Eighteenth-Century Life 27.2 (2003) 1-22
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The Persistence of Reading:
Governing Female Novel-Reading in Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers
University of Alberta
Many young girls, from morning to night, hang over this pestiferous reading, to the neglect of industry, health, proper exercise, and to the ruin both of body and of soul. ...The increase of novels will help to account for the increase of prostitution and for the numerous adulteries and elopements that we hear of in the different parts of the kingdom.
Evils of Adultery and Prostitution (1792) 1
My avidity for books daily increased: I subscribed to a circulating library, and frequently read, or rather devoured—little careful in the selection—from ten to fourteen novels in a week.
Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) 2
By the 1790s women's consumption of novels was a profoundly fraught yet persistently frequent affair. By then moralists, essayists, and critics had pronounced, with overwhelming consensus, that novels corrupted, seduced, and poisoned the minds and bodies of young female readers. However, an equally forceful consensus was formed by women who refused to listen to the warnings and continued to read, and even to write, this dangerous and contaminating form of literature. 3 As James Raven's bibliographic research [End Page 1] reveals, the percentage of novels written by women increased over the last decades of the century; and while novels written by men outnumbered those written by women in the 1770s (29.8% to 14.3%, the remaining 55.9% being published anonymously), by the 1790s the tables had turned and novels attributed to women accounted for a larger share (36.9% to 30.7%, the rest anonymous). 4 If novels were so widely believed to be the evil agents of seduction and ruin, why and how did women persist in reading and writing them? This essay attempts to answer the question by examining scenes of novel-reading in two novels written by women: Mary Hays' feminist Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and Elizabeth Hamilton's satiric rejoinder, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800). The female reader of the novel reads a novel about a woman reading a novel; and these mise en abymes, or embedded scenes of novel-reading, provide internal mirrors for how the reader ought to read Emma Courtney and Modern Philosophers. In what follows, I read the mirrors for how they reflect and refract the explosively sexualized scene of reading and for what they can tell us about their writers' participation in the critical debates. Hays and Hamilton create heroines who fulfill the moralists' worst nightmares: their young female heroines read novels and fall victim to seduction and/or succumb to their sexual desires. How, then, can they justify young women's reading their texts? They did so by integrating the critical attacks on the novel into their novels and by interrupting and revising the model of female reading they assume. In order to do so, Hays and Hamilton distinguish between what a woman reads and how she reads and ultimately transform the female reader from a consumer into a critic.
In aligning Hays and Hamilton, I am going against the critical tradition that sees them as antithetical, which, on one level, is intuitively correct. Hays—outspoken feminist, friend of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and unabashed publicist of her unrequited love in the semi-autobiographical Emma Courtney—was not the soul sister of Elizabeth Hamilton, retired Scottish writer of domestic tales, who relentlessly eschewed impropriety and explicitly attacked Hays and the "New Philosophy" in Modern Philosophers. As the reviews in The Anti-Jacobin attest, the two novelists easily fit into the polarized Jacobin and Anti-Jacobin political camps of the 1790s. Whereas The Anti-Jacobin reduced Emma Courtney to revolutionary propaganda in support of illicit female sexuality, it profusely praised Hamilton as proof that "all the female writers of the day are not [End Page 2] corrupted by the voluptuous dogmas of Mary Godwin, or her more profligate imitators" (i...