‘Oh, What Beautiful Books!’: Captivated Readers in an Early-Victorian Gaol

As November ushered in its customary chill, a warm welcome awaited the delegates who gathered for the first paper in this year’s series of seminars. The turn-out was impressive, featuring staff and students from both LJMU and our neighbours at the University of Liverpool, all eager to hear Dr Helen Rogers’s fascinating research into the impact of nineteenth-century prison visitor Sarah Martin and her work with the inmates of Yarmouth Gaol.

What followed was a hugely affecting paper, felt all the more keenly owing to Helen’s presentation of the material, which revealed her own emotional response to the scholarly research. We learned how the literally ‘captive’ boys were simultaneously captivated by the reading material offered by Sarah Martin. She sought out books that they could keep and they in turn made the learning process their own, jostling to pore over the illustrations depicting simple moral tales featuring characters seemingly like themselves and revealing their own opinions, characters and emotions as they argued about and interpreted what they heard excitedly.

We were saddened to learn that the effects of this experience were often temporary and that old habits would prevail upon release with many of the boys featured in Helen’s research re-offending as old social bonds and impulses won out. Helen’s paper conveyed a familial scene in which Sarah Martin created an intimate reading environment that was not sentimental, but rather warm and inclusive. The content of the tales may appear didactic and overly moral, but this seemed to matter far less than the space and time taken to look at them where the boys’ animated natures were momentarily focussed and occupied.

A lively discussion, accompanied by a glass of wine, raised a diverse array of issues. These included ideas surrounding working-class philanthropy, learning techniques, gender, materialism and aesthetics, through to Foucault, prison and rehabilitation. I was particularly interested in the question of annotation and marginalia. At least one of the boys ‘spoiled’ his primer. Could this signify a sense of ownership and identity in any way, or was there a more straightforward explanation for the doodling?

As we thanked Helen for sharing a slice of her fascinating project with us and readied to leave for a hearty meal, her closing comments resonated with me. Helen cannot help but hope that the boys must have carried a little of their shared experience back out into the world with them. And as I headed back out into that dark November evening, with thoughts of Christmas Patterson and his friends running through my head, I like to think that she must be right.

Lois Thomas
MPhil/PhD student working on depictions of revelatory experience in late nineteenth-century writings.

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