The perils of knowledge

by Chris Bertram on May 31, 2004

On Saturday night we went to a performance of Sheridan’s “The Rivals”: at Bristol’s “Old Vic”: , which has some claim to being the oldest working theatre in Britain (a claim that is carefully qualified to exlude some rivals, though). A very enjoyable evening, complete with a reminder that anxieties about the corrupting effects of new media (internet, the telephone etc) had been fully awakened by the 18th century. Libraries were identified as the cause of moral decline in this exchange between Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute:

bq. Mrs. Mal. There’s a little intricate hussy for you!

bq. Sir Anth. It is not to be wondered at, ma’am,—all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!

bq. Mrs. Mal. Nay, nay, Sir Anthony, you are an absolute misanthropy.

bq. Sir Anth. In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece’s maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

bq. Mrs. Mal. Those are vile places, indeed!

bq. Sir Anth. Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.



PG 05.31.04 at 1:36 pm

I’d put this down more to the usual fear of knowledge, and especially women’s access to information (notice the parallel drawn between literacy and witchcraft), than to a particular terror of the new medium of the circulating library.


jamie 05.31.04 at 7:11 pm

Yes, but it seems to be characteristic of these kind of fears that the medium gets condused with the message – “the danger OF the internet” being the most recent example.


Ophelia Benson 05.31.04 at 7:26 pm

Wait, though. Circulating libraries weren’t the same sort of thing as public libraries. They were commercial ventures, not civic or educational ones, so isn’t the fear being expressed not one of knowledge or education (or even ‘information’) but one more like Cervantes’ or Austen’s or Flaubert’s – of the (putative) corrupting effects of a steady diet of romance? Not quite as simple as just worrying that the maid will learn something and thus qualify to go to Oxford and become a premature Marxist. No?


Ray 05.31.04 at 8:08 pm

Corruption is a compound rather than a simple. Sir Anthony was indeed most likely emphasizing the erotic aspect of novels, and yet what made that aspect most problematic was its tendency to distract women and the lower classes from their respective duties. (Sara Jordan’s The Anxieties of Idleness had some interesting compare-and-contrasts here.)

Matters hadn’t become easier by 1877, as The New Republic shows:

‘The difficulty is,’ said Lady Ambrose, as Mr. Herbert was walking away, ‘how to keep all this thought, and so forth, to ourselves. One thing I’m quite certain of, that we really do a great deal of harm without thinking of it, by the way in which we speak our minds out before servants, and that sort of people, without in the least considering what may come of it. Now, what do you think of this, as a plan for making our ideal state a really good and contented place?—the upper classes should speak a different language from the lower classes. Of course we should be able to speak theirs, but they would not be able to speak ours. And then, you see, they would never hear us talk, or read our books, or get hold of our ideas; which, after all, is what does all the mischief. And yet,’ said Lady Ambrose with a sigh, ‘that’s not the great difficulty. The great difficulty would be about daughters and younger sons, and how to give them all enough to keep them going in the world. However, this we can talk of in a minute. But—’ here Lady Ambrose put her hand in her pocket, and a sound was heard as of rustling paper.


Ophelia Benson 05.31.04 at 9:03 pm

Very interesting! Great quotation.

“what made that aspect most problematic was its tendency to distract women and the lower classes from their respective duties.”

Yeah, that’s what I meant, but said more cleverly than I would have if I’d thought to say it, which I didn’t.


Bob 05.31.04 at 9:40 pm

Sir Anthony’s concerns about the terrible consequences of educating women starkly contrast with the earlier preferences of Daniel Defoe:

“I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves. . . ” – from Daniel Defoe: The Education of Women (1719) at:


Ophelia Benson 05.31.04 at 10:25 pm

But, again, Sir Anthony (in the quoted extract, at least – I have to say my knowledge of Sheridan is not what it might be) is not strictly talking about education. He is talking first about literacy, but then he is talking about circulating libraries and their contents, rather than education. Circulating libraries had multiple copies of popular novels and not always much of anything else – though I think that varied with the library. But I think the discussion is more about popular (romantic) fiction rather than about education.

Austen talks about this kind of thing a lot. There is the course of serious reading Emma is always planning to embark on with Harriet, and never does. There is the defense of novels in Northanger Abbey. There is Anne’s advice to Captain Thingummy, to read less poetry and more essays and history. (So Austen is complicated – defends novels in one place, wants more ‘solid’ reading in another.) It’s not quite right to equate circulating libraries with education – it’s a bit more complicated than that. (In other words Defoe probably wouldn’t have thought maids were picking up an education by frequenting a ciruclating library.)


W. Kiernan 05.31.04 at 11:27 pm

You ever read Herbert Spencer bitchin’ up a storm about them freedom-hatin’, tax-n-spend Liberals?

In 1862 an Act was passed for restricting the employment of women and children in open-air bleaching; and an Act for making illegal a coal-mine with a single shaft, or with shafts separated by less than a specified space…

and if that’s not bad enough

an Act for compulsory testing of cables and anchors

and if that’s not bad enough

Then in 1873 was passed the Agricultural Children’s Act, which makes it penal for a farmer to employ a child who has neither certificate of elementary education nor of certain prescribed school attendances

but finally to o’ertop all other outrages,

a Public Libraries Act, giving local powers by which a majority can tax a minority for their books,

those leeches! the end result being

For the implied address accompanying every additional exaction is — “Hitherto you have been free to spend this portion of your earnings in any way which pleased you; hereafter you shall not be free so to spend it, but we will spend it for the general benefit.” Thus, either directly or indirectly, and in most cases both at once, the citizen is at each further stage in the growth of this compulsory legislation, deprived of some liberty which he previously had.

Damn you Bill Klinton!!1!1

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