Attitudes to women as readers from the 19th into the 20th century

The requisites of reading

For anyone to be a regular reader, there needs to be:

  • Literacy
  • Opportunity
  • Tradition.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, none of these factors generally existed for women.


Universal education did not come about in Britain till 1870. Literacy rates for women were the same for men among middle- and upper-class women, but the majority of the population was classified as working-class.

Working-class girls

Literacy rates for girls were low among the working classes, though it gradually increased through the century. Many were apathetic or even hostile to the idea of girls reading. Working-class females generally Ragged School doorway, photo by 	Pete Birkinshaw, available through Creative Commonslearnt the basics through a network of voluntary schools, such as church schools, Sunday schools, workhouse schools, and the so-called 'Dame schools' and 'Ragged schools'. Education was haphazard until state intervention and subsidies brought some standards to the grades.

After 1870, girls could expect to be given a Primary School education (initially to age 11, then to 13). Tess in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, gets up to the sixth standard, which would have enabled her to attend a Teacher Training College, as Hardy's two sisters and cousin did.

Middle and upper-class girls

Middle- and upper-class girls would probably be taught at home, but there were small private schools, some of charitable foundation. Charlotte Brontë depicts her own experience of such a charity school in Jane Eyre. Lowood School is shown as cruel, unsafe and deeply patronising, like the unsanitary school at which two of her sisters had died. From the 1850s, Girls' Grammar Schools and Independent High Schools were set up.


The availability of reading matter

AlmanacAlthough the labouring Tess in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles was literate, she had no opportunity to become a reader since there was nothing except an almanac available for her to look at. For working-class girls the only reading material they could afford were single sheets of ballads, or traditional stories printed as wood-cuts that a pedlar might sell.

Private and circulating libraries

Middle- and upper-class girls had access to circulating libraries, booksellers and whatever books their men folk had. In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, we can see the availability of fiction, especially Gothic novels, available from subscription libraries. Novels continued to be popular reading material for such women.

Many of the women novelists of the century make it clear their early reading was through being given free access to their fathers' libraries. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters are two obvious examples. In each case here, their father was a liberal-minded clergyman. In documented cases, this sort of reading was often of a challenging nature: sermons, history, literature and literary criticism, politics and economics.

Later on, novels were often serialised in weekly or monthly magazines and could be obtained much more cheaply, though again, often through the men folk. The English Woman's Journal began life in 1858, the first ever woman's magazine in Britain. One interesting feature was that reading was often a communal activity or something done with at least one other person in the household.


Although feminist movements at the end of the eighteenth century had tried to set up precedents for women's reading, nineteenth century models for the ideal women concentrated on activity, for instance charity work and above all motherhood. The only reading advocated for women was as part of educating their children or running their households. Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management was first published in 1861. Although novel reading was common among leisured women, it was somewhat looked down on, unless the text was of a serious or 'improving' nature.

In working class families especially there was generally no tradition of reading at all, though this began to change with:

  • The rise of Methodism and other religious groups. George Eliot's Mill on the Floss shows the profound effect of Maggie's reading a copy of a devotional classic, Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ (true to Eliot's own experience of religion and reading)
  • The development of cheap magazine serialisation which made literature more accessible to those on low incomes.

Into the twentieth century

Gradually, attitudes began to change significantly, through:

  • The growth of women's education after 1870, when elementary education was made compulsory for everyone
  • The growth of magazines for women of every class
  • The modelling of educated and intelligent heroines in the novels and poems of women writers especially, such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, and in the USA  Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickenson and countless others.
  • The growth of women's emancipation movements in the latter part of the century.

One of the core feminist texts that marked the progress made and the progress still to be made at the beginning of the twentieth century was Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929). Woolf's essay came out of lectures given at Newnham College, one of a handful of women's colleges then existing at Oxford and Cambridge (even though they were not allowed to award degrees till later!). Both Woolf and her close friend E.M.Forster devoted much of their literary effort into portraying intelligent women readers as heroines.

Further References

On this website, there are a number of other articles dealing with Women in Literature:

  • The Metaphysicals: John Donne - Aire and Angels
  • The Metaphysicals: Katherine Philips - Poem analysis
  • The White Devil: Characterisation in The White Devil- Vittoria
  • Persuasion: Themes - Love and Marriage; Gender and the changing role of women
  • Jane Eyre: Themes and significant ideas - Gender and the role of women
  • Poems of Christina Rossetti: Critical approaches - Publication and early responses
  • Wide Sargasso Sea: Themes and significant ideas in Wide Sargasso Sea - Gender
  • The Handmaid's Tale: Themes and significant ideas in The Handmaid‘s Tale - Gender significance and feminism in The Handmaid's Tale
  • See also : Platonic love
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