Nicola here. Today I’m talking about women and reading. At the start of this year I bought what was possibly the most pointless item of 2020, although at the time I didn't realise it. It was a 2020 desk diary in which I planned to write all the dates of the talks I was going to be giving this year, details of bookshop visits, conferences and literary festivals. This week I looked at its blank pages and although I was sorry I hadn't had the chance to use it, I still appreciated the illustrations because it was The Reading Woman Diary.
I love the idea of "the reading woman" and I love pictures of women reading. It's a celebration of something we all enjoy doing. In the introduction to the diary there are a few paragraphs about paintings of reading women and how they have always been a popular subject for artists through the ages. The reading women “turn to books for entertainment, insight and revelation.” They are educated, literate and they have the leisure to read. “Within these often-intimate portrayals lies the opportunity for enlightenment and the seductive retreat from the concerns of every day,” the diary says.
Well, this sounds a pretty good deal to me. Who doesn’t want a bit of quiet time to escape the concerns of the present, especially
when that present can be so challenging and stressful? Most of the images in the book, though, were from the Victorian era, and this set me wondering about female literacy and when – and which – women first had the leisure and the education to read. So I did a bit of research and here are my slightly rambling finds.
Firstly I had no idea that there were paintings of women reading as early as the 14th century. These were mainly Christian religious pictures of the Virgin Mary reading (usually the bible) which were a play on the Christian concept of “the word made flesh.” In this historical period it was already the thing for upper class women to read, they being the ones who had both the leisure and the money to buy books. The Royal court led the way on this; Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II, owned many books of religious devotions, an encyclopedia, two history books and at least ten romances, which in those days was the name given to any work of fiction although they often had an element of love story in them. Not only did she read them herself but she also loaned them to friends and family. The royal library, housed in the Tower of London, had 340 titles.
What is also fascinating is that this is the era when the book club is recorded – there are descriptions of ladies having reading parties in the gardens of aristocratic houses, enjoying food and drink as they do so. Reading was also a private, indoor pastime for the lord and his family. Most people, though, enjoyed their books as audio stories in those days, read aloud or told by minstrels – only 1 in 20 of the rural population was literate so their storytelling was very much an aural tradition.
Jump forward a few centuries and ladies were still reading much the same variety of books: sermons, romances and non-fiction. In 1653 Dorothy Osborne recorded in her letters that she would get up early, go around the house to make sure everything was in order and chivvy the maids along, then she would read in the garden for a little while. After lunch she would spend some more time reading and maybe read in the evening as well! She was fortunate enough to have plenty of time for leisure as well as a big book habit!
One of the earliest images in my diary of a woman reading is this famous one by Fragonard. It’s called “Young Girl Reading” and it was painted in 1769. Like almost every other picture in the book it shows reading as a solitary activity and the girl looks completely engrossed. It’s also clear that she is very well-to-do in her gorgeous golden gown and with her big cushions! This really is an example of a young woman who has the opportunity to escape into a good book.
From a slightly later period comes this other image, this time of Queen Marie-Antoinette with a book. Depictions of Marie-Antoinette in art are weighted with all sorts of things – her role as Queen of France, the fact that she was a foreigner and unpopular. There are plenty of other paintings of her in a more traditional female role, picking flowers or shown with her children. Showing her with a book is perhaps an attempt to suggest a more serious and educated side to her. This portrait was painted by a woman, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and so perhaps there is more interest is showing Marie-Antoinette as a well-read woman.
One of the articles I read on women in paintings suggested that male artists are fascinated by the image of women reading but have historically tended to place them in a pastoral setting, in the gentle benevolence of nature or a garden, in order to master “the wild act of reading.” Every Victorian picture in my diary conforms to this idea – they are gorgeous pictures but they are all idyllic and many of them show women outside, idling their time away happily. Or they are sitting inside but are pictured next to a huge vase of flowers, which is the next best thing!
I’d never imagined reading to be “wild” or subversive but I can see that if you accept the idea that in a patriarchal society a woman reading is a threat to men because pleasure and wisdom are in her own hands, then this would be an issue for the Victorians. In this period it feels as though you really couldn't win as a reading woman – so often they are depicted reading love letters or romances or magazines – something “light” and unimportant. At the same time the social commentators are condemning them for reading fiction! This is despite the evidence that throughout history women have always enjoyed a wide variety of reading matter.
(A brief note here on men reading in paintings – the books, newspapers, etc are usually included as a sign of his profession or wisdom.)
My research also told me that male artists saw reading as an erotic act by a woman (who knew?)
Evidence to support this theory is the way that books are described: Their words are said to “touch” people or “hold” them. All of which apparently goes to show that when we take up a book and enjoy our reading experience there is so much more going on than us simply processing words on a page! Escapism, education, enjoyment, communal or solitary, where there is reading there is a lot happening.
When I flicked through my empty diary, I had no idea that finding out about women reading would lead me down such a rabbit hole. The thing I enjoyed the most, though, was the idea of women down the ages enjoying our reading experience in different ways and in different places, from the reading parties held by aristocratic medieval women in their gardens, to enjoying a book at bedtime now, from listening to a story told by a minstrel to turning on an audio book as we drive or do the ironing. Where and how do you most enjoy reading? In a book group, or as a solitary activity, in the garden or the bath? Share your reading secrets with the Wenches!