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.