Metaphors of Reading, 1760-1830

For the past few weeks, Cleo and I have been working together on an article that we hope to submit for publication fairly soon. We thought we would share some initial thoughts about it on this blog. The topic of the article is metaphors that we have spotted in a variety of different works from our period – all to do with women’s reading. The article focuses on two metaphors in particular: that which likens reading to eating (female readers are, for example, often depicted ‘devouring’ fiction) and that which likens the improvement of the female mind to horticultural improvement (female characters whose minds have been ‘cultivated’, for example). These metaphors have a long provenance, dating back to Quintilian, but they become particularly important and indeed ubiquitous in the long eighteenth century, when debates over the proper reading for women took on particular resonance in a context of increased female literacy, and an exponentially increasing market for fiction. For many years, I have been noticing these metaphors in conduct books written for women (by writers such as Hannah More, James Fordyce, Thomas Gisborne, John Bennett, and Jane West) and the work of Jane Austen, and while reading Cleo’s recent writing on books by Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Hamilton and Mary Brunton, I was struck by the extent to which they appeared in these novels as well. We decided, therefore, to pool our expertise, and to try to write an article together.

The Studious Beauty. Printed for & sold by Carington Bowles, at his map & print warehouse, No.69 in St. Pauls Church Yard, London, publish’d as the Act directs [Jan. 1, 1778?]. 1 print: mezzotint with etching, hand-colored. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

We began by roughing out the argument we wished to make – which focuses on the ways in which these metaphors begin as working to promote a conservative agenda in the conduct books, and then are developed by the female novelists in the service of a progressive agenda – and then divided the article into sections, each of which would concentrate on a different metaphor across the conduct books and novels. We each wrote our separate parts of the article, and then I combined them while Cleo worked on the conclusion.

Alteration [1825] Pubd. by Thos. McLean, 26 Haymarket Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Some of our favourite quotations from the authors include Elizabeth Hamilton’s description of her comical character Bridgetina Botherim’s introduction to philosophical reading:

My mother got a packet of brown snuff from London by the mail-coach; it was wrapped in two proof sheets of the quarto edition of the Political Justice. I eagerly snatched up the paper, and notwithstanding the frequent fits of sneezing it occasioned, from the quantity of snuff contained in every fold, I greedily devoured its contents. I read and sneezed, and sneezed and read, till the germ of philosophy began to rectify my soul. From that moment I became a philosopher and need not inform you of the important consequences […] As I read each sweet, delicious tale, I reasoned, I investigated, I moralized.[1]

We also particularly like Hannah More’s impassioned diatribe against Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his followers. There are certain books, she tells us,

which, by assuming the plausible names of Science, of Philosophy, of Arts, of Belles Lettres, [are] gradually administering death to the principles of those who would be on their guard, had the poison been labelled with its own pernicious title.

More continues:

Rousseau was the first popular dispenser of this complicated drug, in which the deleterious infusion was strong, and the effect proportionably fatal. For he does not attempt to seduce the affections, but through the medium of the principles.

For More, the philosophical and educational system propounded by Rousseau and his followers,

is a dire infusion, compounded of bold impiety, brutish sensuality and exquisite folly, which creeping fatally about the heart, checks the moral circulation, and totally stops the pulse of goodness by the extinction of the vital principle: thus not only checking the stream of actual virtue, but drying up the very fountain of future remorse and remote repentance.[2]

Readers of Julie, beware!

We’re currently at the revisions stage, and look forward to presenting our work in progress to the Eighteenth-Century Studies at Stirling group on Wednesday this week and soliciting the feedback of friends there.

[1] Elizabeth Hamilton, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, ed. Claire Grogan (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000), p. 176.

[2] Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, 2 vols, 4th edn (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1801), I, 33, 34, 53.