Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (4), Impatient readers

Time is short tonight as my downsizing move has hit a little roadblock. In a nutshell, our furniture and some of our goods are sitting on a truck awaiting transfer to our new apartment where the lift went out of service the same time that the truck was being loaded. That was last Thursday. We spent Friday waiting for news about when the repair could be done, and then all day today waiting for the repair to be done. By the end of the day, the new part was installed but the lift was still not working …

All this is to say that for tonight’s post I’m just sharing one little piece that I found during my recent Trove research, because that’s all the time I have.

The reading of novels and curiosity

Such is the title given to the column I found in Perth’s The Daily News of 30 August 1912. It starts with

Woman reading with cushion

This is an age of curiosity, of impatience. We no sooner take up a book than we look at the end to satisfy ourselves as to whether “they shall live happily ever afterward,” or whether the heroine shall marry some other man.

It suggests that “we are so sure of ourselves, so sure of our ability to forecast the termination of a tale that we perchance miss a couple of important chapter [sic], only to find that we had jumped at a wrong conclusion”. And then it gives what seemed to me to be a strange “concrete example of this spirit”:

we may cite the cases of dozens of people who, the instant they begin to read an interesting short article in the paper, immediately look to see whether The Commercial Tailoring Company, 794 Hay-street (upstairs), have had anything to do with it. Very often they are right, but sometimes they are quite wrong. Even when they are right, they have deprived themselves of a vast amount of pleasure and profit. For the article was designed, even as the clothes of the Company are designed, for their pleasure and well-being. It pays to read right through to the end.

What the? So, of course, I did some research, and it seems that The Commercial Tailoring Company advertised itself through little circa 250-word “stories” in the paper, stories which they twist at some point to refer to their clothing. Stories which, our columnist tells us, are designed for the reader’s “pleasure and well-being”. Stories of which, indeed, this very article is one. Here are some others: The stranger’s mistake (2 August), The North Pole (16 August), The art of the funny man (17 August), and The gentle rain (31 August). Do read a couple, but I dare you to not peek at the end!

I wonder how effective their stories were. Anyhow, you probably know what I am going to ask:

Do you ever peek at the end of a story you are reading? Why or why not?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (3), Novel reading and health

My second post in this Trove Treasures subseries shared some arguments against novel reading. I do have a pro-novel-reading post, but today I thought I’d go a bit lighter – I think it’s lighter! – and some of the ideas I came across discussing the impact of novel reading on health.

Novel-reading disease

Woman reading with cushion

I found two articles that discussed addiction to novel reading, going so far as to liken those in its thrall to drunkards. One goes back to 1855, and is in fact a Letter to the Editor (31 March 1855) of The People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator. What a title for a paper! According to Wikipedia it was published in New South Wales from 1848 to 1856, and advocated on issues of importance for the working classes. In fact, Wikipedia says that it was “the first colonial paper to demand that the workers, as producers of all wealth, receive a fairer share of labour’s produce”. Great stuff, but this is not the subject of the Letter to the Editor.

Written by F.R. Surveyor (of Shoalhaven River) it expresses concern, not with occasional novel reading which simply represents a “criminal waste of time”, but with habitual novel reading which Surveyor describes as “detrimental to the health and vigour of the body”:

Novel reading tends to inflame the passions, pollute the imagination, and corrupt the heart. Moral sense is weakened by the false sentiment which novel writers inculcate. Novel reading is objectionable, because it creates an unnatural and morbid taste. It frequently becomes an inveterate habit, strong, fatal, as that of the drunkard. 

In this state of intoxication, great waywardness of conduct is almost sure to follow.

It also “destroys all taste for solid reading”.

