Jennifer J. Popiel is an associate professor of history at Saint Louis University. She is the author of Rousseau’s Daughters: Domesticity, Education, and Autonomy in Modern France and a coauthor of Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791: Reacting to the Past, 2nd ed. Her new book, Heroic Hearts: Sentiments, Saints, and Authority in Modern France (Nebraska, 2021) was published last month.
Chapter 1: Shaping the Sentimental Order
Martyrdom, Marriage, and Catholic Heroism
At the middle of the nineteenth century Jules Michelet lamented the influence of priests over women. Men had a political and social problem, he said, because women were tied to the Catholic Church. Michelet believed that improper novel reading was a significant part of the problem. He explained that the wrong kind of literature, “the sickening half-worldly and half-devout productions . . . will find readers among these poor women, the martyrs of ennui. Such delicate and sickly forms can support a nauseous dose of musk and incense, which would turn the stomach of any one in health.” Religious reading would engrave the tabula rasa, “write in this book of blank paper whatever they will! And to write what will last forever!” Reading had not made French women more progressive and liberal but instead confirmed them in superstition, promoting a devout Catholic identity that was, from an anticlerical point of view, “fundamentally irreconcilable with liberalism’s notion of religiously neutral citizenship.” Women’s reading was dangerous.
Michelet’s emphasis on uncritical visions influencing easily manipulated women evidences one form of a patriarchal fear of reading. As both literacy and book production increased, readers had become less subject to earlier limitations on literature. Instead of relying on a limited number of texts, shared orally in groups, individuals progressed from one book to another without oversight. Increased access and literacy allowed the consumption of more and more texts, including not only the reading of novels but also heroic tales of missionaries and the Genius of Christianity. Reading without guidance from men was dangerous; the solution was for wives, daughters, and mothers to read fewer books, but to read chosen works more carefully and deeply. Martin Lyons has explained that “[t]he anxious dreams of the nineteenth-century bourgeois were peopled by all those who threatened his sense of order, restraint and paternal control,” especially those who gave women ideas that broke apart carefully constructed hierarchies. There was a battle to control women’s thoughts, emotions, and futures.
But who was this generic “bourgeois” demanding paternal control? The nineteenth-century order was notoriously conflicted; regime change was more a matter of course than an aberration. In this context, indiscriminate reading was threatening to men on both left and right. Honoré Daumier used political cartoons to publicize the problem of a reading wife, one who left household chores untended while she read novels. However, the Catholic Church also launched a crusade against bad books in the first third of the nineteenth century. Clerics were also concerned about the temptation that novels could pose to otherwise religious women. They feared that women might search for books that offered “erotic desire and impossible romantic expectations. [Women] would read superficially instead of purposefully without meditating and digesting their texts.” In other words, Michelet’s midcentury panic was hardly unique; men of all sorts worried that increasingly accessible reading could encourage women’s natural tendencies toward romantic and sensual notions. Men who hoped to maintain their hold on power or increase their share of influence wanted to take charge of reading. Women’s autonomy—for reading as elsewhere—was not a masculine goal.
However, if reading had destructive force, it also had productive force. This power—and the threat inscribed in its potential—was particularly important for women’s reading, a fact that was implicit in an emphasis on women’s reading under the guidance of men. By the early nineteenth century the most prominent elite ideals assumed that women were uniquely capable of helping children develop into moral adults, and an explosion of published material rose to lead women to—and through—their obligations. Advice manuals gave mothers and daughters a “proper” approach to the sundry tasks of their lives. Women’s journals, devotional works, and the periodical press offered women useful advice and provided them with models by which they could judge their femininity and place in the world. Catechisms, parish participation, and stories of saints’ lives emphasized the spiritual side of narratives about ideal womanhood. Women’s reading would mold sons and daughters and, by extension, the future of the nation.
While the political and social authorities of post-Revolutionary France may have fretted about women’s reading and attempted to provide literature that would help readers develop the “proper” points of view, historians recognize that readers were not actually tabulae rasae. We know that their malleability is limited and that one cannot always predict a reader’s response to a work. As Michel de Certeau has explained in The Practice of Everyday Life, consumers of culture “go poaching.” By this, he means that they not only take bits and pieces to use as they will, but also that they change the meaning in the process, reading it in ways that are personally meaningful but could not be predicted by the author. Thus, even if we know that men were concerned about women’s reading and wished to control what women read, we also realize that the didactic lessons in the canons upon which these men relied were not, in and of themselves, fully constitutive of the readers’ values. Historians cannot always draw a direct line from the messages found in catechisms or novels to the ideals that the readers held. We can, however, see what women and children were supposed to learn and what ideas surrounded readers, what values and concepts were available for them to “poach from” as they thought about their position in the world. This chapter therefore explores the messages in early nineteenth-century catechisms and popular hagiographic literature, the formational books that Catholic men hoped would offer responses to the danger of bad or indiscriminate reading by Catholic women.