Reading Novels in the Nineteenth Century

In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book; be rapt clean out of oursevles, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.

–Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” (1882)


Men and women are but children of a larger growth: they are still imitative beings. We cannot (at least those who read to any purpose at all)–we cannot, I say, help being modified by the ideas that pass through our minds. We hardly wish to lay claim to such elasticity as retains no impress. We are active beings too. We are each one of the dramatis personae in some play on the stage of Life: hence our actions have their share in the effects of our reading.

–George Eliot, Letter to Maria Lewis, 1839

There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom they present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence. … The heroine of this class of novel is charming because she is undisciplined, and the victim of impulse; because she has never known restraint or has cast it aside, because in all these respects she is below the thoroughly trained and tried woman.

–Margaret Oliphant, “Our Sensation Novelists,” 1863

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