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.
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.
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.