Heidi Brayman Hackel and Catherine E. Kelly
The Virgin Mary pores over a book of devotion, oblivious to the angel standing before her. A merchant's wife titters and flushes as she reads a French romance, slipping towards sexual ecstasy as she fingers the pages. A matron in a gauzy empire dress reads a history of ancient Rome and ponders her nation's prospects. A mouse of a girl curls up in a window seat, lost in an enormous book.
These are familiar images. In the 400 years since significant numbers of Western women began to read, such pictorial and textual representations of women reading have become part of our cultural wallpaper. They are the stuff of Renaissance paintings and nineteenth-century novels; they figure equally in exemplary lives and cautionary tales. In recent decades, these same images have gained new complexity and generated new questions, thanks to the work of a generation of feminist scholars who have illuminated the multiple, often conflicting, representations of the female reader. The essays collected in this volume aim to further their investigations both by turning toward more empirically based accounts of women's reading and by problematizing the dynamic relation between representation and recorded experience. We do not pretend to offer a definitive history of women reading, convinced as we are of the impossibility of such a narrative at this moment. Instead, the following essays aspire to advance a conversation across disciplinary fields and across national borders. They offer new data about the gendered realities of reading on both sides of the Atlantic, and they pose fresh questions about the relationship between those realities and the representations that were intended to shape them. Taken together, these essays help us track the dramatic emergence of girls and women as important participants in the production and consumption of texts and as statistically meaningful possessors of literacy.
It is no exaggeration to call this process dramatic. In England in 1500, as many as 99 percent of women may have been illiterate, and girls of all social backgrounds were the objects of purposeful efforts to restrict their access to full literacy. Three centuries later in 1800, nearly half of English and Anglo-American women demonstrated alphabetic literacy, and the female reader had emerged as a cultural ideal and market force. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Census reported that 90 percent of white men and women were literate. The protean expansion of a female readership shaped the history of publishing and the development of literary culture. We can see its impact in the steadily increasing numbers of texts aimed at least partly at female readers-cum-consumers and in the popularity of novels whose plots revolved around heroines who were themselves avid readers: fictional readers like Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke, and Jo March resulted from and encouraged a capacious culture of women's reading.
These heroines, along with their contemporary readers, have drawn critical attention. Some twenty years after the publication of path-breaking studies by Cathy Davidson and Janice Radway, we now know a good deal about past two hundred years of Anglo-American women's reading. But if scholars have written extensively about women's reading in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they have generally overlooked female readers at the critical moment when their reading assumed significant cultural and economic power. This problem has not gone unremarked. David McKitterick deems the field of early modern women's book ownership as "long overdue for a book" and still awaiting "its historian," and Kevin Sharpe concedes that "Nearly all the readers about whom we have information are male." And, indeed, even as the field of early modern reading has burgeoned, the readers who have emerged most visibly are elite men: Gabriel Harvey, John Dee, Ben Jonson, Sir William Drake. David Hall has similarly observed a gap in Americanist scholarship, noting that where women's reading is concerned, "an adequately historical description has taken second place to ideological criticism."
If historians of reading has not sufficiently understood women's reading, one might expect more discoveries from scholars of women writers. Yet most studies that have attempted to glimpse women readers have more often attended to women writers, not only turning to women's works for the evidence itself but also directing such evidence, finally, towards a history of a female literary tradition. Even a study aspiring to offer an as yet unsketched "group portrait" of eighteenth-century female readers of Pope, for example, settles into a study of women's poetry and literary criticism in the period. Certainly, a female literary tradition has emerged from the shadows because of the efforts of two generations of feminist scholars, who have recovered and edited hundreds of texts by early modern Englishwomen, documenting along the way the cultural habits that obscured this history and made it possible for Virginia Woolf to imagine in 1928 that "no woman could have written poetry" in the Elizabethan period. A similar effort must now be made to rediscover the landscape of women's reading in these formative periods. And as scholars have begun to demonstrate, it is an overgrown landscape, not an imaginary one. For long before Jane Eyre "mounted into the window-seat" to read, girls and women were reading—sometimes furtively, often voraciously, rarely with the full support of their culture.
