Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Popular Literature

Ian Haywood

The Revolution in Popular Literature: Print, Politics and the People, 1790-1860

(Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, Cambridge University Press), 2009

332pp., £22.99 paper, ISBN 978-0-521-10349-7

Originally published in 2004 and justly well received and now available in paperback, this study examines the evolution of popular literature in Britain in the Romantic and Victorian periods. The key to understanding popular literature is the clash between radical and reactionary politics and the need of both to win the support of the ‘common reader’. The result was the use of print culture to try to influence the newly literate groups in society. The critical problem was what should people be encouraged to read and the difficulty in ensuring that this was the case once that decision had been made. The problem with a literate society is that people will choose to read what they want to read not just what the authorities would like them to read. In that respect, radical politics from the 1790s played a decisive role in the transformation of popular literature from the plebeian literature of the 1790s through to the mass-circulation fiction and newspapers of the 1840s. Divided this three sections, Ian Haywood has concentrated on the importance of the 1790s, the two decades after the end of the French Wars in 1815 and the literature associated with Chartism. If knowledge is power, then popular literacy and popular literature were the means through which power could be achieved or, in the case of loyalist writers, retained, something Hannah More recognised. Whether literature produced for a political audience or politics embellished by writers for a literary audience, the important of popular literature to the development of popular culture was and remains important.

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