Women and novel-reading

Jonge, Gustave (1868)

Although the value of ‘reading for pleasure’ has become part and parcel of contemporary reading culture, this highly proselytized past-time, to children and adults alike, was not always considered so salient. In fact, in the late 18th and 19th centuries – as the novel proliferated – numerous people and groups sought to repress these rising sentiments.

The first novel has arguably been considered either Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, or possibly Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, each published in the early 18th century. Another possible contender was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, though this was notably different than the latter two, as it would have been classified as a ‘religious novel.’ The secular novel, with its emphasis on the complexities, desires, and ambiguities of contemporary life, became popular in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, religious authors were publishing their own ‘novels’ quite frequently, to provide an alternative to secular fiction – a religious counterpart which offered tangible moral imperatives interwoven within their text. This included works such as Hannah More’s Coelebes, a story about a young man who seeks a devout Christian wife after the death of his father.[1]  However, the general dislike amongst these pietous authors for ‘novels’ in the secular definition, had caused them to avoid applying this term to define their work; they were frequently identified as ‘moral stories’ instead.[2]

The investment in alternatives for the rise in secular fiction was grounded in beliefs that this particular type of reading was objectionable. Opposition to leisurely entertainments was not unusual; indeed, the puritans in the 17th century had condemned theatre-going amongst their congregations, due to their beliefs in its invitation to and promotion of immoral behaviour. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, novel-reading was also opposed on moral grounds.[3] Additionally, objectors believed that novel-reading was part of a faction of entertainments which were frivolous and time-wasting. Notably, unlike theatre-going, novel reading had a distinct gender element; it was typically women who fell ‘victim’ to its clutches. This is especially noted in the second point, which will be elucidated below.

“[Novel reading was] at best a frivolous and self-indulgent use of God-given time, at worst a source of moral and spiritual danger, exposing the reader to false representations and extravagant, selfish passions.”[4]


1. Novel reading promoted immoral behaviour

Novels, as noted, were often considered in the same morally nebulous category as the theatre. As Silas Hocking noted in the Dundee Evening Telegraph:

In the days of my youth, fiction was regarded a very dangerous reading, especially for young people. The novel and the theatre were placed on the same level. Both were of the devil, and consequently both were to be shunned.”[5]

novels danger
Sheffield Independent, 03 April 1930

Novels, it was believed, painted immoral behaviour in an attractive light, leading readers astray. Furthermore, novels tended to portray unrealistic versions of life, which could, at the very least, leave readers feeling discontented with their current lot in life.

The Archbishop of York commented on this probability, as noted in an article in a Dundee newspaper in 1864:

“[Novel reading] cascades people into useless outcomes, obsesses them with unnecessary passions, while providing a distorted view of life.”[6]

The Archbishop then concluded that reading of all kinds should have an educational and practical purpose – not simply offer distractions which will leave readers discontent.

An early 20th century newspaper expanded on this fear, when it discussed problematic portrayals of masculinity in novels which women were frequently reading (probably romantic fiction). In these novels, the males were portrayed as cynical, worldly, and without any spiritual appetite. These attractive portrayals ignited yearnings in women for men who behaved in similar fashions, setting them after the ‘wrong type of hero.’[7]

eavesdroppingAnother early 20th century newspaper equated novel reading with eavesdropping; arguing that this ‘vice’ is an addition similar to a drug habit. It piques the sensationalist interests of readers and allows readers to eavesdrop upon the privacy of others – even in a fictional world.

“And so we get the newest novel from the library, and ensconce ourselves securely behind our curtain of invisibility, and sitting there in our drugged silence, we listen…and listen…and listen…eavesdropping in the lives of others.”[8]

2. Novel reading was frivolous, time-wasting, and promoted idleness.

The second cause for concern over novel reading was the belief that it was a waste of the time God had allotted to people; time which ought to instead be used to read scripture, pray, and ruminate on spiritual things. At its best, believed some, novel reading was a distraction from the more important things of life. At its worst – it was a cause for domestic despair.

An article in the Weekly Davenport Democrat noted the ill-effects of novel reading in a story about the destruction of a family. Destitution abounded – authorities had traced its inherent cause to the wife/mother’s passion for novel reading. This overwhelming passion led to the neglect of her family – leading one daughter to throw herself into ‘the haunts of vice.’[9]

Weekly Davenport Democrat 1858
Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough. 10 February 1916.

A similar story arose in 1916 in West London. A mother was brought before the police, charged with the neglect of her children (and she had already been cautioned five times before on this issue). She apparently did not care what befell her children, as she was enraptured by the latest novels. [10]

At a men’s meeting in the Phoenix Lodge in 1908, men discussed potential causes of unhappiness in the home. Unsurprisingly, alcohol was mentioned as a chief cause (indeed, alcohol was often considered THE chief cause in the later 19th century for disruption and dissolution of families). However, men in this meeting debated other the possibility of additional causes – beyond alcohol – for severe domestic issues. A few other factors were added as possible contributors – including ‘novel reading among women.’[11]


Novel reading was seen as a tremendous danger amongst religious groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many evangelicals did shift their attitudes towards ‘secular culture’ as the 19th century progressed, including views on novel reading.[12] Some novel-reading supporters suggested a differentiation between ‘good novels’ and ‘bad novels’ – the former allowed readers to increase empathy, as they read stories representing those similar to themselves, and the latter (usually romance novels) contained erroneous and nebulous situations which were never likely to happen.[13]

Anthony Trollope, 19th  novelist, spoke on numerous occasions in defence of the benefits of novel reading. In one of his lectures, he noted that novels benefit their readers by providing characters with whom readers can empathise as they reflect on their own lives and experiences.

“The pieces are men and women with passions to ourselves, with moral attributes, performing moral acts, and bringing out moral results; their characters, their springs of action, their sins and sorrows, their failures and successes, are laid bare before us, and we cannot help being affected by them in the same way, if not to the same extent as we are by the real flesh-and-blood people with whom we daily associate.”[14]

 The popularity of the novel continued to increase through the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially as educational reforms took place, and novels became part and parcel of school library provision. While some of the more ‘liberal’ evangelicals tried earnestly to convince their conservative peers of the advantages and benefits of the novel, suspicions continued until well into the 20th century. However, by this time reading for pleasure with novels, despite the misgivings of conservative religious groups, had become commonplace. Trollope noted this was already happening in the 1870s –

“From the Queen to the milkmaid, from the peer to the ploughboy, the novel has become almost as much a necessary luxury as the cup of tea.”


[1] Mandal, A. (2015). Evangelical Fiction in Garside, P. and O’Brien, K. English and British Fiction 1750-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 260.

[2] Pearson, J. (1999). Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: a dangerous recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 197.

[3] Vance, N. (2012). Religion and the Novel. In Kucich, J. and Tay, J.B. The Nineteenth Century Novel 1820-1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 476.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 April 1901.

[6] The Archbishop of York on Novel Reading, Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 08 November 1864.

[7] Dangers in Novel Reading, Hampshire Advertiser, 10 February 1923.

[8] Eavesdropping, The Bystander, 16 November 1921.

[9] Effects of Novel Reading, Weekly Davenport Democrat, 1858.

[10] Mother who spent her time novel reading. Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough. 10 February 1916.

[11] Watford Observer, 22 February 1908.

[12] Vance, N. (2012). Religion and the Novel. In Kucich, J. and Tay, J.B. The Nineteenth Century Novel 1820-1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 477.

[13] Pearson, J. (1999). Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: a dangerous recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 198.

[14] Novels and Novel Reading, Dundee Evening Telegraph. 08 January 1879

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