When the emancipated slave William Wells Brown visited England in 1850, he made a short visit to the “far-famed city of Oxford … one of the principal seats of learning in the world.” Here, he admired the architectural beauties of the university, and, when night fell, walked around the colleges that back onto Christ Church meadow:
I could here and there see the reflection of light from the window of some student, who was busy at his studies, or throwing away his time over some trashy novel, too many of which find their way into the trunks or carpet-bags of the young men on setting out for college. As I looked upon the walls of these buildings I thought, as the rough stone is taken from the quarry to the finisher, there to be made into an ornament, so was the young mind brought here to be cultivated and developed.
Brown’s focus of interest is salutary. Reading provoked a good deal of anxiety during the Victorian period. At the center of this anxiety about what constituted suitable reading material and ways of reading lay concerns about class, and concerns about gender. In both cases, fiction was regarded as particularly suspect: likely to influence adversely, to stimulate inappropriate ambitions and desires, to corrupt. But in the case of Brown, a man who is painfully aware of the value of education, and of the advantages which privilege bestows, we see someone who is less troubled by the thought that this young man might be learning dangerous lessons from his novel, than that a privileged student is frittering away his time, wasting those opportunities for learning from which others could gain so much. Brown seizes the chance to regret how “few of our own race can find a place within their walls,” and to emphasize the need, among black people, to turn their attention seriously to self-education.