The rise of literacy began in the years of the English Renaissance. One contributing factor was the invention of the printing press, which led to the distribution of written materials. Another was Henry VIII's founding the Church of England. Under his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, the Church was firmly established. Among the many subsequent developments in religious life in England were the new translations and publications of the Bible. Becoming literate to read the bible, and other worthy books, was an ambition that still motivates persons of low reading skills in the 22nd century. By the later years of the 18th century, a literate population could purchase the printed materials. They wanted materials about people like themselves. A romance in letters like Clarissa and an adventure tale like Robinson Crueso were popular reading in the late 18th century.
As people read for themselves, they became more individualistic in their thinking. They developed a respect for human reason, the ability to solve problem. Personal relationship with a creator and human responsiblity were topics of discussion. Different religious groups formed, declaring their right to their own way of worship. They read about the events in the New World across the ocean. The New World beckoned as a place where they could be free, and a place to make their fortunes. English colonies prospered and England prospered as her subjects overseas sent wealth to her. Another Queeen, Victoria, took the throne and oversaw the full fortune of the British Empire. The complications of English society in her era were immortalized in the novels of the period.
19th Century Life
Industrial development changed life in England. British ships sailed the oceans, taking English manufactured goods abroad and returning with goods from many nations to fill shops and provide attractive items for a growing middle class, made up of bankers, merchants, factory owners and their wives. A literary profession developed as people could earn money writing for this audience. Publishing became an occupation. A popular author like Charles Dickens drew huge crowds in England as well as on his tour of America. People eagerly bought the monthly publications in which chapters of Dickens' latest story were published. Costs came down as printers made cheap copies. While people read the fiction eagerly, there was disapproval of such popular stuff. Many of the readers were women as were a number of the writers. People believed that women, the weaker sex, did not have the ability to think of complex matters. If they could write novels, clearly these fictions were of little value. Further, people would be better off reading religious and other serious matter.
Despite these naysayers, readers continued to want more fiction. In the 19th century, the audience for the novel grew rapidly in Britain. Readers could choose from a variety of novels, such as the tale of a young man going off to make his way in the world, having a series of adventures and romantic encounters. Gothic novels that pictured the decaying life of old aristocrats in gloomy, decaying castles featured exotic scenes and eerie events. Readers were fascinated by the horror scenes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817) The earliest Gothic novel that featured romance was Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847). Readers developed a taste for the strange and macabre.
Across the Atlantic the rising middle class in the United States enjoyed novels as industrialization meant that more people enjoyed prosperity and time to read. The lives of working people were hard, men, women and children had to work seven days a week for low pay. The novels of Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of his era, pictured the misery of the poor in London. When Dickens toured the United States, his appearances drew huge crowds. Americans knew about hard lives. Cities grew as country people came to get jobs in factories and immigrants arrived from other countries seeking better lives. They worked long hours for little pay, and often barely survived in the crowded, dirty tenements of the cities. One result of the crowding and the desperation of the poor was an increase in crimes that were reported in the newspapers of the era.
Another source of reading material about crime was memoirs of crime fighters. In early 19th century France, Eugene Vidocq, a former criminal, had risen to the top of the ranks of the Surete, the professional crime fighting system. When the government wanted to initiate such a system, criminals were a source of information and staffing. This posed problems, as citizens learned to fear the police. Vidocq did reform, he had a talent for organization, and understanding how criminals worked, he helped build a professional force. His four volume memoir was ghost written, and full of exciting incidents, many invented. The popularity of his memoir, which was translated into English, led others to write theirs. Eventually, Vidocq went to England to assist in developing a professional force. Such a force depended on an established civil system of crime and punishment. Law enforcement personnel are figures in the great majority of mystery novels.