Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What We Can Learn from Victorian Women Readers

Marisa Palacios Knox

Nowadays reading literature, particularly fiction, is perceived as a predominantly feminine activity. The figure of the female reader—though she is not always wearing clothes or even paying attention to her book— has long been an object of aesthetic fascination. A profusion of calendars, cards, and art books are available with the ostensibly empowering theme of the Reading Woman. Meanwhile, for the past several decades in education, the reverse image has frequently been evoked of the reluctant boy reader, whose generalized lack of literary engagement constitutes a “boy crisis,” prompting despairing headlines such as “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?” in the New York Times.

But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Reading Woman was the problem, the object of continual crises, because she was believed to be too engaged with her reading. Beginning with Charlotte Lennox’s 1752 parodic novel The Female Quixote (a gender-swapped Don Quixote) and continuing throughout the nineteenth century, the recurring portrayal of women readers as naturally vulnerable to delusive immersion within fictional worlds and characters eventually established the persistent idea that identification with literature is a feminine predisposition.

It’s now become a truism that those who identify as male have a narrower range of potential identification with fictional characters. Literature teachers are encouraged to construct syllabi catering to low expectations and broad stereotypes, assigning only the kinds of texts and protagonists that “boys like,” which are assumed to be reflective avatars of themselves, whereas girls and women will ostensibly read about anything and anyone, and non-binary or gender-nonconforming students are barely acknowledged.

As a Victorianist professor, I was both frustrated and intrigued by this phenomenon: why are we letting eighteenth and nineteenth-century caricatures of the female reader still dictate our approaches to reading and teaching literature, when there are examples of Victorian women readers (real and fictional) that are so much more interesting, expansive, and instructive? This question shaped my book, Victorian Women and Wayward Reading: Crises of Identification, which examines Victorian women’s deliberate use of identification with characters and texts as an inspiration for creative, political, and professional action, what I call “wayward reading.”

The Reading Woman becomes “wayward” in the Victorian era when she diverges from the crisis narrative in which women were the passive victims of their relationship with reading. The titular character of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh identifies herself with male poetic muses instead of a husband in order to develop her own artistic voice, and thus became a formative influence for generations of female readers, from young girls’ clubs to women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. The antiheroines of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s scandalous sensation novels challenged readers to question their allegiances and representation in a way that connected them in the public mind with the nascent women’s suffrage movement. Victorian actresses depicted their own identification with their characters as a disciplined practice of self-possession, complicating the imagery of their self-immolation in novels by Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. In an even more socially disreputable profession, female mediums represented their reading of minds as a skill, not just an effusion of feminine sympathy. Mina Harker’s reversal of a telepathic connection between herself and the Count in Dracula provides a fictional illustration of spiritualist accounts of mind-reading as a potential act of strategic defense. The fin-de-siècle’s college-educated and professional “New Women,” in their own writings and the novels of George Gissing, laid claim to the presumedly masculine capacity for aesthetic detachment in their ability to read without emotional identification.

The more recent “crisis” of boys and reading rests on the same assumptions that these wayward women readers of the Victorian era defied. We can learn from their dynamic and purposeful approach to reading in the face of their supposed limitations and lack of agency. Regardless of essentialized gender binaries, they demonstrated the boundless possibilities of exercising flexible and fluid identification with literature.

Victorian Women and Wayward Reading By Marisa Palacios Knox
Victorian Women and Wayward Reading By Marisa Palacios Knox

About The Author

Marisa Palacios Knox

Marisa Palacios Knox is Assistant Professor of Literatures and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she is also affiliate faculty with the Gender an...

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