BOOK REVIEW / The girls' turn to be bookworms: 'The Woman Reader 1837-1914' - Kate Flint: OUP, 25 pounds

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ONE 19TH-CENTURY advice book recommended a locked cupboard for works unsuitable for daughters: forbidden fruit to heighten desire. The Ruskin scholar Joan Smith remembered that 'one of her few conscious naughtinesses' was to steal into the drawing room, open the glass-fronted bookcase 'and take delicious draughts of verse in secret'. (The heady potions were Tennyson and Matthew Arnold.) Mary Butts's mother warned of the dangers in her father's room:

I was not to look at the books in the cupboard. It was full of dreadful books. Books, she went on to explain, that only men read, and she wished indeed that my father would not read them. But I was always to remember that men were different.

After he died, the father's filthy books were ceremoniously burnt: Defoe, Ronsard, Maupassant, Balzac, Stendhal.

French novels, of course, were the direst form of poison, as Kate Flint points out. English novels could be defended (just). In Trollope's view, 'the lessons you will find in them are good lessons. Honour and honesty, modesty and self-denial, are as strongly insisted on in our English novels as they are in our English sermons.' But cheap fiction spelled disaster, according to The Christian Penny Magazine: 'A whole family, brought to destitution, has lately had all its misfortunes traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading.'

Such alarmist pronoucements ring through Kate Flint's exhaustive study of 'the woman reader' from the accession of Victoria to the First World War. Flint's concern is less with what women actually read (enormously difficult to establish, since autobiographies, and even letters, are inevitably slanted to an audience) than with the rhetoric that surrounds the issue. As she rightly says, the implicit assumptions about the influence of books on conduct, and about the place and 'innate nature' of women, formed part of a much wider discourse of value and authority in Victorian institutions and society as a whole.

The firm historical perspective combined with vivid,bristling detail makes The Woman Reader valuable as well as interesting. Flint doesn't come to any new or startling conclusions, but she is the first person to analyse the whole spectrum of debate, in medical textbooks, advice manuals, school reading lists (horrific), periodical articles, autobiographies, feminist journals, fiction and art, and in doing so she constantly overturns imposed stereotypes. Examining the controversies surrounding Sensation Novels and New Woman fictions, for example, she highlights the self-awareness, not the passivity, of the woman reader, 'alert to the development of her own subjectivity and to her position within society', so that the knowing subversion of fictional norms could establish a bond, rooted in reading. In this context, the picture of Rachel Vinrace passionately reading Ibsen in Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out is very moving: 'it was not all acting . . . some sort of change was taking place in the human being'.

Flint's sure grasp of theory lets her handle the mass of material with assurance: the range of sources is staggering. She is excellent on loaded terminology (especially on reading as eating) and her awareness of vested interests protects her taking writers at face value. She notes, for example, that critics who attacked Penny Dreadfuls and romances usually hadn't read them; that accounts of working-class reading were ammunition for reform, not objective accounts; that advice journals are poor guides to practice. Schoolgirl surveys which show a righteous glut of classics are nicely overturned when the questionnaires are anonymous and Marie Corelli comes top.

Repeated ly, Flint shows how advice on reading is part of a wider agenda: boys' books must be 'mental food for the future chiefs of a great race' and girls' for 'the wives and mothers of that race'. On a happier note, there's a great moment when Schreiner's Story of an African Farm is smuggled into Cheltenham Ladies College by one Hildegarde Muspratt: 'the whole sky seemed aflame and many of us became violent feminists'. (Dream on . . .)

Sometimes, reading the serried ranks of on-the-page footnotes feels like being jammed against a wall at some high-powered academic conference. But no matter: The Woman Reader is utterly engrossing, not only as history but as a clue to categories of 'woman reader' today, whether feminist or romance-gobbler (and why not both?). Despite her theoretical sternness Kate Flint never loses sight of the pleasure of reading, past and present, wonderfully embodied in an example cited with horror at a Conference of Schoolmistresses in Southsea in 1893, 'where a speaker described a young woman's idea of a comfortable Saturday morning by saying 'she liked to be in bed with a shilling shocker and a shilling's worth of sweeties'. This is the sort of reckless waste of hard-earned money which can best be arrested by the suggestion in early life of something better worth doing.'