and the poor. The effect on British (and by extension American) identity was enormous. For example, while we rightly esteem Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity, it wasn’t until long after his death that his influence came to be fully felt. “Over the course of the eighteenth century,” Williams writes, “Shakespeare became ever more firmly ensconced as the national bard.” Many men and women first read passages from Shakespeare in a chapbook or heard Shakespeare being declaimed in a spouting club. If they liked what they read or heard, they might decide to borrow the whole play from a circulating library. The stories and ideas that shaped our culture weren’t just transmitted pristine and silent from mind to mind across the pages, but were also passed hand to hand and shared with voices raised.
Stephen Miller is the author, most recently, ofWalking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.
Web Link: http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/2010691
An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting
By Jane Collier
Jane Collier’s 1753 work An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is a short book about suffering, how to cause it and how to relish in it. Ironically it is also a book that has long suffered from the most dreaded affliction to which an author can succumb: being forgotten. In this case the neglect is especially unjust. It is available today thanks to a 2009 edition from Oxford World Classics (as well as in free e-book form), but generally it has attracted attention only from academics. You won’t often find it raved about on Facebook. But if you should come across it, and read it with a spirit of enterprise and curiosity, you’ll have found a barbed and delightful masterpiece.
True to its title, The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is first and foremost a manual to doing all those things you were strictly taught never to do. If you obey its guidelines, you will succeed in becoming a full-blown scoundrel. In Collier’s hands the reader becomes a player of a “sport,” whose opponents are the standard-bearers of etiquette and decorum. The essay’s brevity and clarity amount to a sort of blitzkrieg against proper behavior with artillery ranging from mild annoyance to passive aggression to outright antisocial activity.
Who was this gimlet-eyed disruptor of social mores? Jane Collier was born in or around 1715 in or near Wiltshire, England. Her father was a philosopher and clergyman who died young and left the family in financial difficulty. Not much is known of the details of Jane’s education, but the text of The Art itself is enough to indicate that she had a deep background in contemporary and classical literature, as well as an understanding of Latin. Her two brothers found careers in the law and the military, and while she and her sister worked as servants or governesses, Jane spent more time as something of a perpetual houseguest, living off the kindness of her friends and family and never marrying. Her friends were a small circle of writers and intellectuals including Henry and Sarah Fielding and Samuel Richardson, all of whom enjoyed her company and encouraged her talent as editors and collaborators. She died in 1755, her only other book being The Cry: A New Dramatic Fable, co-written with Sarah Fielding—a work that has spurred even less curiosity than this, her signature and most unique book.
Guidebooks for etiquette were abundant in the 18th century, much in the same way self-help books are profuse today. We don’t know exactly what Collier read, but if the essay itself is anything to go by, she spent an inordinate amount perfecting the art of the “hate-read” before there was such a term. “Most [etiquette books] were intended for aristocratic gentlemen readers,” writes Katherine A. Craik in the introduction to the Oxford edition. But there was a sizable market for books that “were dedicated to remaking women’s characters and to establishing new guidelines for feminine propriety.” Books like Devout Exercises of the Heart and Essays Addressed to Young Married Women were predominantly female-authored—though there were also works of proto-“mansplaining” like James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women—and emphasized moral character based in the woman’s presumed natural sweetness. Sensitivity, sincerity and benevolence were considered indispensable dispositions for the proper woman of the age. Coarser behavior was a surefire guarantor of premature wrinkles and, presumably, spinsterhood.
The Art’s literary roots are apparent, written essentially as a perversion of Jonathan Swift’s posthumous, unfinished essay “Instructions to Servants.” (The essay was written only eight years after Swift’s death.) Unlike Swift’s essay, it returns power to the haves against the have-nots, and with interest, permitting them to discard the pretense of decency. The substance of An Essay is comprised of two parts in which Collier’s feisty narrator coaches her players. The first section is directed to those who possess “an exterior power in visible authority … in masters over their servants; parents over their children; husbands over their wives.” The second, conversely, addresses itself to those “who have no legal or exterior authority, but who may be said to have an interior power arising from the affection of the person, with whom they are connected.” This includes wives against husbands, lovers against lovers, and friends against friends.
