Literacy in the Eighteenth Century

With the changes to print and the printing press during the eighteenth century, “a larger production of text” were produced,” and therefore made texts more accessible to the general public and increased the literacy rates in England (“Short Overview of Influences and Changes in Print in 18th Century England”). With the increased rate of literacy, a new readership developed and the many authors began to appeal to the tastes of these audiences. These changes, according to Ian Watt, influenced the development of the novel. According to the University of Michigan’s Student Project on “Illustrated 18th Century Editions of Pamela” based on the Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela marked the progression from “literature as education to literature as entertainment.” It was the first example of the “best seller” in the history of English Fiction (“Illustrated 18th Century Edition of Pamela”). This piece notes that “Richardson in writing Pamela, “incorporated aspects of the different literary predecessors into his work: the educational, the entertaining, and the utilitarian.” The letters of love are addressed not to Pamela, but to her parents.” This piece, acknowledged that format “redefined the genre of letter-writing and the novel.” Pamela has interested many because it is a story about a female from a working class, as seen in her letters to her parents about her conversation with Mrs. Jervis about her master’s “wicked devices” and “schemes” (excerpt from Pamela)
The changes in printing is mostly seen in John Baskerville’s printing press, “ his printing was remarkable, too—for a run of 1500, he would print 2000 copies so he could select 1500 sheets of even color; he also used his type only once” (“Short Overview of Influences and Changes in Print in 18th Century England”).
Another well-read text was Shamela, a satirical text based on Pamela. Shamela was written by Henry Fielding, and Fielding sates, “Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In which, the many notorious Falsehoods and Misrepresentations of a book called Pamela, Are exposed and refuted; and all the matchless Arts of that young Politician, set in a true and just Light.” This is also a story written in letter form.
According to Ian Watt in the Rise of the Novel and the chapter titled “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel,” He argues that the break of the novel from literary tradition is the result of the “eighteenth century reading public” (35). Watt notes that many authors tailored their texts to include what was suitable to the general public, since the literacy rates increased. For example, he notes “In his English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century, for example, Leslie Stephen long ago suggested that the gradual extension of the reading class affected the development of literature addressed to them” (35).
Watts notes that the reading public totaled “80,000 in the nineties” (38). Watts also explains that in towns, such as London “shop names instead of signs began to appear, which struck a Swiss visitor, Carl Philipp Moritz, as unusual in 1782 surely implies that it was being increasingly assumed that written communication would be understood by a large enough proportion” (38).
I think that public readership influences many of the writings that were produced. Also, public readership probably influenced the subjects in which the authors wrote, and the influence of readership may have made an impact on the way the authors would describe their characters’ experiences. In my opinion, I think many authors wrote and expressed the visions and dreams of many members of the general public, as a result of this new readership. Many of these visions and dreams probably included social mobility, town life, family, and marriage which were . at the heart of many individuals at this time these themes which were reoccurring in text such as Roxana, Pamela, Shamela in addition to other literary works.