Sixteen years later, on 2 November 1871, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article from The Examiner, titled “The Novel-Reading Disease”, and does it go to town. It commences by stating that “physicians are familiar with a complaint which, although sufficiently specific, has yet no name of its own” but it is caused by “over-indulgence in three-volume novels”. The article then chronicles the progression of this disease, explaining that at first the reader is simply found reading “at unnatural hours”, like “the early morning, or in the middle of a beautiful summer’s afternoon”. In this stage, readers exercise some discrimination in their reading choices, preferring Trollope, for example, over lesser authors. But soon, “the taste becomes deadened and blunted, and all power of distinction and appreciation is lost. In this stage the unhappy patient can no more go without her novel than can a confirmed dipsomaniac without his drain”. (There’s the equating with drunkenness again.) Quality goes out the window, quantity is everything. Indeed, “in the worst stages” of the disease, “novels are got through at the rate of three or four, or even five, a week, or at an average, in a severe and chronic case, of some two hundred and fifty or three hundred a year”.

And what does this disease do to its sufferers? Well, “the conversation of the patient becomes flabby and limp” leading eventually to “the last stage – that of absolute imbecility” unless “very powerful remedies” are applied. By this point in the article, all reference to sufferers are in the female gender. Indeed, the writer then says:

It is curious and interesting to observe that as this comparatively new female disease has grown more virulent and intense the old disease of scandal talking has become comparatively rare. It is, of course, physically difficult to talk scandal and to read a novel at one and the same time. 

True! Finally, the writer suggests that the cause of all this is the same as that for why “some young men smoke and drink bitter beer”. It’s the “sheer want of something to do”. The solution?

What a woman needs is an education which shall enable her to read and follow the Parliamentary debates instead of the police and divorce reports; and, when women are thus educated, then feeble novels and feeble novelists will vex our souls no longer to the horrible extent to which they irritate us at present.

I wanted to believe this article was tongue in cheek, it’s so extreme, but I don’t think it is. At least the writer recognises that women ought to receive an education!

Novel reading and wrinkles

Now for something lighter. I was astonished – and, I admit, delighted – to find an article titled “Novels and wrinkles”. I found it in multiple regional newspapers from South Australia and Victoria, but I’m using the Euroa Advertiser (12 February 1909). The article opens:

Excessive novel-reading (says a well-known beauty doctor) is responsible for the bad complexions, wrinkled foreheads, and sunken eyes of many young women.

Why specifically novel reading, do I hear you asking? Well, here’s the answer:

Many young women cause premature wrinkles to form on their fore heads by reading exciting novels. They sit for hours, often in an imperfect light, their brows furrowed, and if the book is a thrilling one, expressing on their faces unconsciously the emotions it excites. 

Our unnamed “beauty doctor” continues:

In a tram or railway journey one can notice the different expressions of a man reading a newspaper, and a woman – or a man, for that matter – reading a novel. The newspaper reader’s face is quite normal; but the expression on the novel-reader’s face is quite different. 

Priceless, really. Anyhow, fortunately, our “doctor” does not try to stop people reading novels, but “strongly” advises against reading novels “for hours at a stretch”. Have a break, he (it’s probably a “he”) says, and “above all, do not allow yourself to get too much excited by the book you are reading”. You heard it here, folks!

Reading in bed

Here is one relevant to many of us. It appeared in the Richmond Guardian (22 May 1926) and is “by a Medical Officer of Health”. Essentially, our MO believes this is a bad habit:

Beds were made to sleep in. The healthy man or woman who has never formed the bad habit of reading in bed, but, on the contrary, the good one of going to bed to sleep, finds little difficulty in wooing repose within a few minutes of his or her head touching the pillow.

So, if you “woo sleep easily” you “should studiously refrain from cultivating the habit of reading in bed”. However, there are those (besides invalids) for whom the practice might be useful. These include the “large number of apparently healthy people who find great difficulty in allowing sleep to overcome them”. There are many reasons for this, and you should try to remedy them first, but if the cause is not so easily removed, like “business and domestic worries”, then reading in bed may be a good not bad habit! These brains need something to switch them “into a different train of thought”.

But, our MO does have recommendations – about lighting (it must not strain the eyes), about position (do not lie on your side which “imposes considerable strain on the eyes”), and about reading matter. On this he is not prescriptive, saying “the choice may be safely left to individual tastes” except it should not relate to what is keeping you awake.

Finally, no reading in bed for children:

Children should not be encouraged to read in bed. The healthy child should be a little animal, and the healthy animal soon sleeps.

