Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Woman Reader

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Woman Reader

Article excerpt

The Woman Reader. By Belinda Jack. Yale University Press, 336pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9780300120455. Published 28 June 2012

This ambitious book maps out the relatively undeveloped field of women's reading habits across time and cultures, all in fewer than 350 pages. It is not an easy task, but Belinda Jack accomplishes it brilliantly. She shifts seamlessly between wide-ranging examples, from the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene, who persuaded her tutor to help her circumvent a parental ban on erotic poetry, to The Peony Pavilion (1598), a popular play whose heroine became an alter ego for the young Chinese women who read it obsessively to the point of exhaustion, prompting some concerned mothers to burn their copies.

The book's roughly chronological structure offers a sense of progress, but Jack is careful to record "the stagnant times and periods of reversal when literacy rates dropped or access to reading material declined". Women's reading has been a hot topic since the 16th century, when female literacy levels rose in Western Europe. Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest (1694) argued for women's education based on wide reading, and issued a rallying call to her sex: "How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden, to make a fine show and be good for nothing?"

Throughout, Jack highlights the denial of education for girls and the control that men have felt the need to exert over women's reading. As early as 1592, Venetian writer Moderata Fonte directly questioned men's dominance over women and "the envy and ill-will they bear us". Some 200 years later, while prescribing appropriate levels of intellectual engagement for women, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that their conversation should be "pleasing but not brilliant" and their education "must be relative to men. To please men, to be useful to them." Centuries later, when British girls finally had full access to education, they overtook the scholarly accomplishments of the nation's boys with ease.

In the 18th century, women's reading was a subject of almost universal and often extravagant excitement. This European golden age of female achievement saw women reading and writing in the public sphere, and influential literary salons being run by the society bluestockings Elizabeth Montagu and Hester Thrale. …

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