Foreshades of Grey (2)

or To love and be loved

marieadelaidereadingMadame Marie-Adelaide in Turkish costume, by Étienne Liotard, 1753, oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image source: WGA
The book is not a mere prop. This was a princess who loved reading and collecting books for their own sake. She ended up with 5000 volumes in her library. Marie-Adelaide was the favourite daughter of Louis XV. She never married and spent fifty-seven years of her life at Versailles. Unfortunately for her she was intelligent, and ambitious, so being denied a fulfilling role at court embittered her. She survived the Revolution, and all her brothers and sisters, and her nephew Louis XVI and his queen, and died in exile in Trieste in 1800, aged 67.

The majority of female readers, whether they were intellectually curious or just wanted to be trendy, were brainwashed by the best-selling novels of Rousseau. He extolled female education in virtue, passion and instinct, in order to make women into agreeable companions, and emotional and sexual guides, to the new ideal “natural” men.

The aim was not so different from the medieval Courts of Love, where aristocratic women had civilized the warrior-class. The great salons, the women-led network of radical thought and promotion, flourished under similar harmless cover. Individual women like Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and, very occasionally, the wives of kings, like Queen Caroline in England, had long ruled nations from the royal bedroom; now more women from different social backgrounds could influence and promote ideas, ministers, even policies, in their own homes, without exchanging kisses for votes.

salon

Dandré-Bardon Salon Scene Pen, sepia ink and wash Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: WGA

Rousseau was a false prophet of feminism, assuring women that “in what they have in common, they are equal” to men, and then telling them all their qualities must be put into being good wives and mothers. His philosophy inspired them to follow their innermost feelings and instincts, helped them take off all the unwieldy paraphernalia of hoops and paniers, so they could dress more naturally in simple white muslin, decorated only with fresh roses, and let down their ridiculously pouffed and unhygienic powdered hair, or cut it short, and then, in the next breath, he chained them up again, to the hearth, the cradle and the drawing room.

With varying degrees of inner struggle, some women realized they could nurture others and themselves either without or by balancing, a conflict of interests, and declared ideological war which, unbelievably, is still going on. Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey

or The Moral Dangers to Young Women of Reading

readingheloise

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. Continue reading