This ambitious book maps out the relatively undeveloped field of women's reading habits across time and cultures, all in fewer than 350 pages. It is not an easy task, but Belinda Jack accomplishes it brilliantly. She shifts seamlessly between wide-ranging examples, from the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene, who persuaded her tutor to help her circumvent a parental ban on erotic poetry, to The Peony Pavilion (1598), a popular play whose heroine became an alter ego for the young Chinese women who read it obsessively to the point of exhaustion, prompting some concerned mothers to burn their copies.
The book's roughly chronological structure offers a sense of progress, but Jack is careful to record "the stagnant times and periods of reversal when literacy rates dropped or access to reading material declined". Women's reading has been a hot topic since the 16th century, when female literacy levels rose in Western Europe. Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) argued for women's education based on wide reading, and issued a rallying call to her sex: "How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine show and be good for nothing?"
Throughout, Jack highlights the denial of education for girls and the control that men have felt the need to exert over women's reading. As early as 1592, Venetian writer Moderata Fonte directly questioned men's dominance over women and "the envy and ill-will they bear us". Some 200 years later, while prescribing appropriate levels of intellectual engagement for women, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that their conversation should be "pleasing but not brilliant" and their education "must be relative to men. To please men, to be useful to them." Centuries later, when British girls finally had full access to education, they overtook the scholarly accomplishments of the nation's boys with ease.
In the 18th century, women's reading was a subject of almost universal and often extravagant excitement. This European golden age of female achievement saw women reading and writing in the public sphere, and influential literary salons being run by the society bluestockings Elizabeth Montagu and Hester Thrale. Unfortunately, political and moral panic brought on by revolution in the US and France influenced a "bluestocking backlash", abruptly ending this intellectual freedom. Decades later, Elizabeth Fry paid tribute to Montagu and her peers, lauding this "informal collective...of gifted friends and associates, [who] proved to the world the possibility of high literary attainments existing with every feminine grace and virtue".
The 18th-century novel spurred women's interest in literature, and they began to read more widely. Anna Barbauld (in The British Novelists, 1810) identified the benefits of escapism in novel reading, "to find relief from the sameness of every-day occurrences"; however, later in the 19th century, medics worried about the "hysteria and madness" such pursuits could produce. Crazes for particular novels, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1741) elicited vast amounts of contemporary commentary in diaries and letters. Female readers wrote to authors, with Lady Bradshaigh discussing Pamela in such detail that Richardson incorporated her views in later editions. For Jack, her letters provide "a crucial window into the mind and soul of one keen reader".
One of the joys of this book is its value as a repository of enticing research topics. Who can resist the thought of a 1616 Treatise Against Paintng [sic] and Tincturing of Men and Women? Jack also notes the importance of historic visual images of women with books. My favourite here is the 19th-century Punch cartoon "How to make a Chatelaine a real Blessing to Mothers", featuring a reading aid in the form of an adapted 18th-century key belt for keeping small children safely tethered while you read.
Lastly, a word of sage 17th-century advice from Madame de Sevigne to mothers fretting about their daughters' reading material: "For Pauline who devours books, I would rather see her gobble up bad ones than not read at all."
The Woman Reader
By Belinda Jack. Yale University Press, 336pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780300120455. Published 28 June 2012