The dangerous act of reading

6 September is Read a Book day.

The image of women as readers became common in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as literacy rates improved and women began to take part in the literary market. With this, however, came the idea of the danger of reading both in terms of appropriate reading matter and reading as an activity.

Illustration from The Lady's Monthly Museum vol. 8 (1802)

Women reading together from The Lady’s Monthly Museum vol. 8 (1802)

What was permissible for women to read was a matter of intense debate. Indeed, anything might be considered inappropriate since all books could be read subversively. Why books might be inappropriate was based on a range of arguments: that they might corrupt women’s minds and diminish them as women or that women might be unable to cope with emotionally provocative material. The case was also made that reading distracted women from their domestic duties as they learned about the world outside the home: a good and ideal woman should resist the pleasures of reading and take care of her husband and home.

Philosophy and metaphysics were subjects that women were most actively told to avoid, although it was the novel, which was written and read by women in increasing numbers in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, that caused the most cultural anxiety. As soon as novels came to represent a significant share of the literary market, they became the subject of opposition. One accusation was that they created expectations which could not be fulfilled in life.

How women read books also became a matter of concern. Silent reading was considered dangerous and solitary reading self-indulgent and potentially rebellious. Reading aloud to others was encouraged as a defence against the “seductive” dangers of sentimental novels.

Solitary reading [MS 242 A800]

Solitary reading [MS 242 A800]

Mary Mee was the second wife of the second Viscount Palmerston and mother of the future British Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. Described as a lively and charming women and elegant society hostess, she shared with her husband an interest in literary enquiry. The catalogue of books in the Book-room at Broadlands during Lady Palmerston’s time shows the range of material available for her to read, included were not just the works from the Classics, but relating to history and travel, poetry, literature and a range of novels, together with many works in French arrayed along the South End.

Catalogue of the Book-room at Broadlands, 1791 [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR101/26]

Catalogue of the books in the Book-room at Broadlands [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR101/26]

What Lady Palmerston read, which included of history, travel writing and poetry — types of works considered acceptable reading for women — can be seen from her own poetry (“To a lady with Plutach’s works” being one example) and by references in her correspondence.

“I am now going to read Memoires du Comte Joseph Puisaye and when finished attack Barrow’s second volume [relating to his travels in Africa]. Fine time to improve one’s mind.  You will have at last one of the deepest read mother’s that son ever could boast of,” she noted in a letter to her son Henry, 28 May 1804 [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR21/10/28]

And in another letter to Henry, 9 July 1804, she discussed  the multi-volume set of the correspondence of Samuel Richardson published that year: “They are sad .. But interesting to me having … heard so much of most of the characters who are friends and correspondents … and much [is] said of my poor aunt and uncle Godeshall. I wish they had been published in their live, it would have amazed and gratified them.” [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR21/10/42]

Aside from Richardson, the success of whose novel Pamela might be said to mark the start in the growth of novels within the literary market, Broadlands held novels by a number of women authors, including Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline (1788), Ethelinde (1789) and Montalbert (1795) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1796). In Frances Burney was a writer who could produce the comic and satirical energies of Smollett or Henry Fielding. Charlotte Turner Smith has been credited with influencing Jane Austen and particularly Charles Dickens. Sheridan’s novel was one of the most popular of the period and focused on the story of a female rake. Yet while it challenged female characterisation and explored the possibility of free choice, the heroine was ultimately to have her freedom quashed.

If Lady Palmerston was to see the idea of free choice for women thwarted in novels, she maintained her own choices in her own life. Writing to her husband on 13 May 1792, after reading a copy of Mary Wollstonecroft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) she noted “I have been reading the Rights of Women so you must in future expect me to be very tenacious of my rights and priviledges.” [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR11/18/5]

Listing of novels, including Joseph Andrews at north end of Book-room [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR101/26]

Listing of novels, including Joseph Andrews at north end of Book-room [MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR101/26]

Amongst the array of the works of male novelists available at Broadlands were those of Tobias Smollett, Daniel Defoe, Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding. Writing to her friend Emma Godfrey, 14 February 1803, Lady Palmerston extolled the merits of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews:

“I believe you have read a new work called Joseph Andrews. It certainly has not many equals. Surely no writer possessed a clearer knowledge at the human heart, of characters or their various casts, and so uncommon a share of wit and humour so ingeniously brought forward as Fielding, that the reader thinks [he] has some penetration in discerning it, for the author appears to assume no merit for the possession of his talents. His introductory chapters, his reflections are perfect of their kind and I hope if any time has passed since you made Mr Joseph Andrews’s acquaintance that you will immediately renew it.”

[MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR18/5/5/115-18]

And on this Read a Book day we hope that you will be similarly inspired to renew the acquaintance with a book that you have enjoyed reading.

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One response to “The dangerous act of reading

  1. I loved this post Karen, thank you! Lou p x

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