Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2019

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 09/04/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Stewart, Garrett

Second Advisor

Pascoe, Judith

First Committee Member

Boos, Florence

Second Committee Member

Buckley, Jennifer

Third Committee Member

Brown, Matthew


This dissertation considers how listening to reading aloud changed the English novel in the context of rising literacy rates and an accelerating print culture. Traditionally, historians associate mass literacy and cheap, fast print with a shift away from communal, oral reading in the nineteenth century. Accounts of the “revolution” in European reading practices at the end of the 1700s posit a turn toward solitary, private, and silent encounters with a wider range of texts. As a rich body of scholarship has shown, however, oral culture was alive and well in nineteenth-century print culture: public speech and speakers—orators, preachers, elocutionists, and storytellers—filled squares, pulpits, and stages (not to mention novel pages) throughout the century. But what about not-so-public speech? Oral delivery in the home? Communal but domestic, oral but routine, “household reading” slips through the cracks of our go-to methods for categorizing and researching the reading experience. Even so, ample evidence—from home entertainment guides, to elocution manuals, to women’s domestic periodicals and recommended reading pamphlets—points to the prevalence of the practice and, as I profile, its central role in period literacy programs. Family-centered and within the domestic sphere, household reading served as a safe literary practice for the century’s so-called “new readers.” Yet, according to the literature of the period, reading aloud was not “safe” at all. My dissertation identifies fiction’s unruly listeners: tired laborers who zone out while listening to the Bible, women who fall asleep to their husbands’ Shakespeare delivery, and children who eavesdrop on their parents reading the newspaper’s sex scandals. Combining sound studies and reading history, I argue that novelists deploy these intractable audience members as part of a larger campaign to articulate the value of the novel in an era still suspicious of the form and its effects on an expanding national reading public.

I structure my chapters around texts frequently depicted in scenes of household reading—Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and the newspaper—all texts that had safely secured cultural authority and value. These were also texts associated with public speech and performance—texts read aloud in playhouses, churches, or pubs. Yet, each underwent what I call a “reception crisis”: a period when cheaper production and wider circulation brought the text into more households—in short, became affordable and accessible material for home delivery. And, as my chapters discuss, these changes prompted new anxieties about who could access each text and how they would attend (or not attend) to it. The writers I survey allude to these anxieties in order to demonstrate what their own novels can offer a growing literate public. While the authors I study want to borrow some aspect of another text—to adopt, say, Shakespeare’s cultivation of literary taste, the Bible’s moral instruction, or the newspaper’s candid communication of reality—they also need to articulate fiction’s unique offerings. Here, our unruly listeners come into play. They demonstrate how, where, and with which readers a different text, even a supposed guarantor of truth like the Bible, fails to “work.” These noncompliant listeners, then, function like any advertisement created to distinguish a new product from existing competitors. They showcase the promises of fiction by revealing the shortcomings of another text within the context of the period’s new readers and new ways of reading.


history of reading, listening, literacy, nineteenth-century Britain, novel, sound


viii, 203 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 182-203).


Copyright © 2019 Kate Nesbit

Available for download on Saturday, September 04, 2021