Is there such a thing as ‘the woman reader’ – as a category, that is, suitable for study? ‘Readers’ constitute a real category, and ‘women’ do. But Belinda Jack believes that reading women are a sisterhood under the fancy dress. For her ‘history of women’s reading’ she has assembled potted biographies of women readers and writers through the ages. She presents them as ‘colourful examples of women who were not prepared to toe the line’, who were ‘distinctively feminine’, desperately in need of ‘free expression’, often critical of the ‘male aggression’ they read about, and keen to refute ‘aspects of’ tradition. She wants, in other words, for them all to be fighting for the same thing. She begins with Enheduanna, a king’s daughter and priestess in Sumer in the third millennium BCE and perhaps the first poet, male or female, known to have her name attached to her work. Her goddess Inanna, queen of heaven, is magnificently ferocious: ‘In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint.’ What does Enheduanna have in common with Hrotsvit, a noblewoman and poet writing lives of the saints in Latin in tenth-century Saxony? Hrotsvit hopes that ‘the Giver of my talent all the more be justly praised through me, the more limited the female intellect is believed to be.’ No doubt the self-deprecation is mostly literary convention, but it feels a long way from crushing flint with teeth.
And what do either of those women share with Moderata Fonte in 16th-century Venice, whose chatty polemic on The Worth of Women is subtitled ‘Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men’? ‘You ought to consider the fact,’ Moderata says, ‘that … histories have been written by men … And if you consider, in addition, the envy and ill will they bear us women, it is hardly surprising that they rarely have a good word to say for us.’ With her precocious appetite for reading, Moderata was seen as something of a prodigy in her well-to-do family – a ‘freak of nature’, she’s called in a contemporary biography – and her romance Floridoro is about a girl disguised as a knight, fighting as a man. And yet there were plenty of women intellectuals and writers to inspire her in Renaissance Italy, and her polemic belongs in a whole genre of writing that argued the relative merits of the sexes, the querelle des femmes, weighing nature against nurture.
The Woman Reader makes it seem as though Sumer, Gundersheim, Venice – as well as tenth-century Baghdad and 18th-century China – are all staging posts on a long and tortuous ascent to our present summit, where at last the sisterhood find their fulfilment as novel-reading dons in Oxford colleges (apart from a few lingering spots of resistance in Tehran and Kabul). Individual stories are cemented together with Whiggishly optimistic statements of progress. Hrotsvit ‘cast an eye back over recent history, no doubt hoping that the future might be brighter.’ ‘It was a very long time indeed until Dhuoda’s bold vision of a future in which women would participate in learning as fully as men became anything like a reality.’ ‘Reading gradually emerged, among other things, as a way to make sense of how to live, particularly in the face of terrible events.’ And, with wonderful insouciance, ‘the events of the Reformation … were particularly exciting and encouraging for women readers: a large number of women became martyrs.’ The lengths women will go to, just to get their hands on a good book!
Moderata Fonte wrote in Italian, not Latin, though apparently when she was a girl she pestered her brother to repeat his Latin lessons to her when he came home from school. If we were in search of things connecting women readers in Europe across the last millennium or so, exclusion from Latin might be as good a marker as any to begin with, though Jack doesn’t make much of it. Of course there were always a few exceptional women who were wholly proficient in classical languages, and in certain places, at propitious periods (Hrotsvit’s tenth-century Ottonian Empire, for instance) more than a few. But for centuries a formal education in Latin (and perhaps Greek) set apart a group of individuals who could share information in what amounted to a code closed to the uninitiated: this excluded most upper and middle-class women, however voraciously they read, as surely as it shut out the majority of uneducated men. George Eliot captures an archetypal irony in The Mill on the Floss, set in the early decades of the 19th century. Tom Tulliver hates school so much that he counts the days until he can come home, cutting them into a stick; his sister, Maggie, who isn’t sent to school, longs to know what the Latin in his textbook means. Although these words are the very instruments of Tom’s subjection, in his misery he can’t resist using them against Maggie, to punish her because she’s free (as he feels it) from the system he is bound to.
