Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction

Catherine J. Golden

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"By comparing 'ideologies surrounding women and books' on both sides of the Atlantic, it offers new interpretations of canonical texts in a series of fascinating pairings of British and American texts. . . . The most original aspect of the book is its examination of the woman reader as she appeared in illustrations in popular novels and the way illustration functioned as ‘a vehicle for illuminating issues of gender.’"--Emma Liggins, coeditor of Feminist Readings of Victorian Popular Texts, Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Lancashire, U.K.


"Argues persuasively that female reading practice was highly varied and hotly contested in this period and that this fact gave rise to a wide range of artistic representations. By examining visual as well as verbal material, she distinguishes her analysis and appeals to a wide scholarly audience."--Linda J. Docherty, Bowdoin College


For Victorian women, danger lurked between the covers of a book. In an exploration of this controversial notion, Catherine Golden examines women and reading in literary and visual representations in Britain and America. Illustrated with 42 pictures by popular and renowned artists of the era, her book vividly brings to life the world of the 19th- and early 20th-century female reader.

While industrialization was transforming print culture, Victorian women on both sides of the Atlantic made great strides in education, and reading came to be seen as a mark of gentility and a means to promote family unity. But at the same time, a perceived association between excessive novel reading and ill health raised alarm: the prospect of unchecked reading coupled with an overactive imagination led critics to debate if, what, when, where, and why middle- and upper-class women should read.

Golden presents a concise historical framework of the topic and examines how authors and illustrators responded to the arguments for and against women's reading. She discusses heroines in both popular and intellectual works by writers such as Charles Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Henry James, and depictions of the woman reader by prominent illustrators such as George Cruikshank, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Hablot Knight Browne. She also includes biographies of both authors and illustrators and analyzes how they used reading as a literary, expressive, or political device.

With its focus on the power of reading and of book illustration as well as its attention to primary materials and gender issues and its discussion of texts widely used in college teaching, this book will be valuable across a range of disciplines that include literature, history, art history, women's studies, and the study of the book.

Catherine J. Golden, professor of English at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, is the editor or coeditor of four books, most recently The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Text, Image, and Culture, 1770-1930.

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"A useful companion work that offers a concise description of the trope of the woman reader along with evidence of its presence in major Victorian novels." ELT

"Offers a fresh look at both images of women readers and Victorian book illustrations . . . Well worth reading, both for her work on Boz, specifically, and for the ways in which it adds to our understanding of Victorian gender constructions." Dickens Quarterly

"Shows how writers and illustrators responded to the debate over whether or not women ought to read." "A close analysis of works by readers and authors of texts by Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Eliot, Thackeray, Alcott, Twain, Gilman, and James." American Literature

"An important contribution to transatlantic studies." Victorian Studies

"Offers some refreshing new literary analysis of classic texts and brings fresh material to the table in the form of literary illustrations." Peer English

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