Kate Flint in The Woman Reader discusses the anxieties people felt about about a new technology that we deem as rather innocuous in our current society, namely print or reading material. The parental controls parents use to monitor children’s activity on the internet is akin to much of the supervision parents enforced in the nineteenth century. It is difficult to a imagine a world in which reading is seen as pernicious and mind-polluting, but as a form of media that is becoming widely available and used, Flint demonstrates how reading was an activity that made people anxious about over-exposure, and thus, required regulation and supervision.
Adolescents are considered the most vulnerable group of people of mass media. Similarly, as Flint in points out, they are the most impressionable audience and the most inclined to be persuaded by the “false” or sexually explicit material. For the nineteenth century woman, it was particularly a sensitive time since she was undergoing sexual maturity and was preparing for domestic life/marriage. Thus, in the advice manuals, maternal authors/figures place a significant emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship and the ways in which mothers were encouraged to supplement their daughters education by monitoring their reading activity.
Reading material, like the content parents control on their children’s computers, was heavily managed: authors such as Shakespeare and Milton were encouraged along with widely read and accepted authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. There was a moral lesson in these works that could be ascertained, and perhaps more importantly, there was a religiosity that could be emulated. Some material went beyond the scope of women’s knowledge and capacity for understanding, such as highly conceptual poetry (Flint 78). However, in becoming acquainted with the classics, one could accumulate cultural capital that would allow one to become a valued member of high society. Flint concedes,
The Girl’s Own Paper informed its audience that [in] reading ‘good books … A girl becomes a reflection of the graces of her favorite authors, and though she may have no wealthy or aristocratic friends, if she moves home in the society of Shakespeare and Milton she can never be commonplace, and will always make herself respected’ (82)
Keeping in the company of Shakespeare, for instance, might result in benefiting the middle class female reader, giving her access to genteel society. The ability to talk about certain authors and books served as a cultural marker that provided a means of social mobility for the middle class unmarried woman. If she cultivates her taste for good books, then she can participate in upper-class social circles in which she might win the attention and respect of an educated/cultured gentleman.
Alternatively, as Flint continues, women must judge a man by his taste for good books:
The article goes on to suggest, moreover, that one should judge one’s potential husband, and estimate the success of future home life, by his attitude to books: ‘never marry a husband who has not a collection of books more general interest than his cash-book and ledger. The reading young man makes a stay-at home fireside-loving husband. Like to like (82).
Just as your guests will judge you by the collection of books in your library, so will society judge your taste in a husband by his familiarity with past and contemporary books. Thus, a woman’s book collection is a reflection of her identity, a catalog of her likes and dislikes or sensibility. Should it be heavily consumed with sensation novels, then one can judge what type of woman she is: one given to emotion, one that is a out of touch with the reality, and moreover, one that is potentially over-indulgent and unproductive. Similarly, a man who has nothing in his collection but his “cash-cook” and “ledger” is one who is uncultivated, and perhaps of a lower class – that of an artisan/tradesman rather than a gentleman.