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Novelistic Illusion: Female Readers from the Nineteenth-Century to Global Postmodernity

Carlotta Farese

As it is well known, the period between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century is a crucial cultural and historical turning point marking the fundamental passage from the ancien régime, which is gradually falling apart, to modernity. Scholars[1] have argued that the act of reading itself, with its psychological and intellectual implications, was fatally involved in the great transformations that took place in the period to the extent that we can add the so-called ‘revolution of reading’ to the long list of revolutionary events of that momentous phase of European history. Many are indeed the aspects of reading that changed dramatically at the turn of the nineteenth century: the birth of a large-scale publishing industry; the extension of literacy and the growth of the reading public; the proliferation of services, social occasions, private and public spaces devoted to an activity that progressively becomes the official leisure activity of the European middle class. In fact, the ‘revolution of reading’ can be described as a crucial aspect of the so-called ‘bourgeois revolution’: the new role acquired by an emerging social class that, thanks to its increasing wealth, was directly responsible for the growth of the publishing industry, through the buying of books and magazines, as well as through the subscription to reading societies and the new-born circulating libraries. As a consequence of this ‘revolution’, the reading public gained the features that are still familiar to us, and that are connected to an idea of literature which is very similar to our own.

But the ‘revolution of reading’ was not only about social classes. Alongside its clear middle-class connotations, the expansion of the reading public had also an unquestionable gender connotation. In fact, the new and constantly increasing mass of readers saw – in a way never experienced before – the predominance of women. The same historical process that brought about the birth of the middle class reading audience and modern publishing, involved directly a part of society that had traditionally been excluded from– or had had very few possibilities of access to – cultural consumption: women. At the turn of the nineteenth century, female reading became a social and cultural phenomenon that could not be ignored anymore. The birth of this new reading audience is tightly connected to the birth of a new genre – the novel – that was tailored to meet the tastes and interests of women readers, and often featured women as protagonists (Richardson’s novels are obviously the most significant example). Thus, the ‘rise of the novel’ coincides with the ‘rise of the woman reader’: the two phenomena overlap and tend to identify. In 1925 the French writer Albert Thibaudet in his important book about the Liseur de Romans (the reader of novels) will significantly note that this liseur is, as a matter of fact, a liseuse.[2] According to Thibaudet the success of novels is based on the «sentimental and worldly realm of women» not only because women are «three quarters of their public» but also because «the novel is the genre where the woman exists, where the world is centred around her, where you feel passionate about her, or against her»[3]. Thibaudet’s description can be legitimately extended back to the 19th century as a whole: women read novels, and novels are books about women and for women; the two (the woman and the novel) form a couple that arouses at the same time the passionate interest and the fears of patriarchal society.

In fact the phenomenon that we have tried to describe – the unprecedented expansion of women’s reading – is accompanied from the outset by the appearance of a vast literature about women’s reading. A large number of treatises, pamphlets, and conduct books (as they were called in the British context) appear from the second half of the 18th century in all European countries warning their readers about the risks and temptations that the reading woman must face, the threats that she poses to the moral order of society, and the need to restrain and control her access to books. The fears of the authors of these books, the anguish of clergymen and educators, the worries constantly and repeatedly expressed by moralists and journalists alike are, I think, the best possible evidence of the impact that the expansion of women’s reading had on European 19th century culture. It is important to be aware of the existence and influence of this kind of literature since it articulates and codifies an understanding of women’s reading as a suspicious and morally questionable activity. Such an understanding has constantly accompanied and influenced the novelistic representation of the woman reader and, in particular, the aspect known as ‘Bovarism’.[4]

‘Bovarism’, of course, owes its name to Flaubert’s heroine, but Emma Bovary should be considered as the most typical (and literary successful) expression of a tradition that starts well before her and will outlive her for a long time. Indeed, from the second half of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century we can find a number of fictional heroines – from Charlotte Lennox’s Arabella, to Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland – who show similarities with Flaubert’s Emma: the awareness of one’s own dissatisfaction; the passionate desire to live, through the act of reading, the lives of fictional characters; the desperate attempt to replace the daily frustrations of real life with the illusory fulfilment provided by literary fiction.[5] The archetype of the fallacious reader incapable of telling the difference between reality and fictional narrative had been provided by Cervantes’s Don Chisciotte. But from the second part of the eighteenth century onwards female characters tend to assume most frequently Don Chisciotte’s role. The most explicit example of this shift towards ‘female quixotism’ is probably Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote or The Adventures of Arabella (1752). Arabella – the novel’s protagonist that almost loses her sanity because of her compulsive reading of French seventeenth century heroic romances – can be seen as the most notorious and significant forerunner of the many Female Quixotes of the following century: the countless women readers who will become victims of their fervent imagination and of their habit of mistaking fiction for real experience.

