"Of all women's reading the novel has been the most controversial." This is but one perspective in Belinda Jack's seminal work, The Woman Reader, which discusses many aspects of what women have read, and still read today. A delightful, erudite read, this book takes us from "Primitives, Goddesses and Aristocrats" to "The Modern Women Reader" and everything in between. The Woman Reader is to be read slowly, and savored as we touch bases with our pasts as women readers.
The introduction is indispensable for in it Jack's discusses what is called Mother's Legacies, one of the first acceptable (to men) writing forms in the 17th Century. This form was often used in a time when mothers did not live through childbirth, a memoir of sorts meant for her children to read.
Jack also writes about the factors that kept women from reading openly for hundreds of years: the Church, well-meaning parents who wanted marriageable daughters, not bluestockings, and husbands, who were uncomfortable with wives who read and thought for themselves.
So many interesting lines of thought are contained here as well. Reading silently, to oneself, as opposed to the common practice of reading aloud, in groups, as a social activity... Reading books "meant for women" (e.g. penny dreadfuls, romances, housekeeping books, books on childrearing) versus reading literature meant to be enlightening... and even historical standards dating back to prehistoric times. Most of the viewpoints are Western-based, although there are some thoughts on women readers in Asian cultures as well.
A constant refrain from men, authorities and the law was that "allowing" women to read was corrupting and would lead to immoral behavior. Jack delineates these off-kilter standards and shows how even later generations, into the 20th century, were controlled by their social standing and money; the poor and the servant classes either couldn't afford or weren't encouraged to read, because it would promote laziness and sloth.
Another bonus with The Woman Reader is the wonderful art that illustrates Jack's points. From the first, a 1333 depiction of Mary (The Annunciation and Two Saints, Simone Martin) to the last, a photograph of two Iranian women students reading a newspaper in 2000, we are taken on a visual tour of women readers, as well as reading about the books that have inspired (and condemned) women for millennia.
Each chapter brings revelations and interesting detail to the history of what women have read. Seeing what we have struggled against (e.g. Rousseau's belief that women should read to "cultivate their minds" but only with the intent and purpose of pleasing their husbands and his social circle with conversation.) There are Endnotes to enrich your reading and an excellent Index if you are looking for a particular topic within The Woman Reader.
In the present time, where women in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world are restricted from reading, women continue to be willing to take risks for "the sake of reading and for the opportunity to discuss their reading with others. The future of women's reading—like the future of the relations between women and men—looks as challenging, intriguing, contested and lively, as its past." Belinda Jack encourages the Western women to be there for their less fortunate sisters, and to speak up against injustices in education, wherever we see them.
Belinda Jack is Tutorial Fellow in French, Christ Church, University of Oxford. She is the author of George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large and Beatrice's Spell. She lives in Oxford.
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