Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Women Who Read Too Much

"La liseuse" by Fragonard. Photo from

This week I had to lead a discussion in English class on Northanger Abbey. An unorthodox choice of Austen novel to study--but because the course is all about how different authors construct heroism, and the first line of the novel is "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine," surprisingly appropriate. I'd first read Northanger two years ago on a "read the complete works of Austen" kick, and though it's her most lightweight novel, I find it utterly charming.

Rereading it, I recalled an offhand comment one of my professors once made: 19th-century literature is filled with women who read too much and get in trouble for it. He made this comment in an opera course where we read Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin to see how Tchaikovsky adapted it. Its heroine, Tatiana, commits a major faux pas when she emulates the heroines of the French romance novels she loves, and writes a love letter to Onegin, whom she barely knows.

I'd never explicitly noticed the pattern before, but it's very true. Two other major examples of 19th-century women who read too much are the aforementioned Catherine Morland, who reads too many Gothic novels and can't tell fact from fiction. And Emma Bovary, who wants to live her life like a romance heroine, only to be rewarded with dissatisfaction, ennui, and an ignominious death. I'm sure there are more, but I may not have read them yet.

From a feminist point of view, perhaps there's something sinister about this--an effort by patriarchal societies to demean women's reading? These books often make fun of the genres women like (romances) as well as women's naiveté in thinking that life can be like a novel.

When I was in France there was a coffee-table book for sale called Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (Women Who Read are Dangerous) which analyzes paintings of women reading. I always meant to buy this book for my mom (she's decorating a spare bedroom with prints of reading women) but it's a heavy, expensive tome all in French... Still, I'd be interested to know what the book says about the gender implications of women reading. Why is it "dangerous"?

And there's something odd about people writing novels that demean people who read novels. Jane Austen points this out in her spirited "Defense of the Novel" in chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works [...] [A novel is] only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. (Full text here)
Still, Northanger Abbey alleges that novels can be dangerous for naive readers who fall prey to their seductions and fail to distinguish fact from fiction. But meanwhile we are falling prey to the seduction of Austen's writing--its "wit and humour," its "knowledge of human nature." Don't you think it's funny that we love Jane Austen's characters and talk about them as if they were real people? Does this make us bad, naive readers?

The notion of women reading too much and getting in trouble for it seems mostly a 19th-century phenomenon. I can think of bookish females in 20th-century novels (such as my beloved Frederica Potter) but they are not punished for their reading in the same way.

One possible exception is Atonement--which takes its epigraph from Northanger Abbey (the end of chapter 24, where Henry reprimands Catherine for imagining wild and melodramatic things about his family). This really is the perfect quote to begin Atonement, and Ian McEwan suggests that Briony's having read too much contributes to the error she makes. Still, Briony is just 13--younger than Catherine, Tatiana, or Emma. We can no longer accept an adult woman being as naive a reader as those three ladies; but we can still accept it in a child.

I mentioned Atonement to my English professor because of the Northanger connection, and though he had never heard of it, he was thrilled to be told. "You know I hardly ever read anything from later than the sixteenth century," he said, "and when I do, it's because it has some connection to those earlier works." The mere notion of its title got him excited--"It came out about 5 years ago? The early 21st century? To think that in this day and age, a book called Atonement could get published--and you say it was a success, they've even sold the movie rights? Amazing!" He expounded upon the idea of "atonement," an ancient concept that often comes up in the medieval-theological stuff he reads, but sorely lacking and desperately needed in the modern world. It's a fundamental human question, he said: can we ever atone? Red-faced with excitement, he said he'd run to the bookstore right after class and purchase Atonement--"If it's as good as its title, I'll love it!"


artidkc said...

I got the link to your post through blogger Bibliophilia. I've thoroughly enjoyed the book Atonement AND the movie...I feel it's one of the best book-into-film adaptations I've seen. I've written a review on it in case you're intereted. Your account of your conversation with your prof is truly interesting. I'll definitely come back and read more of your blog...and, like your phrase "coming to terms with my nerdiness"...great fun!
---- Arti of Ripple Effects at wordpress

Marissa said...

Hey, thanks for visiting! I took a look at your blog and I agree, the movie of "Atonement" was a great adaptation (though I don't think film can ever achieve the gut-punch effect of READING that final section). What a relief that it made such a good film!