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Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading aloud in colonial Australia

January 29, 2018

At the end of last week’s Monday Musings post on literary culture in colonial Australia, I commented that author Elizabeth Webby had also discussed the practice of reading aloud, and that I might do a future post on that. Well, not only might I, but I’ve decided to do it this week because I was fascinated. (Just to recap, last week’s post drew from Webby’s lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia”, which is available online). And, would you believe, February 1 is World Read Aloud Day!

So, I’ll start briefly with Webby’s discussion and then move on to some of my own research, from Trove of course. She starts by saying that reading aloud remained popular throughout the nineteenth century alongside a rise in silent, individual reading. She writes:

Those worried about the excessive reading of fiction by women and young people were particularly keen to encourage the domestic practice of reading aloud. A father reading aloud to his family in the evening formed an ideal Victorian domestic scene: he could monitor what was being consumed by his wife, sons and daughters; they had the advantage of his company and attention.

(There’s that gender issue again!) She shares information gleaned from diaries. One mother, for example, would not allow Shakespeare while another was very happy to read from Dumas’ 8-volume Celebrated crimes (1839-1841). Webby says this “reminds us that individual readers have always been free to set their own rules about what should be read, ignoring the more restrictive norms of their times.” She also discusses the encouragement of reading aloud for women (“as an alternative to idle gossip as they sewed or carried out other more sedentary household jobs”) and bush-workers (“as a more profitable alternative to gambling and yarning”), and the ongoing concern about what was read (but I discussed some of that last week.)

A modern author reading: Malouf reading from Ransom, NLA, 16/8/2009

Webby then describes the rise of “penny reading” in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the practice of attending public readings for the cost of a penny. While Dickens never toured Australia, as he had Britain and the USA, readings from his books were popular at these penny readings, which were apparently popular in Victoria. There were also “philanthropic” souls who read, free-of-charge, to hospital patients and prison inmates. Webby suggests that regarding readings for prisoners, the authorities would have seen them as having value as “cheap entertainment combined with a controlled use of fiction as a means of moral reformation”. There was, she says, a strong continuing belief in “the humanising value of literature”.

What I found in Trove*

Having read Webby’s discussion, I was keen to see if the topic was discussed in newspapers of the time – and my, was it! It seemed particularly popular in papers of the later nineteenth century, with much of the commentary I found coming from the 1870s. It was generally earnest, and had two main threads: the importance of reading aloud well; and the value of reading aloud (along with a concern that people weren’t doing enough of it).

A long article by Sarah Ellis in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 1870 starts with:

Amongst the accomplishments which belong to education of the highest order, reading aloud ought certainly to hold a prominent place – that is, the art of reading aloud so as to give the full meaning of what is read, and at the same time to charm the ear of those who listen.

She then discusses how reading aloud is so often unsatisfactory, how people adopt a voice that doesn’t change or adapt to the meaning of what they are reading. She suggests that one of the causes is the reduction of reading aloud in the home. Poor education is another cause but an article in the Mount Alexander Mail (25 October 1878) reports on a lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, a well-known elocutionist of the time, who discusses the finding of school inspectors “that this neglected, but important branch of elementary education was moving forward in the right direction”. Unfortunately, though, “in a few districts … complaints were made of the monotonous and sing-song manner in which the voice was allowed to degenerate”.

My final example regarding the issue of reading aloud well, raises again the gender issue. It comes from the Avoca Mail (26 June 1877):

It is much to be regretted that the charming accomplishment of reading aloud is not more cultivated by ladies. … To do this well, a certain amount of study is requisite. First of all, it is necessary to acquire a habit of sustaining the voice; then one must learn to modulate the tones, to attend to the punctuation, and, above all, the reader must have a fair appreciation of the author’s meaning. This involves a study of English literature, which is so sadly needed by most young ladies who are supposed to have a finished education.

