Early nineteenth century literacy was based on the ability to sign the marriage register. Education was a gift that was taken away as quickly as it was received.
David Vincent states that ‘literacy is extricably linked to notions of progress’, this idea lends itself to Minnie. (Vincent, 405) She recalls how her teachers and sister Rose pushed her to reach her educational potential.
Although Minnie’s memoir remained unpublished the fact that she cohesively wrote a forty-seven page memoir which highlights her reading and writing capabilities is impressive. For Minnie in later life, writing became a past time and leisure activity despite her debilitating illnesses.
Due to her parent’s religiosity and spiritualism Chapel and Sunday School were regular for Minnie. It is likely that the Bible would have been Minnie’s first introduction to literature,
‘I went to Sunday School first, and used to learn to read out of picture books, I well remember Mr Parkes say to me, I should soon be able to go into the higher class and learn to read the Testament.’ (Frisby, I:13)
Evidently Minnie had a natural ability for reading. As Vincent says literacy is linked with progress and this was something Minnie enjoyed.
The Bible is the only piece of literature Minnie recalls in her memoir,
‘sometimes of a Sunday evening [we looked] at the old family Bible, we had to be very good to be allowed to look at the pictures, as our big family Bible had lots of pictures in it.’ (Frisby, 1:10)
The fact that Minnie remembers the pictures in the Bible is important. A pictorial Bible would have been for illiterate families to understand Biblical stories they listened to in Church. Through the pictures families would have been able to learn stories, passing them onto the children.
In terms of education, Minnie reached the highest Sixth Standard at twelve. Thus concluding that she was able to read and write fluently. Although she had to leave education her desire to learn propels her throughout life.
Auto-didacticism was popular in working-class life. Jonathon Rose stipulates, ‘the working-class enjoyed a reputation for self-education’. (Rose, 187) This idea was important in Minnie’s family as her father taught himself and his children to play musical instruments.
This musicality resulted in Minnie enjoying instruments, songs and poetry. At the end of her first book she writes a three stanza poem entitled ‘M.F.’ (I assume this is an acronym for Minnie Frisby), (Frisby, I:21)
Where is now that merry party,
Laughing around the Christmas fire,
Brightened by its ruddy glow.
Or in Summer’s balmy evening,
In the fields among the hay,
They have all dispersed and wandered
Far away – far away
Clearly the poem showcases Minnie’s working knowledge of poetical and literary devices that she could use. Although she fails to discuss any literary influences Minnie had a knowledge of literature as she was able to write poetry, songs and her memoir with ease.
Finally, due to Minnie living in rural Bromsgrove she was a woman of nature and possessed a free spiritedness throughout her life. Therefore, instead of reading literature for escapism Minnie could submerse herself in a Romantic and literary world by simply stepping outside into the gardens and beyond.
Frisby, Minnie. ‘Memories’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:250
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)
Vincent, David, ‘The Progress of Literacy’, Victorian Studies, 45:3, (2003), pp. 405-431