Reading and Modern Languages

<em>The Mysteries of Udolpho</em>, 5th ed.

5th Edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe, illustrated with copperplates. Published 1803 in Paternoster-Row.

Effusions of Fancy

In Regency society, the novel was primarily considered "women's reading", as the genre of Gothic fiction thrived and mass readership began to increase. Women were not expected to read books on science, politics or more "masculine" topics; they were instead confined to more idle reading habits. Literacy was important, but extensive critical thinking was not encouraged among women in comparison to men.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen illustrates the dangers of too much indulgence in fiction, through a satirical representation of her heroine Catherine Morland. Catherine spends much of her time reading novels, which ultimately leads her imagination astray when she begins to suspect that her suitor's father murdered his wife.

Socially, Austen criticizes society's constraints on women's reading, as novels can distort their social perceptions and can suppress their intellectual potential. Catherine is surprised when she assumes that Henry Tilney does not read novels, and her awareness of gender roles shows:

"But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure." 

Mr. Tilney acts as a mouthpiece for Jane Austen's suggestion that men can (and will) enjoy novels as much as women; Austen points out the ridiculousness of gender segregation in terms of reading and literature. Her commentary on the stigma attached to the novel in Regency society suggests that the patriarchy does both women and the novel itself a disservice by scorning the latter as a genre of literature.

Sheet Music for "Beaux Yeux"

This sheet music for "Beaux Yeux and Jeunes coeurs soyez fidelles, the Favorite French Air & Gavotte" is from the Austen family's music collection. Jane Austen often played the pianoforte and sang throughout her life, and this score is signed in the top left corner by Jane's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Austen.

Fine Eyes, or "Beaux Yeux"

Modern languages such as French or Italian were among the accomplishments Regency women were expected to master. These skills lent themselves to grace and elegance while not performing any particular function beyond an appreciation of the arts and impressing one's guests. 

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot impresses her cousin and potential suitor Mr. Elliot by explaining the words of an Italian song they see performed at a concert; yet she humbly refutes his assertion that she is extremely learned in the language.

"This ... is nearly the sense, or rather the meaning of the words, for certainly the sense of an Italian love-song must not be talked of, but it is as nearly the meaning as I can give; for I do not pretend to understand the language. I am a very poor Italian scholar."

Anne proclaims herself a poor scholar, whose knowledge of Italian is not superior by any means. Nevertheless, Austen portrays her accomplishments as modestly successful throughout the novel, showing Anne as a woman thoroughly deserving of a marriage to Captain Wentworth. 

From the Austen family collection, this sheet music is from a song from the Opera of the Cameriera Astuta, performed at the King's Theatre in Haymarket, London. The lyrics of the song are in French, and genteel ladies often sang songs in other languages when playing their instruments.

Reading and Modern Languages