The Historical Journal




University of Sydney


‘What do the masses read?’ After popular literacy and an urban market for mass culture became conspicuous in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century, dozens of literary figures and social researchers took it upon themselves to answer this question. Middle-class inquirers sought in newsagents' wares a vicarious connection with the culture and values of the readers of popular fiction. Many of these investigators, from Wilkie Collins in the 1850s to George Orwell in the 1930s, practised a form of literary criticism that doubled as social criticism. Other students of popular reading – Florence Bell in her study of early twentieth-century Middlesbrough and Mass-Observation in its surveys of reading during the Second World War – worked at the margins of British traditions of social research. Critics working from the texts of popular fiction tended to concentrate on questions of style and ideology; those doing fieldwork focused on reading as a social practice. Examining the corpus of studies of popular literacy from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century opens up the question of the scope of literary criticism and social research in modern Britain.


Department of History, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia


*  I wish to thank participants in the Cambridge modern cultural history seminar and the Oxford modern British history seminar – and especially Jon Lawrence, Ross McKibbin, Peter Mandler, and Gillian Sutherland. Alastair Blanshard, Barbara Caine, Marco Duranti, Andrew Fitzmaurice, John Gagné, Julia Horne, Miranda Johnson, Glenda Sluga, and Philip Waller read an earlier version of this article. Their criticisms and suggestions improved it a great deal, as did the insights of the anonymous referees for the Historical Journal. I am grateful to Jennie Taylor and Emma Grant for research assistance. This research was supported by a fellowship from the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project 1093097).