Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When Reading Became Fashionable

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Isabella reporting,

The Age of Enlightenment wasn't just about Diderot's encyclopedia and Johnson's dictionary. The 18th c. is also the first time when English and French women began to read.

Yes, I know, there had always been educated women in the elite classes who read and wrote and spoke languages both ancient and modern, but the 1700s mark the beginning of more and more women reading for pleasure (and not just the pleasure of the over-wrought romance reader I featured last week.)

Novels were still a relatively new invention, and an increasingly popular one, too. A growing middle class had the money and leisure for books, and though the men might twit the women about reading romantic novels, they still paid the bookseller bills of their wives and daughters along with their own. Women of fashion weren't afraid of being considered bluestockings because they read, and the perils of heroines like Clarissa, Evelina, and Serena were as avidly discussed over silver tea pots as they were in shops.

Where earlier generations of ladies might have held a nosegay or a bit of needlework when they sat for their portraits, 18th c. women were now shown reading, or with an open book as if they'd just been interrupted. From peeresses to young girls in the new United States of America, these ladies were proudly painted with their books.

When even Mme. du Pompadour, the royal favorite of Louis XV, was painted repeatedly with a book in her hand, you know books were one fashion that was here to stay. Jane Austen is just around the corner of the 19th century. .  .  .

Here are a handful of 18th c. ladies reading; I hope you'll click on the images to enlarge them.

Top to bottom:
Portrait of Madame du Pompadour, by François Boucher, c.1750-58. Scottish National Gallery.
Woman Reading by a Paper-bell Shade, by Henry Robert Morland, c. 1766.
Young Girl Reading, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1770. National Gallery of Art.
Sophia Drake, by Ralph Earl, c. 1784. Private Collection.
Emily, Marchioness of Kildare, by Allan Ramsay, c. 1764-66. National Museums Liverpool.
Serena Reading, by George Romney, c.1782, Dulwich Picture Gallery.


Danielle Thorne said...

Beautiful paintings!

Ana said...

That Fragonard's painting always reminds me of my grandma - it used to hang on her wall and when I was a kid I thought it was a painting of her in her youth :D .

Hels said...

Apart from the joys of the literature that lay inside the books, young women must have been desperately grateful to end the evening tedium - no physical activity, not much company other than family, quiet contemplation of the fire, no billiards, no port, just needlework.

I would have bought every book ever printed!

looloolooweez said...

Simply lovely! It is hard to imagine a life without books.

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