Angela Bourke

The Woman Reader, by Belinda Jack, Yale University Press, 336 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300120455

Images of women reading offer an edge: it might be rooted in a child’s anxiety about a mother whose attention is elsewhere, but often it’s an eroticised, voyeuristic feeling that we have caught the subject unawares. Writing culture assumes “the reader” to be male, until marked otherwise ‑ statesmen and churchmen are commonly portrayed reading ‑ but the unsettling of this assumption has been a critical pastime for decades, under the joined banners of reader-response and feminist theory. A text’s meaning changes over time, according to the culture where it is read and understood, and according to who reads it. If that person is a woman, the meaning may become excitingly unpredictable, not because women are capricious, or any more so than men, but because little in our education, even if we are women, has prepared us for how anyone but a white, northern hemisphere, heterosexual male, will read.

Three men photographed reading in the devastated library of Holland House, Kensington after an air raid in 1940 had turned their backs to the camera, and to each other. They were unavailable, legitimately embarked on private journeys between the pages. Women, though, are supposed to be available: presentable to the gaze of others and alert to others’ needs. A woman reading is in a world of her own, and a look around the reading room of the National Library of Ireland confirms that, unlike almost any other activity she may indulge in in public, a woman is free to wear whatever she likes to read. In private, as many artists have observed, she is free to wear nothing at all, so in Japanese prints as in European paintings, nakedness and disarray can suggest the intimate, undisciplined, nature of what a woman is doing while she’s reading. The unease this causes is compounded by what she’s not doing: clearly, she’s not doing housework, or taking care of others. Men have worried for centuries that a woman who reads may question their authority, or their sexual prowess.

Every year, art calendar publishers Catch, in London and the Netherlands, and Pomegranate in the US, produce “Reading Woman” calendars, with high quality reproductions of images from many sources, of women reading books. They sell well, if amazon.co.uk is anything to go by: it shows forty-seven results for “Reading Woman Calendar”. Museums and galleries sell cards and boxed notelets with the same subjects, and there have been studies, like Christiane Inmann’s Forbidden Fruit: The History of Women and Books in Art (2009), which I haven’t seen, and Stefan Bollmann’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous (London & New York: Merrell, 2008), which I have.

The woman on the cover of Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader (which doesn’t mention Bollmann’s book, or Inmann’s, as far as I can see), is a detail from Valeria, an undated watercolour by the nineteenth-century English painter Augustus Jules Bouvier. She wears clothes, but they drape loosely on her body in a way that recalls classical statuary, and the neckline of her top has slipped down her right arm. As in most portraits of women reading, her gaze is averted from the viewer. The cover is part of an apparently successful marketing campaign by Yale University Press, which describes this book as “groundbreaking” and “pioneering”, “a major contribution both to the history of women and to the history of ideas”. The author is tutorial fellow in French at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and although there’s no bibliography, there is an index, and her endnotes fill fourteen and a half pages, so it is something of a surprise to find that The Woman Reader has no subtitle: nothing after the colon. No subtitle? From an Oxford academic and an Ivy League academic publisher? It suggests decisiveness: a writer who feels no need to genuflect to academic authority by qualifying what she has to say. Yale’s blog website takes a similarly populist tack, with an article by Jack, an interview probing her own reading history and some erotic full-colour images not included in the book. Published in June, The Woman Reader has been widely reviewed, mostly in favourable terms.

I delayed reading it. Its cover and its premise were so richly intriguing that I preferred to do my own musing before opening the book. I believed I would be submitting to an Alice in Wonderland experience: disappearing down a rabbit-hole whose many cupboards and bookshelves, maps and pictures, I felt ill prepared to examine as thoroughly as I would like before they would roll up and out of sight, as the gravity of an absorbing read would drag me past. Before I began, that compelling analogy, between losing myself in a book and falling, sent me back to Lewis Carroll’s first chapter. It confirmed the cupboards and shelves, and a jar on one of them labelled “Orange Marmalade”, that I have remembered since I first read Alice, long before I was ten. It also provided the plaintive opening words of almost-able-to-read Alice: “and what is the use of a book … without pictures or conversations?”

Jack’s book does have pictures: sixty-three black-and-white illustrations, and if it doesn’t quite have conversations, it includes lots of quotations and many interesting examples as it surveys the evidence of what women have read, and to some extent, how they have read, from Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC to the present day. The trouble is that little of it is original, and many of the best quotations and examples are already to be found in A History of Reading by the New Zealand scholar Steven Roger Fischer (2003), part of a much admired trilogy, along with his earlier A History of Language and A History of Writing.

Fischer, like Jack, starts with Mesopotamia and ends in our own time. Like her, he notes that early literacy was strictly functional, and that some of the 185 named scribes who worked in the Babylonian city state of Sippar between 1850 and 1550 BC were women (his page 18 says ten; her page 27 fourteen: they quote different sources). Like Jack, Fischer moves on to discussion of the Mesopotamian princess Enheduanna, author of a famous hymn to the goddess Inanna. “Significantly,” he writes, “the first author in history who signed a work was a woman.” Jack begins her two-page discussion of Enheduanna with the words “Remarkably, the first author we know of to sign a work was a woman.” The sources she gives for this discussion don’t include Fischer, but his name appears frequently in the endnotes that follow, as the source of much of the book’s juiciest information, and not just in the early chapters.

