Continuing on from last week’s riff, is it possible that girls are more likely to make reading a social act rather than a solitary one?
One of the first questions that drew me to reading about the history of the novel in Western Europe, specifically the early novels of the 1600s and the rise of the salons, was how women swiftly organized themselves around literary pursuits as soon as they found one another and a shared venue for expression.
Here are some quick impressions from my own non-academic and entirely sporadic reading.
The Renaissance brought about a revival in learning, with an especial focus on classical literature. The Renaissance contributed not just new ideas, but a new paradigm—the idea that the world could be different. From monarch to middle class, the use of classical vocabulary gave you style points—meanwhile, the content of the classics led to extrapolations in various forms of writing about what the ideal world could be . . . which in turn led to ideas about what the ideal man could be. Of course this “man” was assumed to be literate, and Castiglione exhorted in his book of social climbing, The Courtier, “He must be of noble birth.”
But though the language of classical literature was male, guess who else was reading? With the spread of wealth came leisure time, and as women had been denied much involvement in seigniorial concerns, they turned to books. Women read, talked, penned reams of letters.
In mid-seventeenth century in France, woman’s written work became enormously popular: Madame Scudery, whose novels were not just romances, but long conversations and careful details about courtly behavior. A lot of those conversations were published separately in the latter part of the century as manners manuals. They were meant to depict an ideal of civilized life–but eager young women read them in hopes of emulating those up the ranks, to better their lives.
Meanwhile, Louis XIII’s court was so uncouth that a remarkable woman named Madame Rambouillet opened her house in 1618, and for three decades the elite of French literary society flocked to her salon, instead of the king’s court, to speak about refined love, and other polite subjects. She designed the ruelles, or alcoves, which were to become a standard of most salons; at first made so that the temperature of the room could be controlled, these intimate little partial rooms appealed so strongly that other hostesses raced to make their own.
The definition of public and private was changing. To be private, and intimate, among chosen people, was also to be exclusive. Madame du Deffand, a famous salonniere of the mid-18th Century, took eighteen months to design and furnish her place, to a very specific design. No detail was deemed too trivial; the buttercup yellow silk wallpaper in her entertainment rooms was copied by most wannabe salonnieres throughout Europe.
What did all this mean? The romance is tied up in the betterment of life—the happy ending if all live up to a standard. Unfortunately, the focus here was the betterment of an exclusive society, rather than the betterment of all. Or rather, the two things conflicted, which caused rifts among women publishing in the years before the Revolution. Not surprisingly aristos wanted to hold onto power and privilege, and women born lower down on the totem pole felt that civilization ought to benefit all.
During the patriarchal nineteenth century, there was one calling where women could hold their own with men: writing, and reading.
Later on I learned that in Japan, this phenomenon occurred even earlier; during the Heian period, roughly 800-1200 by Western count, it was the women of the court who inspired the flowering of literature by evolving new syllabaries, hiragana and katagana, which permitted vernacular Japanese to be written down in poetic and literary form.
It’s interesting to me, watching the remarkable organization of fanzine fandom (specifically fan fiction) over the past thirty years, done mostly by women. What’s going on with fanfic? A whole lot of stuff. Women writers exploring sexual questions is usually the first thing brought up (or mudball slung, post 50 Shades); but there is so much more to be found in the vast world of fanfiction. The very statement that “This is what I like in a story. Write it for me” is evidence of taking control of one’s art as well as a form of reading, writing, and social action.
And I see mostly women doing it. Fanfiction has not historically been reserved for women—a century ago, I believe, it was mostly men who penned Sherlock Holmes pastiche—but fanfiction does seem to be largely female, and definitely a social act. I find that so intriguing.