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Women’s Reading & Novels


Andrew Picken, Waltham. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1833.
LLMVC PR5178 .P38 W3 1833 Rosedown

Picken Waltham

The Turnbull family of Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, was deeply religious. Yet for all their interest in spiritual matters, they did have a worldly side. Even though someone in the family—probably the father, Daniel—boldly wrote the word “Trash” on the first page of Andrew Picken’s 1833 romance Waltham, the family had a healthy appetite for fiction. Evangelical Protestants in the early nineteenth century often objected to novel reading on the grounds that it was a waste of time that could be spent more profitably reading educational and religious works. Many novelists, however, came to be considered respectable, including Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, both of whom the Turnbulls enjoyed. Daniel Turnbull purchased Scott’s Lives of the Novelists hot off the press in 1825, and despite having many religious novels in his library, he owned the rollicking adventures of Fielding, Smollett, and Thackeray, as well as the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Southey, and Byron.

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What not to Read

Harvey Newcomb, The Young Lady’s Guide to the Harmonious Development of Christian Character. New York: M. W. Dodd, 1853.
Rare 241 N43YX

Newcomb Young Lady's GuideNewcomb Young Lady's Guide p. 196Newcomb Young Lady's Guide p. 197


The author of this book lists and discusses seven reasons why young women (and young men, too) should avoid reading novels:

1.  Novel reading produces an undue development of the imagination.
2.  Novel reading produces a morbid appetite for excitement.
3.  Novel reading produces a sickly sensibility.
4.  Novel reading gives erroneous views of life.
5.  Novel reading strengthens the passions, weakens the virtues, and diminishes the power of self-control.
6.  Novel reading is a great waste of time.
7.  Novel reading is a great hindrance to serious piety.

Even religious novels were questionable, for although “they profess to recommend religion,” they still caused their readers to develop a wild imagination, experience “morbid excitement,” and adopt “false views of religion” (the hero of one religious novel, for example, fought in a duel).

This copy of The Young Lady’s Guide belonged to Marian Darcy. Born in New York, reared in New Orleans, and educated in Indiana, Darcy worked as a governess at Oakland Plantation in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, in the 1850s.

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Reading and Repentance

Esther Wright to her mother, Sarah Wright, 19 April 1857
Also available in the LOUISiana Digital Library
Wright-Boyd Family Papers, Mss. 3362
“Books Read and Finished from November 1864 [to August 10, 1865],” from the Mary Cornelia Wright Journal, and Cartes de Visite.
Wright-Boyd Family Papers, Mss. 3362

As female literacy increased in the mid nineteenth century and books became more widely available, the question of what was appropriate for women, particularly young women, to read became a topic of sermons, conduct of life manuals, and mothers’ ministrations.  Proper young ladies read works that contributed to their moral character, spiritual growth, or development in the domestic sphere; novels were often condemned as corrupting influences.

Sarah Wright wrote her daughters Esther and Mary, in school at the Female Institute in Mansfield, Louisiana, and cautioned them against reading novels.  Her admonitions prompted Esther to write in response:

I am very sorry I ever touched a novel. I begin to feel the effects of it.  I have promised
not to read any more while I am going to school, and hope I’ll not wish to read any
afterward.  When I get to reading any beautiful poetry, or other things, I sometimes
think, I could not read a novel.

Esther Wright letterEsther Wright letterEsther Wright letterEsther Wright letter


Indeed, reading was a type of discipline of the mind, as Mary Cornelia’s list below illustrates.  She did not just read the books; she read and finished them.  Further, the list indicates the value she placed on reading and that she took the instructions her mother gave her as a young girl to heart.   Her reading encompassed history, religion, and some poetry.  The only novels listed are Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, which she read for the third time, and Augusta J. Evans’ Macaria: or Altars of Sacrifice, which embraced a romantic view of the Confederacy and equated woman’s work for the southern cause with selfless Christian duty.

Mary C. Wright Journal list Books ReadMary C. Wright Journal list Books Read

Esther (age 13 when she wrote this letter) and Mary (25 years old in 1864) were the daughters of Dr. Jesse and Sarah Wright, plantation owners of Rapides Parish, Louisiana.  The family apparently valued education.  A graduate of Yale, Dr. Wright was instrumental in establishing Spring Creek Academy in Pineville, Louisiana, and at least four of the couple’s six surviving children attended schools in Connecticut, Kentucky, and Louisiana.


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Ladies Join the Club

Minute Book of the Pan Gnostics Club, 1885-1886.
Grace King Papers, Mss. 1282

Minute Book of Pan GnosticsMinute Book of Pan Gnostics

New Orleans author and historian Grace King (1852-1932) is best known for her works on French Louisiana and Creole culture. Through her friendships and associations, she was heavily involved with and influential in the literary life of late nineteenth-century New Orleans. A frequent contributor to Harper’s and Century magazines, she also published over ten works of fiction and history between 1888 and 1924. She was an active member of several literary and historical groups, including the Pan Gnostics, which was “reformed” in March 1885 to admit “a few lady members.” King and her friend Julia Ward Howe, suffragist and author of  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” were among those admitted. King became associated with the club just as her literary career was beginning.

The minute book displayed records the overwhelmingly positive reception Grace King received after reading her essay “Heroines in Novels,” which contrasted national standards of feminine heroes in German, French, English, and American literatures. The secretary recorded that her essay elicited appreciative applause, “which the earnestness of its research, the richness of its vocabulary and the vigour of its style entirely deserved.”