Wednesday 8 February 2012

Happy birthday Charles John Huffam Dickens

I'm not actually late with this blog post, it's still 7 February in my current time zone. There are some excellent Dickens features and links in today's issue of the Guardian, my newspaper of choice, and the occasion has also been marked with an impressive Google Doodle.

I can't match any of that, but I can offer an observation on why reading Dickens might be useful to the genealogist. There are wonderful descriptive passages in some of his books that shed light on everyday life in early Victorian England, and one of my favourite passages is in my favourite Dickens novel, Bleak House.

Signatures, or the lack of them, in parish registers and on certificates are often used as a measure of literacy. It is a fairly good way of measuring literacy rates overall, but may not be an accurate indicator in each individual case. For example, the fact that a person signed their name does not always mean that they could read and write; it could be that their signature was the only thing they could write. Or the opposite could apply, where a literate person made a mark instead of signing, as illustrated by this passage:
There were many little occurrences which suggested to me, with great consolation, how natural it is to gentle hearts to be considerate and delicate towards any inferiority. One of these particularly touched me.  I happened to stroll into the little church when a marriage was just concluded, and the young couple had to sign the register. The bridegroom, to whom the pen was handed first, made a rude cross for his mark: the bride, who came next, did the same. Now I had known the bride when I was last there, not only as the prettiest girl in the place, but as having quite distinguished herself in the school; and I could not help looking at her with some surprise. she came aside and whispered to me, while tears of honest love and admiration stood in her bright eyes "He's a dear good fellow, miss; but he can't write yet - he's going to learn of me - and I wouldn't shame him for the world!" Why, what had I to fear, I thought, when there was this nobility in the soul of a labouring man's daughter!
It may be fiction, but it has a ring of truth, and I think it is very likely that there were indeed some young women who made their mark instead of signing the marriage register. One of them might have been your ancestor...


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