Although the field of women's reading is comparatively undeveloped in the periods before 1800, several contributors to this volume—Margaret Ferguson, Sasha Roberts, Mary Ellen Lamb—have directed scholarly attention to the role of gender in early modern reading and advocated for a more carefully theorized account of the gendering of literacy. Taken together, their work has suggested a rough trajectory for the development of early modern Englishwomen's reading. Notwithstanding variations among households and fluctuations over time, female literacy increased and female literary engagement intensified markedly in the two centuries after 1500. In the sixteenth century, a literate woman in a gentry household might have had access to a housewifery manual, a devotional text or two, and the Bible; depending on exactly where and when she lived, she might have been prohibited from reading the Bible without the direct supervision of her father or husband. By the late seventeenth century, this same woman might well have counted among her books a Bible, a French dictionary, Katherine Philips' poems, a couple volumes of English plays, and a book of geography. But this cultural shift developed within and against strong constraints. If many women gained new access to secular texts, their brothers and husbands almost always had more and better access. Barred from acquiring classical languages, women were at a marked disadvantage for reading their culture's most intellectually prestigious texts. And the figure of the female reader, whether exalted or caricatured, became a lightening rod for anxieties about sexuality, gender, class, and power. Precisely because early modern women's reading, both as a daily practice and a cultural barometer, was so fraught, it has been obscured and overlooked in the historical record. If it is true that female readers, like nonelite male ones, left fewer records to document their reading habits than did elite males, it is also true that female readers left different records. Scholars who would recover the complex world of the early modern reader—much less the women who operated within that world—must therefore think more creatively about sources and evidence. Signature literacy, the standard measure which equates a signature with literacy and a mark on a public document with its absence, does not begin to reveal the extent of women's literacy not only because these measures conflate reading and writing but because they conflate reading and signing in public. As scholars have demonstrated, a woman who wrote a good italic hand in private might well choose to witness a legal document with an X. Rather than continuing to attempt to quantify female literacy with such inadequate measures, Ferguson urges scholars to expand the "archive of materials" and not to lament their inconclusiveness but rather to consider the "fuzziness of the information . . . as an asset to a model of cultural interpretation that interrogates scholarly claims to epistemological certainty or closure."
If scholars now insist upon the fundamental invisibility of many literate women in the historical record, it is also increasingly clear that the Female Reader is a fiction. Like their male peers, women brought a range of experiences, skills, and associations to their engagement with texts. Balancing this "multiplicity of interests and experiences that make up the female perspective," however, is the "common ground . . . that sets women apart from men." Accordingly, as Sasha Roberts reminds us in her essay, gender is "a surprisingly problematic category of critical analysis—both definitive and reductive, enabling and restricting." The crux of much feminist debate, particularly around the gendering of reading, has been a fundamental disagreement about the category of "woman" itself. To ask if women read differently from men is to ask, after all, where gender falls in the hierarchy of motivations and constraints in a human life. Feminist theorists have struggled to reconcile the assumptions of a recuperative paradigm, which seeks to reclaim women's voices from the past, with poststructuralist rejections of "woman" as an essentialist category. Many feminists have agreed finally to acknowledge the constructedness of gender and the variousness of its effects while still presuming its power: "The texts of our selves," Sandra Gilbert explains in a representative assertion, "as much as the texts we write or read, are variously but inexorably marked by the imperatives of gender, at least as much as by those of class and race." Other feminist scholars have theorized the ways in which modern readers may reclaim texts through explicitly gendered readings, Judith Fetterly proposing, for example, a resisting female reader. While this important work has opened up new readings of canonical texts and disarmed the canon itself, it has not, finally, moved us closer to an understanding of the particularities of girls' and women's reading in earlier periods. For reading, along with literacy itself, is never a transhistorical phenomenon. To uncover what it mean to read as a woman, one might best examine what it meant to read as a seventeenth-century Yorkshire merchant's young wife or as an eighteenth-century Philadelphia widow.
