Determining the audience for the Female Tatler is a difficult task. The Female Tatler aims to educate all society (inveighing as it does against both genders, the affectations of the lower classes and the excesses of the upper classes) and yet seems to address itself specifically to women (who are advised to marry well, behave soberly, etc. See Edification). Although we will never know for certain, educated speculations are possible. Based on existing evidence, it seems that the readership of the Female Tatler was composed mostly of educated upper-to-middle-class women (and probably some men) since only they could afford to read.*
Male literacy in England slowly and steadily increased from ten percent in 1500 to forty-five percent in 1714 and to sixty percent in 1750. Female literacy in England increased from a mere one percent in 1500 to twenty-five percent in 1714 and to forty percent in 1750. Literacy rates were greatest in urban areas, especially London, which had the highest rates of all. In London, female literacy grew from twenty-two percent in 1670 to sixty-six percent in 1720.** As such, the potential audience for the Female Tatler was relatively small. The overall percentages of literacy rates are skewed not only towards males but towards those with access to money and education, including aristocrats, gentry, and wealthy merchants.16
An Illustration of Hall's Library, Margate. J. Hall and T. Malton. 1789.17
The private book collections of such prosperous groups as merchants, shopkeepers, farmers, and traders increased threefold between 1670 and 1720. The growing national library of the British Museum points to one instance of the growth of the reading public. Libraries rarely exceeded 50, 000 volumes. In the eighteenth century, poetry was an economic luxury to most Englishmen since books were bought by a very small number of people. Various literary texts, including political pamphlets, poetry, plays, travel books, history, sermons, technical and professional books (which were often expensive), periodicals such as the Female Tatler, the Spectator, and their successors, and, as the century advanced, prose fiction, competed with each other in the literary market. Since periodicals, like modern-day newspapers, were often shared, one issue of a popular periodical like the Spectator could be read by upwards of twenty people in such gathering places as coffee shops. Some retail booksellers lent books to their customers for a small fee, confusing the demarcation between bookshops and libraries. Exceedingly popular in the early part of the century, circulating libraries charged their patrons an annual or quarterly fee, an amount usually well within the budget of a gentleman, merchant, professional, trader, or skilled artisan.
Wealth was not the only factor that determined access to books and the cultural capital they symbolized. "More than anything else, taste depended upon the written and printed word, on the descriptions, criticisms and discussions of cultural activity which created communities of interest . . . it was very difficult, unless you were a fluent reader, to talk knowingly and with authority about the cultural fashions of the day . . . Those who could not read lacked a crucial link in the chain of communication that connected public exhibition and performance to the printed column and the written manuscript, and both to the spoken realm of drawing room conversation."18 Familiarity with the latest political and cultural news of the day signified one as a man or woman of taste and discrimination-qualities crucial in defining one's status in society.*** (See Conversation and Decorum.) Thus, what one read, how one read, and why one read-then, as today-meant so much more than any simplistic claim to a "pursuit of knowledge."
A Book Label from Wright's Circulating Library19
*Through the Female Tatler, readers confronted a language that had not been standardized yet. Not until 1755, when Samuel Johnson completed A Dictionary of the English Language, did the lexicon receive full treatment. (Nathaniel Bailey published the Universal Etymological English Dictionary in 1721 but Bailey's entries, though numbering as many as 60, 000 in the 1736 edition, lack the illustrations and guidance Johnson provides.) Over seven years, Johnson wrote the definitions of around 40,000 words, illustrating their best use through examples from Elizabethan to ancient authors. His famous Preface provides a theoretical basis for his project. During the second half of the eighteenth century, especially during the 1760s, attention increasingly turned to grammar. The most influential of the over 200 works on grammar and rhetoric published between 1750 and 1800 were Bishop Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) and Lindley Murray's English Grammar (1794). By the end of the eighteenth century, the spelling, punctuation, and grammar were very close to modern usage although idiom and vocabulary have undergone great change since then.
**Keep in mind that these numbers are not completely reliable: the ability to sign one's name connoted literacy. The validity of such an indicator is open to debate and criticism.
*** During the latter half of the eighteenth century, fears of the female reader-the reader locked in her room, subject to the influence of words-gained ascendancy, as illustrated in Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey. In many ways, this reader symbolized popular anxieties about a society of consumption; the person (i.e., the "susceptible" woman) who consumed too much could take on the characteristics of the marketplace: fickle, romantic, silly, or morally (and therefore sexually) loose.
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