Girl Guides

When the reading of "bad books" was a novel experience

HUMANITIES, May/June 2012, Volume 33, Number 3

Words of advice for female readers were plentiful in eighteenth-century France, with many authors jumping into a genre dominated by the religious-minded but unfettered by specialists. In her NEH-funded study Conduct Books for Girls in Enlightenment France(Ashgate, 2011) author Nadine Bérenguier notes that mothers as writers, such as Marquise Anne-Thérèse de Lambert, penned works not necessarily meant for wider circulation. When her daughter left the convent, Lambert wrote what might sound to modern readers like a title in the series Letters to a Young . . . . The pamphlet was a hit: It circulated “among members of her salon,” then “escaped her control,” and was published in 1728. Lambert was praised by critics all the more for her reluctance to be published at all. Additionally, they admired her ability to follow in her writings for her children the classic rule to both instruct and please, with maxims that were at once reasonable and witty. This stylistic feature of her work jibed with her unwillingness to defend religion fervently in her writings: Lambert acknowledged the importance of religion in a young woman’s life but stressed reason in all other areas.

Social reformer Chevalier de Cerfvol and other men also took up their quills in the effort to instruct young women on the correct path to follow, with Cerfvol addressing, in his tome of 1772, conjugal education. “It was a logical step,” writes Bérenguier, “in his social engineering plan intended to curb the population decline that was plaguing France.” Among Cerfvol’s innovative arguments was that in favor of divorce in childless marriages, thereby halting “the harmful effects of depopulation.”

One mighty odd thing, though, was the widely held view that reading itself could be a somewhat dangerous activity for girls. The imagination, it was thought, was uncontrollable, and young women reading at whim might well come under the influence of what Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont described as “the reading of bad books,” by which she meant, the reading of novels. Furthermore, conduct-book authors warned against books “disguised” as legitimate books but which concealed “an infinity of novels surely seducing the mind and corrupting the heart.” “The extreme fragility of their constitution,” writes Bérenguier about the contemporary view, “turned them into the most problematic of readers because they were prone to strong reactions.” Or, to put it another way, reading encouraged these young women to think for themselves.