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Victorian Doctors Thought Reading Novels Made Women “Incurably Insane”

24 March 2016

From History Buff:

In 1886, homeschooling pioneer Charlotte Mason wrote that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.” Strange as it may sound, Mason’s belief that reading fiction was physically dangerous for girls and women was actually held by many medical doctors of her day.

A few years earlier, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg—the same guy who invented corn flakes in an attempt to “cure” people of masturbation—called novel reading “one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can be devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium.”

. . . .

The idea that reading novels was a really bad idea for ladies had been suggested in an article not-so-subtly titled “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity,” which was published in a British journal all the way back in 1797. In that article, the author claimed to have personally witnessed the moral decay of several young female readers.

“I have seen two poor disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughters’ dishonour, and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again in this world. ‘And was novel-reading the cause of this? inquires some gentle fair one… I answer yes!”

. . . .

In her 1899 self-help book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, Dr. Mary Wood-Allen cautioned future mothers to beware the “evils of novel-reading.”

“Girls are not apt to understand the evils of novel-reading, and may think it is only because mothers have outlived their days of romance that they object to their daughters enjoying such sentimental reading; but the wise mother understands the effects of sensational reading upon the physical organization, and wishes to protect her daughter from the evils thus produced… Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.”

Link to the rest at History Buff and thanks to Patrice for the tip.


29 Comments to “Victorian Doctors Thought Reading Novels Made Women “Incurably Insane””

  1. … called novel reading “one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can be devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium.”

    This is bad because … ?

    Now the one about the parents in the early graves — the letter is linked in the post. I read the whole thing and the LW failed to explain the causation between novel reading and parental death. I was disappointed, I was hoping to learn that the women read books instead of feeding their invalid parents. Or, like with video games, the women became murderers because the heroine in a novel killed her parents 😛

    Now the part about damaging your eyes? Well thanks to reading Nancy Drew by nightlight, I wear glasses to this day. So I guess they were right about that 🙂

    We’ve come a long way with medicine. Doctors today know that the eyes and the uterus aren’t hooked up to each other. Yay progress.

    This was hilarious. Thanks for the morning laugh, PG.

  2. What nonsense.

    However, writing novels…


    • The characters in my head say novel writing does not cause insanity. Symptom, perhaps, but not a cause.

  3. Read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

    • Scary thing about that one is it was based in the actual latest of medical expertise of the time. A depressed man was advised to be active and out-of-doors, while a depressed woman was to be kept abed and kept from doing anything at all. Charlotte Perkins Gilman had experienced it, herself.

  4. Actually, this is a 100% true. I mean when we (women) read, we start to think, and we start to tell men that maybe they aren’t correct. And then (gasp) we have ideas, that might be better than a man’s idea. And we start looking at things outside of the home and having thoughts about them. What’s worse is we might start to want things like men have. Such as the right to say what to do with our bodies, to own property, to vote!!

    If this isn’t the very definition of insanity, I don’t know what is.

    Thank the gods above and below I’ve been insane for a very long time, and my parents supported that insanity. Heck, I even believe that maybe someday Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future might come true.

    See, absolutely insane.

    • Anything that allowed women to think for themselves was very dangerous, they were supposed to look after their children, their husbands and their household servants.

      Should they think beyond those three imperatives they could face being locked up or lobotomized. After the lobotomy it was safe for them to come home.

      What a ghastly way to live.

  5. So, what’s the problem? I think most guys would be quite amenable to dating a novel-reading woman who’s undergone significant “female depravity!” 🙂

    • But would they take her home to meet the family? 😉

      • My husband’s mother couldn’t wait to meet me. But then again, being a librarian, she consumed many books and was “depraved” herself 🙂

        We tend to stick together:)

  6. To put it on the record here, those views were probably about as common in Victorian Britain as Kellogg’s views were here. As one bit of evidence, there were many woman novelists in Victorian Britain. When Anthony Trollope’s father went bankrupt, his mother supported the family by writing novels and other books.

    Sorry to be a sad sack. The piece was entertaining.

  7. Thanks for the laugh.

  8. And doctors use to cure women of ‘hysterics’ too (which might get the doc in trouble now a days! 😉 )

    How the times change …

    And all women have always been “Incurably Insane”, deities know I’ve never figured them out … 😛

  9. Victorian doctors thought reading novels made women incurably insane, but we know better now: It’s that second X chromosome that does it.

  10. “Dr. John Harvey Kellogg—the same guy who invented corn flakes in an attempt to “cure” people of masturbation”

    While he advocated against mast., I’m not convinced that corn flakes had anything to do with his position on that activity.

    That’s not what I am finding in his books, anyway.

    • @ Nate

      “Dr. John Harvey Kellogg—the same guy who invented corn flakes in an attempt to “cure” people of masturbation”

      Oh. I thought he also invented Nair — for use as a hand cream! 🙂

  11. Today’s students activists and professors think reading something they disagree with will harm them. They are too psychologically fragile, and must be protected.

  12. I once wrote a long research paper on the idea of insanity as a theme of escape in Victorian literature, specifically the above-mentioned “Lady in the Wallpaper,” as well as Jane Eyre and Villette. As I remember it, my argument was along the lines that if “sanity” is defined as “proper” behavior that aligned with social and civil mores — or even just as sound behavior and good sense — it made sense that society would view many strong, confident, competent women as “insane,” and that many strong female protagonists would descend into insanity in novels as they were so restricted by the mores of the time.

    There was a book called The Madwoman in the Attic that was just fascinating. From the Wikipedia page on it:

    In the work, Gilbert and Gubar examine the notion that women writers of the 19th Century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” This struggle stemmed from male writers’ tendencies to categorize female characters as either pure, angelic women or rebellious, unkempt madwomen.

    Which sounds about right in my memory.

  13. It wasn’t novel reading that made ’em loopy. It was coping with boneheaded Victorian men.

  14. Definition of insanity for Victorian woman? Woman engaged in a pleasurable pursuit (i.e., novel reading) that distracts her from being the “angel of the house”?

  15. actually incurably insane comes from not reading, not writing, what one is called to.


    and now

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