My grandmother was born, I think, in 1890. She was among the first in her family to benefit from Forster's 1870 Universal Education Act, just as I, two generations later, was the first to benefit from Butler's 1944 Education Act. Her own grandmother probably belonged to that semi-literate mass of women who could read fluently, but not write or 'figure'. Historically, reading has been something that mothers from all but the very lowest classes taught their children, even their daughters. Since writing and numbering were marketable skills, they were taught at school and, for most of the 19th century, were the exclusive property of men. In her late twenties my mother became (thanks to the Pitman School) a shorthand typist. Sewing, knitting (without bothering to look down) and silently obeying male voices ('taking dictation') were perfect preparation for the girl typist. Exit Bob Cratchit with his goosequill, enter Miss Jones with her 100 wpm. As it happened, my mother didn't teach me to read, because I was evacuated from London during my early childhood. Later on, she taught me five-finger touch-typing, for which I am every day grateful.
LRB 21 August 2003 | PDF Download