The gender of reading (3)

I wrote two posts on the gender of reading last year (1, 2). My parents, who revealed that they read my blog (hello mum and dad!), gave me the Dutch translation of Stefan Bollmann’s Frauen, die Lesen, sind Gefährlich (Women who read are dangerous, translated into English as Reading Women) as a present at my post-PhD defense party last June. It was accompanied by a hilarious presentation involving photos of me as a dangerous child perpetually engrossed in books, but I won’t go into that here…

The book is wonderful, and I learned a lot from it. I would just like to return to one of the paintings I included in an earlier post, because I know more about it now than I did before. This is Pieter Janssens Elinga’s Reading Woman (c. 1670):

I used it in that earlier post as one of the examples of Jolande Withuis’ theory that a woman who is reading is concentrated in an intimate personal sphere, and gains a view to another world. I think I saw this reading woman as empowered. Now, Bollmann’s book has revealed to me which world it is that this woman is absorbed in. Apparently, if you get close enough to the painting, you can just read the pages. She is reading a book called Een schoone historie van den Ridder Malegys, die het vervaarlyk paard Ros beyaard wan: en die veel wonderlyke en avontuerlyke dingen bedreef. It is a Middle Dutch chivalric romance about a knight called Malegys, who ‘did many wonderful and adventurous things’, a prose translation of a thirteenth-century French romance, Maugis d’Aigremont.

The reading woman in this picture is a maid. She should probably be cleaning the room she is in. Her mistress’ luxurious red shoes are still standing where she left them the evening before. Instead, this maid makes use of the penetrating sunlight to indulge in the adventures of knight Malegys. Romances, of course, were often associated with a female readership in the early modern period. Helen Hackett in her Women and Romance fiction in the Seventeenth Century describes a stereotypical example:

A chambermaid in the 1615 edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters ‘reads Greenes workes over and over [Robert Greene was one of the well-read romance authors in the period] but is so carried away with the Myrrour of Knighthood, she is many times resolv’d to run out of her selfe, and become a Ladie Errant.’

It was not unusual for Dutch maids to be able to read, although they could not write. Literacy in The Netherlands apparently was the highest in Europe in the early modern period, due to the influence of Protestantism. The book might belong to her mistress; perhaps the maid saw it lying about when she came in with the bowl of fruit that is now dangerously perched on the chair’s leather cushion.

Whereas I first saw this reading woman as empowered, because concentrated in her own world, I now read the painting differently. The historical context, and the clue in the pages of the book she is reading, point to a disapproval of the reading maid, who is wasting her time in fantasy, whereas she should be working. The two views are two sides of the same coin, however.

In an interesting article titled ‘Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers,’ James Conlon argues that any reading woman poses a threat to patriarchal culture. ‘The book takes her out of the conventional world of male dominance and places her in a textual world where pleasure and wisdom are, literally, in her own hands.’ (40) Therefore, he argues, a male painter portraying such a reading woman will always want to assert his presence, to affirm his dominion. The painter controls the sight of the female subject he portrays. Elinga’s painting could be read in this light as well: the woman is sitting with her back to us: she is unaware of us, or the painter, watching her read. Moreover, by hinting at her sloth (the shoes and the fruit), the painter controls the female lust for reading by imposing a moral judgement on it. Is it so, then, that female reading is empowering, and that this is precisely what causes the urge to control it?

Another interesting article, Stephan Schindler’s ‘Male Fantasies of Female Reading in Eighteenth-Century Germany’ agrees with this idea that a reading woman was historically perceived a threat to patriarchy. He describes how in eighteenth-century Germany, literary critics, philosophers, pedagogues and doctors were obsessed with the regulation of female reading. Central in their obsession was the notion that women’s experience of reading might be sexual in nature. Schindler provides a fascinating quotation from the Hannoverisches Magazin (1789). It illustrates how female enjoyment of the text was feared to be as ‘real’ as sexual enjoyment:

Through the powers of her imagination she creates an image with which she goes to bed at night and with which she wakes up in the morning. Is this self-produced image not as dangerous and not as harmful as the secret lover himself?

His article shows how all kinds of professionals sought to pathologize this female reading mania (Lesewut or Lesesucht in German), in order to cure these women and to eliminate the threat posed by female desire. Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s painting (1760) printed in Frauen die Lesen shows a woman who suffers from such Lesesucht: she has fallen into an ecstatic swoon while reading a novel (Boll even suggests that her other hand might be under her skirt).

Interestingly, James Conlon in his article also discusses paintings which in his view do not seek to control or dominate the reading woman depicted. Examples are Edward Hopper’s Interior (Model Reading) and the paintings of women reading by Mary Cassatt (one of whom reads Le Figaro rather than a novel). These paintings, in his view, do not play to male fantasies, but depict reading women as subjects in their own right.

Read more? Here are some tips:

  • James Conlon, “Men Reading Women Reading: Interpreting Images of Women Readers,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26.2 (2005) 37-58.
  • Stephan K. Schindler, “The Critic as Pornographer: Male Fantasies of Female Reading in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Life 20.3 (1996) 66-80.
  • Silke Schlichtmann, Ilze Klavina Mueller, “Did Women Really Read Differently? A Historical-Empirical Contribution to Gender-Oriented Reading Research,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, 20 (2004), pp. 198-214.
  • Edith Snook, Women, Reading, and the Cultural Politics of Early Modern England ( Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005).
  • Carol Ricker-Wilson, “Busting Textual Bodices: Gender, Reading, and the Popular Romance,” English Journal, 88:3 (1999), pp. 57-63.
  • Martin Hall, “Gender and Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Bibliothèque Universelle des Romans,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 14:3-4 (2002 Apr-July), pp. 771-89.
  • Pamela L. Caughie, “Women Reading/Reading Women: A Review of Some Recent Books on Gender and Reading,” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, 24:3 (1988 Summer), pp. 317-335.
  • Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986).
  • And: the Dutch Boekgrrls have a great online gallery of reading women in the arts.

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