Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (2), Anti novel reading

Recently, I started a new Monday Musings sub-series, Trove Treasures. That first post concluded on a rear-admiral reading novels while waiting for a court martial, and I said that my next post “might be one on novel reading and men”. I still plan to do that, but I’ve decided to first share some of the wider arguments about reading novels that were raging in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

Woman reading with cushion

Novel reading, as I’m sure you know, was regarded with much suspicion from its first appearance. Indeed, negative attitudes led Jane Austen to defend the novel in her own first (albeit last published) one, Northanger Abbey (1817). Novels, she wrote, are works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language”. This did not, however, put the argument to rest, and we find the issue being discussed with enthusiasm and passion in Australian newspapers over the following century.

Why am I interested in this old chestnut, given we now accept the value of reading fiction? There are two main reasons. One is that I’m interested in reading culture and how it has developed. The other is that debates about literature provide insight into the thinking and values of the times. (Just think about what our current discussions about issues like diversity, own-stories, and so on, tell about the culture of our times.)

So, much can be learnt about colonial and early post-colonial Australia from discussions about reading. There’s deference to the thinking of (mostly male) British commentators, for a start. There’s the high moral tone taken about reading “serious” literature and not wasting time on light or sensationalist fiction. There’s concern about the impact of light – undirected reading – on the young, and on the uneducated (particularly, it goes without saying, on women). Articles abound in the papers so, as usual, I can only share a smattering from the many that my searches retrieved. Those I’m using were published over 55 years, between 1869 and 1924.

For some commentators no novel reading was good, while for others it depended on the novel. The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser argued that “constant, uninterrupted perusal of works of fiction” could be “injurious and demoralising”, but recognised that some fiction, like “good historical novels”, could have value. These sorts of novels “assisted the reader to realise the conditions of society, &c, at certain periods”. Therefore, they concluded, “the works of our great masters of fiction might be perused (occasionally, of course, not always) with pleasure and with profit by the intelligent reader”. So, very qualified – “great masters of fiction” could be read “occasionally” by “the intelligent reader”. Not a resounding endorsement.

For some, then, the enumerated ills came from all novel reading, while for others these were due to too much novel reading, or reading the wrong sorts of novels. Some ills concerned the impact on health and well-being, such as loss of memory, weakening the brain, unfitting men for the stern realities of life by giving either exaggerated or false views of life. Many commentators, like this one, worried about the impact of a diet of stories of love and murder:

“What sort of wives and mothers may we expect these young women to make?” We may cease to wonder at the frivolous demeanor and flaunting airs of the girls we meet everyday in our towns, when we remember the strange garbage that serves them for mental food, and the “gallery of portraits” that is fixed in their imaginations. They are positively unfitted for the noble work of home life, and we may expect that many of them will develop into sluts and slatterns, and others will speedily figure in the divorce courts …

“Sluts and slatterns”! This writer admits there are novels that may be read “profitably”, like those by Walter Scott and some of Dickens, but believed these didn’t attract the “girls of the period”. Scott, Dickens, and Thackerary, in fact, are regularly touted as acceptable novelists – by those writers who don’t condemn all novel reading.

Other identified ills concerned the time spent reading. For example, novel reading “causes people to remain away from church and chapel duties”. Or, as another wrote, “necessary and serious work” was “thrown aside for the charming story, that helps to rob the mind of its proper strength, and real life of its importance”.

An earnest letter-writer (“Another Reader”) to Hobart’s The Mercury argued that “for a man to confine his reading to novels is, especially in such times as ours, when social questions demand the attention and earnest study of all thoughtful men, to waste a considerable amount of time that would be far more profitably spent”. This writer concedes that it’s “very nice” to recline in a hammock in a quiet, secluded spot, and “devour a long account, generally slanderous, of human nature from a cleverly concocted novel” but asks whether this meets “the duty of mankind?” Hmm, novels being “generally slanderous”? And, must all life be about “duty”? He doesn’t insist on “total abstinence from novel reading”, but he does argue that spending all one’s time reading “is nothing more nor less than an intemperate love of pleasure, which is destructive in all forms”. Indeed, he suggests that reading biographies is more worthy than reading fiction, and returns to his point re the times, recommending “the study of the many problems that trouble the world at this time – Socialism, Theosophy, Religion (above all), etc.”

