- Late Eighteenth-Century Public Reading, with Particular Attention to Sheridan's Strictures on Reading the Church Service (1789)
Sheridan's Strictures on Reading the Church-Service; with the notes, regularly annexed, and proper references is an ugly little book, written by the utterly unknown Rev. W. Faulkner, A.B. According to the card catalogue at the Huntington Library, Faulkner was "Rector of St. Andrew's, Worcester," but he seems to have left no other trace. Indeed, he does not even get credit for his own book: the infelicitous title must explain why the National Union Catalogue credits Thomas Sheridan as the author, even though Sheridan's work seems always to have been respectably sponsored, properly published and elegantly presented. The online English Short Title Catalogue contains no notice at all of Faulkner's text, printed in Worcester in 1789. The Dictionary of National Biography records no such W. Faulkner. Despite its manifest humility the little book intended nothing less than to reform the evidently atrocious parish reading of the Church of England liturgy. Picking up where the eloquent "Dublin Orator," Sheridan, had left off in his distinguished Lectures, Faulkner details how the liturgy was commonly read and suggests how it should be read.1
In the following pages I shall maintain that the Strictures are usefully examined for the copious information they provide on educated public speech as "reading" in the late eighteenth century; particularly liturgical and Bible reading but also, according to Sheridan, other public reading. This is arguably [End Page 35] no small matter. In a day of nearly universal attendance at worship, public reading of the liturgy and Biblical texts generally was the most obvious and widely shared experience of the English language read aloud. This was true across Britain and in English-speaking colonies, where clergy trained in England followed common practice. To the extent that prayers were said at home and in the workplace, church and chapel reading presumably modeled domestic and other non-professional performance of the printed word. Liturgical emphases and cadences of the Psalms and the Lord's Prayer, for example, were presumably repeated at table and in the closet. Clergymen were not only liturgists, of course, but also tutors, educators, mentors, advisors, preachers and community leaders. (We may charitably presume that the satiric representations of unworthy clergymen in eighteenth-century plays and novels only reinforced the generally high public expectations.) They had great influence in matters of education and the common life. In the age of revivals and surging Methodism, the clergy were also expected to fend off Methodist predators. Sheridan had argued that when the clergy failed properly to consider the sense of the texts they read, when they used a strained, artificial, rote delivery, they set their flock up for the evils of Methodism.
Beyond the practice of liturgists and the dangers of passionate Methodism a certain passage in the history of orality and of literacy seems to be at issue here, an episode with implications for the rise of fiction and periodical journalism, for the interest in ballads, Ossian and folk literature. Sheridan had pointed out that illiterate speakers never emphasize the wrong words or rush over the important points when speaking. Bad reading is an acquired, or a learned, distortion of language. If educated men spoke as poorly as Sheridan and Faulkner indicated, by training and by affectation, certainly the rise of a more popular, democratic, "authentic" mode of speech was inevitable. Did "folk" poetry proceeding from the oral tradition (or poetry claiming to do so), verse "dictated" by a muse, or novels read aloud in social settings or popular conversational journalism challenge the artifice of learned discourse? We might even ask whether women, excluded from official higher education, were somehow spared the awkwardness and artificiality of nonsensical learned reading. If indeed their reading was less contrived, we might anticipate the rise of feminist and democratic sentiment, the speech of Wollstonecraft and Paine. When they read scripture or prayers or poetry or fiction aloud at home, did women read like the clergy or did they read more justly? If more justly, the voice of the people is arguably feminized.2
Accordingly we may...