CHARLES KNIGHT (1791–1873)

Charles Knight was a young provincial journalist on a literary newspaper in Windsor. In 1810 he formed a dozen young men into a Reading Society, a precursor to the many Literary and Scientific Institutions that swept across England in the early Victorian period. Here he recalls his early reading.

(Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton

And now began to be developed the peculiar temptations of my position – the opportunity for desultory reading to the neglect of all systematic acquirement; the tendency to day-dreams and morbid fancies, in the utter want of any improving companionship with those of my own age. From fourteen to seventeen I was learning the printer’s trade, more, as it were, for recreation than for use; set no task-work, but occasionally working with irregular industry at some self-appointed tasks. The indulgence of my father was meant, I may believe, to compensate me for his opposition to my desire for a higher occupation than that which he pursued. Thus I was often galloping my pony along the glades of the forest; or watching my float, hour after hour, from the Thames bank at Datchet or at Clewer; or wandering, book in hand, by the river-side in the early morning; or plunging into ‘the shade of melancholy boughs’ on some ‘sunshine holiday.’ I read the old novels and the old poems again and again. Miss Porter and Mrs. Opie gave me fresh excitement when I was tired of Mrs. Radcliffe. The Pleasures of Hope and Beattie’s Minstrel had long been my familiar favourites. At this time there were published charming little volumes of verse and prose, as ‘Walker’s Classics,’ one of which was generally in my pocket. But in 1805 a new world of romance was opened to me by The Lay of the Last Minstrel. The old didactic form of poetry now seemed tedious compared with the adventures of William of Deloraine, and the tricks of the Goblin Page. Meanwhile my small Latin and less Greek were vanishing away. The newspaper, too, occupied much of my reading time. It was a period of tremendous interest, even to the apprehension of a boy. What an autumn and what a winter were those of 1805, in which I was enabled, day by day, to read the narratives of such deeds as stirred the heart of England in the days of the great Armada! Napoleon had broken up the camp at Boulogne, and was marching to the Rhine. Nelson had gone on board the Victory at Portsmouth, and had joined the fleet before Cadiz. On the 3rd of November came the news of the surrender of the Austrian army to the French Emperor at Ulm. On the 7th we were huzzaing for the final naval glory of Trafalgar, and weeping for the death of Nelson. Pitt rejoiced and wept when he was called up in the night to receive this news, as the humblest in the land rejoiced and wept.

[SOURCE: Charles Knight, Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century, 3 vols (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1864), vol. 1, pp. 69–70]

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