In tone, this first is the more Swiftian section of the book, brimming with cynicism and cruelty, both playful and malicious; the second section largely rehashes similar themes and strategies. Collier’s narrator is one of exacting standards when it comes to tormenting. Her star pupil would have to be a natural sociopath. At the same time, Collier’s style is sharp and gay, like an enthusiastic, brainy friend extolling pet ideas with an equal over coffee:
This love of Tormenting may be said to have one thing in common with what … belongs to the true love of virtue namely, that it is exercised for its own sake, and no other: For, can there be a clearer proof … than that it never did, nor ever can, answer any other end? I know that the most expert practitioners deny this; and frequently declare, when they whip, cut, and slash, the body, or when they tease, vex, and torment the mind, that ’tis done for the good of the person that suffers. Let the vulgar believe this if they will; but I, and my good pupils, understand things better; and, while we can enjoy the high pleasure of Tormenting, it matters not what the objects of our power either feel, think, or believe.
And it helps to have a wit as sharp as an ice pick:
With what contempt may we, adepts in this science, look down on the tyrants of old! On Nero, Caligula, Phalaris, and all such paltry pretenders to our art! Their inventions ending in death, freed the sufferer from any further Torments …
The practice of tormenting the body is not now, indeed, much allowed, except in some particular countries, where slavery and ignorance subsist: but let us not, my dear countrymen, regret the loss of that trifling branch of our power, since we are at full liberty to exercise ourselves in that much higher pleasure, the tormenting the mind.
A flair for mind games, however subtle or however childish, is always of value to the star student. There is no pleasure greater than to constrict a victim’s comfort by way of an endless supply of sour putdowns and twisted contradictions. This is especially true of servants, for whom, in Collier’s mind, loyalty and competence are mutually exclusive and can be used against each other. “When you hire a footman,” she writes,
be sure to insist upon it, that he pays so strict a regard to your orders, and your way in doing everything, that the least deviation in any point should be a forfeit of his place. This gives frequent opportunities for rating and scolding; for it is but to make your orders impracticable and then, be sure not to hear one word they can fay in their defence, for not having performed impossibilities. Or you may lay several traps, to tempt them not to adhere strictly to your commands, and make it a matter of offence, whether they do, or do not.
Many of her “traps” are not particularly complicated but still satisfy in spreading unease throughout the servant quarters. For instance, Collier’s teacher sees no point in the luxury of small pets if they cannot assist in their owner’s schemes. Purposefully unruly pets—she suggests “cats, monkeys, parrots, squirrels, and little snarling lap-dogs”—will not only mutilate the servant, but test the servant’s required tolerance of his or her master’s tastes, the slightest criticism of which is enough to trigger the tormentor’s instincts. The same is true with children, which, for these purposes, Collier sees as perfectly interchangeable with pets.
Collier’s instructor relishes even more the plight of the “humble companion,” people, mostly women, in dire straits forced to live off the generosity of others. (People like Collier, in fact.) Readers are encouraged to assume this burden, though not necessarily as a manifest display of human kindness. Victimhood, it seems, is the best household role for a young charity case:
Let her be well-born, and well-educated. The more acquirements she has, the greater field will you have for insolence, and the pleasure of mortifying her … Pick out, if possible, one that has lived a happy life, under tender and indulgent parents. Beauty, or deformity; good sense, or the want of it; may any of them, with proper management, so well answer your purpose, that you need not be very curious as to that matter: but on no account take into your house one that has not a tender heart, with a meek and gentle disposition; for if (he has spirit enough to despise your insults, and has not tender affections enough to be soothed and melted by your kindness (which must be sparingly bestowed), all your sport is loft; and you might as well shoot your venom at a marble statue in your garden.
Collier suggests that readers pepper their dependents (whom she gives names like “Miss Kitty”) with insults disguised as off-hand comments about their appearance, such as skin complexion, personal hygiene and dress. “One thing be sure not to admit, although it is ever so false,” she writes, “which is to tell her … she has (oh shocking accusation to a fine girl!) sweaty feet, and a nauseous breath.” If the dependent becomes resentful then the reader is advised to tell her to “keep your disdainful looks for the footmen when they make love to you; which, by your flirting airs, I make no doubt they are encouraged to do.”
The chapter on tormenting humble companions proves one of the most fun as Collier pushes the reader to such extremes that bringing out a complete nervous breakdown in the guest is not only inevitable, but merciful:
If your son … should have cut Miss Lucy across the face with his new knife; or your daughter … should have pinched her arms black and blue, or scratched her face and neck, with her pretty nails, so as to have fetched the blood ; and poor Lucy, to prevent any farther mischief to her person, should come and make her complaint to you; do you, in the first place, rate her soundly for provoking the poor children, who, you may affirm, are the best-natured little things in the world, if they are not teased and vexed . But if by the blood streaming from her face or arms, it appears plainly, that the girl has been very much hurt, you may (to show your great impartiality) say, that you will fend for the children in, and reprimand them. … But for what?—Why for disobeying your commands, and condescending to play, and be familiar, with anything but their equals … if ever they ate again guilty of so high an offence as that of speaking to a wretch so much beneath them in birth, fortune, and station, as Miss Lucy.
