I recently finished reading Pride and Prejudice, and I have to admit that while it was an enjoyable read, I much prefer reading a Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, or Lee Child mystery. After all, who can top Myron Bolitar or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher?
Anyway, for whatever reason, there was one brief section in Pride and Prejudice that stuck out to me.
The Bennets had just finished their after-dinner tea, at which time Mr. Bennet invited their dinner guest and his distant cousin, William Collins, to read aloud to the ladies of the house.
Mr. Collins readily accepted the offer, but turned down the first book that was offered to him, proclaiming that he never read novels. Instead, he opted to read Sermons to Young Women, a two-volume compendium of sermons compiled by James Fordyce, a Scottish clergyman.
The youngest of the five Bennet daughters, Lydia, interrupts Mr. Collins “before . . . three pages” leading him to stop reading, with the comment, “how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess;—for certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction.”
Now it’s not the book that he chose or Lydia’s reaction to it that caught my attention. (Although it is kind of strange that Mr. Collins was first offered a novel to read – would he have to come back every day and keep reading from it until he finished it?)
It’s just the very idea that listening to someone read from a book would be considered after-dinner “entertainment”.
I know there was radio or TV or the Internet at the time (what did they do all day!?), but there were musical instruments, or simply conversation. But reading aloud?
So I decided to do a bit of research and discovered that reading aloud was a form of entertainment back in the day, according to the book Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700. Such reading seemed to be geared towards those who were functionally illiterate, who at the time were predominately women.
I would have had no problem if that were the case; however, my sense is that none of the Bennet women (the mother and five daughters) were illiterate. So again, it just seems like an odd after-dinner entertainment.
And it’s not like Mr. Collins was an author reading from one of his own books, which also would have been fine.
I just can’t imagine inviting a friend or relative over for dinner, and then afterward, asking him or her to read to us. I’d much rather be entertained by asking Alexa to tell us a joke or watching the latest viral YouTube video.
I’m so glad I’m alive today, and not in the early 1800s.
Reading Beowulf was bad enough; having to listen to someone else read it sounds painful.
*image from smarthistory.org