Part 3 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at concerns about the effects of the novel on its readers.
There is one scene in the film Educating Rita which is guaranteed to bring on that watery eyed, sick-in-the-stomach feeling every time I see it. For those who don’t know the film, (based on Willy Russell’s stage play), Rita is a twenty-something -year-old hairdresser who embarks on an Open University English literature degree. All she wants to do is to discover herself. All her husband sees is that all this reading and studying means she is drifting away from him and diverting her from what she really should be doing — having his baby. In frustration, he seizes her precious copies of Chekhov, Shakespeare, E M Forster et al and sets them alight. All Rita can do is watch in tears.
The idea that books can change people’s attitudes and behaviours, that they are responsible for filling our heads with undesirable ideas isn’t just something that happens in films or plays. Our history is littered with examples of regimes that burned or banned books they considered to be a threat to society. From Germany in the late thirties, to the McCarthy era in the USA and the Cultural Revolution in China, we see examples of extreme measures taken to suppress dissenting and heretical views.
The early pioneers of the novel escaped wholesale prohibition but this new form of fiction wasn’t immune from concerns about its effects on readers. The fear was that readers would be so absorbed by these new forms of narrative, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. Even worse, they could be led astray and end up thinking they should adopt the same behaviours and attitudes as the characters in those novels or begin to want the same experiences. They could indeed fall prey to the same perils as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, who yearns for the same kind of mysteries and secrets as the heroines of the gothic novels she relishes, and whose lively imagination means she sees intrigue and ‘evil’ where none exists.
In The Progress of Romance, one of the earliest critical perspectives on the new novel form, the author Clara Reeve appears to castigate the novel for raising false expectations among young women.
A young woman is taught to expect adventures and intrigues — she expects to be addressed in the style of these books, with the language of flattery and adulation. If a plain man addresses her in rational terms and pays her the greatest of compliments, that of desiring to spend the rest of his life with her, that is not sufficient. Her vanity is disappointed, she expects to meet a hero.
Some of the attacks on the novel seem rather ludicrous and over-blown now. Here’s an example from a sermon by Dr Fordyce, a Scottish clergyman in the 1760s.
….. certain books are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute., let her reputation in life be what it will. But can it be true …. that any young woman pretending to decency should endure for a moment to look on this infernal brood of futility and lewdness. They paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold.
Strong sentiments and some inflated language indeed but it’s hard to take this seriously given his admission “we have not read them.” I would have expected more balanced and sympathetic reflections from Mary Wollstonecraft given her own predeliction for unusual life styles and her advocacy of women’s rights. But even in her landmark work A Vindication of the Rights of Women she argued that novel reading ‘tended to make women creatures of sensation’ who are prey to an ‘overstretched sensibility’ that dooms them to unhappiness.
There’s more to this than moral indignation or religious fervour clearly. Maybe one of the keys is that both Fordyce and Wollstoncraft specifically refer to the effects of novels on women. From the eighteenth century, and increasingly so in the nineteenth, the major consumers of fiction were women. The growing ‘middle class’ and the accompanying notions of gentility meant a body of women were released from the necessity of work and gained more time to read. But with that freedom came increasing expectations about the behaviour and role of women in society. A feeling emerged that women’s nature made them unfit for intellectual or strenuous activity and if they persisted in pursuing such activities, the consequences could be fatigue, unhealthy mental excitement and even madness.
What women were expected to do was to manage the private, domestic sphere of children and the family, providing a well organised, comfortable and morally secure environment for their families while their husbands laboured in the public world. Women were meant to be devoted, submissive to their husbands; meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all virtuous, taking their model from the wife in Coventry Patmore’s hugely popular sequence of poems The Angel in the House published between 1854 and 1861.
George Lewes’s review of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley in 1849 somewhat reflects that view:
The grand function of woman, it must always be recollected is, and ever must be Maternity and thus we regard not only as her distinctive characteristic and most endearing charm, but as a high and bold office.
And this from a man who lived with George Eliot for many years ostensibly as husband and wife and actively supported her writing career. Double standards maybe?
But given those beliefs, it’s easy to see how anything that ran counter to those models of behaviour or caused women to become dissatisfied with their lot in life could be considered a risk to the social equilibrium and thus had to be castigated.
About this article
This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here