Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2009
Around 1800, William Pitt Scargill recalls in Recollections of a Blue-Coat Schoolboy (Harvey and Darton, 1829), ‘very little attention was paid to the reading of boys’. In the absence of ‘rational books’ (p. 74) designed for children, pupils at Christ’s Hospital read chapbooks during recreation hours. Even in school, ‘while we appeared to be learning our lessons, we were amusing ourselves with Robinson Crusoe or Jack the Giant Killer’ (p. 92), concealed amid grammars and dictionaries. When a pupil was sent to change the dormitory nurse’s novel at a nearby circulating library, he skimmed it on the way home, and might be allowed to take it into dinner. ‘Sometimes three or four of us would sit together on the steps of the grammar-school, poring over the same book, and reading with most astonishing rapidity page after page’. Together, the boys ‘contrived to obtain possession of the whole story’; ‘however imperfectly picked up’ (p. 76), it was retold whenever ‘four or five’ met in one bed for hours of ‘irregularities’ (p. 74): clandestine, nocturnal story-telling sessions.
As a child, Samuel Taylor Coleridge escaped school-fellows’ taunting by chapbook reading, yet the stories so haunted him that his father burnt them. For Scargill’s schoolboys, chapbooks function rather as social glue, counterbalancing a curriculum of rote memorization and Latin recitation. These boys immerse themselves indiscriminately in the popular narratives of the chapbook and lending-library novels, parts of a common literary repertoire; such narratives generate both book-reading and oral experiences for the same readers.