Women of letters

Antoine Wiertz's <i>The Reader of Novels</i> (1853) depicts a naked woman seemingly writhing in ecstasy while surrounded by books.
Antoine Wiertz's The Reader of Novels (1853) depicts a naked woman seemingly writhing in ecstasy while surrounded by books.

By Belinda Jack
Yale University Press, $39.95

THE wonderful thing about Belinda Jack's The Woman Reader is that this history of reading is, inevitably, a history of many things: writing, publishing (women were active in the printing trade), books, education, religion and class. As Jack argues, women's exclusion from reading and writing is a litmus test of their broader position within a society.

The act of reading is a powerful one and the fact that it is also an act that confers power has been taken as a given since scribes started using clay tablets. This explains, perhaps, the appalling fact that women were not allowed to formalise their reading and attend university until at least 1878 (the University of London was the first to allow women to study).

The Woman Reader begins four millenniums before the birth of Christ, when reading and writing first emerged, then takes us through the rise of the ancient Greeks and the monasteries of the so-called Dark and Middle ages. We move on to the rise of the printing press, which led to the end of exclusively cloistered reading and to the rise of the English novel in the 1700s. Jack finally abandons us, somewhat breathless, in 2003 with the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran.

No matter what the century, though, Jack's recurring theme is the scrutiny of whether women should be allowed to read and, if so, to what kind of material they should have access. As well, there was an ongoing anxiety as to whether they were capable of understanding what they read or, even worse, understood exactly what they were reading and, as a consequence, got ideas above their station.

Then there was women's disturbing tendency to read things that were not ennobling, a concern that has not gone away. There is much in the current discussion - by which I mean snobbery and hand-wringing - about the success of Fifty Shades of Grey that fits comfortably with one of Jack's theses that men (and women) were scared of women's reading because it was a form of sexual activity.

Illustrations are included throughout Jack's book to underline the author's various arguments and one such image is Antoine Wiertz's The Reader of Novels (1853), in which a naked woman lies on her back and holds a book above her head in such a fashion that she appears to be writhing in ecstasy.

Harriet Bowdler, who was as responsible for producing the abridged version of Shakespeare, The Family Shakespeare (1807), as her brother Thomas, was coy about her involvement because to cut sentences from Othello such as, ''Even now, known, very now, an old black ram/is tupping your white ewe'', implied that she, a single woman, got the innuendo.

The Woman Reader charts panic around the deregulation of the publishing industry at the end of the 1500s. Printing presses were becoming more common, which led to debates about price, gatekeeping and accessibility - arguments that are familiar as the e-book begins its ascent.

Jack writes: ''In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590) we come face-to-face with a female monster, half-woman, half-serpent, 'Most loathsome, filthie, foule, and full of vile disadaine'. She … vomits up a mixture of books, papers, frogs and toads - an extraordinary image of the dangerous effect of indiscriminate and indigestible reading.''

Jack goes on to explain that the move to smaller formats towards the middle of the 17th century was a response to the fact that expensive larger books were being pushed out of the market by pirated editions, books that served a less-wealthy public.

As books became more prevalent, women's literacy rate in England rose from about 5 per cent to 18 per cent. And, once reading escaped the cloisters, it was handbooks on subjects such as childbirth, cooking and housekeeping that took off.

Then, in 1721, came the book some considered the first novel (though much non-fiction had been an elaborate form of storytelling for some decades), Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. The English novel went on to take the reading world by storm.

Reading was often considered a private activity, which might explain some of the concerns that it was also an erotic one. But Jack also considers the rise of reading as a public activity, one in which the books one chooses to read are left in prominent positions for guests to admire: calling cards of sorts, of both status and religious devotion.

Indeed, in the Middle Ages, women often needed to cast aside the domestic and private sphere altogether if they wanted access to books at all - to become a nun or a prioress was not just to encourage a more intimate relationship with God, but with the finest libraries in the land.

The chapters that focus on the centuries in which books were the property of the church are among the most interesting in the book. It is inevitable, I suppose, that the history becomes less gripping when Jack charts attitudes to reading in the past 300 years. That's in part because many readers will already be aware of the novels of great Romantic and Victorian novelists and their cultivation of a female audience. Indeed, one of these authors, Jane Austen, continues to be one of the most-read authors in the world.

Jack focuses on English and European readers, but her occasional forays into China and Japan left me wanting more and highlighted the fact that her focus feels, at times, confined. There is certainly a relief when her penultimate chapter examines the different way in which reading is taken up in the US, from the beginning of the 1700s, when the power of the word was such that it was against the law for slaves to read, until slavery was abolished in 1865.

For it's not just women's reading that was circumscribed, and this gendered history is really about the way those at the top - religious men, white men, wealthy men - attempted to control and scrutinise the reading of all classes, races and people who were not them, and the fabulous, irrepressible insistence all such people have in continuing to read, no matter what the consequences.

■Sophie Cunningham is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival. She is chairwoman of the literature board of the Australia Council, on the board of the Stella Prize, and author of Melbourne, published by NewSouthBooks.

This story Women of letters first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.