Collier’s depiction of children in these chapters as hellions, every bit as indifferent to the comfort of others as their parents, is no mere flourish. We can’t know the feelings the unmarried and childless Collier had towards families she saw in her time, but her demented take on motherhood is surely the most deplorable, and therefore the most thrilling, part of the book.
Family life, through Collier’s gleeful prism, is wrought with tension. Spousal relations are riddled with two-faced dealings, calculated misunderstandings, and expected disappointment. Collier’s advice for the husband is spare; she is more interested in the wife’s and mother’s capacity to make the lives of their loved ones miserable. She takes special consideration with children, recommending a two-pronged approach. There is, of course, the short term goal of a parent’s amusement:
If your children happen to have but weak understandings, upbraid them with every excellence you see abroad and lament your own hard fate of being plagued with idiots.
If you see a rising genius in any child (especially if it be a girl), unless you can in some way turn it to your own profit, give that child no assistance nor encouragement; but browbeat all endeavours towards striking out of the common road
Collier’s chapter on children is one of the most provocative in the book. It corrupts the role of women in the household as caretakers. Her lessons are so unabashedly abusive they haven’t yet lost their capacity to shock:
If gaiety and public diversion are their delight, confine them constantly at home; or let them out with such restrictions as will damp all their joy. But if they have no immoderate love for such amusement, and could be as well-contented at home, from the satisfaction they would take in doing their duty, let your chief point be to dress them out, and send them abroad for your own honour and credit and receive them with ill humour when they come home. If their chief joy be in endeavouring, by their cheerful conversation to please and amuse you put on such a rigid austerity, as shall make them afraid to open their lips before you; and withhold from them the least appearance of pleasure or good humour in yourself, for their readiness in all things to comply with your will.
Ultimately, though, children lucky enough to be born to people with such enthusiasms are subjected to a long-term initiation—a hazing, really—into this sport, practically from birth. She forbids “manual correction” as well as “restraint or contradiction to the infant’s wayward will.” All for the better if they are to be “a torment to themselves if they live, and a plague to all your acquaintance.” Collier’s ideal mother is cold, to be sure, but not lacking in self-awareness or delusions over the consequences of her conduct. The chapter is at its darkest when Collier blithely suggests animal torture as a means for enlightening children:
…Encourage them in all sorts of cruelty; first to flies and birds, then to dogs, cats, or any other animals, that come in their way. This will habituate them to that true hardness of heart, which is the foundation of our science.
Her caveat though:
Although I would have you inculcate the love of cruelty, yet, by no means, call it by its true name; but encourage them in the practice of it under the name of Fun. When they are well versed in this sport of Tormenting amongst animals, they may introduce it, under the aforesaid name, amongst their friends and acquaintance. It will equally answer in all stations; for how many hurt shins, bloody noses, broken heads, if not broken bones, has this sport caused…?
The chilling question is rhetorical, but the body counts of some of Collier’s overachievers give us some approximation.
The acidity of this book has diminished very little over the centuries. If Collier’s essay captivated readers immediately after its publication, however, its popularity was not to last. As a female-authored book and as a work of satire it existed on the fringes of both categories, and was soon overshadowed by greater works. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, from 1792, attacked, with philosophic depth, the limitations of 18th century womanhood that Collier had wickedly mocked. Jane Austen’s comedies of manners, too, owe a debt to Collier’s social, moral and domestic skewering, though she herself lacked Collier’s gift for meanness. But while Wollstonecraft’s and Austen’s works enjoy the prestige of inclusion in the Great Books, Collier keeps reappearing in less exalted mediums. Her voice echoes through “lady blogs” like Jezebel.com, and she is channeled by Krysten Ritter’s sociopathic protagonist in Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23.
The bitter, ironic style of many of today’s female writers suggests a natural kinship with Collier; as archaic as some of her language may be, her viciousness has a refreshingly modern music to it. Fate played a cruel joke by letting her voice fall on deaf ears for two centuries. But reading her today, we’ll find in Collier that ill-mannered but articulate friend who pushes us to be simultaneously at our worst and at our cleverest—and who laughs devilishly all the way.
Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.