Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Evils of Novel-Reading

In the 19th century, there used to be medical objections to women reading novels. "Experts" were concerned that "reading diverted needed energy from a woman's reproductive organs as well as her nervous system". Novel-reading was linked to fertility issues, a woman's reproductive cycle, headaches, hysteria, and insanity. Some suggested that women should read novels only in the morning after first waking or following any meal as the female brain needed to rest while the body was digesting. As woman's physiology made her prone to shock, excited feelings caused by novels could stun her heart.

Feeding the female brain with the same intellectual fare as the male brain was dangerous. According to Dr. Edward H. Clarke (a retired professor from the Harvard Medical School), these women graduated from school with undeveloped ovaries and were sterile when they married. Women were supposed to stop reading to ensure the future good of society.
"(...) the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide." Charlotte Mason
Novel-reading is "one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can become devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium. The novel-devotee is as much a slave as the opium-eater or the inebriate." Dr. John Harvey Kellogg

In addition, sensation fiction could lead the young woman into flirtation or conduct that "later in life may make her blush to remember".
"(...) the descriptions of love-scenes, of thrilling, romantic episodes, find an echo in the girl's physical system and tend to create an abnormal excitement of her organs of sex, which she recognizes only as a pleasurable mental emotion, with no comprehension of the physical origin or the evil effects. Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodiliy organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should." Dr. Mary Wood-Allen
Women were not supposed to be educated and certainly not to study during their menses, if they did not want to suffer "menorrhagia, dysmenorrhea, hemorrhage, amenorrhea, headache, dyspepsia, invalidism, neuralgia, hysteria, intense insanity, and premature death" (Golden, 2003).

Here an excerpt from "Novel Reading A Cause Of Female Depravity" (1797):
"Be not staggered, moral reader, at the recital! such (sic) serpents are really in existence; such daemons in the form of women are now too often to be found! (...) I have seen two poor disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughters' dishonour, and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again in this world.  
'And was novel-reading the cause of this?' inquires some gentle fair one, who, deprived of such an amusement, could hardly exist; 'was novel reading the foundation of such frail conduct?' I answer yes!"

- Golden, C. J. (2003). Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction. University Press of Florida
- The Monthly Mirror: Reflecting Men And Manners (1797) Novel Reading A Cause Of Female Depravity. Vol. IV (online)
- photographs of Audrey Hepburn (Mark Shaw, 1953) via and via and via and via


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This brilliant!

  2. Oddsbodikins! Holy catfish! Super! Thank you!

  3. How "concerned" they used to be about women's health: reading was bad, bicycling was bad, running was bad...
    Thanks, Derek, Karen and Macy!