When Reading Might be Bad for You

On one of fifty-nine scraps of paper and part of what is known as the Berg Collection, housed in the New York Public Library, the writer Frances (Fanny) Burney outlined the sort of narrative that made her works of fiction, such as Camilla: or A Picture of Youth—first published in 1796 in five volumes—so sought after in the thousand or so circulating libraries flourishing throughout England at that time.

The notes read:

A Family brought up in a plain economical, industrious way, all happy, contented, vigorous & affectionate.

Sudden affluence comes to them.

They are exhilarated.

Some exult—some are even—some gallop on to profusion.

A sermon on equanimity.

Some grow indolent & insolent.

Suddenly all is lost.

Reduced to poverty.

Some humbly sad—some outrageously repining: some haughtily hardy—some pettishly impatient—one cheerfully submissive.

A sermon on disappointments.

What … before seemed nothing, now appear hardships and sorrow.

A type figure is outlined on another scrap of paper as:

A perpetual joker; saying good and amusing things but never waiting for times & seasons: & therefore, though a man of good Intellect, more wearisome than a fool; by always using every occasion to say a good thing, without attending to anxiety, without listening to Facts, without weighing arguments, without consoling affliction, without caring about reason, & without the smallest attention to the human character, or situations of his Hearers, whom, without meaning it he either wounds or offends at every other word. 

The Honourable Mr Listless in Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical novel Nightmare Abbey (1817), describes the reading of such fiction as “a very fine mental tonic” and one that reconciles him to his “favourite pursuit of doing nothing”. He adds further that “there are fashionable books that must be read, because they are the ingredients of the talk of the day”.

When another character interjects, a Mr Flotsky—a devotee of all things metaphysical and based on the prominent figure Samuel Taylor Coleridge—he has it that the cohort now regarded as the “reading public” are so intent on rejecting what he calls the “solid food” of reason and demanding in its place the “light diet” of fiction, that as a natural consequence, they require “perpetual adhibition of sauce piquante” to an already “depraved imagination”. These popular novels, Flotsky further observes, prove most popular when the vice within them masquerades as virtue.

In his print of 1826, Four Specimens of the Reading Public, George Cruikshank depicts as archetypes a housekeeper who seeks a long romance—in five volumes no less, due deference to Burney and her contemporaries—an aged gentleman who inquires after the memoirs of the infamous courtesan Harriet Wilson—a work which opens, “I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven”—a dustman who wishes to purchase something by the radical political pamphleteer William Cobbett and a man about town who wonders if there is a new Waverley novel by Walter Scott.

Coleridge himself in his Biographica Literaria (1817) accuses the circulating libraries of dealing in “kill time” and addresses the issue of what he perceives as “bad reading” with the same bluntness, labelling the readers of popular novels as practitioners of what he terms “a sort of beggarly day dreaming”. This, in his view, combines a lack of mental vigour with an equally unimpressive mawkishness. Why not just swing lazily on a chair, he wonders, or lean on a bridge rail and absent-mindedly spit into the water below? He goes so far as to suggest that reading popular fiction might be added to a list which he mistakenly attributes to Averroes—he means Al-Zarnuji—the thirteenth-century Muslim scholar and pedagogue who had warned of activities that weakened or retarded the memory, among which he included the eating of unripe fruit, gazing at clouds or pondering other moveable objects suspended in air, riding amidst a multitude of camels, frequent laughter, listening to jests or humorous anecdotes and the habit of reading the inscriptions on tombs.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), the pater familias Mr Bennet invites a guest, Mr Collins, who is eager to be seen in a good light, to read aloud to the ladies of the house. He readily assents. However, on recognising that the book with which he has been provided is of a type one might borrow from a circulating library, not only does he query the choice of reading material, he literally starts back, begs pardon then protests, proclaiming as he does so that he could never read a novel.

His sanctimonious response makes it necessary for other books to be brought to him. He selects James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, first published in 1766 but still popular in certain households in the early part of the nineteenth century. We are not told which section he reads with a monotony of delivery that causes the youngest and most erratic Bennet daughter Lydia quickly to lose interest, but it may well have been a section where Fordyce declares that there are, in fact, very few novels safe to read; and fewer still that could be read to any moral or intellectual advantage. As for most of these works, and he takes great pains to inform his readers that he has not read them, they are in his view, “shameful in their tendency, so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible isolation of all decorum, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute”.

Another Lydia, Lydia Languish in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775) finds herself determined to marry, through love, into poverty. She is described by another character, Sir Anthony Absolute, as “a misguided reader of fiction”. He also describes a circulating library as “an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge” and is insistent moreover, that if he had a thousand daughters, he would “as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet”. At a crucial point in the drama he exclaims, “The girl’s mad!” and insists that her brain has been “turned by reading”. As it happens, this Lydia uses pages from Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women as curling paper for her hair. 

And while the early feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft weighed in on these sermons in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), she too felt the need to warn against a preoccupation with novels, which to her mind tended to make women in particular “creatures of sensation”, since these books relaxed the powers of the mind and tended to be overloaded with “abstract wooers and fond slaves”. Thomas Gisborne, in his Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1777) had also noted that romance reading only accentuated a susceptibility to what he called a “premature warmth of tender emotions” in young women, to types generally “unworthy of their affection”.

And what of Pride and Prejudice itself?

Charlotte Brontë described it in an 1848 correspondence as claustrophobic, containing “no open country, no fresh air” and beset with “elegant and confined houses”. Austen herself, writing to her sister Cassandra in 1813, tells of:

fits of disgust … The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling, it wants shade, it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had: if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.

In other words, it might be perceived as too popularist. On Walter Scott, Austen was indignant: she complained that he had “no business writing novels, especially good ones. It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of people’s mouths.”

And indeed, having turned from poetry to novel writing on the back of—by his own admission—reading the popular novels of Maria Edgeworth, works such as Belinda (1801), Leonora (1806) and Tales of Fashionable Life (1809–1812), Scott would become a phenomenon, with sales of Waverley (1814) initially reaching forty thousand. The fact that Burney’s Camilla had been considered a resounding success at four thousand and Pride and Prejudice itself had sold somewhere between two and three thousand provides a reasonable comparison. On the Continent, the Scott cult would make the wearing of tartan mandatory for the ladies, and cravattes à la Walter Scott equally popular with the boys. Twenty editions of his complete works would be published in France alone (Flaubert owned a thirty-two-volume set) and Donizetti composed the opera Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835.

Back in Britain, Scott was lauded by Thomas Carlyle as the saviour of British literature. Carlyle described a great tradition that had been beset by the “puking and sprawling” of Byronism (Byron’s verse tale The Corsair had sold ten thousand copies in a day in 1814). And, if nothing else, Scott became the indisputable proof that dispelled the myth that men were not reading novels. Indeed, it is a man, Henry Tilney in Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed in 1803 but published in 1818) that should perhaps have the last word. He offers the view that a “person, be it gentleman or lady who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”.

Barry Gillard lives in Geelong. He wrote about Józef Czapski and Anna Akhmatova in the April issue.


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