Women gaining power, page by page
AT FIRST GLANCE, there is nothing unusual about Antoine Wiertz’s 1853 painting The Reader of Novels. It depicts a naked, curvy woman, lying on her back in a curtained-off boudoir. So far, so Rubenesque. The mystery woman seems to be ecstatic, sated . . . but not by a suitor. She is engrossed in a book, and nearby, hidden in the shadows, is a devil figure.
Instead of waiting to pounce or engage in some Satanic ravishing, he pushes another novel towards her. It’s a potent image because of the suggested link between the written word, women and sexuality. And why is this woman lounging around reading when she could be making the dinner or delivering her own baby on the kitchen floor?
Achtung, women of bygone days! The lesson is that reading leads to neglect of domestic duties and potential failure to fulfil childbearing quotas. Worse, the painting conveys an implicit fear that women might learn things, even – perish the thought – things their husbands or fathers don’t know. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then more of that knowledge could amount to power – and independence.
A book was no dowry, but it made a fine companion and despite the concerns of male family members or churches, women have been reading for centuries, as author Belinda Jack points out in her new book, The Woman Reader. Thousands of years ago there was a democracy when it came to literacy. Before writing, both sexes were involved in image making, and drawings of pregnant women on cave walls in Dordogne have been attributed to women. From 11th-century Byzantium to 17th-century Japan, girls, at least ones of privilege and class, were permitted to read – as long as censorship prevailed. Though 600 years and thousands of miles separated these young women, the fear remained the same: that reading would introduce young girls to erotic content. Whether it was the writings of Genji, or ancient Byzantine poetry, reading was closely controlled and monitored.
But women were not just passive consumers of content: as far back as 2300BC they were creating it. Princess Enheduanna, a writer of poems and hymns, is one of the earliest poets of either gender, and, crucially, one of the first women in history whose name is actually known. In the 17th century, when pregnancy and childbirth could be fatal, another fascinating strand of women’s writing began. Many women, fearing they wouldn’t survive, wrote down their life stories. These “mother’s legacies” were non-public tracts, and, as such, not seen as a threat, or an indication of women collectively aspiring to writer status.
Growing up in the late 20th century in a developed country, we bookish girls didn’t know how lucky we were. My single-digit self was oblivious to the weight of women’s reading history when I borrowed my first library book (the judiciously chosen The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter). My godmother is an instructive reader, and the owner of hundreds of random novels and faux-leather hardbacks. She gave me Little Women to read, and I saved up to buy abridged classics in Hector Grey.
From there, I meandered through Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys to Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume. At 12, it was no bother to devour a couple of Agatha Christie novels a week when I spent three months bed-bound due to a hip problem. Books were not just a boredom-beater, reading them was an act of imagination and escapism. My wonky limb kept me confined to bed or crutches, but with Christie I was right there on the Orient Express or a boat on the Nile.
Long before we discovered sci-fi and gaming, the word “geek” was applied to avid readers. The glasses-wearing hermit who ate books like air may have been a cliche, but my book nerdery mattered to me. I loitered in second-hand bookshops and could sniff out a sale of work with its tables of paperbacks at 50 paces. Years after the creaky-bone issues, my blood let me down, but long stays in hospital were made easier by a pile of books. During treatment for leukaemia, clashing medication affected my eyesight badly. It was the only time in my life that I couldn’t read for some weeks. It was nowhere near as bad as chemotherapy, but at the time it felt only marginally better.
What I was doing reading Zola’s cheery Germinal in hospital at the time, I’ll never know. Germinal tells the bleak story of a coal-miners’ strike in France in the 1860s. It details long hours of manual labour, and mirrors the very things that prohibited mass reading for the working classes in the 19th century. Factory and mining jobs meant an end to education and the exhaustion the work itself brought precluded many from reading. Women who stayed at home to raise children hadn’t the time or education to knock back novels.
But there was a huge shift in the 19th century, facilitated by the improved postal service, the fact that gaslight was increasingly replacing candles, and the onward march of literacy. Then came several writers who happened to be women, and who attracted new female readers. The Brontës and George Eliot became household names, and Jane Austen chose a bookworm reader of gothic novels as her heroine in Northanger Abbey. This year is the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death and it was Stoker’s mother, Charlotte, another consummate reader, who read an early draft of Dracula and predicted its success.
By 1900, there was widespread literacy here and in the US and UK. After the second World War, there were huge literacy drives in communist China and Russia. In the 1930s, Allen Lane’s cheap Penguin paperbacks, sold by newspaper vendors and in Woolworth’s, introduced books to a whole new demographic, including women. Thirty years later, women would read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in their thousands, closely following the book’s obscenity trial, during which Mervyn Griffith Jones QC asked the jury: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
The pre-Victorian and post-Chatterley terror of women reading erotic material seems quaint now, in the current stampede to buy 50 Shades of Grey. It’s impossible to catch a bus these days without seeing someone clutching a dog-eared copy of EL James’s book. It’s a publishing phenomenon. In this writer’s view, it’s not the masochistic sex that’s offensive, but the terrible, trite writing.
But the argument that it’s good that people are reading, regardless of the material, has some logic. Those, like me, who are die-hard devotees of the physical book, are still glad that digital publishing and e-readers are winning people back to the written word. Some of us never left it. And if we can foster in others a love of books at a young age – and cause them occasionally to swat away the internet or games consoles – they’ll find there is a lifelong, reciprocal relationship to be had.
Emerging from a childhood of reading, leaves you stumbling at the crossroads, wondering which way to go. For me, the novellas of the Junior and Leaving Cert – The Pearl, Tarry Flynn, The Old Man and The Sea – were an invaluable introduction to “proper” literature
Around this time, one friend was going through a phase of rigorous shoplifting. Her preferred bounty was make-up or clothes, but she also regularly helped herself to Penguin’s Twentieth Century Classics, distinctive with their blue-green back covers. She pinched copies of Jean Rhys and Colette and gave them to me. Those books were as much a part of our rite of passage as the Body Shop’s Dewberry products or Rimmel’s Black Cherry lipstick. Reading and music were our passions, but both could also be used to impress boys. I met my first boyfriend a month before his birthday and bought him a copy of Ulysses. At that point, I hadn’t read it, and I reminded myself that Nora Barnacle never did, over her whole lifetime. He introduced me to Baudelaire (“What’s this? Non-school poetry?”), and I made him read random American classics.
Not a day passes that I don’t read. Post-leukaemia, my stem cells were frozen in a big vat somewhere in case they’re ever needed again. I have afternoon-slump daydreams about busting them out and cloning myself, so I can a) be Katie Taylor in another life and b) read more. One clone could read the Shakespeare I haven’t yet gotten to; one could finish War and Peace, while another tackles more Solzhenitsyn than just The Gulag Archipelago. All the while I could dabble in Icelandic authors or 1940s noir or graphic novels. I’d tell the rest of my clone army to reread all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but I’m not a re-reader. How could I be, when there are so many unread books left to discover?
The Woman Reader, by Belinda Jack, is published by Yale University Press