Following discussions of medieval and early modern reading, Jack devotes a chapter each to the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (although her titles obscure this fact). Steven Roger Fischer’s discussion of reading in the nineteenth century opens with the social changes that ushered in the century and “the three revolutions: the political American Revolution, the industrial English Revolution and the social French Revolution”. “Populations exploded,” he writes, “when landed peasants suddenly flocked to the new factory-cities”; he offers facts and statistics for the way literacy now percolated to the urban, then the rural working class, and remarks: ‘It was far easier to read no ... Special bright lamps and gas lighting were common, contributing to more people now physically being able to read, especially the new ‘toiling classes’ who had only the evenings and especially Sunday afternoons free for such personal pursuits ...” On the next page, he observes that reading was still a male prerogative, and quotes seven lines of acerbic comment by Harriet Martineau about the ladies of her time.

Jack opens her nineteenth century chapter with a paragraph that includes the following sentence, for which no source is given: “Gaslights meant that workers, including a growing number of women, were able to read more comfortably than by candlelight in the evenings after a twelve-hour shift in the increasing numbers of factories.” Later on the same page, she refers to ‘[t]he three great revolutions ‑ the American, the French and the Industrial. Her discussion of Martineau comes sixteen pages later, where the same quote appears.

Jack makes more modest claims than her publishers do, and her introduction acknowledges that “[h]ad it not been for the existence [of Fischer’s book and two others], I would not have had the nerve to work on what appeared to be fewer than half their stories”. She acknowledges work by several scholars, but finds that “there is no history of women’s reading to date”, and quotes Walter Benjamin: “We write the books that we write because we cannot find them elsewhere.” This is all very fine, but readers of books from university presses are entitled to expect authority, and at least a measure of originality. As it is, Jack’s paraphrases clank along by comparison with Fischer’s lively prose, and she comes into her own only when discussing Madame de Sévigné, writing at last with the authority that comes from a knowledge of primary sources.

The howler that made me a sceptical reader, keeping one finger always in the endnotes of this book, came on page 57, where Jack describes “Brigit of Ireland (453-523), who would inspire women religious for centuries,” as having been “influenced by the other Bridget, St Bridget of Sweden, another semi-literate aristocratic woman, for whom some autograph pages survive”. In fact the fourteenth century St Bridget of Sweden, whom Jack discusses again on page 103, was probably named for the sixth century Irish saint, whose fame spread across northern Europe in medieval times, though her dates are much less certain than Jack suggests. Jack’s source for another sixth century Irish saint, Darerca, who, she says, “went on to educate three bishops”, is a short article in the journal Gender and History. For Brigit and Bridget, and for Hilda of Whitby, Hildegard of Bingen and Heloïse, all treated at some length, she gives her source as Patricia Ranft’s Women in Western Intellectual Culture, 600-1500 (New York, 2002). That book is itself an overview, like so many of the other sources she cites. Had she consulted The Field Day Anthology, volumes 4 & 5: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002), she would have found in Volume 4, pp 45-94, an accessible collection of original texts in reliable translation from Early Irish and Latin, together with authoritative scholarly comment by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and others on Brigit, Darerca and other holy women of medieval Ireland. Little, if any, evidence is adduced there for their having been literate, but it is persuasively suggested that some of the authors of their Latin lives, our only source of information on them, were women of their own communities, perhaps as early as a generation after them.

One academic reviewer wrote of Patricia Ranft’s book that its “generalizations, inaccuracies, or specious arguments are obvious to specialists; however, the general reader may be swayed all too easily by [her] air of authority”. Sadly, the same seems to be true of Jack’s. Her statement that Marie de France, in addition to her famous Lais, “wrote the earliest vernacular version of an account of a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory” gives the uneasy impression that the author, who is usually helpful about such things, has no idea where or what St Patrick’s Purgatory (in Lough Derg, Co Donegal, still an active site of pilgrimage), might be. The impression is borne out a few lines later when we read that the same Marie “read in a number of languages: English, French, Latin, as well as Breton, Welsh and Celtic [sic]”.

Jack’s final chapter, “The Modern Woman Reader”, reads like a hasty round-up: a schoolgirl essay of the kind that used to begin “There are many different kinds of [clocks, birds, trees, whatever]”. This makes for dull reading. She quotes accounts of the books individual women have read, gestures towards blogging and books promoted on TV, and takes us on a tour of book groups, from the privileged ladies of the Causeries du Lundi group in New York, who have been discussing books for over a century and a quarter, to the women in Iran and Afghanistan who meet in secret to read. Her thesis, that women in different times and places have for centuries taken serious risks to read, and to discuss their reading, is reiterated, rather than argued, however, and her focus is overwhelmingly on women of the more privileged classes.

Her second-last illustration shows two women outside a bookshop in 1960, just after the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted; they appear to have bought four copies of the Penguin paperback, and are sharing a first look between the pages. The Woman Reader would have gone to press too early to register this summer’s Fifty Shades phenomenon, but what about the huge popularity and subversive potential of so-called chick lit, or the rise of misery memoir? What about Georgette Heyer? The phenomenally successful Mills and Boon imprint gets only one mention, and that in quoted material; its American counterpart, Harlequin Romances, gets none.

If Yale University Press wanted a history of women reading, they might have done better to commission a collection of readable essays from specialists, perhaps edited and introduced by Belinda Jack. Anyone fascinated by this book’s blurb and the image on its cover might do better to get hold of Steven Roger Fischer’s A History of Reading (keeping an eye out for the many gender distinctions he flags), and Stefan Bollmann’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous. Originally published in German in 2005, this is a gorgeous compilation of paintings of women reading, each reproduced in full colour, with a lively, knowledgeable, succinct commentary. Bollmann provides a vivid introduction, and the English language edition has a thoughtful foreword by the novelist Karen Joy Fowler.

Angela Bourke was joint editor of The Field Day Anthology, volumes 4 & 5: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, her own books include the award-winning The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story and the biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker. She is emeritus professor at the UCD School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics.