Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels […T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mis- tresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemima
(Sylph no. 5, October 6, 1796: 36-37)
Luxuriously reading a novel became quite common by the late eighteenth century. What came with the outright reading of a novel in the late eighteenth century was outrage. Why outrage? Aside from general feelings of women endangering themselves by reading or as seen in the quote, the endangerment of others. Reading created anxiety or moral panic. The concept is a twentieth century term coined in 1971 by sociologist Jock Young. Moral panic is an incidence of “intensive, exaggerated concern about a particular issue or perceived threat, which when empirically assessed turned out not to be especially damaging” (Vogrincic, 105). A few reasons as to why reading for pleasure was on the rise: an increase in literacy, (which allowed for more potential readers), a developed book market with a well functioning production and distribution net (enabling people to access books both physically as well as financially), and lastly privacy and leisure time in which to read the books. This was only possible due to a favorable political and religious environment of the time. The key to this favorable environment was the Bible being produced in the vernacular, which of course, promoted literacy.
“Broadly, one could divide the reproaches into those ascribing to novels the dangerous psychological affects, triggering imitation and inoculating wrong ideas of love and life; and into those referring to the mere habit of novel-reading as a physically harmful waste of time, damaging not only the mind and the morale of readers, but also their eyesight and posture” (Vogrincic, 109). Due to the fantasies the novels contained, the fatal deeds of aristocratic heroes fighting for a larger cause usually in far off places, and the use of poetic language one could deduce that the novel was a fictionalized reality. Thus it could be said that the novel might have a manipulative power over the reader. It is this presumed manipulative power combined with the fantasies that novels allowed readers to indulge in that created the so called moral panic. And the people hit especially hard by moral panic were of course women.
The Novel-Reading Panic in 18th- Century in England: An Outline of an Early Moral Media Panic by Ana Vogrinčič