The Reading Lives of English Men and Women, 1695-1830

Polly Bull

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines the reading lives of eighteenth-century English men and women. Diaries of the middling sort and the gentry show that reading entwined daily routines and long-term aspirations. This life-writing also demonstrates that readers performed and contextualised reading within a specific cultural milieu. Finally, autobiographical accounts reveal that books could challenge or reinforce contemporary constructs of gender. These three strands of readership—self, culture and gender—weave throughout the thesis. The first chapter is an analysis of the expectations for ‘ideal reading’. Some advice literature attempted to dictate engagement with books, often warning of the ‘dangers’ of certain reading, particularly for women. While much historiography focuses on prescriptions of print culture, this thesis shows that practice did not live up to precept. Case studies of real readers present examples of proactive reading. A group of male ‘occupational readers’ relied on books for education and training, piety, sociability and the reckoning of financial accounts. Propagandist Thomas Hollis gifted books in the 1750s and 1760s in order to influence collective political opinion through the reading of specific liberty texts, chosen according to his conception of masculine civic duty. Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Montagu devoted themselves to scholarly reading, which enabled exceptional authorial achievements in the second half of the century. From 1773 to 1830, Anna Larpent judged all her reading critically within a domestic setting, demonstrating an assiduous commitment to literary review. Finally, Anne Lister interpreted texts to reinforce her sense of social distinction and to facilitate her same-sex love affairs. This thesis provides critical new insights into the history of reading in the eighteenth century, showing that men and women, unrestricted by advice literature, hoped to gain a multiplicity of opportunities through active ‘reading for life’.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Vickery, Amanda, Supervisor, External person
  • Champion, Justin, Supervisor
Award date1 Dec 2012
Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


  • reading
  • gender
  • eighteenth century
  • life-writing
  • culture
  • self
  • diaries
  • masculinity
  • femininity
  • social history
  • cultural history
  • early modern
  • print culture
  • England
  • texts

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