If, then, one cannot speak of a singular, unilegible Female Reader, this volume nevertheless asserts that gender was an organizing—an often the dominant—factor shaping women's reading in the Atlantic World during the period 1500 to 1800. For if the historical record is peopled by "ordinary exceptions"—some of whom are the subjects of the essays that follow—it also documents a period in which most of the conditions of textual consumption and production were indeed gendered. Access to texts, education, and literacy itself was responsive to cultural ideals and norms; early in the period, legal and institutional constraints further narrowed the range of girls' and women's experiences as readers. As the essays in the final section of the volume describe, the critical relationship between reading and writing, consumption and production was more fragmented and less automatic for women than men. If men's reading was often preparatory for writing, many women were discouraged altogether from writing.
The chronological parameters of our book are 1500-1800, with some spillover into earlier and later periods. On the one hand there is surely something arbitrary about locating beginning and end points: the lives of individual readers almost never coincide neatly with historical periods, and scholars have successfully challenged the very notion of periodization. On the other hand, Western women's reading emerged in tandem with the modern world and specific cultural and historical phenomenon identified with it. The year 1500 symbolically marks the end of the incunabular period or infancy of print, and we end near the introduction of wood-based paper and books mass produced on a scale unimaginable to the handful of Continental printers just setting up shop in London in 1500. In a volume committed to crossing national boundaries, it is nevertheless worth observing that we begin contemporaneously with the Tudor dynasty, which would usher in a new consolidation of monarchal power and a new era of self-presentation, and we end with the creation of the United States, which yoked reading and gender to the republican project.
Precisely because women's reading was so closely connected to the emergence of the modern world, it defied the boundaries of emergent nations, complicating the creation of national cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. To be sure, men's and women's reading surely contributed to the creation of imagined national communities; and some texts and practices remained insistently local. But—like persons—literacies, identities, and texts crossed borders and oceans. Readers in early modern France and England devoured novelles in translation and in the original languages. Some two hundred years later, readers in the United States loaded their bookshelves with imprints from across Europe, using those texts to elaborate a distinctive "American" culture. Individuals who were propelled across Europe and around the Atlantic world for religious, political, and economic reasons migrated with books in hand. Moreover, this circulation of people and texts created a kind of cosmopolitan imaginary, one that enabled readers who stayed put to devour the exotic customs and landscapes of distant lands. If this unprecedented movement of texts and readers was part of Europe's expansion, it entailed far more than an inexorable move from center to periphery. On the contrary, readers and especially texts moved from center to periphery and back again, following routes that were circuitous as often as they were direct. Texts and readers moved with the market, circulating through a protean market economy that was explicitly transatlantic, even global. As scholars working in literary, historical, and cultural studies have discovered, the emergent "modern world" is best viewed in transnational, trans-Atlantic context. Taken together, the essays in this volume demonstrate that isolating our explorations of women's reading within the boundaries of a single nation distorts important stories and obscures pressing questions.
