Like the fairytales that threaten to corrupt impressionable minds in Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, Everett Zimmerman’s “Personal Identity, Narrative, and History: The Female Quixote and Redgauntlet” highlights a similar theme in The Female Quixote. History is established as a proper learning endeavor that is being threatened by writing less serious and more entertaining. From the lens of eighteenth century critics and their formation of criteria constituting the novel form, Deidre Lynch, in “Personal Effects and Sentimental Fictions,” also draws attention to the ways novels are described as pursuing serious subjects of inquiry rather than “diversions” and “amusements” (315). Also, it places particular emphasis on individual characters, characters that function to move the plot forward. Romance novels and fairytales are not only deemed frivolous subjects for reading but can also jeopardize social values about education, learning, and the ways in which we must approach reading. Zimmerman claims,
Arabella attempts to form her identity within the boundaries of the fictional world that her reading has portrayed. Her readjustment to a current and historical world is then both hermenutical and epistemological. She must find better ways of reading (or find new books), and she must also learn to understand her experience as others do.
Arabella’s interpretation/reading of romances becomes an imposition on society when she asserts more powerfully their credibility and inherent worth. Her rhetoric, and perhaps more importantly her gender, resists the philosophical and scholarly traditions of her time. Thus, as Zimmerman claims, only when her understanding of the world and her approach to understanding the world are reformed can she be safely reinstituted into society.
The issue of establishing appropriate reading practices and subjects was a critical one in the eighteenth century, as William Beatty Warner suggests in “Staging Readers Reading.” Basing his analysis on 18th century paintings of reading practices, he claims literacy was meant to transform the masses and refine their tastes and manners; thus, it became necessary to properly regulate reading:
In the eighteenth century, reading was not always silent and solitary; it was also oral and collective. Reading could offer a means of inculcating religious and family values. In a painting by Greuze entitled La Lecture de la Bible (figure 3; c. 1755), reading has the power to compose a magic circle in which nearly the whole family is absorbed into the power of Scripture as it is relayed through the father’s voice.
As a microscopic reflection of the nation, family reading served to regulate reading practices through scripture and through the voice of a paternal figure. Nevertheless, Warner’s argument is that reading, as illustrated in painting, is a “polymorphous” activity in the eighteenth century, diverse in practice and pedagogical intent – it can be a means of generating social reform but also functions as a source of erotic pleasure.