And so perhaps after all Jack is onto something. ‘That all this was part of a barely disguised conspiracy to harness women’s sexuality, and thus maintain the social order, seems as good an explanation as any,’ she speculates in relation to an 18th-century treatise on the dangers of reading to women, Nymphomania, or a Treatise on Uterine Frenzy. Conspiracy may not be quite the right word, but no doubt there are some foundational inequities in written culture. Despite all the encouraging fathers and teachers and husbands there have ever been, Moderata isn’t being immoderate when she writes about ‘envy and ill will’. Juvenal in his Satires loathes ‘the woman who is forever referring to Palaemon’s Grammar and thumbing through it … or who quotes lines I’ve never heard’. In the 1520s Juan Luis Vives says that women should not teach because ‘a woman is a frail thing and of weak discretion.’ ‘I like not a female Poetess at any hand,’ Thomas Powell writes in 1631. Rousseau in 1762 insists that ‘the entire education of women must be relative to men.’ And so on and so on and so on. Doesn’t even Chekhov’s treatment of the bookish wife niggle, in ‘Lady with Lapdog’? Why does he have to think she’s putting it on?
There are fascinating themes running through Jack’s examples of actively literate women, and one of the disappointments of her book is that she doesn’t develop them. There is the recurrent pattern of self-deprecating apology, for instance, like Hrotsvit’s hoping that her work will be all the more credit to her Creator, because female intellect is believed to be limited. Lady Jane Grey in correspondence with a Zurich theologian asks him to ‘excuse the more than feminine boldness of me who, girlish and unlearned as I am, presume to write to a man who is the father of learning.’ Margaret Cavendish in her 1656 autobiography calls her own work ‘scribbling’ as opposed to her husband’s ‘writing’. The operations of this cultural cringe are intricate. How much is simply the formulaic politeness of eras more unabashedly hierarchical than ours (male writers prostrate themselves abjectly too)? How much is strategy, deployed disingenuously by clever women to get themselves more freedom to work within the conventions? What conscious irony, if any, should we read (we need to know the original Latin) into Hrotsvit’s ‘believed to be limited’?
But a gesture is never merely conventional: repeated often enough, that reflex of wincing apology perpetuated itself down generations of women. Too many women thought that their reading wasn’t quite the real thing, that it was tainted by insufficiency or ignorance. The side effects of the denigration of women’s literacy can show up even in those women writers who protest most forcefully against it: isn’t one of its symptoms the intellectual who wants too fiercely to put clear water between herself and the inferiority of most of her sex? Mary Wollstonecraft sometimes can’t contain herself on the frivolity of girls who chatter about clothes and men; whereas Jane Austen is confident that gossip is a real kind of knowing, not subordinate to theory or learned tradition. Why does George Eliot write her essay on silly novels by lady novelists, as if there weren’t plenty of silly gentleman ones?
Another theme Jack’s history identifies is our culture’s preoccupation with the idea of the woman found alone, absorbed in her reading. It begins in paintings, with the Annunciation: sometimes, Mary keeps her place with her finger in her pages while she’s listening to the angel. Though we’re sure it must be a book of devotions, her reading indicates she’s in communion with some narrative we’re shut out from, her thoughts half-elsewhere. As for secular images of women lost in their reading, who knows what’s in their books? There’s seductive power in a woman who neither returns nor avoids your gaze, because she’s absent even as she’s present; but there’s envy as you look at her too, and longing for whatever hidden realm it is that she has access to, closed to those who can see only into the painting and not into the book. The figure of the solitary reading woman gets filled up with feelings of desire and disgust because in her half-absence her mind is out of anyone’s control, open to all kinds of influences and temptations, and because in women the emotional element is believed, as a 19th-century physician put it, to be ‘more awake and more powerful than the critical’.
After all, Madame Bovary is one long disquisition (or is it?) on the dangers of women reading novels. If they are susceptible, as Emma is, then they may fatally muddle up their reading fantasies with the dull daily reality of their domestic responsibilities. Flaubert’s superb and savage irony is built around his own capacity to keep the dreaming separate from the sordid truth. Anna Karenina, travelling home from Moscow on the train at night, in the snow, is half distracted and half irritated by her English novel. It makes her restless, encourages her to imagine other lives than the one she has, happily married and devoted to her child. When the train arrives she climbs down into the blizzard, and Vronsky is waiting for her.
