Wednesday 22 October 2014

frivolous female readers / body and book

 The original was published as Wednesday Post for Collective Investigations

This blog post is based on the research that I made for (in)discreet editions publications the discreet book of bathroom reading and those frivolous readers, which - in their own turn - were inspired by the material collected for codex: between one hand and another. 


Young Woman Reading Jean Honoré Fragonard  (French, Grasse 1732–1806 Paris)

When collecting images of female readers one cannot escape an overwhelming amount of eroticised reading women,: half-dressed or with their clothes barely holding on; women draped across beds, sofas, armchairs or frozen in a blush, contemplating the contents of their naughty read. Their hair flows. Their hands are gentle. Their skin is porcelain. Their touch is sensual: the book is a tactile object; pages are frozen in the middle of movement. There might be a glimpse of breast exposed. There might be a suggestive vessel or a protruding handle somewhere close by. Their eyes are seductively lowered towards the book held at the height of the chest.

The images come from across the centuries: charged with the intimacy of body and book.

There are Belle Epoque oil paintings, vintage postcards, prints, photos in contemporary press and online social media. Apart from a couple of sightings in Medieval imagery, eroticised women readers more prominently first appear in Renaissance. At that time majority of female portraits commissioned by men were intended as decorative possessions to be "absorbed into the overall ornamentation of ostentatious domestic environment"2. 18th century saw the birth of the novel and a further rise in reading - and new concerns, in particular, about the damaging psychological effects that reading had on female body and mind. 
Terry Castle suggests that even the solitary practice of reading was seen to harbour "dangers" that included a complex dynamics of self-involvement. She explains that once "reading became dangerous because it prompted obsessional thoughts", it became possible to diagnose the reader as the victim of hallucinatory disease. 4
The processes of reading, then were gendered - eroticised and sexualised. The active masculine reader with pen in hand mastered the text no less then his household... The early modern woman as a sexual object was figured and described as a book to be opened. Female reading was frequently eroticised and implicated in the sexual body. The book held to the breast, in the lap, or concealed under the petticoats fetishised both the text and the reader. Male suspicion, even anxiety, variously imagined female reading as a source of ungovernable pleasure, in the eighteenth century even as self-pleasuring. 3
Inaccurate though the image of the idle, frivolous female novel-reader was, the stereotype did not disappear with the close of the eighteenth century1, James Raven says. 

Neither did it disappear with the close of the centuries that followed either.

What fascinates me is that the image of a "sensual reading female" predates the "sexy librarian" by good few centuries. While both images feed off each other in contemporary depiction of books and females (see the very last three images at the very end) the latter one is linked to the erotisation of intelligence as such - the same phenomenon that gives us reading Marlon Brando or reading Gregory Peck as sex symbols (not that they need a book for that!). 
Sensual reading female does not eroticise intelligence. That is sure. She is alone, relaxed, withdrawn and observed. Could she be related to the sleeping nude? If so, what does it say about the role of the book in those image?  Female sexuality? What does it say about the idea of reading? What does it say about the idea of the book?


 Book (reading)(woman)(sensual)   

1 James Raven, Hellen Small and Naomi Tadmor (2007) “Introduction: The Practice and Representation of Reading in England,” in The Practice and Representation of Reading in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p.19)
2 Ponton, Marcia (2013) Portrayal and the Search for Identity, London: Reaktion Books Ltd. (p. 14)
3 Sharpe, Kevin and Stephen Zwicker (2003) Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p.15)
4 Haggerty, Geroge E. (1998) Unnatural Affections. Women and Fiction in the Later 18th Century. Indiana: Indiana University Press.





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