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.
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.