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.)
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 …
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.