Women in the Reading Circle

While going through boxes that my mother had saved when she moved from her condo to a seniors residence, I came across an article from a course we’d taken on the novels of Jane Austen. I can no longer remember the exact year we took the course, however it was likely 2002 or 2003.

Painting by Albert Bartholome

I do recall being somewhat embarrassed when it appeared that I was the only one attending the course who’d never read any of Jane Austen. Blame it on terrible English teachers and a preference for Mathematics and Science topics in university and in later years of high school. Along with my mother, I embarked enthusiastically on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Persuasion. [But, please don’t ask me to describe the plots now.]

Back to my mother’s boxes. In one of them, Mom and I discovered a course description she’d saved along with an article our instructor had provided: Women in the Reading Circle by Patricia Howell Michaelson. The opening sentence caught my eye.

Throughout the eighteenth century, novels were maligned for corrupting women.


The author goes on to say: “It was not only the content of novels that was targeted: the act of reading itself was dangerous.” Reading was considered antisocial. Reading led women to neglect their duties. Reading could lead to lifelong spinsterhood. Reading might confuse women about the realities of life.

Michaelson also points out that “reading aloud in the family circle placed novels behind patriarchal safeguards. In the extreme, family reading became a form of censorship, controlling access to books, censoring offensive passages, and interrupting the text with moralistic commentary.”

An elocution movement of the time celebrated the art of reading aloud as a “system of rules, which teaches us to pronounce written composition with justness, energy, variety, and ease.” It was also a system where men did the reading while women listened, where men controlled what was read – the books chosen, the passages omitted – and how it was read in terms of tone, voice, and emphasis. Men also chose which passages to discuss and led such discussions.

Jane Austen places reading in this context within her novels. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Marianne Dashwood criticizes “poor, dull Edward and praise[s] her Willoughby by contrasting their readings.” In Mansfield Park, “Edmund advises Maria how best to read a dangerous play: ‘Read only the first Act aloud, to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send to your father’s judgment, I am convinced.'”

Are you as astonished as I am?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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