Novel Reading? Oh, the Horror!
Image: By Lilly Library, Indiana University, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3775990
In Walk by Faith, Maggie’s boarding house and Eli’s print shop mysteriously burn down and arson is suspected. With Eli and Carson working as war correspondents, and Frankie’s beau Patrick McCoy and Lydia’s husband Edgar Lape enlisted in the army, Maggie’s household largely is made up of women, except for James “Grandpa” O’Reilly and carpenter Nate Johnson (Emily’s husband). The little group now is left homeless, with only the clothing on their backs.
Maggie’s brother, Samuel, graciously intervenes, though, and invites the boarding house family to live at the Oaks, which he has inherited and is the place where he and Maggie grew up. Their well-to-do father owned a carriage manufactory and had built the impressive home a few miles outside of Blaineton, where he set about raising his children to be proper, Protestant, upper-class children.
All that is a long prelude to the scene below, which takes place in the back parlor of the Oaks, where the displaced boarding house women like to gather to do mending and to talk.
One wall held bookshelves. As a child, Maggie had loved to peruse the titles and then choose one that struck her fancy. Her favorites had been James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, Walter Scott’s adventures, and Jane Austen’s novels. However, when caught reading such material – which happened frequently – her pious governess would cluck her tongue disapprovingly, remove the offending book from Maggie’s hands, and replace it with more edifying fare, such as John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even a tome of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons.
Maggie smiled at the memory as she made neat, regular stitches in a pair of trousers intended for Bob, and reminded herself to read Austen’s Emma later. She said, “You know, as a child, I was told novel reading was unproductive. But isn’t the refreshment of the mind productive too? If life is to be whole and balanced, should it not contain both work and recreation?”
Maggie’s governess was not being evil, nor was she trying to repress her young charge. Instead, she raising her young charge according to the standards of the time for the family’s class.
Maggie was born 17 February 1821. Her memory probably is from age ten or twelve, which would place the somewhere around 1831-1833. Why is timing important? Because as Maggie says, at that time she was told “novel reading was unproductive.” In fact, novels and other fictional material were considered in upper- and middle-class Protestant circles to be deleterious. Now that I think about it, such an attitude may go a long way to explaining why “novel reading” was one criteria for admission to an insane asylum.
While at Theological School at Drew University, I took an upper level class called “Religion in Victorian England.” My research paper for it was called “Little Christians: An Examination of Wesleyan Children’s Magazines from Victorian England and Their Models of the Christian Child.” That work I had done for that paper has stuck with me.
Even though Maggie lives in the United States, the attitudes of and aspirations for Protestant middle- and upper-class people were much the same as in England. And yet, Maggie as an adult has no problem regarding fiction and even home-theatricals (shades of Little Women!):
Eli rejoined us once we returned home. Emily and I served a light meal, and then all turned to various activities. Some of the boarders took walks or engaged in conversation on the porch. Others read. Frankie, Lydia, and Edgar gathered around the piano and sang hymns for a while. Then the trio called us in to enjoy a dramatic presentation based on the book of Esther. Edgar took the part of the villain Haman, Lydia played the heroine, and Frankie took the roles of the King and Mordecai. I am not sure how much Mr. Madison will approve of this activity, but it is all innocent fun and on Sundays we have stories from the Bible. Dramatics, as long as they are confined to the parlor and of wholesome content, are perfectly permissible to my mind. After all, God intended the Sabbath to be a lazy and refreshing day, a change of pace. To amuse ourselves thusly is part of the process of renewal.
Has the adult Maggie rebelled against her governess’ teaching? Or has something else changed? Or is it a little bit of both?
Come back tomorrow to join a “romp,” as the "Religion in Victorian England" class’s professor Dr. Kenneth Rowe used to say, through the content of Victorian magazines for children and their message to young, well-off Protestant children.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder