GIVEN that Scots were once second in the world for literacy rates (in the mid-nineteenth century, when we were beaten only by Sweden and were far ahead of England, France and Italy), we have a vested interest, as a nation, in the history of reading.
The Woman Reader
by Belinda Jack
Yale University Press, 336pp, £20
The possibility that our high literacy rates might have been swelled by vast numbers of woman readers, though, hasn’t really been considered. In this splendid, fascinating new volume, Belinda Jack considers the effect of women readers on society, and vice versa, throughout history. There are quite a few surprises in what she finds out.
It is more than an impression that women readers are of more interest to the world than male readers – even the most cursory glance through art history will regularly throw up the sight of a woman reading, and in many different guises, as though the male artists painting them couldn’t quite decide whether such a subject was a good or a bad thing. From the good (an obedient and modest Virgin Mary, posed with a book in her hand, her fingers keeping her place in the pages) to the bad (a reclining, naked courtesan having books pushed at her by a devilish hand), women in the act of reading have mesmerised men, and been represented as either something morally pure, or as sexually subversive.
Why should this be? As Jack points out, the link between education and women became contentious through the ages and so women readers inevitably became contentious figures themselves, to be plagued with every stereotype from spinsterish bluestockings to public prostitutes. Much of Jack’s history is of the battling kind: women had to fight to be allowed to read, and they had to fight to read what they wanted. She begins her study right at the beginning – how many cave drawings were made by women? Are the depictions of pregnant women in French caves evidence of the first female inscribers? The first author to sign a work was a woman: Princess Enheduanna from Mesopotamia, around 2,300BC. Records from the Babylonian city of Sittar between 1,850BC and 1,550 BC show that of 185 scribes, 14 were women. By the time we reach ancient Greece, we have the poet Sappho.
The evidence for women writers is strong – does that also mean they were readers? Sappho’s knowledge of other literary works can only be “inferred”, Jack argues, given how few fragments we have, but there is evidence that male writers like Ovid were aware they had women readers, and responded to them accordingly, producing work specifically for a female audience. By the time we reach the Dark Ages, we are finding wills and bequests of books for daughters or female friends. Reading and writing became more private activities and associated with the new religion of Christianity whose message existed, of course, inside a book. Nuns like Hilda of Heruteu, emphasised the importance of education, no doubt in the service of spreading this new religion, but monastic poets like Hrotsvit in Lower Saxony went further, rewriting the plays of Terence to make them more palatable to women’s tastes.
Once reading became more widespread outside the Church, however, the worries about women reading began in earnest and were almost always linked with sexuality. Philip of Novara disliked girls learning to read in case “they might otherwise, coming of age, write or receive amorous missives.” Women readers, Jack argues, were increasingly “seen by many as a potential threat to the status quo.” They were becoming more active in the book trade, managing bookshops and working in printing presses. By the 16th century, women readers started to appear within writing, and their prominence during the years of Reformation and Counter-Reformation is reflected in the intellectualism of Anne Boleyn and Katharine Parr, both wives of Henry VIII.
Still, however, the woman reader met with disapproval. Seventeenth-century author Juan Luis Vives counselled that “because woman is a frail thing and of weak discretion”, she should never be allowed to teach; Joseph Swetnam deplored the reading of romances by women. These views, disguised as advice, had women taking up the pen to write against what they were reading about themselves. As popular as advice manuals for women had been, it soon became clear women were chafing against the restrictions that male educators were putting on them.
That extra responsiveness in women readers was soon harnessed by cannier male writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Samuel Richardson would actually canvass opinion from his female readers about his books (although he didn’t always listen to what they wanted). The power of the female reader was becoming more obvious and as they turned to novels more and more, the question of “morality” was raised. Few questioned what men were reading: it was women’s interest in romance that unnerved many, including women themselves. Mary Wollstonecraft advised against reading too many novels, and George Eliot delivered a broadside against “silly lady novelists”. Yet, in contradiction, it is during this period that women started reading more widely – magazines began to tailor their content for “discerning” women readers who wanted history and science and philosophy, as well as novels. New “reading classes” emerged, between what servants read and their grander employers.
What Jack pinpoints throughout is the close relationship between women, what they read and how they feel about it – how closely they identify with the heroine of a novel and her fate, for example. Male readers, in surveys conducted through the 20th century, are not as eager, she notes, to link specific books with moments of crisis in their lives as women are. Perhaps surprisingly, though, when she reaches the present-day woman reader, there is no mention of the e-book. Given that Amazon are targeting women readers with their soft-focus, pastel-shaded adverts for the Kindle, exploiting as much as possible precisely that emotionally close relationship between women and reading, another chapter surely is yet to be written.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West