Concern frequently focused on novel reading by young men and women in particular, with some commentators exhorting parents to “exert a little wise control and careful supervision”. The Riverine Herald went a little further. Arguing that without a public censor, “it is the duty of the parents to wisely choose” their children’s novels, it suggests it would be even better “if the writers, publishers and book sellers” would write, publish and sell books of “higher standard”. A bit of self-regulation, in other words.

A certain Mrs Glover, however, speaking in 1924 at a conference of club, social and welfare workers arranged by the National Organisation of Girls’ Clubs, had a refreshingly liberal view, arguing, the report said, that

a girl had to go through a lot of “trash” before she found herself. The spirit of adventure in the girl must have an outlet. “I think girls ought to be thrilled. I think it is very nice to see girls in the tubes and trams who never look up from their books even when they pass the station. I think that is so much better than gossiping, or making eyes, that sort of thing. I went through a lot of awful trash myself and I really did thoroughly enjoy it. I think the girl has got to go through this before she finds herself. We want to let the girls read the very lightest form of sensational literature.

Okay, so only the “lightest form of sensational literature”, but this sounds like progress. The article concludes by damning not sensational writing but “novels of sentiment, novels of a pervading sickliness”:

From time to time perturbed moralists rush forth into the marketplace to denounce some book or other in which inconvenient or improper scenes occur. For my part I doubt whether all the books which contain passages such as a censor, a magistrate, a policeman can identify is undesirable, have done half as much harm as some volumes of sentimentality in which no one could fine a line to prosecute. The gush of facile emotion, the hectic talk confusing black with white, of which your novel of sentiment is composed, are very bad for heads which are not old enough to be hard, and hearts which are even softer. Such books seem to me the most dangerous trash, and they are to be found not only among the bestsellers but among the great works approved by the intellectuals.

Interesting … but s/he doesn’t give examples.

I’ll close here, because this post is long. However, it’s clear that engagement with the topic was keen, and that there were opinions on both sides. I’ll share some of the pro novel-reading arguments in another post.

Sources (in chronological order)

Your thoughts?

26 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (2), Anti novel reading

  1. My thoughts are all concerned with the astounding smugness of every commentator you’ve mentioned, ST: “The Gundagai Times { … } Advertiser argued ..” etc., showing that even the bloody PRESS took the high moral ground (yesyes: I do realise that Back Then the press was not frightfully akin to today’s version) !
    Every single one was, naturellement, a bloke. ‘Nuff said.

  2. Dear WG, I love this – particularly as I’ve just re-read Northanger Abbey, and am drafting a chapter on screen versions. How interesting to see how late the panic around novel-reading and character persisted, in our colonies and elsewhere!

    • Oh, I’m so glad Judy that you liked this. Yes, that’s what interested me – how intense the engagement in the whole issues was at the time. And the different angles – such as that last one who was less worried about the sensationalist books and more about the sentimental ones.

      A chapter on screen versions of NA sounds great. My sense has always been that this has been the lest satisfactorily adapted novel because the makers haven’t really understood what it was truly about. This novel is not the most popular in my group here, but Mum loved it, and I like it too.

  3. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1722, “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances.” And yet he is often credited with writing the first novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719). Obviously novel-reading is a much more longstanding problem than we realise.

    • As I said, it started as soon as novels appeared and clearly took a couple of centuries at least because it was generally accepted. I know there are still those – men in particular – who think reading novels is not as worthwhile as reading non-fiction but I think they are more in the minority now?

      (BTW, Bill, love that Defoe quote … I have never read Robinson Crusoe but I did read Moll Flanders.)

      • The quote’s from near the beginning of Moll Flanders.
        I had a quarto sized book of classics, maybe 2 inches thick, even then probably 50 years old, when I was a kid – don’t worry, I still have it somewhere – which included Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. And I read it over and over.

