Victorian Doctors Thought Reading Novels Made Women “Incurably Insane”

In 1886, homeschooling pioneer Charlotte Mason wrote that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.” Strange as it may sound, Mason’s belief that reading fiction was physically dangerous for girls and women was actually held by many medical doctors of her day.

A few years earlier, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg—the same guy who invented corn flakes in an attempt to “cure” people of masturbation—called novel reading “one of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can be devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium.”

The idea that reading novels was a really bad idea for ladies had been suggested in an article not-so-subtly titled “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity,” which was published in a British journal all the way back in 1797. In that article, the author claimed to have personally witnessed the moral decay of several young female readers.

“I have seen two poor disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughters’ dishonour, and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again in this world. ‘And was novel-reading the cause of this? inquires some gentle fair one… I answer yes!”

The damage believed to be caused by fiction was by no means limited to the moral sphere. As literature scholar Catherine Golden explains in her book Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction,

“Reading was damned because it was thought to damage a woman’s nervous system and reproductive health. Medical authorities linked excessive, unsupervised reading to a host of female reproductive ailments (for example, early menstruation, painful menses, infertility, etc.), insanity, and premature death. A woman’s biological differences—her greater sensitivity and sensibility—made her more susceptible to effects of a novel. Countless experts pronounced sensation novels, mysteries, and horror tales stimuli to avoid strenuously for physical well-being.”

Not even female doctors were immune from this line of thinking. In her 1899 self-help book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, Dr. Mary Wood-Allen cautioned future mothers to beware the “evils of novel-reading.”

“Girls are not apt to understand the evils of novel-reading, and may think it is only because mothers have outlived their days of romance that they object to their daughters enjoying such sentimental reading; but the wise mother understands the effects of sensational reading upon the physical organization, and wishes to protect her daughter from the evils thus produced… Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.”

Other doctors thought that reading too much caused the opposite problem. In 1873, Dr. Edward H. Clarke argued that too much education pulls energy away from girls’ reproductive system, leaving them with “undeveloped ovaries.”

The possibility of reproductive health issues was not all that concerned doctors when it came to ladies reading. A widely-repeated story originally published in Middlebrook’s New England Almanac in 1852 encapsulates another common fear: that reading novels would make women straight-up crazy.