What do you read patriot girl?
In Hungary, before the 18th century, there was no female readership apart from some exceptions. The Enlightenment movement advanced this state a lot, because later, female readership appeared as a potential book-consuming group. What did they read? The ideal woman was – for a long period of time – a sublime, noble soul who could identify herself with those characters of books, who also personified the required virtues of women, like loyalty, love of family, charity work or mildness. Not surprisingly, there were authors, who warned mothers against giving novels to their daughters, because improving their minds is one thing, but it should not restrain them from reading cookbooks. Lord Byron also agreed with this opinion; he suggested that women “should be educated in religion – but should not read poetry or politics – only books on religion and cooking.”
As of the 18th century, more and more writings for women were published in Hungary as well. József Péczeli, with his magazine “Mindenes Gyűjtemény” launched in 1789, strove to spread useful knowledge and popularize reading. József Kármán and Gáspár Pajor’s magazine “Uránia” aimed outright to educate women and cultivate the national language. Besides that, the milestone of Hungarian sentimentalism, the epistolary novel “Fanni hagyományai” (Fanni’s traditions) was published in the magazine, too.
Novel reading, a threatening delight
According to the assessment of the era, women could easily use their education in bringing up children and – as of the Reform Age – during deepening their nationalist feelings. Some researches still see relationship between women’s inclination of reading and their attending to children’s learning.
How did novel reading became a threatening delight? Even Madame Bovary reported on the demand for novels, but especially the greedy longing for pulp novels. A longing woman neglects her tasks and distances from reality so much that her fall is inevitable. In Hungary, even Mrs. Pál Veres, enlightened in many aspects, did not approve of girls reading novels. In her encouraging allocution of 1865, she also wrote about women reading novels: “I do not deny there are a few benefits of reading novels, but an unexperienced young girl often sips real poison from novels, because her fantasy and feelings are agitated, and her soul is aroused to play the heroin’s role and to wake similarly intense emotions in others’ hearts.”
Probably that is why it is interesting that a returning motif of artworks is the figure of a reading woman. Majorly, the idyllic atmosphere of these scenes is so strong that the viewer almost feels uncomfortable to disturb the reader. Naturally, in these cases a question always occur: Whether the woman functions as an aesthetic quality, or we should regard it from another aspect.
Many people can hardly find time to read, and it is true that the number of readers has decreased radically, but completely new text consuming habits have developed. The most obvious phenomenon is the diminishing of printed press that is replaced by a demand in digital contents. Anyway, reading is transforming while forming us too imperceptibly, and this certainly will not change.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Our exhibition was inspired by Stefan Bollmann’s book “Women Who Read Are Dangerous”.
Gustave Flaubert: Bovaryné, Budapest, Európa Könyvkiadó, 1958.
Stefan Bollmann, Az olvasó nők veszélyesek, Scolar kiadó, 2008.