Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

 Discovering Dickens

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Not the least eager of the eyes assembled were the eyes of those who could not read. These people, as they listened to the friendly voice that read aloud—there was always some such ready to help them—stared at the characters which meant so much with a vague awe and respect that would have been half ludicrous, if any aspect of public ignorance could ever be otherwise than threatening and full of evil.

When Dickens arrived in Preston in January 1854 to observe the strike, he found the town quiet; he wrote to his friend John Forster that one of the only signs that anything was different there was the "crowds at the street-corners reading the placards pro and con." Literacy rates rose during the nineteenth century, particularly in urban areas, thus creating the vast market for popular literature that was a major factor in Dickens's own success. Nevertheless, many of the working class might have remained unable to read, particularly older workers who had come of age before then-recent laws requiring children in factories to receive some schooling.

saying that he was forced to seek work in another name

During the Victorian period, it was relatively easy for individuals to take an assumed name or identity. There were at the time none of the apparatus of identity that we know today (such as driver's licenses and other bureaucratic papers), and communities relied on their knowledge of the individual—and his or her truthfulness—to establish their identities. However, the rise of railroads, urbanization, and the advent of a more mobile society meant that people were moving throughout the country more than ever before, leading to concerns that personal identity was no longer fixed and reliable. Stephen's letter to Rachael reveals that he has been able to use this fact to evade an unjust suspicion. Not long after the time Dickens wrote, the rise of detective fiction and "sensation" novels also exploited this phenomenon, and some scholars have attributed the popularity of these forms to a cultural anxiety over personal identity.

since his sheet-anchor had come home

A ship's main anchor, used in emergencies; figuratively, a support in danger. Here, it is used to mean that Louisa had been Gradgrind's mainstay.



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