Nevertheless, Flaubert’s 1856 novel can be legitimately considered as the mid-19th century summa and codification of the theme. It is undeniably the reading of novels, in particular sentimental novels, that feeds the heroine’s fervent imagination and that contributes to her personal and social disorientation. The publication of Madame Bovary represents a turning point in the description and representation of the female reader as morally dubious, as someone who is capable of translating into practice the scandalous and licentious acts represented in the books she reads. From this point of view the influence of Flaubert’s book on other European writers proves to be unquestionable: all the most famous adulteresses of nineteenth century European fiction – from Clarin’s La Regenta (1885) to De Roberto’s L’Illusione (1891); from Verga’s Il marito di Elena (1882) to Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895) – are passionate readers and seem to confirm the connection between reading and lustful temptations that had always been the obsessive preoccupation of the authors of conduct books.

Before focusing on the contemporary context, I would like to spend a few words on an example of the numerous novels inspired by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the nineteenth century: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864)[6]. The Doctor’s Wife has been conceived from the beginning by its author as a rather ambitious rewriting of Madame Bovary. But the British writer distances herself from Flaubert quite radically: although her protagonist, Isabel Sleaford, spends most of her time in an imaginary world, and although her life is based on a constant and obsessive emulation of her beloved fictional heroines, she never betrays her original innocence, and will not allow herself to commit adultery and run away with her lover, as her French counterpart does. In The Doctor’s Wife «novel reading remains un-condemned as an activity in itself: what is seen to matter is the cultivation of a self-knowing, responsible attitude towards it.»[7] If there is indeed, as we have suggested, a transgressive element in the figure of the female reader who plunges herself into the potentially dangerous imaginative world of fiction, it is fair to recognise that the heroine’s immaculate behaviour can appear, in this case, as confirming dominant moral codes. As Robert Lee Wollf underlines

adapting Madame Bovary for the middle-class English reader of 1864 presented great opportunities and correspondingly great dangers. Emma Bovary’s plight aroused sympathetic vibrations in the heart of every romantic young woman condemned to provincial respectability and deprived of romantic adventure. But Victorian English conventions made it impossible to follow Emma’s example, to run off with her lover, or to have an affair with him.[8]

It is therefore probably true that, choosing moral awareness over perdition, Braddon proposes a domesticated version of Madame Bovary as many critics have argued. However, we cannot help noticing that Braddon also creates a heroine who finally contradicts the general idea that: «had Emma not fed her parched imagination with novels, she would have become and remained a dutiful, if rather bored, wife.»[9] If seen from this new perspective, Isabel Sleaford’s Bildung, represents a quite interesting and provoking answer to the French original, a kind of post-Flaubertian apology (and to a certain extent an anti-Flaubertian apology) of the act of reading. Though absorbed into books as voraciously and as dangerously as Emma, Isabel remains morally and inwardly upright, and Braddon – trying for once to avoid the traditional censure of the lascivious and adulterous woman reader – vindicates her own role as a successful sensation novelist and, at the same time, defends her most affectionate audience: female novel readers. Braddon allows Isabel to live, prosper and improve, showing that the rêverie and the act of reading do not necessarily lead to tragedy and destruction. The Doctor’s Wife offers therefore a quite original inversion of the paradigm provided by Madame Bovary: the British counterpart of the suicidal Flaubertian liseuse survives, and her reading, far from being morally infective, acquires a positive meaning, and helps the protagonist to evolve and grow by learning constructively how to draw distinctions between imagination and real life.

It is not by chance, of course, that this positive understanding of female reading is advocated by a woman writer: the gender of the author has indeed in this case some crucial implications for the relationship between the writer, the character and the addressee of the literary text. Since reading is of course the necessary premise of the act of writing, the author who writes about female reading and defends its moral legitimacy is actually vindicating the process of her own Bildung as a writer. Far from being limited to the author, this ‘auto-biographical’ quality will capture the reader herself, and ensnare her in a peculiar self-reflexive and meta-textual bond. Indeed, the process of identification which is typical of any act of reading cannot but be reinforced when a woman reads about another woman who, in turn, is trying to escape the constraints of society through reading.[10] This is why a ‘literary genre’ (or sub-genre) that we could describe as books by women on reading women’ (of which The Doctor’s Wife is a 19th-century example) tends to represent the act of reading not only as a process of individual self-definition, but also as the construction of a form of ‘sisterhood’: of a community of writing and reading women that, thanks to their reading and writing, can communicate and share their experience with other women through time and space as well as across the boundaries between different cultures. In most cases, the book themselves describe this relationship as having a crucial role in the (more or less successful) attempts made by women readers to resist the sometimes violent constraints of patriarchal society. If we look at the literary representation of the woman reader in English-language novels of the late 20th- early 21st-century, we will in fact notice that they share some features which were already present in the 19th-century tradition that we have described:

