Reading novels is dangerous!

The research project we are leading (see explanatory posts 1, 2 and 3) has also a significant gender dimension. For example, many of the novels that were introduced to the Italian readership were written by women, and a woman, Elisabetta Caminer Turra, was among the most prolific reviewers. To this day, there are no in-depth studies about the role women had in the Italian literary press of the period: the project will deal with all the moral issues connected to the novels, and it will also investigate the topic of women’s reading practices, as the novel was considered a “female genre” (see D’Alia, Di Fino, Pearson, Franchini). The following examples concerns general articles strictly connected to this aspect of the research. First of all, the novel was considered as a very dangerous genre for the mental stability of the women who read too much. In an article published on the 28th March 1819 on the Gazzetta di Milano, it is possible to read the report of a journalist after a visit in a mental asylum:

La pazzia fra le donne rinchiuse in quest’ospizio non mi sembra aver, come altrove e nell’umano consorzio, che due caratteri ben distinti: l’amore e la vanità. La prima donna che abbiamo visitata avea perduto la ragione a forza di legger romanzi

 

[Madness among women locked up in this mental hospice has nothing but two well defined features: love and vanity. The first woman we visited lost her mind because she read too many novels]

 

According to the article, many of the women that were kept in the asylum became mentally ill after reading too many novels. In many other occasions, reports like this were published in journals and newspapers, stating that the novels were challenging the mental stability of the female readers. From this kind of anecdotes we can infer at least two things. Firstly, the perception that novels were read intensively mostly by women was clear from the beginning: it is in fact impossible to find not only stories in which men lose their mind for too much reading, but, for a long time, even reports stating that the genre was appealing for the male readership. Secondly, it is rather clear how the values conveyed by the novels were having a disruptive impact on the audience, to the point that they were believed to literally drive people, and namely women, mad and ill. To face such a threat, many journals started to publish articles with the aim of discouraging the reading of novels among young ladies. An example could be the following, from the journal Teatri, arti e letteratura, published in1827:

Le signorine non debbon leggere romanzi

La loro lettura è od inutile, od anco perniciosa. […] la mia sentenza, troppo pronta e troppa assoluta, non sarebbe passata per buona dal bel sesso, che oltre ogni dire si compiace di leggere romanzi, ed a’ tempi nostri un tal genere si è fatto universale; né solamente ingegni leggerissimi se ne occupano siccome dapprima, ma uomini per ogni titolo commendevolissimi non hanno dubitato, e non dubitano di mescersi nell’infinito esercito de’ romanzieri.

 

[Young ladies should not read novels.

Reading novels is generally either useless, either damaging. […] My sentence, too absolute, would not be appreciated by the gentle sex, which is too keen on reading novels, a genre that nowadays is universal. Not only light minds are interested in it, like it was before, but also eminent men did not hesitate in joining the infinite army of the novelists]

 

The (almost surely male) author of this article is not really pleased by the widespread success of the novels, and calls them useless when not even damaging. By stating that the “bel sesso” (women) would not be very happy hearing this sentence, the journalist is clearly pointing out the audience of that kind of literature. Also, by pinpointing the dangers of the novel for the ladies, he is recognizing the strength of the genre as a vehicle of new, shocking and controversial values for the Italian social fabric. In the first half of the 19th century, the novel as a genre was starting to be legitimated also in Italy: in 1827 Alessandro Manzoni would publish I promessi sposi, the first and most famous Italian historical novel, which gave rise to many other publications following its success. In the second part of the small abstract, it is possible to see the journalist’s awareness of the fact that the novel was undergoing an evolution, somehow: written by “poor minds” for the pleasure of young (and maybe silly, according to the journalist) ladies in the past, novels were now attracting more prominent literary figures, who were starting to realize that the popularity of the genre could translate into good publishing contracts.

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