Far too many shades of grey

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

READING: SUSAN McKAYreviews The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack Yale University Press, 329pp, £20

THE STORY OF the woman reader has, contends Belinda Jack, a certain coherence. From the beginning there has been trouble about the very notion, and anxiety has lingered. “It was this fear of women assuming greater power that caused the most unease,” she writes.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that women should read, not a view universally shared by the men who ran the world in 1762. But, he said, they should cultivate their minds “to please men . . . to make their lives agreeable and gentle”. The conversation of a properly educated woman should be “pleasing but not brilliant, and thorough but not deep”.

Two hundred years later, in England, Penguin Books was prosecuted for obscenity after it published DH Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Was this, demanded the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servant to read”? Penguin prevailed, and Jack includes a fine photograph of two women reading the book in the street. Frustratingly, though, she does not contextualise Griffith-Jones’s question: the book was to be a paperback for sale at three shillings and sixpence, affordable even to women and the working class.

This, it turns out, is a fundamental problem with Jack’s ambitious book. It starts with the cave drawings of southern France, which date back to 30000 BC. It finishes with reference to journalist Christina Lamb’s 2002 book about contemporary Afghanistan, The Sewing Circles of Herat, in which Lamb describes how women set up sewing circles as a cover for talking about literature. (If caught, they could be jailed.) The Woman Reader covers all the women readers of all the kinds of writing, in all the world, through all of history, all of prehistory. All in 300 pages.

Jack describes the scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which Jane delights in having free access to her uncle’s library, though her cousin, John Reed, tries to stop her and one day takes the book she has been reading, throws it at her and causes her to fall, cutting her head. Sometimes reading The Woman Reader feels like this, with Jack as John Reed, constantly snatching away the book in which we had just begun to be engrossed, but with the added indignity that we had started to look into it with her encouragement.

There is too much from the upper-class ladies of the northern hemisphere who urged that women read only what was instructive. Hardly any poetry. Very little on magazines. Jane Austen’s great defence of the novel from Northanger Abbey (“the most thorough knowledge of human nature . . . in the best chosen language”) is missing.

However, WH Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron about Austen is tellingly quoted – “You could not shock her more than she shocks me; / Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass” – as is George Eliot’s “delightfully forthright” denunciation of “feminine fatuity” displayed in the “mind and millinery species” of novel. No discussion of chick lit.

Feminists in search of heroines will not wish to make much of the revelation that, although Thomas Bowdler claimed it was he who cleaned up Shakespeare for family reading in 1807, it was actually his sister, Henrietta, who had done so. Jack finds no time to mention the revolutionary contribution of the feminist presses of the late 20th century, when Virago reintroduced so many neglected classics.

Still. It is fascinating to know that in Mesopotamia in 1550 BC, 14 out of 185 official scribes were women. That in the sixth century women were excluded from the caste of priests trained to interpret the scriptures after written and spoken Latin diverged. That there were notable female monasteries in medieval Ireland, where women such as St Darerca were influential educators. That there is a “long-lost tradition” of Muslim women teaching the Koran and making Islamic law as jurists. That Stalin brought female literacy in the Soviet Union up from 18 per cent to 82 per cent. That Unesco estimates that, by 2015, a fifth of the world population will still be illiterate and that two out of three of these people will be women.

There are marvellous quotations from a dazzling range of sources. Christine de Pizan, born in Italy in the 14th century, wonders “why on earth it was that so many men . . . have said and continue to say and write such awful, damning things about women . . . unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice”. The notion that reading would lead women into depravity, not to mention “sexual self-sufficiency”, is brilliantly illustrated: one image is of an 18th-century painting of a young lady sprawled on an armchair in her boudoir. A book lies open beside her as her right hand delves under her skirt.

It is a shame that the illustrations could not be in colour, but they are wonderful: Michelangelo’s muscular Erythraean Sibyl; the Blessed Virgin keeping her place with her finger in her book while the Angel Gabriel delivers his news; a slave girl reading (illegally) outside her hut in the US; a woman on a park bench absorbed in a suffragette newsletter; Gwen John’s lovely painting The Precious Book.

Jack is an Oxford academic and the author of well-regarded biographies of George Sand and Beatrice Cenci. She is erudite and has carried out extraordinary research. Yet the vast scope of her project means that she is constantly having to hurry along, scattering flustered one-liners in her wake. Sadly, a great scholar has, perforce, produced a superficial book.

Susan McKay is a journalist. Her most recent book, Bear in Mind These Dead, a study of the aftermath of the conflict in Northern Ireland for those bereaved, was published by Faber and Faber in 2007

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