The 13th-century Italian pedagogue and diplomat Philippe de Novare argued it was inappropriate for girls, except those planning to become nuns, to learn to read and write, for it might permit them to send and receive love letters. Apparently it did not occur to the anxious Philippe that suppressing male literacy would have the same preventive effect.
As Belinda Jack explains in The Woman Reader, the patriarchy has often viewed female literacy as a threat, for it provides women not only with empowering knowledge but specially with sexually empowering knowledge. The attitude is expressed in its crudest form in The Reader of Novels, a 1853 painting by the Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz, showing a naked, Rubenesque woman lying on her back in the privacy of a curtained bed, reading a book. From a dark corner, an ugly hand belonging to a horned devil pushes another book towards her. “Women’s reading, the novel and sexuality are intimately related. There may even be a suggestion that a woman who has a good supply of fiction may be sexually self-sufficient,” Jack writes.
Yes, a study of women’s reading could be transgressive and very, very sexy. Instead, Jack is even-handed and exceedingly thorough. She tells us a great deal about the hows and whats of female reading, from the earliest literate societies of Mesopotamia and Greece to the explosion of literacy in the West in the 18th century, from the ancient poet Sappho to a contemporary Bible study group that meets in a Scottish prison. She is less informative about the whys of women’s reading, and not much given to speculation.
This leaves her, for the early centuries of her all-encompassing study (which includes some references to reading in Japan, China and the Islamic world) dependent on inferring women’s reading from women’s writing. The 12th-century Byzantine princess Anna Komnene wrote a history of her father’s reign that shows she had read and reread Homer. From the famous 12-century “lais,” or short romances, of Marie de France, France’s first female author, one can infer which versions of antique romances she had read.
Despite the emergence of the romance – and Marie de France’s groundbreaking insistence on individual experience rather than group belonging – most women’s reading was devotional, and that is what takes much of Jack’s attention. Of course, during the Reformation, an insistence on personal interpretation of scripture became an increasingly political act, but Jack is well past the midpoint of her study before the development of the novel in 18th-century England provides her and her reader with much sense of how women actually experienced their reading. With the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jack finally has an example where the reactions of readers, critics and rewriters to the tale of a conniving servant girl who succeeds in marrying her master allows for discussion of the relationship between the text and their social reality.
The rise of the novel was accompanied by a continual debate about whether it was a corrupting influence, and about whether one could require it to be it an enlightening one. Did women model their behaviour after their reading? There were both male and female commentators who suspected the novel merely encouraged female emotionalism and felt all reading should be undertaken with a view to moral improvement: When the early 19th-century Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry read to women in jails, we can safely assume it wasn’t Moll Flanders.
But today, as women gather in all-female groups to discuss the latest novel, why does women’s experience of reading remain different from men’s? Would any man ever say, as the unhappily married Jane Carlyle did in 1852, that reading a good novel was similar to “having an illicit affair”? Frustratingly, Jack’s only effort at addressing this question in contemporary times is to repeat that often-cited 2004 British poll in which, asked to name a transformative book, women all named novels while men questioned the premise before grudgingly naming mainly non-fiction titles. Jack’s history hints at the reasons behind this “mysterious litmus test of gender difference,” but seems uninterested in its persistence.
Globe and Mail arts writer Kate Taylor is an unrepentant reader of novels, and has written two, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen and A Man in Uniform.