  4. I wonder what such correspondents made of The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney in that case. (Published 1917 – 1929)
    And we must never forget that “Reading Novels” was a legitimate reason for a husband to commit his wife to a mental asylum, right up until the late 1900s.

  5. In a lecture on reading, the novelist Robertson Davies applied to bad literature the old saying “We must eat a peck of dirt before we die.” As for novels in general, I think of assorted writers whose standards might be thought high enough even for a newspaper:

    Schopenhauer clearly had read Cervantes and Manzoni, for he mentions their novels in The World as Will and Representation.

    Tocqueville had read Cooper and Chateaubriand, for he compared the Indians he encountered in American unfavorably with the ones in their novels.

    The American historian Francis Parkman had certainly read The Tour of Humphrey Clinker: he quotes a libel on the Duke of Newcastle from that book.

    Macaulay quotes the same passage.

    The American historian Henry Adams refers in passing to novels by Dickens. Scott, and George Eliot.

    Ortega y Gasset wrote the book Reflections on Quixote.

    Bertrand Russell and several analytic philosophers after him considered the implications for identity of the description “the author of Waverly” as related to the name “Sir Walter Scott”–though of course this does not demonstrate that any of them had read the book.

  6. Yes, WG, the attitudes to people reading are as interesting as the books themselves!
    Better for the young women to have been thrilled than improved, I say !
    My recollection of Tolstoy short stories is of them being all about rich men contemplating their next conquest and being paternalistic about ‘good’ women. So not very interesting!
    My devout Catholic grandmother was accused of spending too much time reading novels instead of doing the housework – I would love to know what she read. Was it ‘high literature’? Romance that appealed to women? ‘Trash’?
    Re your explorations of 19th century and early 20th century novels, WG, I’m interested in it, but literature dates, and I’m not sure I could get through an ‘old novel’.
    I tried reading ‘Bleak House’ by Dickens, it is a very dense world he describes !
    The turn of the century (to go back to Australian responses) written text is so formal, is it not?

    • I love that story about your devout Catholic grandmother Moura. What a hoot. Wouldn’t it be great to know what she read.

      I read Bleak House a decade or so ago and loved it. Dickens writing can be quite funny, even though dense at times as you say. I wouldn’t say all novels written at the turn of the century are formal but writing was generally I agree a bit more complex … longer sentences for example where now we’d write two or three.

    • If WG will permit me to butt in, I think classics don’t date, not that I read Dickens.
      If I may suggest a late nineteenth century Australian, how about Ada Cambridge – The Three Miss Kings, or Sisters. Great reads, not dense at all.
      (I got the sack once for reading. I was sitting on a tarp in a trucking depot and the boss said if I couldn’t find work to do I wasn’t trying).

  7. The conversation in libraries today is whether tax money should go toward media like movies and video games because they aren’t “really” educational But, it used to be that fiction was frowned upon in the same way, and that public libraries are never meant to be sources of entertainment. I find that interesting because obviously our feelings have shifted to include fiction as worthwhile.

    Also, I DO skip chapel every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to read, so maybe they’re on to something. Okay, so that’s not the only reason I don’t go…

    • Good point re libraries Melanie. I think these days libraries are – or should be – about the gamut from leisure and recreation to education and research. Video games seem a push, in one way from the original conception of reading, but in another sense libraries can operate as a safe community hub. I think that’s partly where they are going and in some communities it is probably a very good thing.

      • One conversation creative writers have had lately about video games is that many video games are not just getting to the next level or shooting things. Many are story driven, so gaming companies are hiring fiction writers to develop them. Some of the most popular games today, including The Last of Us, which is now a hit TV show, are story driven and emotional. My husband was telling me that some games don’t even have a goal to accomplish. The whole point is to experience the world and have a story unfold.

  8. The comments made about young people and novels reminds me that similar comments were made when television arrived re it’s negative impact, and more recently the impact of gaming on young brains.

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