Unwriting Victorian illiteracy

Creechan, Louise (2020) Unwriting Victorian illiteracy. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis demonstrates that the representations of illiteracy in Victorian fiction often called into question the absolutism of and motivations behind the contemporary drive for universal literacy. In the texts I examine here, low-level literacy functions as a means of resistance against oppressive class and educational hierarchies. The original contribution to knowledge that this thesis makes is a reconfiguration of the supposed primacy of literacy in nineteenth-century fictional representations concerned with educational progress. It demonstrates that across the nineteenth century, there was a hitherto-underdiscussed ambivalence in fiction regarding the dominance of textuality, with writers often criticising texts’ domineering authority while seeking to hold open spaces for other, increasingly subaltern forms of knowledge-making and understanding.
In response to Samuel Johnson’s 1755 definition of illiteracy – ‘unlettered; untaught; unlearned; unenlightened by science’ – and the (mis)perception of illiteracy as inevitably being a deficit, the thesis is structured around four forms of illiterate representation that utilise the ‘un-’ prefix. The chapters are arranged chronologically to give a sense of the general progression of illiterate representation in relation to significant shifts in educational policy, public attitudes, and increasing literacy rates. The first chapter – The Unlearned ¬– identifies a contemporary alternative to the semi-literate criminal trope in 1830s fiction: the semi-literate footman. I argue that while footmen figures are often morally ambivalent, their low-level literacy functions as a powerful vehicle for exposing upper-class hypocrisies. The footmen in early Victorian texts gain both their critical lens and their individual agency through their atypical literacy. However, these traits are pre-emptively quashed by the exploitative teaching practices seen in mid-century fiction. The second chapter – The Untaught – focuses on the numerous scenes of literacy training that appeared in fiction published in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This chapter demonstrates how the power dynamics of the reading lesson are used to control the intellectual and sexual development of learners. It pays particular attention to gendered dynamics, discussing the patronisation of male learners and the subjugation of female learners within the commonly employed ambivalences of the pedagogical marriage plot. The thesis then shifts focus from the actions of predatory pedagogues to the disciplinary power of text. In chapter three – The Underestimated – I introduce the figure of the ‘idiot reader’, an intellectually disabled figure found in several sensation novels whose atypical literacy renders them attuned to the numerous dangers posed by the written word. The final chapter – The Unorthodox – focuses on depiction of alternative forms of reading and orthography that challenge the universalist discourses of the education reform agenda in the decades after the 1870 Education Act. These readings of illiterate agency found in nineteenth-century fiction culminate in the conclusion of my thesis – The Unwriting. This final analysis is delivered unscripted via voice recording and reflects upon the primacy of written forms of communication over alternative means of intellectual expression within the contemporary academy.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Illiteracy, low-level literacy, literacy, education, nineteenth-century, Victorian, dyslexia, learning difficulties, novel.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Sangster, Dr. Matthew and Ferguson, Professor Christine
Date of Award: 2020
Embargo Date: 24 July 2025
Depositing User: Dr Louise Creechan
Unique ID: glathesis:2020-81535
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 Aug 2020 15:53
Last Modified: 18 Aug 2023 08:12
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.81535
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/81535

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