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Reading Women

Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present

Janet Badia
Jennifer Phegley
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 340
  • Book Info
    Reading Women
    Book Description:

    The contributors break new ground by focusing on the impact representations of women readers have had on understandings of literacy and certain reading practices, the development of book and print culture, and the categorization of texts into high and low cultural forms.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7903-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction: Women Readers as Literary Figures and Cultural Icons
    (pp. 3-26)

    If you’re what the literary novelty company Bas Blue calls a ‘modern bluestocking,’ you may well recognize the text of our epigraphs. You may even own at least one of the products that make up Pomegranate’s stationary lineThe Reading Woman,which includes not only the calendar, postcards, and note cards cited above but also a lavishly illustrated journal. Each of these products reproduces a series of paintings of women readers, primarily from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Promoted in mail order catalogues likeBas Blueand often sold alongside other literary products, Pomegranate’s line joins a larger trend...

  6. 1 Reading Women/Reading Pictures: Textual and Visual Reading in Charlotte Brontë’s Fiction and Nineteenth-Century Painting
    (pp. 27-52)

    When the young Jane Eyre takes her seat in the curtained alcove in the opening pages of Brontë’s novel, she brings with her a book to read. But as Jane says herself, she takes care that the book should be one ‘stored with pictures.’ Jane, famously, proceeds to ‘read’ the pictures of birds in Bewick’sThe History of British Birds.Pictures inJane Eyreare never simply viewed; they are also read, mined for narrative potential while their visual qualities remain largely forgotten. Visual ‘reading’ offers Jane food for creative imagination; she writes of one Bewick image, ‘The two ships...

  7. 2 ‘Success Is Sympathy’: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Woman Reader
    (pp. 53-76)

    In an 1852 review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin,George Sand explains that the novel’s political efficacy depended upon its ability to foster affective identification between its readers and characters. ‘We should feel,’ she states, ‘that genius is heart, that power isfaith,that talent issincerity,and, finally, success issympathy,since this book overcomes as since it penetrates the breast, pervades the spirit, and fills us with a strange sentiment of mingled tenderness and admiration for a poor negro’ (461). She points out that the book’s power to persuade its audience of slavery’s evil originates in...

  8. 3 Reading Mind, Reading Body: Augusta Jane Evans’s Beulah and the Physiology of Reading
    (pp. 77-104)

    In a long letter, dated 15 July 1863, to Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, influential Alabama legislator and Confederate colonel, Augusta Jane Evans defines (white, elite) Southern womanhood in no uncertain terms. Waxing philosophical, she details the aptitudes, faults, and frailties of her sisters below the Mason-Dixon line. ‘[T]heir imagination(s) [are] more vivid and glowing,’ she declares, ‘their susceptibility to emotions or impressions of beauty or sublimity, infinitely keener.’ For Evans, nineteenth-century Southern women were almost a distinct race – at least they constituted a singular breed of femininity, one marked by an active inner life and an acute receptivity to external...

  9. 4 ‘I Should No More Think of Dictating ... What Kinds of Books She Should Read’: Images of Women Readers in Victorian Family Literary Magazines
    (pp. 105-128)

    John Ruskin’s emphatic warning to parents in 1864 to ‘keep the modern magazine and novel out of your girl’s way’ exemplifies the precarious relationship that existed among critics, popular literature, and women readers in the nineteenth century (‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ 66). Ruskin’s and other critics’ concerns about the dangerous effects of print culture on women were intimately linked to the explosive growth of the periodical industry. As literacy rates rose, printing technologies improved, and taxes on newspapers were revoked, periodicals began to dominate nineteenth-century literary culture. Between 1824 and 1900 as many as fifty thousand periodicals were published in Great...

  10. 5 The Reading Habit and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
    (pp. 129-148)

    During Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s engagement to Walter Stetson, a friend offered her a copy of Walt Whitman’sLeaves of Grass.Gilman refused to accept the volume, saying that she would never read Whitman. Discussing this incident, Anne Lane attributes Gilman’s refusal of the book to the influence of Stetson, who apparently ‘accepted, at least for his fiancee, the conventional view of his day that defined Whitman’s poetry as unseemly and unsavory’ (Lane xi). Any anxiety Stetson may have had about the consequences of readingLeaves of Grasswould have rested upon another perfectly ‘conventional view’ of the day, the notion...