Oh dear, those “young ladies”, eh? Gender also comes up in the aforementioned Sarah Ellis’s article, and here I shift into the issue of why people should read aloud. Reading aloud, she says, can “increase the number of our innocent enjoyments”, “make the social hours of life glide pleasantly along”, and “prevent them from becoming vapid or wearisome”. She then separately identifies the value for women and men:

Amongst women, this accomplishment might go far to help them in filling their homes with interest; amongst men, it would help them on all public occasions, when called upon to speak or read.

Oh well, that was then – a woman’s place was in the home. We wouldn’t expect anything different, would we? I should add that Ellis spends some time discussing the best book to read aloud, the Bible, which Webby says would have been the “most-read” book in colonial Australia.

So, reading aloud was seen as good for family togetherness, for entertainment, for education, and for usefulness in the outside world. Indeed, in terms of the latter, the writer in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser (13 October 1877), reporting on another lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, describes it as “an art which at the Bar might save lives, which in the Senate might save nations, and which in the Pulpit might save souls”. Meanwhile, in terms of the former more recreational value, Ellis overlays a moral value, describing it as a “counter charm of a social and intelligent nature to take the place of pleasures which are purely sensational”!

I will end, though, with another reason which you mightn’t have seen coming. It’s from the Queenslander (6 February 1897):

The late Sir Henry Holland says in his ‘”Medical Notes” that persons who have a tendency to pulmonary disease should methodically practice “those actions of the body through which the chest is in part filled or emptied of air.” He advises that those whose chests are weak should read aloud at stated intervals …

World Read Aloud Day 2018See, reading aloud really is good for you!

Do you have any experience of reading aloud as an adult, either reading or listening (besides, that is, reading to children), and if so, I’d love to hear about it? Audiobooks? Live reading?

* Note that when I say Trove, I mean its digitised newspapers subset, because Trove, in fact, currently covers over 560 million “Australian and online resources: books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more”. Note, too, that many of the articles I found appeared in many newspapers around the country.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. ian darling permalink
    January 29, 2018 11:59 pm

    A fascinating post. It seems a pity that reading aloud to each other has rather gone out of fashion but the popularity of audiobooks just shows the enormous appeal of being read to. The BBC may have its faults but its radio stations has always had a lot of read material from current and classic books…..I remember a Rebecca being read as a serial when I was young and being surprised how gripping it was to hear.

    I wonder if there is potential for this sort of experience in sheltered housing or in adult education initiatives like University Of the Third Age? With the right readers and books so much more stimulating than endless TV!

    • January 30, 2018 3:56 am

      Great ideas lan. And interesting re the BBC too. Our ABC used to do book serialisation on the radio but I think that stopped a decade or so ago.

  2. buriedinprint permalink
    January 30, 2018 12:52 am

    How timely, then, that your resolution fell on the appropriate celebratory day! Over the years, my partner and I have occasionally taken turns reading various cultural/political articles while one or the other of us was preparing a meal or working on a boring chore, but we commented recently that we’ve fallen out of the habit (being more concerned with getting the task done, so working together more often). Beyond that, there are certain books/authors that I feel compelled to read aloud (sometimes to hold focus, sometimes to bring out of the lyricism of their style) but I do not always have a space to myself in which to indulge. Looking forward to seeing how other WG readers read aloud (or, don’t)!

    • January 30, 2018 3:58 am

      Thanks Buried. It was a strange coincidence I discovered when I did an image search for reading aloud. I nearly fell over.

    • January 30, 2018 3:59 am

      Oh, and I love, Buried, that you and your partner used to do that. I’m hoping for more such stories.

  3. January 30, 2018 1:30 am

    I agree with Ian Darling both about audiobooks of which I listen to over 150/year and ABC radio (in my case) which used to always have one or more books on the go. I read to my grandkids of course but the only adult instance I can think of is that my wife read to me in 1995 as we drove from Melbourne to Perth over the course of 4 or 5 days. The kids in the back couldn’t hear and were perfectly happy doing their own stuff, though they did insist I play Cats (the musical) over and over.

    • January 30, 2018 4:07 am

      Thanks Bill. I remember the ABC’s serialisations too. Sad that they went. Is there a reason your wife read to you rather than you listened to audiobookS on that trip? I love that she did though.