  • Women’s reading is often described as a potentially dangerous activity, a threat to the existing structure of the family and patriarchal society
  • There is a stark contrast between the imaginary world of novels and reality
  • Through reading women become aware of the unfairness of their condition
  • Such an awareness is the premise of some form of rebellion (or resistance) against their subjection to patriarchal order.

However, there is a feature that does not belong to 19th-century examples, and seems to be typical of the post-modern adventures of the woman reader in the age of globalisation: the emphasis that contemporary novels put on the construction of a relationship of mutual support and solidarity between women across different cultural contexts.

Writers such as the American author Pearl Abrahams, or the Iranian-born Azar Nafisi, focus their stories on the act of female reading. The social context described by both novels is dominated by different forms of religious fundamentalism. As in 19th-century conduct books, a woman who reads novels is considered in such contexts a potential threat. Her reading is subversive and illicit because it always risks fostering an open rebellion against the conventions of a male-dominated social organisation.

The Romance Reader has been published in 1995 by Pearl Abraham, who lived the first twelve years of her life between the Hasidic communities of New York and Jerusalem and through this novel shows us this insular Hasidic world through the eyes of a contemporary young woman. Rachel Benjamin is the daughter of an orthodox rabbi.[11] As the rabbi’s eldest daughter, Rachel is supposed to be a role model for her five siblings and the other girls in the community: she must wear thick tights with seams, she is forbidden to wear a bathing suit in public, and she is not allowed to read English books. But Rachel, slowly starts rebelling against her family, against the strict religious rules imposed upon her, and against the entire community. One of the first defiant acts consists, quite tellingly, in her applying for a library card that will allow her access to the forbidden novels she loves. Through the pages of books by such authors as Victoria Holt, the Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, Barbara Cartland (all women writers, one should note), Rachel dreams of a life that mirrors that of her romantic heroines and longs for an independence that she will never enjoy as a woman who is destined to an arranged marriage. Despite her desperate desire to escape, Rachel is trapped into the reality of an ultra-orthodox environment and suffers the same sad constraints of many characters of nineteenth-century fiction. When the inevitable moment of her arranged marriage comes closer, she sadly has to realise the dramatic difference existing between her life and the romantic life of fictional heroines: although the constraints are very similar the solution provided by most novels’ idyllic conclusion is not at hand. Despite her desire «to fall in love like a woman in a novel»[12], no true love, no romantic escape or happy ending will be available to her.

The problematic relationship between fiction and reality is also at the core of Azar Nafisi’s novel Reading Lolita in Teheran, published in 2003. After resigning from her academic post as a lecturer in English literature in Tehran, Azar Nafisi invites seven of her best students (almost all women) to come to her home every Thursday to discuss their readings. As Nafisi herself writes: «the theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics – Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean’s December, and, yes, Lolita.».[13] Nafisi and her students think of these classes as an almost physical escape from Iran’s totalitarian theocracy – where they get rid of their black robes and head scarves and are free to be dressed in colour, wear make up and show off polished nails – as well as an emotional safe haven, where the reading allows them to dream of a different and better world and helps them to discover and share the secrets of their inner lives. The communal female reading becomes therefore in this historical and cultural context, a subversive and prohibited act, that allows women to resist the frustrating reality of the Islamic Republic which, as one of the characters ironically underlines while reading Pride and Prejudice, has taken them «back to Jane Austen’s times. God bless the arranged marriage! Nowadays, girls marry either because their families force them, or to get green cards, or to secure financial stability, or for sex – they marry for all kinds of reasons, but rarely for love»[14]. The inevitable comparison between the condition of women in contemporary Iran and nineteenth-century England, gives way to sarcastic and desperate statements about the impossibility to accept such a condition, and the necessity to escape into the Western world. Female bonding and reading thus become essential for surviving and overcoming the strict and repressive patriarchal structure of contemporary totalitarian regimes. With Azar Nafisi’s novel we witness how the passion and emotion of reading becomes for women a means of survival, and a vital form of escape that will change forever their lives. Five years after the conclusion of Nafisi’s meetings (which lasted from 1995 to 1997, when the author finally left Iran for the United States) Manna, one of her students and the poetess of the group, thus describes how she has changed since then:

