Foreshades of Grey

or The Moral Dangers to Young Women of Reading


Depending on what you want from a book, you might say “I’ll have what she’s having” and sales of the book would exceed Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter combined.
Bernard d’Agesci Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abélard
c.1780 Oil on canvas, Art Institute, Chicago. Image source: WGA

In the age of Enlightenment and Sensibility, women were encouraged to read moral novels for self-improvement, and discouraged to read anything politically or sexually exciting, so of course they did, with an all-consuming passion.

There was a real fear that if women’s imaginations were stirred too much, or if they lost themselves completely in a book, erotic or not, their weak feminine minds would be depraved.

The very private nature of the pastime was suspect; unsupervised reading of a novel might lead to masturbation.

So, as is the way of the world, portraits of girls reading became a popular soft-porn genre for men, sometimes unconvincingly disguised as moral warnings.

Moralists and misogynists could berate as much as they liked, but it was in no-one’s interests to stop women reading novels, either for instruction or diversion.

For all sorts of reasons, many people of both sexes were afraid of independent thinking, erudite women, like the Bluestockings, so they laughed at them, the premise of the jokes being that having more sex or children would set them right.

There were exceptions, women whose learning and writing was of so high a quality or relevance that it transcended gender prejudice. No sensible man could deny that these female authors were rational creatures.

NPG 5856; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Robert Edge Pine

Catharine Macaulay, by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, circa 1775 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Historian, political writer and activist, republican supporter of American Independence, opponent of inequalities in wealth, and proponent of co-education, linked to the ‘Bluestocking’ group of intellectuals, she explained she had been “a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge…” She lost the respect of her contemporaries not for any flaw in her intellectual system, but because when she was forty-seven she married a man twenty-six years younger than her.

At the same time as women declared their intellectual and moral equality there was a huge increase in light literature. In the new enlightened culture, men and women both believed in the importance of educating girls, if only for the amelioration of the male condition, and this could be best achieved through presenting complex or lofty ideas in an entertainingly accessible way.

Being seen with a book enhanced your social status, just as the latest tablet or iPhone does now. Sorry, not Kindle – 18th century books, even the driest and most moral, were sexier. The Age of Elegance was also the first phase of modern consumerism; abstract philosophical ideals, art and literature were filtered down into bourgeois society and solidified into aspirational lifestyle accessories; books, pictures, china sets, clocks, tea caddies, sofas, your expensively landscaped garden, stuff in general became more important for what they represented than what they were – you, it was you, the expression not merely of wealth, but of your self-identity.

reading marguerite gerard This epitome of bourgeois elegance, in which the lady, chic in virginal white, concentrates on reading an art-book, without any problems maintaining her composure, was painted by a woman, to please her patron by showing their good taste.
Marguerite Gérard Lady Reading in an Interior 1795-1800
Oil on canvas Private collection. Image source: WGA

Monitoring your daughter or wife’s reading matter was almost impossible, because the serpent could lurk in the most innocent-seeming of pages. The orgasmic girl in d’Agesci’s painting has forgotten herself during a particularly exciting passage in one of the 12th century nun Heloise’s letters to the monk Abelard.

Their story had been revived in the Renaissance by Petrarch, a significant writer to many 18th century intellectuals, including the great republican salonniere and political writer Madame Roland, and in the Romantic period they became icons of true love doomed by society. Heloise’s passion, piety and self-sacrifice represented a feminine ideal.


Jeanne-Marie (or Manon) Phlipon, Madame Roland, print after the portrait by Heinsius, 1792.
Musée national du Château de Versailles Image source: Wikipedia
Madame Roland’s life and thought was profoundly influenced by reading Petrarch and Rousseau.

13 comments on “Foreshades of Grey

  1. […] work [is] pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover.” Catherine Nichols in an essay published in Harpers, […]


  2. […] the Moral Dangers of Reading. The birth of the novel was a long and hard one, as 18th century writers of fiction struggled to […]


  3. […] no, it’s her again, our young 18th century friend falling out of her dress while being debauched by reading the love […]


  4. erickeyswriter says:

    I have to admit I’m now a fan! Reading the whole FoG series of posts right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. PJR says:

    Exactly – we might dress differently, and wash more, and have more gadgets, but we have the same nature and urges. I’m deliciously pleased that you enjoyed the post. Thank you for visiting!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. erickeyswriter says:

    “portraits of girls reading became a popular soft-porn genre for men” –> Perhaps I would have been more at home in this age than I thought, as even in the 21st Century I find watching girls reading makes my thoughts go in a very particular direction! Something about bookish girls does wonders for me.

    “aspirational lifestyle accessories” –> The more things change the more they stay the same, yes?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. beetleypete says:

    I was interested to read that comment about Sex in the City. I never followed it myself, but I remember seeing it on TV on one occasion, and remarking to my wife that, ‘those women look like men in dresses, acting how they expect women to act when there are no men around.’
    I have never heard that opinion echoed since. Until now. Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. PJR says:

    Yes, Camille Paglia! She would help sort out the knots I’m tying myself into writing about Boucher, erotica, and le Parc aux Cerfs. The moral implications are too complicated for blog-bites. I like the sound of your daughter and agree with her mother about everything.


  9. My daughter finds it offensive that Lena Dunham is the “it” girl of her generation. I’m still not over her framing some poor guy for rape. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of her show and I guess I don’t find girls eating cake on the toilet appealing. I think we keep downgrading womanhood (and manhood) but I’m a puritan and a snob 🙂

    Camille Paglia is my girl most of the time! I felt when I watched Sex in the City that I was watching men in drag, not real women that I know. At first I thought it would be fun and outrageous (like Absolutely Fabulous) but I was sadly disappointed.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. PJR says:

    Thank you, Adrienne, for following an undertow to somewhere deeper I wasn’t daring to go – I worry what we have done with our autonomy (easy now to forget WHY Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were thought so shocking – that young women could & would think & feel & write like that) and how far we can justify “controlling” influences on “undiscerning” young minds. They will find their own way eventually…won’t they? I don’t feel I’ve explored enough possibilities in my own life

    And I should come clean about my ignorant prejudices before the next installments are posted: I have not read Fifty Shades, don’t want to (but am I missing out on next Liaisons Dangereuses??), I’m not curious to see the film – not keen enough on the cast to be tempted, either – but I’m told there’s a romantic dignity to the production values; I hated Sex & The City on TV and film – even when I was of the generation it was originally aimed at – give me the glory of Jane Russell & Marilyn Monroe catching millionaires any day – but if I was a mother, would I want my young daughter exposed to Lorelei Lee as a role-model? I don’t get Bridesmaids & Bachelorettes (of any kind); I don’t get Girls, though Lena Dunham has gravitas. Does your daughter watch Girls? Tina Fey’s more my girl.


  11. I have a few American manners books of the 1850-60s. I love how the writer warns women against certain books as being too racy. Yet I do wonder if we’ve lost a certain level of beauty and dare I say innocence with the crap we write for young women today. My 18 year old daughter loves the Sex in the City books and I think it’s made her a little to flippant about things that actually change the way you look at life and degrade some beautiful elements of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Mary says:

    This was a great read – so difficult taming women and their reading material!! The heritage of women continue on, here’s to the first out there that pushed the envelop!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. beetleypete says:

    Good to know that the modern readers of erotic pap are continuing a long legacy of literary self-improvement! And I love the painting of the lady reading the letters!
    Best wishes as always. Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s