Thursday, March 4, 2010

Novels & Gender

Elizabeth Bennet reading

While reading the introduction of Lorna Doone, I was struck by the author, Sally Shuttleworth (say that ten times fast), comparing Lorna to Jane Eyre, and both books being viewed as "women's novels," even though Lorna Doone was voted the favorite novel of men at Yale in 1906.  This was before, as the author put it, "polarized, gender-specific notions of appropriate reading matter which have emerged in the second half of the twentieth century."

But haven't there been gender divisions and assumptions of suitability in reading and books all along?  It seems from the start of "the novel," they've been for women while men read facty non-fiction.  Mr. Darcy might applaud Lizzie for reading, but you don't see him curled up with The Mysteries of Udolpho, now do you?  And certainly there were ideas about what was and wasn't appropriate reading for women from day one. 

Also, I recall seeing a conversation on Twitter--I can't remember who exactly was involved, sorry--where someone pointed out that a HUGE percentage of classic novels have portraits of women on the covers.  Is that because a lot of them have females as the central characters, or is it assumed that they will only appeal to women?  Lorna Doone itself has a portrait of a woman on the cover (or at least my copy does), even though the narrator and central character is a man.  One could say this is a bald attempt to market the novel to women; but why would it be assumed that a classic novel is more appealing to a woman than a man?

Do you agree with Shuttleworth that gender-specific novels are a recent development? 
Do you think classics are being marketed to women instead of men?

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