‘A kind of alcoholism’: views of novel-reading in the 19C

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Although the value of ‘reading for pleasure’ has become part and parcel of contemporary reading culture, this much promoted past-time, to children and adults alike, was not always considered so laudable. In fact, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the novel proliferated, numerous people and groups sought to repress this increasingly popular past-time.

A dangerous, yet much-adored, past-time

A perusal of 19th century newspaper articles reveals the extent of the negative feelings towards novel-reading; and these feelings continued into the 20th century As late as the 1930s I have discovered articles laying out the perils of reading novels. In the Sheffield Independent in April 1930, an article noted that Rev. W.C. Robson identified novel reading as a serious danger.

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“It may become a kind of alcoholism under which work is neglected, and there is no mental energy for anything serious.”

Just to put things into context, this newspaper article was written a few months before the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous and beloved author of the Sherlock Holmes novels. These novels were so famous, that numerous readers wrote to the Metropolitan Police from the 1890s to the 1920s asking questions about his position and whereabouts in the ‘real world’. This was such a prevailing issue that numerous letters indicate the Commissioner of Police involved himself, such as this response to the whereabouts of Sherlock Holmes in 1909:

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“I am directed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to acquaint you that Sherlock Holmes is not a real person, but a character in fiction.”

Most letters were written in this vein, though there was one humorous response which might have left the recipient dubious as to his fictional nature written in 1906:

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“I regret to inform you that I am unable to supply you with the address of Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite the rising reading culture which was evident by the increasing popularity of Doyle and numerous other 19C authors, sentiments about the dangers of reading were still deeply embedded. In this post, I look at the catalyst of these long-lasting sentiments – arguably evangelicalism’s reaction to the rise of the ‘modern novel’. I qualify this as the ‘modern’ novel because the history of the novel is somewhat dubious. While the novel is frequently understood by historians as an 18th century innovation, written stories are prevalent throughout human history.

The Modern Novel

For the sake of argument, this blog post looks at the modern novel, which developed during the ‘reading revolution’ where reading materials proliferated enormously (whether these were novels, newspapers & broadsheets, or pamphlets). Paper was cheaper than it had ever been before, and therefore access to novels was growing.

The ESTC (English Short Title Catalogue of the British Library) notes the exponential increase of the novel by the 1800s – the age of  ‘the culmination of storytelling tradition’. As you can see in the diagram below, the production of novels grew dramaticaslly near the end of the 18th century.

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Although the growth of the novel in popularity and availability is evident, there was a cohort of people who sincerely believed that novels were dangerous and ought to be avoided. I believe this was due to evangelical apprehensions about the growth of leisure time and the time spent in this activity. More than ever before, leisure time was possible, especially amongst the middle- classes…and reading (among many other activities) was perceived as something which could potentially be a dangerous use of one’s time and resources.

Often, the greatest impact was attributed to women – perhaps because it was believed women had greater time for leisure activities, perhaps because many of the stories (romantic in nature) were seen as appealing to women. Much of it was likely due to the view that women were far more emotionally fragile than men (views about the exceedingly nervous dispositions of women arose in this period).

A newspaper story in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough in February 1916 illuminated the horrendous outcomes which might befall due to novel-reading women:

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“A whole family brought to destitution, in England has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an unfortunate passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother…”

 The articles goes on to describes the husband/father as ‘sober and industrious’ clearly abdicating him of any blame for his family’s demise. One of their daughters was so despaired by this neglectful situation that she ‘fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice.’ Another daughter was found in chains, to prevent her from behaving as her sister did. And through all this time, the mother, the cause of this pollution, privation and poverty, sat reading the latest ‘sensation work’.

Spiritual Potency of Novels

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This was a serious issue for evangelicals, who sincerely wished to live in a way which whole-heartedly reflected God’s will for their lives – and novel-reading was believed to be spiritually potent. A 19C evangelical ‘Spiritual Barometer’ identified novel-reading as a potent path towards perdition. As you can see the scale moves upwards towards greater sanctification, and downwards to increasing danger of damnation. Novel-reading, as you can see, was more serious than neglecting private prayer, or delighting in taking God’s name in vain.

Why was novel-reading ‘dangerous’?

The reasons for evangelicals apprehension towards novel-reading were multi-faceted; they were sincerely convinced it rendered injurious effects. Why did they believe it was dangerous? An article published in the early 19th century (1822) in the Christian Observer gives us some insight.

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In 1822 they published an article reviewing Sir Walter Scott’s most recently published novel – ‘The Pirate’. This novel of romance and adventure narrates the story of a Sea Captain who is shipwrecked on the Island of Shetland, where sisters Minna and Brenda, and their friend Mordaunt reside. This Sea Captain, Cleveland, befriends the girls, growing especially close to Minna. Eventually he confides in her that he is not an honest Sea Captain – but is a pirate; but this does not assuage Minna’s love.

The author of this article intentionally chose this novel to support their theories not because it represented the vilest of novels around in 1822, but precisely because it was a rather tame one. After providing an overview of the plot of ‘The Pirate’ the article laid out six objections to reading novels, even tame ones such as ‘The Pirate’. Some of the objections are as follows:

Injurious Excitement

 The primary object to novel-reading was the “injurious excitement which it tends to produce”. The Christian Observer was concerned that novel-readers might become unduly excitable by reading novels. Regarding Scott’s ‘The Pirate’ they wrote:

“He intends his work to be irresistible in arresting the imagination, and absorbing, for the time, every faculty of the mind, and every affection of the heart.”

The author was concerned that novel-reading would incite an excitement which would far surpass the type of excitement caused by severe study, or other upright duties. The effects of this excitement could be detrimental; they feared it would cause irreparable damage:

“…an intense excitement of long duration…is harmful in its effects. It enervates the mind; it generates a sickliness of fancy; and it renders the ordinary affairs of life insipid.”

Waste of time

 Another objection to novel-reading, argued the author, was ‘the serious waste of time which it occasions.’ There was concern that novels would be so captivating, readers would neglect other important duties in order to stave their appetite for more reading. The authors in the Christian Observer wrote:

“…many persons…are seduced by the talents of this author to devote more hours to his performances than they ought to subtract from their positive duties, or to dedicate to works of mere entertainment.”

 False views of life

 Another detrimental consequence of novel-reading, argued this author, was the false and dangerous views which they present of the actual circumstances of life.

There was a concern that novel-reading might leave readers discontent with their present state, causing them much disappointment and unhappiness in the future. Happiness, the author argued, was best found in low expectations:

“It is a prime secret for happiness to learn the art of lowering our expectations; to be satisfied with a little; to be content with the state of life in which we are placed…”

 Conclusion

 Evangelicals, contending with the tensions between rising leisure time and their belief in living every moment intentionally, felt apprehensive about the novel. It is important to note, however, that this attitude towards reading was not practiced in every family in the UK – even reilgious families often reported reading the best-selling novels of the age. Those who were concerned about its dangers were worried not only about the ideas which might be spurred by the content of novels, but also about the dangerous behaviours it might inculcate. Interestingly, they did seem to be right about one thing with which we would widely agree today: novels have considerable impact on their readers. (Though most today would contend this is good).

References:

  • New Direction in the History of the Novel, Parrinder et. Al.
  • English and British Fiction 1750-1820, Garside & O’Brien
  • Reading: A Very Short Introduction, Jack
  • A History of Reading in the West, Cavallo et. al.
  • The Practice and Representation of Reading in England, Raven et. al.
  • The Woman Reader, Jack

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