The Woman Reader in the 19th Century Britain

Posted on February 7, 2013

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As the literacy of British society was increased in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this meant also an increase in literacy rates of women. The fondness for reading of women made women take part significantly in literary market. Thus, the image of women as readers became common at that time. However, the patriarchal society of 19th century Britain tried to limit women’s reading by promoting the danger of reading some literary works that were not appropriate for women, making prohibition and creating a standard about what women were supposed to read. Gender mattered in the Victorian patriarchal society that believed women must be protected from reading particular texts.

According to Kate Flint in her book The Woman Reader, this society standard was based on paradoxical arguments: first, certain texts might corrupt women’s innocent mind, and therefore, diminishing their value as women, and second, as women they were strangely having too little resistance to emotionally provocative material. These arguments had their foundations from three hundred years ago: renaissance society believed that reading an inappropriate text might lead women to sexually and morally astray, both in imagination and reality, and distract them from developing intellectually and spiritually. Another argument about women and reading also came from ‘the rise of the domestic woman’ in the late eighteen century. According to Jacqueline Pearson in her book Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation, the domestic ideology shaped the feminine role fundamentally as literary consumption seemed ‘inherently ambiguous’: Books made women communicate with the world outside despite the reality that they only stay at home. This condition threatened subversion from the concept of ‘separate spheres.’ Moreover, for some others, women reading were considered as dangerous because it could distract women from their domestic duties or transgress their limit of private sphere: good and ideal women must resist the pleasure of reading and take care of their husband and maintain the household.

Many of the books, apparently great number of them, were prohibited by parents, husband, brother or governess of women or girls. Anxieties and the questions of morality were appeared if these books were seen to be read in public by women or girls. George Eliot’s Adam Bede was one of the examples besides books by Ronsard, Guy de Maupassant, Defoe, Balzac, Stendhal, Byron and many of them. As written by Flint in her book The Woman Reader, in 1890, Harriet Shaw Weaver’s mother was shocked when she found out her adolescent daughter read Adam Bede. Adam Bede itself in part tells a story about a girl who had given birth and disposed her illegitimate child,  which is written by unmarried woman living with a man. Weaver was sent to her room immediately and a local vicar was called to explain the book’s unsuitability.[1] A variety of anxieties appeared and there were not many books left for women or girls to be read in public. Critics always appear in almost every kind of text: science and the classic risked transgressive access to knowledge, botany meant sexuality, astronomy evasion of traditional femininity, classical literature usurpation of male prerogatives, poetry disruptive imagination, metaphysics revolution, the novel seduction, and even the Bible troubled female delicacy.[2] For the conservative thinker of Victorian society, “even the most respectable reading contains hidden dangers, and to some extent this is borne out by the gleeful way in which women readers used legitimate text for their own purposes.”[3] Women and girls reading was very limited particularly to religious texts, sermons, history, travels, household conduct books, magazines and imaginative literature. Women’s reading habit toward a certain text relied on circumstances, condition, position and also on family, social and educational background.

How women read books was also taken into concern. While silent reading establishes “a freer, more secret, and totally private intercourse with the written word,”[4] silent reading was deemed dangerous. Moreover, Pearson also mentions in her book that this activity of solitary reading was also considered “potentially rebellious and self indulgent; meanwhile reading aloud formed the bond and expression of social ties and was especially appropriate for women within domestic ideology.”[5] Instead of reading alone she should read to friends or husband, or listen to her husband, father, brother or mother reading. Girls and women were often educated to read aloud—it was important for them to be able to read aloud. Moreover, concerning the place of reading and the source of the book, the visitors of libraries in 19th century were also often categorized by gender. Private libraries carried the image of masculine space, male power and rationality; meanwhile circulating or public library carried the image of female dominated space “representing both second rate literature- and transgressive sexuality.”[6]

The concept of ‘separate spheres’ itself was strongly associated with 19th century Victorian society and has had a strong influence toward the way society viewed gender ever since. “Separate spheres” was a society standard of organization into a private, domestic, female world and an active, public, male world. Mary Shanley, a professor of Political Science and author of Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England, points out that “Husband and wife occupied ‘separate spheres,’ and each had distinct, but complementary, functions to perform.”[7] Middle class and working class women were directed to bear children and maintain the household, cook, sew, clean up, and take care of the husband and children, meanwhile men were ought to earn money for buying things needed by their household and represent the family in the society.

Women as readers created social anxieties for the patriarchal society of 19th century Britain. This reaction, however, was based on how society saw women as they created and determined to be: delicate, innocent and weak. This society paradigm gave birth to a social construction of the ‘domestic woman’ and the concept of ‘separate sphere.’ Men and women had different places, activities and duties to fulfill. Reading was not a preferable activity for women since it distracted them from fulfilling their domestic duties. Victorian society also believed in the danger of reading for women. Thus, discourses appeared and society created a standard about what and how women were supposed to read.

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Picture is a painting by Paul Gustave Fischer: “A Good Book” (1905).


[1] Kate Flint, The Woman Reader, (1993), 212

[2] Jacqueline Pearson, Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation (1999), 86

[3] Ibid, 86

[4] ibid, 172

[5] Ibid, 152

[6] Ibid. 152

[7] Timothy Farrell, Separate Spheres: Victorian Constructions of Gender in Great Expectations (1996)

Bibliography:

Farrell, Timothy. Separate Spheres: Victorian Constructions of Gender in Great Expectations.      

The Victorian Web, 1996. Web. 10 May 2012        http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/farrell2.html

Flint, Kate.  The Woman Reader, 1837-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

Pearson, Jacqueline. Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Posted in: Essay, History