The early 19th-century market in second-hand classics

Pope’s verse translations of Homer were even more widely read in the 19th century. Around 60 years after Hill compared Pope and Homer’s Greek, James Carter (1792-1853), also a tailor, borrowed Pope’s Homer from a friend. In 1819 or 1820, he read it at meal times and in the evenings after work. In his Memoirs of a Working Man (1845) he tells how he ‘read them with much satisfaction’, but ‘greatly preferred the “Odyssey”; for the “Iliad” was too full of warlike descriptions for one of my pacific temper. I still retain this preference’.22 Such evidence for working-class reading at the time is rare. It was in the late 1820s that major London presses began reprinting literary texts cheaply.23 Previously, hard-up readers therefore relied on buying and sharing second-hand volumes.

The son of a Dissenting weaver, working in warehouses in Manchester, Samuel Bamford (1788-1872) became a renowned Chartist, as we shall see in

Chapter 5. But he was made to love poetry and ancient history by Pope’s Iliad. Like Hill’s discovery of Latin, Bamford’s first contact with Classics was both by chance and incomplete: he picked up only the second volume of Pope’s Iliad, which contained, he recalls in Early Days (1849), notes by Madame Dacier.24 Like many contemporaries, Bamford treated Pope’s translation as if it were Homer’s composition:

Homer I read with an absorbed attention which soon enabled me to commit nearly every line to memory. The perusal created in me a profound admiration of the old heathen heroes, and a strong desire to explore the whole of “The tale of Troy divine.” To the deep melancholy of the concluding line I fully responded.

Be this the song, slow moving tow’rd the shore,

Hector is dead, and Ilion is no more!’2

At 20, Bamford could sometimes read while at work as janitor, porter and bookkeeper in a warehouse owned by Messrs Hole, Wilkinson and Gartside:

As spring and autumn were our only really busy seasons, I had occasionally, during other parts of the year, considerable leisure, which, if I could procure a book that I considered at all worth the reading, was spent with such book at my desk, in the little recess of the packing room. Here, therefore, I had opportunities for reading many books of which I had only heard the names before, such as Robertson’s history of Scotland, Goldsmith’s history of England, Rollin’s ancient history, Hume’s [sic: read Gibbon’s] decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Anachaises’ [sir] travels in Greece; and many other works on travels, geography, and antiquities.26

Few working-class occupations permitted reading on the job. Fortunately, when Bamford’s boss discovered that he hid reading material between the pages of the huge ledger, he did not reprimand him. He actively encouraged Bamford’s literary pursuits.

The books Bamford recalls, if inaccurately, were pillars of 19th-century selfeducation.27 Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire itself achieved classic status as soon as its first volume was published in 1776. Charles Rollin’s The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians, published in English translation between 1726 and 1737, was ubiquitous in bookshops, libraries, reading rooms and bookstalls.

By the book about Anachaises’ Bamford means Anacharsis’ Travels in Greece. Jean-Jacques Barthélemy (1716-1795), a French Jesuit scholar and numismatist, deciphered the Palmyrene and Phoenician alphabets.28 First published in 1790— 1791, William Beaumont’s translation brought Anacharsis to British attention. French theatre, scholarship and translation were important in British engagement with classical antiquity. Many English translations benefitted from French scholarly notes, and French translations were a mediating presence between the ancient source and the English translation.29 Barthélemy’s four-volume Lbyasje du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce (1787) relates how the Scythian sage Anacharsis met distinguished Greeks including Solon and impressed all with his candid philosophical speech, drawing on Diogenes Laertius, Vitae Philosophorum 1.101 and Herodotus IV.46, 76-7. Barthélemy’s creative work, which also uses the Bible, Plutarch, Athenaeus, Aelian, Strabo and Cicero, is one of several French texts, on the cusp between historical and didactic fiction, which amalgamated ancient sources in a new narrative. The trend had been set by Archbishop François Fénelon’s influential Les Aventures de Télémaque in 1699.30

A marginally better-known French travelogue featured the Persian king Cyrus the Elder. Its author was a Jacobite philosopher, Andrew Michael (Chevalier) Ramsay, who began life as the son of a Calvinist Ayrshire baker but followed his passion for French mysticism to Cambrai and the feet of Fénelon. Mary Stancliff, on the other hand, was the maid-servant of Gertrude Savile (the unmarried aunt of the politician Sir George Savile, eighth baronet).31 On 21st February 1728, Gertrude notes in her diary that she rose at 10 o’clock. Mary (who had no doubt risen considerably earlier) read aloud to her from the English translation of Ramsay’s new and popular Travels of Cyrus (1727).32 Stancliff’s example introduces the category of working-class classical reader whose duties included reading for their employer;33 she must have acquired more than basic literacy to read out Ramsay’s erudite story, informed by philosophy, theology, magi and Greek luminaries. In the tradition of identifying proto-Christian values in pagan lore, Ramsay proposes three states of humanity: the innocent, the fallen and the restored. Like Fénelon, Ramsay combined competing philosophical and scientific ideas in a mystical Christian context often drawn from ancient Greek sources.34 But there are only four similar diary entries. We know only that Savile would listen to Stancliff read while she rested or knitted, and that the servant’s performance was adequate: ‘Mary read to me a little before dinner, (which she does tolerable); “Cyrus” a Romance. I wound silk’.35