      BTW Talking about reading aloud to kids, I read TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s book of practical cats to mine when they were babies or toddlers. I read a lot of poetry to them – children’s verse and accessible adult pieces

      • January 30, 2018 8:50 am

        My grandkids have my copy of the original Cats now. And it was another decade before I ‘discovered’ audiobooks

        • January 30, 2018 4:08 pm

          Cats is timeless – not the best of musicals but great poems/stories.

  4. January 30, 2018 4:38 am

    Maybe the hubbies were slaving over log books by candlelight? I was talking to someone the other day how we have so many choices in the evening compared to other generations.

    • January 30, 2018 5:11 am

      Oh we sure do Guy. Almost too many – and I find that I try to do too many things at once. A bit like being read to while also doing handwork I suppose.

  5. January 30, 2018 5:59 am

    I always read to all my classes, and that is not as common these days as you might think. There are always little pockets of time in a classroom, two minutes here, five minutes there, lunchtime while they eat their lunches and so on, and while other teachers might play a maths game or pop outside for a game of tag or whatever, I would read aloud, picture books to the smalls, and children’s novels (Colin Thiele, Ivan Southall, Nina Bawden, Ursula Le Guin) to the bigger ones. And then of course in the library I always began my hour long lessons by reading to the kids (Prep to Y6, working up to reading to the older ones for half an hour. Their favourites were always Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and classic myths and legends from around the world. Alas that’s not as common as you might think either, because many schools don’t have a teacher-librarian any more, sometimes not even a library. (Which BTW is really stupid because all the research shows that reading levels improve when there’s a TL).
    The Ex was not a reader except of study books but there was a brief period of time when I would read aloud short stories (e.g. Jack London) to the family in the evenings. I don’t remember why this started or why it ended but we all enjoyed it.
    I also read “with” my father when he was in aged care… there came a time when he wasn’t really coping with reading by himself, so I would sit beside him and read short stories to him while he followed the text with his eyes. I would stop every now and again and comment on something or other, to check that he was keeping up with the content – there is a bit of an art to reading aloud in aged care, it needs the same skills of checking oral conversation and stimulating discussion as reading aloud in a classroom where you need to be sure that you are bringing along everyone with you. Modern short stories were no good, too much angst and obscure meanings and bad language for Daddy, but Bill the Australian Legend was wonderful, sending me suitable collections of rollicking tales such as Steele Rudd from his hoard. These are, as you can imagine, treasured memories now.
    So yes, I’m a fan, and if I ever get to be a benign dictator, I shall issue a decree that all families must turn off all the screens and have storytime every day!

    • January 30, 2018 7:57 am

      Ha ha Lisa. Then I’d vote for you. My son, the teacher, reads to his classes. We often lnlk about it because I’m always interested in what he reads. He loves reading aloud. His latest most successful book uas Wonder (with Grade 6) but this year is a whole new ballgame for him as he’s doing Grade 2.

      I remember your reading to your father, I know the challenge of finding suitable books for older people – in terms of subject matter and style. I used to order library books for my mother-in-law. It wasn’t easy.

      • January 30, 2018 8:31 am

        Ha, you don’t get to vote for a dictator!

        • January 30, 2018 3:06 pm

          Haha, Lisa, I was nearly going to add that proviso, but then sometimes dictators are elected and then turn dictator later don’t they … though perhaps a benevolent dictator needs to be appointed by other benevolent people!!

  6. Meg permalink
    January 30, 2018 7:01 am

    Hi Sue, I did belong to a play reading group whereby each person read out loud a character(s) part. I have also read out reports and minutes to a committee. My youngest grandson who is 11 doesn’t request me to read to him aloud anymore, though he still likes to play word games with me. I tend to read poetry aloud. I am not a fan of audio books, my mind wanders. You have to remember that the King James Bible was to be read orally, intended more to be heard in public than to be read in private.

    • January 30, 2018 8:03 am

      Thanks Meg. I have a friend in a U3A play reading group. It sounds great.

