Literate women, and women who have contributed to the written record, have been controversial virtually from the beginnings of civilisation in ways which have not been true of their male contemporaries. They have been ridiculed, criticised often in hyperbolic terms, and faced with denial that their genius was actually their own, while at the same time celebrated and heralded for their contributions. They have also been represented as erotically desirable. These extremes of reaction and invention are distinct from the parallel history of literary men. They are also considerably more intriguing.Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is a history of women’s access to printed material and of society’s responses to this access. Jack tells the stories of notable woman readers from the Ancient World to the present day; this leads to a certain overlap with the history of early women writers, but this is because very often the only existing records of women’s reading are their own written reactions to what they read.
Gender segregated histories can be contentious, but Jack makes a reasonable case for her choice to specifically focus on women’s experiences with written material. As the passage I opened with explains, from very early on women readers were scrutinised far more closely than their male counterparts. By focusing on sociopolitical factors, Jack largely avoids essentialising or idealising women readers.
Writing a gender segregated history, however, doesn’t mean it will solely be a history of triumphant rebellion and defiance of the status quo. It’s common to portray reading as inherently subversive, but The Woman Reader illustrates how women readers weren’t always rebels – sometimes they were crucial players in their societies who possessed a considerable amount of power and influence and were invested in existing power structures. Their power was not negligible, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist within the constraints of a patriarchal society. I came across a review of the book at The Atlantic that denounces Jack for idealising reading as instantly liberating, but personally I found The Woman Reader far more nuanced than that (in fact, I would argue that it goes to some lengths to challenge a simplistic understanding of what access to printed material implies for women). The book acknowledges that the history of women readers is not one of linear progression from repression to empowerment and liberation, which was something I really appreciated.
For example, one of my favourite chapters was “Reading in the not so dark ages”, in which Jack defies the popular myth that the Middle Ages were uniformly terrible for women:
The alleged ‘silence’ of women in the Early Middle Ages was only relative. The period was broken by bold whisperings in many parts of the world and these would gradually become louder. Early Christian aristocrats and holy women like Radegund, lay women like Dhuoda, Hrotsvit the playwright, and women monastics in Ireland like St Darerca, or Hilda of Whitby in England, and Buddhist noblewomen like Lady Dong Zhenying and Muslim women scholars in the East, provide varied examples of women readers who in turn inspired the reading of others, often women.Reading this chapter put me in mind of something Jodie was saying recently about her experiences as a history major and a feminist:
I never really like to talk about historical women and power, with any kind of positive emphasis, in feminist circles which contain people who haven’t studied the areas of history I’m talking about. This sounds weird, right, because I’d be expressing a view of a historical period, which emerged from feminist study, to other feminists, but somehow I always feel like if I start talking about the limited power of the vestal virgins, or the control nuns had over their nunneries in 16/17th century Italy, I’m setting myself up to be accused of denying patriarchal oppression. I know some feminists think revisionism is all a kind of fantasy, or women’s desperate and false attempt to place their historical counterparts on an equal footing with the men of the past and over the years knowing that view is out there has had a silencing effect on me.I can imagine how tricky it must be to make these arguments without worrying you’re coming across as saying that women didn’t actually have it so bad after all. This is a risk Jack runs, but I think she does an impressive job of illuminating both sides: yes, patriarchal oppression is very much real, but this doesn’t mean there weren’t pockets of agency or freedom and ways in which women exerted power, both as readers and writers and in other areas of society.