Reading and death

And now, the biggie! Does reading cause death? I came across two articles addressing this issue. The first, sadly, concerned a suicide, and was reported in The Bowral Free Press (19 July 1884). Titled “Effect of reading trashy novels” it reports that a young 20-year-old man had committed suicide by “shooting and hanging”. It briefly describes the manner, before concluding:

The cause of his suicide was reading sensational and trashy novels, which unsettled his brain.

On what authority this was decided, we are not told. Meanwhile, we do hear from a coroner in Perth’s The Daily News (27 November 1909) which contained a similarly brief report of a death. Titled “Coroner on novels”, it concerned the death of an 18-year-old nurse “who died from poisoning by spirits of salts”. The par concludes with:

the Coroner, commenting on the statement that the girl was given to the reading of novels, said he did not know whether novel-reading was evidence of weakness of mind. The practice, however, was generally confined to people who had little to do and had not much mind.

Over to you!

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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (1), Reading novels

During my Trove searches for specific topics, I come across – serendipitously – other articles that are interesting and worth sharing. So, I have decided to create an occasional sub-series called Trove Treasures. My first group comprises some random little pieces, particularly jokes, that I’ve come across about reading novels.

Humorous snippets

Woman reading with cushion

The interesting thing about all these is what the humour tells us about the values of their time particularly regarding novel reading … see what you think. The ones I’m sharing here all relate to women reading novels, and the dangers that may or may not ensue!

From 21 December 1892, in Townsville’s The North Queensland Register, comes this one titled “Worse than novels”:

Father (impatiently): Where is your mother?
Little pet: Upstairs, reading.
‘Hush! Reading novels, I suppose, when she ought to be–‘
‘No. She’s readin’ a perfumed letter she found in your inside vest-pocket.’
‘Hem! Tell her I’ve gone out to buy her some new novels.’

My next one comes from 27 May 1905 in Sydney’s The World’s News. It’s titled “Silly fellow” (though I also found it in an earlier paper, Melbourne’s Leader of 26 December 1903, titled “Unpardonable”):

He: So the engagement is broken off?
She: Yes; he told her he thought she should stop reading novels and read something more substantial—something that would improve her.
He: Well?
She: Well, the idea of a man intimating to his fiancee that she could be improved in any way!

Then, there’s this one that particularly made me laugh from 4 February 1909 in Melbourne’s Table Talk. It’s a cartoon caption, and is titled “The Cause of the Trouble“:

Mistress (entering suddenly): Mary, how is it I find you reading novels instead of doing your work?
Mary: Oh, it’s ‘cos you wear them sand shoes, mum.

I’m interested in Mary’s “mum” not “ma’am” for her Mistress?

Finally comes this one from 19 March 1926 in Hurstville’s The propeller. It is headed “Flapperism” with a subheading, “Reading novels”:

He: Do you read all the popular novels of the day!
She: Gracious, no! I have only just time to see how they end.

In a future Trove Treasure, I plan to share a piece about impatiently reading endings!

A little more serious

On 2 April 1928, Perth’s The West Australian ran a paragraph headed “Reading novels!” with the subheading “Admiral’s calmness“. The same story was run in two Kalgoorlie papers, Kalgoorlie Miner on 5 April 1928, and the Western Argus on 10 April 1928. Here is the text from The West Australian:

GIBRALTAR, March 31.— Before the court-martial opened the calmest figure seemed to be Rear-Admiral Collard, who, clad in flannels, spent hours in reading novels in hotel lounges. Commander Daniel and Flag-Captain Dewar spent yesterday conferring with their counsel aboard the warship Valiant, which is moored off-shore, preparing a reply to the charges. Meanwhile their wives show plain evidence of the strain.

I found an article in Trove about this far-flung event written before the court-martial – in Brisbane’s Daily Standard of 28 March 1928. It provides some background. (I have not fully edited it, so it’s quite messy to read.) There are a few articles about the court-martial, including this one that I have edited from The Sydney Morning Herald on 6 April 1928. Read them if you are interested in naval history – my interest is in the Admiral’s novel reading!

My next Trove Treasures post might be one on novel reading and men.

Meanwhile, do any of these grab your attention?