  11. 6 Social Reading, Social Work, and the Social Function of Literacy in Louisa May Alcott’s ‘May Flowers’
    (pp. 149-167)

    In the preface to her last book, an assemblage of stories calledA Garland for Girls(1888), published just one month before the author's death, Louisa May Alcott explains that the stories in the collection ‘were written for [her] own amusement during a period of enforced seclusion,’ adding that ‘[t]he flowers which were my solace and pleasure suggested titles for the tales and gave an interest to the work’ (n.p.). Characteristically, Alcott’s summing up of her work is entirely too modest. Not only is the flower symbolism to which she alludes intricately entwined with the motifs of such stories as...

  12. 7 ‘A Thought in the Huge Bald Forehead’: Depictions of Women in the British Museum Reading Room, 1857–1929
    (pp. 168-191)

    On 2 May 1857 a new, domed reading room opened in what had been the courtyard of the British Museum. Constructed, like the Crystal Palace, from glass and wrought iron, the room was a design and engineering wonder, attracting 62,000 visitors during the eight days it was open to public inspection. As serious readers followed the gawkers, the new reading room quickly became a centre of London intellectual life. Attendance increased steadily during the later part of the century, moving from 109,000 visits in 1876 to 146,000 in 1890. The recipient of all copyrighted material published in the country, the...

  13. 8 ‘Luxuriat[ing] in Milton’s Syllables’: Writer as Reader in Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road
    (pp. 192-214)

    In the Afterword to the 1991 HarperPerennial edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography,Dust Tracks on a Road(1942),¹ Henry Louis Gates, Jr, emphatically affirms that Hurston’s work ‘gives us a writer’s life’ (264; italics in the original). His emphasis, trivial as it may appear at first sight, is well placed. Despite Hurston’s importance not only as an ethnographer but also as a major fiction writer, critics have devoted little attention to her self-portrait as a literary author inDust Tracks?²Hurston’s memoir is not usually classified as a ‘literary autobiography,’ to use Lynn Domina’s term – that is, as a...

  14. 9 Poor Lutie’s Almanac: Reading and Social Critique in Ann Perry’s The Street
    (pp. 215-235)

    As Janet Badia and Jennifer Phegley write in the introduction to this collection, the images in Pomegranate’sThe Reading Womanstationery ‘make clear that the general image of the reading woman is one very much inflected by white, middle-class ideology’ (22). One exception, William McGregor Paxton’sThe House Maid,nicely illustrates the plight of Lutie Johnson, another maid who reads her employer’s books, in Ann Petry’s 1946 novelThe Street.And just as ‘the house maid,’ despite her literacy, cannot transcend her class, neither can Lutie. In fact,The Streetdirectly implicates Lutie’s reading – or mis-reading – in her fate, as...

  15. 10 ‘One of Those People Like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath’: The Pathologized Woman Reader in Literary and Popular Culture
    (pp. 236-254)

    Loosely based on Shakespeare’sThe Taming of the Shrew,the film10 Things I Hate About You(1999) tells the story of Kat Stratford, a darkly cynical and socially outcast teenager who has renounced dating after losing her virginity to the untrustworthy boy now pursuing her younger sister Bianca. Having completely and contemptuously rejected the conventional high school scene, Kat is despised by her peers at Padua High and frequently referred to as that ‘heinous bitch.’ While it is certainly true that Kat occasionally behaves badly – on one occasion she purposely smashes her own car into her former boyfriend's new...

  16. 11 The ‘Talking Life’ of Books: Women Readers in Oprah’s Book Club
    (pp. 255-280)

    Feminist scholars from a range of fields have written aboutThe Oprah Winfrey Showto determine its feminist significance. Some argue for the talk show’s feminist work, some for the limits of this feminist work.¹ In September 1996, Winfrey launched Oprah’s Book Club, her first televised book club, which featured approximately one book a month until April 2002, when the original club ended. She initiated a new ‘classics’ version of the club in February 2003 and soon after announced John Steinbeck’sEast of Edenas the first work of the revived club. While both book clubs complicate the task of...

  17. Afterword: Women Readers Revisited
    (pp. 281-294)

    In a poem written in the early 1830s, the young aristocrat George Howard (who was to become seventh Earl of Carlisle in 1848) addresses an absorbed woman reader:

    What is the book, abstracted damsel, say:

    The last new novel, or the last new play?

    Some tale of love, whose soft and melting tone

    Reveals its passion, and recalls thine own,

    Thy thoughts diverging as thou readest on ... (89)¹

    Is she, perhaps, escaping into Walter Scott, ‘the wizard of our unenchanted age’ (89)? Or ‘does Cooper lure thee o’er the western deep/Where red men prowl and boundless prairies sweep’ (90)?...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 295-298)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 299-299)