Prescriptions about how and what to read occur thoughout the mid-Victorian sentimental and sensation novels which my grandmother and her sisters shared and presented to one another as gifts. The novels and periodicals thought suitable for Sunday reading for the Nicholls family and their neighbours were full of covert messages about the act of reading itself. In the novels the fictional characters’ own reading is almost always devotional in nature. In one of my grandmother’s favorites, The Wide Wide World (1850,) novel-reading is singled out as particularly morally perilous. Reading “some furious kind of a novel” is equated by Ellen’s dying mother’s doctor as equivalent to “taking half a bottle of wine.” In the novel’s closing chapter, Ellen’s future husband extracts from her the promise that she will, “Read no novels,” while she assures him that she has “taken good care to keep out of the way of them.”
The characterization of fiction as a moral hazard, especially for young women was frequently sounded by public figures, both clerical and secular, throughout most of the century. However, it’s odd to find a denunciation of novel reading within the pages of a novel itself. Perhaps the paradox of Warner’s novel proscribing novel-reading may have seemed less preposterous to a generation whose Sunday reading was brimming with admonitions about reading. Even the illustrations in such texts embody implicit prescriptions how reading is to be conducted. “How do you spell penitent?” asks the “little fair-haired, bright-faced boy” as he pores over an open book, slate in hand.
Typically, reading as a private activity is presented as mere self indulgence, while public reading is idealized. There are explicit admonitions about the value of “reading aloud some noble wholesome volumes” as a family activity and chiding the “Booklovers [who] are inclined to be a little selfish sometimes” in “enjoying the book by oneself” The accompanying illustration to this piece of sermonizing shows a father reading aloud at the table while mother sews and the three children, with obediently folded hands, fix their eyes on his face.
Similar illustrations of reading schoolmasters, ministers of religion and comparable male figures abound throughout the three volumes of The Quiver (1888-1890)and the single 1890 volume of Sunday at Home which have survived from my grandmother’s small collection of books. Women readers are strangely absent, while the male study or library, with its resident studious reader, is a staple of nearly every article depicting the home lives of various Christian ministers. These representations of reading contrast oddly with day to day life in the Nicholls household with its illiterate father, the older brothers toiling in South African gold mines, and its daughters hungrily devouring East Lynne, The Wide Wide World or The Lamplighter.