At the same time, the following essays simultaneously direct our attention to the institutions that structured women's reading in the past and to the contemporary scholarly and methodological approaches that enhance our understanding of it. A strikingly wide variety of institutions competed to determine the kinds of texts that women read as well as the images of and experiences of female readers. Some, most obviously churches and schools, championed protocols and texts that aligned certain forms of reading and specific categories of readers with a distinctly feminine piety and respectability; not surprisingly, readers and texts who transgressed those conventions portended an equally feminized form of religious, cultural, economic, and sexual disorder. But these hegemonic institutions were themselves situated alongside and sometimes challenged by a far more heterodox constellation of discursive practices and texts than scholars have allowed. Women's reading was shaped not only by the wisdom of clerics and pedagogues, but by the polite and often heterosocial conversations of early modern courts, eighteenth-century tea tables, and nineteenth century parlors. Scripture and conduct manuals competed not only with poetry, drama, and a cacophonous press but with scientific and aesthetic treatises and unpublished, privately circulated manuscripts. This plurality, visible as early as the fifteenth century, was only exacerbated by the consumer revolution of the long eighteenth century, which placed multiple institutions and texts within the reach of increasing numbers of readers, female and male alike. The broad outlines of this trajectory—more sites of consumption and reception, more texts, more readers—have become are familiar to scholars working in a variety of disciplines. But the essays in this volume bring new levels of specificity and nuance to our understanding of that narrative by showing how it unfolded across space as well as over time.
If the essays collected here alert us to the range of texts that texts and contexts that shaped women's reading, they also underscore the need to think more inventively about the sources that document it. Most obviously, they remind us of the ways in which the textual is imbricated in the material. Whether precious folios or mass-market novels, intimate letters or schoolgirls' commonplace books, the texts women consumed, circulated, and created were also objects. These textual objects simultaneously created and drew meaning from the constellation of things that surrounded them: pulpits and lutes; writing desks and parlor tables; tambour hoops and curiosity cabinets. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, women's reading took shape in a remarkably rich material world. To apprehend the complexity of that world and its effect on reading, scholars must look beyond the transformations wrought by the consumer revolution writ large: they must do more than document the increasing numbers of titles available to women. After all, the objects that women and men read acquired meaning partly from the texts they contained and partly from their relation to other textual objects. An eighteenth-century Bible, for example, might signify both because of the scripture it contained and because of its potential to counter the secular, eroticized worlds projected by novels and plays. But, as several contributors contend, textual objects also acquired meaning from and bestowed meaning upon artifacts not usually associated with reading. Their essays demonstrate that we can learn a great deal from exploring the connections between, say learning to read a book and sew a sampler or between assembling a curiosity cabinet and a commonplace book. Further, with women's reading, more surely even than with their male peers', not all textual objects were printed ones. Just as early modern women's writing circulated—or at least was recorded—more often in manuscript than print, so women's experience of textuality often extended beyond even the page itself. Texts that were sewn in samplers, engraved on rings, chalked on walls, and inscribed on trenchers constituted the beginnings of female literacy and rooted it in the domestic and material sphere. In an early modern world that was "paper-short" and in which the whitewashed domestic wall may well have been the "primary scene of writing" (and thus reading), we must look beyond the printed and even manuscript page for a full sense of textuality, literacy, and reading practice.
Just as we cannot divorce the texts that women read from their material context, neither can we divorce reading from the social and cultural practices that surrounded it. Images of solitary women poring over devotional manual, or curled up with a novel, reflect some aspects of women's reading but certainly not all of them. In practice, women's reading was very often embedded in other practices. Most obviously, from the seventeenth century, the reading woman associated with the shopping woman. By the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the reading woman was positioned, however uneasily, alongside the writing woman. But, as the following essays suggest, women's reading emerged in concert with practices less frequently associated with reading in general and books in particular. Reading was bound up with performance, spectatorship, and listening. It resonated with collecting, painting, and embroidery. It prompted storytelling and translation as well as writing. Moreover, these practices were gendered in reciprocal ways. The female reader (be she wanton or judicious) was figured in relation to an equally female consumer, or writer, or needleworker.
The essays collected are clustered to explore three broad sets of questions generated by the historical emergence of women's reading as well as by contemporary efforts to recover the history of reading in general. The essays in "Pleasures and Prohibitions" focuses on both on women's contested access to a variety of texts and on how, and why, particular kinds of texts were deemed appropriate for female readers. In "Performance and Accomplishment," we turn our attention to the material and explicitly social dimensions of women's reading. The final section, "Translation and Authorship" raises questions about the relationship between different, and differently gendered, forms of reading and writing.