When determining if a revolution in literacy or reading practices occurred in eighteenth century Europe, Reinhard Wittman, in “Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” focuses on the progressing shift from “extensive” (286) to “intensive” (286) reading. A decrease in extensive reading, which involves memorization and recitation, is suggestive of a change in the ways in which books acquired meaning beyond their commercial and cultural value. Reading moved beyond the consumption of religious and legal texts to a desire to engage with authors and their writing with “passionate intensity” (286).
In order to identify themselves as the new agents of culture, the bourgeoisie engaged in forms of reading distinct from the ruling class. As the aristocracy, or the culture of the court, was characterized by idleness and indulgence, the bourgeoisie stressed “useful” and moral reading – reading that would allow for the betterment of the enlightened individual:
For both the well-to-do tradesmen and the ambitious student, the well-mannered woman and the honest official, reading material that was both socially useful and at the same time promoted individual morality was no idle pleasure but actually a moral duty. This strategy was particularly effective among the female reading public. With their increasing economic prosperity, the wives and daughters of the bourgeoisie had more free time available for reading. (292)
Bourgeoisie women were the primary consumers of “moral weeklies” (292) that advanced domestic values while satisfying a demand for fiction. Additionally, women preferred collective reading to private reading as the later encouraged idleness and indulgence. Collective reading was conducted in reading societies that were growing but that also became “centres of sociability” (311).
In the nineteenth century, Martyn Lyon’s, in “New Readers in the Nineteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers,” claims that most women became interested in domestic literature, such as cooking books, conduct literature, and cheap, popular novels. Certain sections of cooking manuals were largely devoted to offering instruction on bourgeoisie etiquette and table manners. Recipes along with advice on conduct and domestic presentation were incorporated into women’s magazines. Newspapers, on the other hand, were usually considered reading material preserved for men. While newspapers were considered appropriate reading material for men, the magazine and certain novels were considered appropriate genres suited for women’s reading. As Lyons puts it:
Although women were not the only readers of novels, they were regarded as the prime target for poplar and romantic fiction. The feminization of the novel-reader seemed to confirm dominant preconceptions about the female’s role and about her intelligence. Novels were held suitable for women, cause they were seen as creatures of the imagination, of limited intellectual capacity, both frivolous and emotional. (319).
Novels also presented a threat to the “bourgeois husband and paterfamilias” as it opened a space for female subjectivity and agency. Women were not only the primary consumers of novels but they were also its primary subjects. Many characters became cultural emblems of domesticity and virtue but some were also transgressive and threatened gender norms.