- Reading Women: Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1500–1800
As editors Heidi Brayman Hackel and Catherine E. Kelly point out, "long before Jane Eyre 'mounted into the window-seat' to read, girls and women were reading—sometimes furtively, often voraciously, and rarely with the full support of their culture" (3). The contrasts in this observation between representation and reality—between a fictional girl reader of the nineteenth-century and historical female readers of the early modern era—reflect the aim of this collection: to recover "more empirically based accounts of women's reading" than those conveyed by a generation of feminist scholars who attended to the "multiple, often conflicting representations of the female reader" (1) both pictorially and textually. Girls' and women's literacy underwent dramatic transformations during the course of the early modern period. In 1500, as many as 99 percent of women in England were illiterate; by contrast, nearly half of English and Anglo-American women displayed alphabetic literacy in 1800 and, by the mid 1800s, 90 percent of white men and women were literate in the United States (2). Accordingly, this collection aims to foreground girls and women as "important participants in the production and consumption of texts and as statistically meaningful possessors of literacy" (1). Ultimately, as Hackel and Kelly intend to show, "the expansion of a female readership [from 1500–1800] shaped the history of publishing and the development of literary culture" (1). What is more, it corresponded with the emergence of the modern world and "specific cultural and historical phenomena identified with it", such as "the infancy of print" in 1500 and several centuries later "the introduction of wood-based paper" and mass-produced books (5). [End Page 163]
I refer to Hackel and Kelly's introduction to this extent because it stands on its own as an excellent scholarly overview of women's reading in the Atlantic World, 1500–1800. The eleven subsequent essays, including an afterword by Robert A. Gross, are substantive but short enough to invite readers to return to them at their leisure. Published in the University of Pennsylvania Press's Material Texts series, this beautifully made book, featuring on its cover George Romney's Serena Reading, is an aesthetic object itself to hold, admire, and open. Should I say it invites readers to get comfortable in a chair (not a window-seat) to peruse its pages?
The editors have arranged the essays in three parts, each underscoring a historical reality about early modern women's relationships to texts across space and time. Part I, "Pleasures and Prohibitions", addresses what texts were considered appropriate for females and why. Part II, "Practices and Accomplishments", focuses on the material and social dimensions of women's reading. Finally, Part III, "Translation and Authorship", explores "the relationship between different, and differently gendered, forms of reading and writing" (2). Each cluster of essays demonstrates one or more of three major insights into women's reading from 1500–1800. First, a wide variety of contexts and texts influenced women's reading. Settings encompassed the "heterosocial conversations of early modern courts, eighteenth-century tea tables" and nineteenth-century parlors" while "scripture and conduct manuals" competed for readers' attention or functioned alongside "aesthetic treatises and unpublished and privately circulated manuscripts" (6). Second, the textual was embedded in the material. The beginnings of female literacy, for example, were based in the domestic and material worlds, with texts "sewn in samplers, engraved on rings, chalked on walls, and inscribed on trenchers" (7). Third, the textual was embedded in cultural and social practices. As Hackel and Kelly summarize, women's reading was synchronous with "collecting, painting, and embroidery"; it involved "performance, spectatorship, and listening"; it stimulated story-telling and translation as well as writing (8).
Though it is reluctant to suggest an essentialist, ahistorical female reader (4), this volume logically assumes that gender was frequently the dominant factor influencing women's reading in the Atlantic world from 1500...