Evidence of Ramsay’s Cyrus in a worker’s hands reappears a century later, when James Dawson Burn (c.1802-1882), an apprentice hatter, was given an old copy by a friend. In his Autobiography of a Beggar Boy (1856), Burn explains that the volume

opened up to my enquiring mind a rich field of useful knowledge. The appendix to the work contained the heathen mythology: this part of the work completely fascinated me, and for a considerable time became my constant companion.36

Burn was raised by his mother, who earned a meagre wage carding wool for hats. He saw his youthful self as belonging to one of‘the various substrata of civilized society ... who continually live as it were by chance’. He was, he reflects, ‘born in poverty, nursed in sorrow, and reared in difficulties, hardships, and privations’.37 As a boy, Burn had been taken begging and peddling in Northumberland and the Scottish Lowlands by his step-father, an alcoholic ex-soldier (hence the autobiography’s title) who taught him to read but not write. In adolescence he worked in temporary occupations as a casual labourer and as servant to an eccentric Indian emigre named Mr Peters. At around 20 he became apprenticed to a Hexham hatter, and for 6 years can recall seeing nobody even read. When he was then given Cyrus, he became fascinated by the lengthy appendix, ‘A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the ANCIENTS'.3*

In the early 1830s, Burn became involved in Glaswegian radical politics. An advocate of trade unionism and Chartism, he helped establish the Oddfellows, a charitable fraternity, about which he wrote his Historical Sketch (1846). But he never forgot his chance encounter with classical mythology:

I had a continual craving to pry into the mysteries of literature; heretofore the glorious world of man’s thought had been a sealed book to me, and I longed most ardently to hold communion with those master-minds who had scattered the beautiful flowers of their intelligence in the garden of humanity.39

The elegance of this prose is astonishing for a man who did not learn to write until adulthood.

Reference books were key to the classical self-education of the lower classes. One of the most famous was also derived from a French source: the English edition of the French Jesuit François Pomey’s The Pantheon, repeatedly reprinted from 1694, although the 1698 translation, revised by schoolteacher and Gresham Professor Andrew Tooke, and often departing considerably from Pomey’s text, swiftly became the edition of choice. First published in Latin in 1659, by 1810 the Pomey and subsequently Pomey/Tooke volume, which had gone through 32 editions in London, was printed for the first time in the US, where it remained in print until 1860. The striking illustrations accompany succinct descriptions of deities within a dialogue between a teacher, Mystagogus, and his inquisitive pupil Pateophilus. Although the Pantheons primary market was schools, it was appreciated by working-class self-educators seeking elucidation of references in their classical and classicising reading material.

After many hours winding yarn for a Leicester cardigan-jacket weaver, Tom Barclay, the Roman Catholic son of Irish immigrants (his father was a rag-and-bone man), revelled in his collection of‘second-hand, often tattered books’, kept in a clothes-basket. He scoured market stalls for ‘discarded school-books’ which had ‘copious notes telling of “filthy loves of gods and goddesses’”. ‘What information’, he reminisces,

how strange, how intensely interesting. Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Apollo, Neptune, Vulcan, Pluto, Mercury, Venus, Minerva, Pan, Nymphs, Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads, Fates, Furies, Muses, Harpies. There we sat rapt, exchanging our health for what?—Listen. So and so (I forget his name) “whose fifty daughters Hercules deflowered (or debauched) in one night.” There’s stuff for big or little Christians to imbibe!40

Barclay here alludes to the story of Thespius, who allowed Hercules to sleep with his fifty daughters in return for killing a lion (see [Apollodorus], Bibliotheca II.7.8). This episode from Hercules’ story is not in the Pomey/Tooke Pantheon, but Barclay’s language corresponds with the idiom typical of it and other classical handbooks. For all their professed distaste for heathen mores, they relished the amorous conquests of heroes and gods, using a quiver of paraphrastic rape terminology.41 The Pomey/Tooke Pantheon, alongside Joseph Spence’s illustrations of Roman poets in Polymetis (1747) and John Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, Containing a Full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors (1788) was a favourite of the so-called Cockney School of poets, including Leigh Hunt and John Keats.42 They belonged to the middling classes; as the young sons of tradesmen and small business owners, they were often the intended readers of such books. But these texts, as we have seen, were used lower down the social scale, even though such uses often left no trace on the historical record. Barclay, moreover, despite having ‘no Latin outside the ordinary of the Mass’, enjoyed picking up Latin editions of the Roman poets Ovid, Juvenal and Catullus.43 The notes in English conveyed juicy details about the amours of the heathen gods. In the 19th century, as this market became more standardised, several of the books discussed here were simplified and explicitly repackaged as schoolbooks.

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