Victorian Doctors Thought Reading novels Made by Women “Incurably Insane”

In 1886, a pioneer in home teaching, Charlotte Mason, wrote that a girl who spent hours sitting over a novel with damage to her eyes, her brain and her general nervous system, is guilty of the lesser nature of suicide. Ironically, Mason’s conviction that reading fiction is physically dangerous for girls and women, in fact, was held by many doctors of the time.

A few years earlier, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the same guy who invented cornflakes in an attempt to “cure” people from masturbation, called a novel that reads one of the most pernicious habits that a young lady can devote. When the habit is completely fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of alcohol or opium.

The idea that reading novels was really a bad idea for ladies was suggested in an article that was not so subtly called “Native reading, the cause of female debauchery”, which was published in a British journal back in 1797. In this article, the author claimed that he personally witnessed the moral breakdown of several young female readers.

“I saw two poor inconsolable parents fall into premature graves, the unfortunate victims of the disgrace of their daughters and the peace of several relatives of the wounded, so as not to be healed again in this world. “And did you read the novel, reading the reason for this? He asks me some kind good … I answer yes! ”

The damage that is believed to have been caused by fiction is in no way limited to the moral sphere. As the literary critic Ekaterina Golden explains in her book Images of a Woman-Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction,

The reading was damned because it was believed that it damaged the nervous system in women and reproductive health. Medical authorities associated excessive, uncontrolled reading with a multitude of female reproductive diseases (for example, early menstruation, painful menstruation, infertility, etc.), Madness and premature death. Women, biological differences and higher sensitivity and sensitivity make it more susceptible to the effects of the novel. Countless experts uttered sensational novels, mysteries and scary tales to avoid intense physical well-being.

Even women doctors had no immunity from this line of thinking. In her self-help book of 1899, What a Young Woman Should Know, Dr. Mary Wood Allen warned future mothers to beware of the evil of reading novels.

“Girls are not inclined to understand the vices of a new reading, and may think that this is only because mothers have experienced their romantic days when they object to their daughters enjoying such sentimental reading; But a wise mother understands the impact of sensational reading on a physical organization and wants to protect her daughter from the evils generated by this … Reading young girls by reading a romance, thanks to this stimulation of bodily organs, will tend to their premature development, And the baby becomes physically a woman of months or even Years before she should. ”

Other doctors believed that excessive reading leads to the opposite problem. In 1873, Dr. Edward Clarke argued that too much education diverted energy from the reproductive system of girls, leaving them with undeveloped ovaries.

Not all questions about reproductive health concerned doctors, when it came to reading ladies. A widely repeated story, originally published in the Albanian Middlebrooks New England in 1852, encapsulates another widespread fear: reading novels would cause women to become insane.

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