Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Moral Poison": The Evils of Reading Novels, 1864

Isabella reporting,

Last week I shared an 18thc warning against women reading romances. By 1860, those who worried about everyone else's reading habits had expanded their concerns, including all novels read not only by women, but by men as well. Apparently novels were dangerous.

The warnings below come from a religious tract published in New York in 1864. A Pastor's Jottings; or, Striking Scenes during a Ministry of Thirty-Five Years was printed anonymously because, as the prefatory note explains, the author "could thus write with more freedom." That same note assures us that "the statements of this volume are all literally true."

Among the many things (this book is nearly 350 pages long) that distress this unknown pastor, novels - that "moral poison" - are right there at the top of the list: "The minds of novel readers are intoxicated, their rest is broken, their health shattered, and their prospect of usefulness blighted."

But he doesn't want us simply to take his word for it. Apparently even novels by Charles Dickens are suspect, and he quotes the famous educator Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby School fame to prove it:

Childishness in boys even of good ability seems to be a growing fault; and I do not know what to ascribe it, except to the great number of exciting books of amusement, like Pickwick, Nickleby, Bentley's Magazine, etc...that leave [a boy] totally palled, not only for his regular work, but for literature of all sorts.

Nor are women exempt from the terrible influences of novel-reading. In fact (remember, this is all LITERALLY TRUE), according to the pastor, women suffer even more:

Listen to the evidence given by a physician in Massachusetts: 'I have seen a young lady with her table loaded with volumes of fictitious trash, poring day after day and night after night over highly wrought scenes and skillfully portrayed pictures of romance, until her cheeks grew pale, her eyes became wild and restless, and her mind wandered and was lost – the light of intelligence passed behind a cloud, and her soul was forever benighted. She was insane, incurably insane from reading novels.'

But insanity is only the beginning:

Not very long since, a double suicide was a young married couple from Ohio, who were clearly proved to be led to ruin and death by these most pernicious books....Police officers too in London and some of our own large cities, have given mournful evidence of the results of some of these novels when dramatized and performed on the stage, as leading to burglaries and murder.

Suicide, madness, burglaries, and murder! As an unrepentant novelist, I clearly have much to answer for. While for obvious reasons, I don't want you to see the error of your ways, but if you'd like to read more of the Unnamed Pastor's edifying work, here's the link to his book, available to read for free via Google Books.

Thanks to Clive Thompson, who shared quotes from A Pastor's Jottings on Twitter.

Above: The Pink Domino; print made by William Henry Mote after Frank Stone, c1833-1835. The British Museum.


  1. when Wuthering Heights was first published, by Ellis Bell, people said what a powerful book it was. As soon as it was discovered that it was written by a woman, there was moral outrage that a female could have talked about passion, desire etc etc. It's not just the readers!

  2. her table loaded with volumes of fictitious trash, poring day after day and night after night over highly wrought scenes...

    This sounds like my house :-)

  3. "She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain." If avoiding novels keeps you sane I'd rather read and rave.

    Hal |

  4. Thanks for tipping me off to this book! It's fantastic, but it is not the original source of that quote. As near as I can tell, A Pastor's Jottings was published in 1864, but the same quote also appears a variety of sources. The earliest I can find online is the Vermont Phoenix from Brattleboro, Vermont, 11 May 1849. They attribute it to the American Messenger, but I haven't been able to find any copies of the Messenger from the 1840s. Apparently warning people against novels was part of the core mission of the American Messenger, and pretty much every issue has at least one article highlighting some sort of danger. You can find the whole 1850 run online, if you are bored.


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