Eighteenth-century women enjoyed reading romances. Just like many of their romance-reading sisters today, they were often ridiculed for doing so.
But while the sighing, novel-reading miss was an easy target, there were also sterner critics who went much farther than simply dismissing romances as a waste of time. To them, reading romantic fiction corrupted virtuous women, and made them more susceptible to seduction and ruin. It's no surprise that the loudest voices were male, certain that female readers needed protecting because they did not possess the ability to read critically or to differentiate between fiction and reality.
Conduct books warned against the dangers of the roman d'amour. In the popular Manuel de la toilette & de la mode by Conrad Salomon Walther, published in 1771, the author claimed that romantic novels played to "the depravity of the reader." Not surprisingly, he disapproved of honest women reading such books: "There are books that one must not read in order to remain virtuous and out of respect for public opinion, which quite correctly esteems that a young woman should remain ignorant about certain things."
All of which explains the state of the young woman, left. Despite her noble intentions to higher learning indicated by the globe and scholarly books on the table, she has succumbed to reading a ::horrors:: romantic novel. Still open beside her, this book has reduced her to a near-swoon, flushed, limp, and spent, with her clothes in disarray. The book has debauched her as surely as a real lover might, here in the intimacy of her own bedchamber. Even her little dog in his brocade kennel seems exhausted by so much literary passion.
Of course this painting isn't a warning, but a sly exaggeration. It's a scene intended to titillate, not serve as a cautionary tale. The artist, Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, painted many such knowing pictures, and this was probably intended to amuse a worldly male patron. Either way, the message is still clear: romance novels are powerful stuff. But we knew that all along, didn't we?
Above: La Lecture, by Pierre-Antoine Baudoin, c. 1760. Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.