Images of men reading (St Jerome snug in his study, say, or Rembrandt’s tender etching of Jan Six standing to catch the light at a window) don’t have the same equivocal eloquence: they don’t embody the same paradox of confinement and escape. Men can so easily walk out of the reading room: they are less constrained in the rest of their lives, so their reading isn’t such a powerful image of their inner freedom. And reading really is a kind of freedom. By any superficial analysis, Tom Tulliver is advantaged over his sister in The Mill on the Floss – educated, employed, in charge – and yet poor Tom has to earn his living, submit to his confinement in an office, restore the family honour, and be crushed in thrall to the conventional morality he’s bound to uphold. All Maggie has to do is to become herself, and to read, and to dream – which gives her much less scope than her brother, and much more. And so, despite her fairly empty outward life – or because of it – it is she and not Tom who is the novel’s real subject.
‘Prophetesses, poets and saints,’ Jack writes, ‘were deemed to have a wisdom and insight beyond the vast majority of men.’ No story of social progress can account for the heroines in Henry James’s late novels. Their ambition is to be rich, and dress beautifully, and appear magnificent in company. So how is it that we can still sympathise with them? Instead of scheming to acquire a fortune, Kate Croy could train as a doctor or campaign for women’s suffrage – but that wouldn’t make sense in James’s novel. His women have their life, rather, in the realm of high performance, and fine art: the writer is holding open, against all the pressures of utility and rationality, a space for dreaming. And female dreaming was tangled for a long time with the novel in English: Jane Eyre reading hidden behind her curtain, or Isabel Archer reading in that little Albany office with its windows covered in green paper, or Ursula Brangwen reading Tennyson in her room at Cossethay. The story of women reading can’t be told as if it only connected women in a sociological and political progress across the centuries. Women readers have also led the journey inwards, to the interior of the self.
Hilary Schor argues something like this in Curious Subjects, her study of 19th-century English realism. She addresses this same challenge to feminism: that the deepest explorations of women’s selves and sensibilities seem to have occurred in novels not overtly much engaged in feminist politics, whose heroines act out their drama inside the ancient patriarchal pattern, revolving fatally around the choosing of a man. Rather than apologising for the pattern, Schor wants to reimagine it as stranger and more subversive than it at first appears. The courtship and the choice are the necessary narrow door, she says, through which the girl-subject enters into the beginning of knowledge – of herself, of everything. The knowledge isn’t only sexual, though it’s that too: the sexual initiation (with all its Bluebeard aspects – wedding nights, locked rooms, previous wives) is emblematic of all the other initiations, into adult autonomy and a grown-up full cognisance of the shambles of our social life, of the violence of desiring, of treachery and futility.
Alice in Wonderland is Schor’s classic female adventurer: shape-changing, interested in everything, forced to ‘expand existing language … to meet her needs’ – and a reader too. The
Anglo-American tradition is full of heroines like Alice, turning from their books … into the real world, only to encounter the new strangeness of the world. Jane Eyre moves between Bewick’s History of British Birds and her aunt’s parlour and the quarrelling Reeds; Isabel Archer lifts her eyes from her novel, only to see her aunt, Mrs Touchett, come to take her to a new world.
Books inside books, like books inside paintings, have a special expressive power, and Schor, revelling in the nested worlds of literary realism, compares novels to dolls’ houses and cabinets of curiosities, intriguing miniatures which make the familiar strange. Realism isn’t really quite as lifelike as we pretend it is. In the doll’s house – as in a room seen in a mirror – we make the discoveries we can’t make at home.
Schor writes with sympathetic penetration about Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Painfully, through their unhappy marriages, Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth learn their way into a ‘new form of subjectivity’, and into new lives as legal subjects too – Schor offsets Eliot’s stories of the private life against the language of John Stuart Mill’s public feminism. But, like Jack making connections between all the women readers across the centuries, Schor is prone to treating the material of the novels she writes about as if it were all one novel, with one subject: she moves too fluently between Dickens and Carroll and Eliot, then on to Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood and the too often invoked Angela Carter (whose clever mock fairy tales can seem to fit too snugly inside interpretation, as if they were written with it in mind). Novels are readings of their culture, as widely divergent as their authors’ visions and temperaments. Reading teaches us more about difference than it does about continuity.
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