The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like (in Hollywood anyway): it’s someone who’s a bit dorky, socially awkward, maybe is fashioning some glasses and is introverted – and it’s built on the assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Now I know sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a book on a Friday night doesn’t exactly scream huge rebel. Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading don’t do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.

The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading, and one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.

There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.

During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new reader.

Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.

Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptible power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,

‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’

However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.

Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny.

By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.

As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,

‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’

This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.

Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.

Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,

‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’

The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.

A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.

Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how incredible it is to be able to read and have access to knowledge, and creative works. It’s so easy to take for granted this freedom, so let some people  associate bookish types with being massive dorks, we know that they’re bad-asses! (at least by 19th century standards)