Five years have passed since the time when the story began in a cloud-lit room where we read Madame Bovary and had chocolate from a wine-red dish on Thursdays mornings. Hardly anything has changed in the non-stop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know of another “I” that has become naked on the pages of a book: in a fictional world, I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers.[15]

Manna, therefore, like so many female readers before her, leads a double life: an official one in which she has to conform to the strict rules of the repressive patriarchal order, and a private one, that she is free to experience in a fictional setting, when she loses (and finds) herself in the imaginary world of novels.

Although Nafisi’s students all belong to the same cultural context, their relationship, as the title shows quite clearly, is based on and centred around a common interest in the Western literary tradition, and reading is a way to establish a contact with its ‘otherness’. The aspect of intercultural relationships becomes even more crucial in an epistolary story published in 2010: Talking About Jane Austen in Bagdad. The Story of an Unlikely Friendship, written by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit[16]. In early 2005 Rowlatt, a British journalist contacted Witwit, an Iraqi academic teaching English literature in a female University college, to interview her about everyday life in Bagdad and the forthcoming elections. Witwit’s frank responses and interesting answers provoke more curiosity and questions from Rowlatt and a friendship develops between the two women. They write to each other about their lives for over three years, and the correspondence prompts a dramatic change in May’s life. She decides to leave Iraq and asks Bee to help her seek asylum in Britain, which turns out to be rather difficult; but eventually the publication of their correspondence helps raising funds so that May can move to Britain. At the very beginning of their friendship Bee, puzzled by May’s English literature course asks her: «How can you teach Jane Austen in Baghdad? How can [your students] make sense of it? I imagine it could be a kind of escape for them».[17] And indeed, despite the confession that her students are not always capable of capturing «the essence of things, due to cultural differences», because «they read the novel and then envelop it with Arabic traditional solutions», May confirms that reading «helps my students, because it transports them to another culture, another life, and another world. The world of Jane Austen is so far removed from our daily terror of bombs and violence.»[18] Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad therefore provides further evidence of the power of female reading as a way of escaping from the difficult, frustrating and sometimes dangerous circumstances of everyday life into the safe and comforting world of fiction. Furthermore, we witness once again the extraordinary power of female reading and of female bonding as means to overcome distress and subjection establishing significant relationships across the boundaries between different cultural contexts.

[1] See, among others, R. Engelsing, Der Bürger als Leser. Lesergeschichte in Deutschland 1500-1800, Metzler, Stuttgart 1974; E. Schön, Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit oder die Verwandlung des Lesers. Mentalitätswandel um 1800, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1987; R. Wittmann, Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?, in G. Cavallo, R. Chartier (eds.), A History of Reading in the West, Polity Press, Cambridge 1999.

[2] See A. Thibaudet, Il lettore di romanzi, Liguori, Napoli 2000.

[3] A. Thibaudet, Il lettore di romanzi, pp. 64-65, 50-51, 40-41.

[4] On conduct books see, among others: M. Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, Chicago University Press, Chicago-London 1984, pp. 3-47; N. Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 1987, pp. 59-95; K. Sutherland, Writings on Education and Conduct: Arguments for Female Improvement, in V. Jones (ed.), Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000, pp. 25-45.

[5] See C. Farese, Creature dell’illusione. Figure di lettrici nella letteratura europea dell’Ottocento, Pensa, Lecce 2006.

[6] M. E. Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York 1998.

[7] K. Flint, The Woman Reader 1837-1914, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1993, p. 291.

[8] R. Lee Wollf, Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Garland Publishing, New York-London 1979, pp. 162-163.

[9] P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, vol. II, The Tender Passion, Norton, New York-London 1999, p. 165.

[10]A. Cavalli, Oltre la soglia. Fantastico, sogno e femminile nella letteratura italiana e dintorni, Unicopli, Milano 2002, p. 195.

[11] P. Abraham, The Romance Reader, Quartet Books, London 1996.

[12] Ibid., p. 209.

[13] A. Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Teheran, Harper Perennial, London 2008, p. 6.

[14] Ibid., p. 258.

[15] Ibid., p. 343.

[16] B. Rowlatt, M. Witwit, Talking about Jane Austen in Bagdad. The Story of an Unlikely Friendship, Penguin, London 2010.

[17] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[18] Ibid., p. 4.


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