Readers and Society in Nineteenth-Century France: Workers, Women, Peasants

Readers and Society in Nineteenth-Century France: Workers, Women, Peasants

Readers and Society in Nineteenth-Century France: Workers, Women, Peasants

Readers and Society in Nineteenth-Century France: Workers, Women, Peasants

Synopsis

In the 19th century, the reading public expanded to embrace new categories of consumers, especially of cheap fiction. These new lower class and female readers frightened liberals, Catholics and republicans alike. Martyn Lyons focuses on workers, women, and peasants, and the ways in which their reading was constructed as a social and political problem, to analyze the fear of reading in 19th Century France. He presents case-studies of actual readers, to examine their choices and their practices, and to evaluate how far they responded to (or subverted) attempts at cultural domination.

Excerpt

The conventional opinions about women readers discussed in the previous chapter no doubt corresponded in part to the realities of social and cultural life in nineteenth-century France. the reading models reviewed both partially reflected reality and also shaped some of the ways in which women approached their reading. This chapter aims to explore that reality further through the experience of actual readers. It will introduce Catholic readers, romantic-fiction readers and women seeking a distinct space of their own, who all have something in common with those hypothetical images of women readers previously outlined. We will also encounter women who accepted and internalized the notion that there was an inherent conflict between their desire to read and their inescapable household duties. There were women readers, in other words, who seemed to fit the stereotypes. Nevertheless, the individuality of the reader's response must never be overlooked. Women, like other readers, found ways of resisting attempts to control them, as they negotiated their own reading space in a world frequently hostile to their intellectual freedom.

The principal case studies of female reading practices on which the following commentary is based tend to come from the later part of the century. Eugénie de Guérin, who recorded her reading experiences between 1834 and 1841, is the exception. Hélène Legros's correspondence provides another rich case study of a woman reader, covering the period from 1892 to 1898. Louise Weiss offers further insights into women's reading practices between approximately 1890 and the First World War. in addition to this cast of major characters, we will also hear from some anonymous readers who recalled their experiences of childhood and youth in the Belle Epoque. All of them were individual personalities who experienced, in different degrees, the constraints and prejudices surrounding women's reading.

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