Another section I particularly appreciated was the one on the iconography of the woman reader. Jack argues that there are far more images of women reading than of their male counterparts, and that this emphasis signals the fact that throughout history women readers have been objectified, eroticised, and perceived as simultaneously dangerous and beguiling:
But the woman reader is not only a reality. She is also a striking invention of the male imagination, a crucial aspect of men’s desire to worship or condemn the mysteries of the ‘opposite sex’. For a long time the woman reader was more often an idea or a symbolic construct rather than real, during stretches of history when few, if any, women were literate. At the same time men’s visual representations of women reading have had a profound but to some degree incalculable effect on women readers, serving either as an encouragement to read or an alarming warning against reading. The visual legacy is a vivid reminder of the myriad role models offered to woman readers. And the history of this legacy in the fine arts is much more intriguing than its male counterpart. Men have generally enjoyed much greater freedoms, a consequence being that their reactions to reading have (allegedly) been more cerebral, and much less psychologically charged.As some of you may know, my fellow book blogger Alex has created an extensive collection of images of women readers on Pinterest. I revisited Alex’s pinboard after reading The Woman Reader, and it was fascinating to see how many of the images do fit the types Jack identifies. Of course, this isn’t to say that images of women reading are bad and we shouldn’t enjoy them; just that being aware of the ways in which these images are loaded and shaped by patriarchal perceptions helps deconstruct the aforementioned simplistic idea that access to reading material always equals gender equality, liberation and empowerment.
So it is that the iconography of the male reader is less complex and loaded. Women (and for that matter, men) have not shown much interest in the male reader: he is by no means as beguiling as the woman reader. By and large the book or other document he holds alerts the viewer to the man’s religious or scholarly seriousness, his profession, his status – and not much else. Images of women reading are more numerous, more varied and often more enigmatic. They may conjure an aura of piety, virtue, maternal responsibility, privilege, luxury, scholarly learning or social status. But they may also be richly suggestive of idle leisure, frivolity or erotic temptation.
The only section of Woman Reader that let me down was the one on the contemporary world. As I said earlier, for most of the book Jack explains the different histories of men and women as readers through social factors – women’s experiences of reading were by and large different because they were scrutinised far more closely, which means that generally speaking they were forced into a kind of self-consciousness about their engagement with written material that most men didn’t have to face (of course, considering factors like class and race rather complicates this picture). Unfortunately, Jack mostly abandons this approach when discussing contemporary gendered reading patterns, and seems to slip into the kind of gender essentialism she otherwise critiques when accounting for men and women’s different profiles as readers in the modern world. I would argue that the social forces that shaped men and women’s experiences as readers throughout history are still very much at work in the present day.
Still, the historical aspect alone was more than enough to keep me interested in The Woman Reader. The tone and style reminded me a little of A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel (whose influence Jack readily acknowledges). Fans of his work are likely to find much of interest here.
A few more interesting bits (I actually marked eighteen different passages when reading this book, which is more than for any other book I’ve read so far this year. I’ll try my best not to go overboard with the quoting):
In eighteenth-century Europe, but also further afield, the novel became the site of fierce battles as its content broadened and gradually replaced conduct books. One of the most extreme reactions to these changes was the appearance of supposedly ‘scientific’ proof of the dangers women faced if they read. These tracts would in part replace the conjecture, polemic and superstition that infused the discussions of women’s education and reading during the seventeenth century. But as women’s reading, leisure and social advancement became intertwined, so women’s reading became a still more contested activity and the subject of continuing and intriguing debates.(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
One of the most striking phenomena of nineteenth-century social history was the pervasive anxiety, whether undisguised or more subtly expressed by both men and women, over the newly literate groups’ access to varied reading material. And the growing number of titles written by women was often treated with singular suspicion. This situation was hitherto unknown and seemingly uncontrollable. The three great revolutions – the American, the French and the Industrial – were all deemed, for better or worse, to have been fuelled by more widespread reading. In their wake, many saw allegedly subversive material as further fanning the flames of change whether social, economic or political. Crucially, all these were deemed to be sure to bring radical changes in terms of how men and women would live alongside one another in national as well as marital and familial contexts. Women, it was thought, would be tempted to neglect their duties, seduced by engrossing books.
Within the medical profession some physicians continued to express peculiar fears about the effects of reading on women’s behaviour and general wellbeing. The widely held assumption was that there were fundamental physiological and psychological differences between men and women, and that women’s heightened sensibilities made them prone to hysteria and madness. Both these conditions might be induced by excessive and inappropriate reading, particularly of novels.
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