      I have the same concern re audiobooks. The only place I fnd that tends not to happen is driving , so long trips are, really, the only time I use them. I loved reading poetry aloud to our kids but I rarely do it to myself. I like that idea because poetry does come alive when read that way. I occasionally go to poetry readings here but the problem is the night clashes with my yoga!

      Yes true re KJV. I’d forgotten that.

  7. Jane Bodnaruk permalink
    January 30, 2018 7:09 am

    I have just finished reading (quietly, to myself) Women and Power by Mary Beard, where she writes of public speaking/speaking in public as a very patriarchal ‘right’ and accomplishment. For us women? it is purely to fill our homes with interest – of course not a bad thing, given that it would be crucial in educating the next generation, but not power.

    • January 30, 2018 8:08 am

      Thanks Jane. That’s very much the view that comes through these late 19th century newspapers. As you say, the home application is not a bad thing but it’s the assumption that that’s THE place for women to do it that’s the issue isn’t it. And that article that mentions father doing it in the home is all about power. He controls then what is read and, the sense is, he bestows his company on them!

  8. January 30, 2018 9:01 am

    This is the third time in less than a week I’ve seen some commentary about reading aloud. First was a post by Rebecca about a bibliotherapy session which recommended reading aloud with her husband. Then I was listening to a BBC Radio programme which discussed the Victorian practice of reading aloud. One of the insights that got my attention was that it was considered a very efficient use of people’s time. Instead of everyone reading individually which meant they couldn’t do anything else at that time, by having a person read to them they could carry on with their chores – like mending linen for example.

    • January 30, 2018 3:07 pm

      Gotta love these synchronicities, don’t you Karen. In fact, this efficiency was mentioned in some of the articles I read with, in fact, individual reading being described in one as “selfish”!!

  9. Jim KABLE permalink
    January 30, 2018 9:19 am

    “Gaspar Ruiz” by Joseph Conrad – read to me and my junior high class – 1961. And the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling and “The Verger” by Somerset Maugham. When I became a teacher I read aloud to some of my classes – not as a study feature but as a special treat. In one class in a school with the iniquitous streaming-of-assumed-intelligence-by-test arrangement – I had the group on the lowest rung – there was a lad I remember as a far better reader-aloud than me – and he was really happy to take on that role. And inspirational – I would say – to his classmates!

    • January 30, 2018 3:09 pm

      OH, I love that story about that good reader-aloud lad Jim. I think I’m an average reader-aloud, but my son, the teacher, is I think a good one – partly because he has that ability to perform.

  10. January 30, 2018 2:08 pm

    I love to read out loud. Most chances to do so involve reading to children.

    Some of the quotations that you posted were fascinating. It is astounding that reading out loud was suggested as a method to control what women read. Though there fears seem ludicrous today, controlling books and reading has traditionally been employed by people trying to control others.

    • January 30, 2018 3:14 pm

      I’m glad you liked those quotes Brian. There were so many great ones to choose from. Another one from Ellis concerns the excuse that “we have no time to read aloud”. She writes: “and so each member of the family lakes the book in turn, and reads selfishly and in silence and, supposing the family to consist of three or six individuals, there is, by this method, about three or six times the actual time expended in the reading of a single book in silence which would have been required for reading it aloud.” See, reading to yourself is SELFISH!!

      You are right of course about how often thoughout history people have attempted – at all levels from the macro to the micro – to control other people’s reading.

  11. February 1, 2018 10:52 am

    How delightful to hear of the importance and health benefits of reading aloud. I have to say it is one of the aspects of attending church that I mostly enjoy. It certainly depends on the reader. And it is great to mix the Bible with reflective texts, poetry and stories.
    And one of the joys of having young children is reading aloud…

    • February 1, 2018 2:32 pm

      Thanks Kate … I hadn’t really thought about the fact that you still get reading aloud in church, but of course you do. I love that you enjoy that aspect! (Not that I’m surprised.)

      I certainly agree that reading aloud to children is (was) one of the really memorable pleasures of having children. And you’ve reminded me that reading aloud made it much easier to tell a well-written book from a poorly written one. It’s so much more obvious when you have to say the words with meaning and feeling.

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