BY CHRISTIANE INMANN
This elegant and unique book is perhaps the first look at the relationship between women and reading. Of course, these days, the majority of readers are statistically women but this is certainly a recent occurrence.
Francis Bacon’s oft-quoted axiom that knowledge is power was certainly known in ancient times even if not so succinctly formulated, and women were forbidden to read and denied literacy throughout much of history.
Forbidden Fruit is arranged chronologically so that we get images from Greece, such as the wall fresco of the poet Sappho, to the Renaissance where pictorial representations of women reading started becoming more common. We get altarpieces and masterpieces such as van der Weyden’s Magdalen Reading, Messina’s Virgin Annunciate and perhaps most stunning of all, Vermeer’s Allegory of Faith.
Christiane Inmann’s text details the long and protracted history of women’s literacy and education. She begins in early times then moves to the Middle Ages, where women’s reading was the privilege of noblewomen and abbesses such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Hildegard of Bingen. In a patriarchal society women were only permitted to read for devotional or educational goals. All this began to change in the 18th century, when middle-class women not only read but hosted salons to discuss literature. Out of this came the great spurt of women writers such as Mary Shelley and later, the Brontë sisters (who wrote their novels under a man’s pen-name).
The late 19th century saw a seachange in reading habits and for the first time women began to read more than men.
Most areas of art history have been explored to death but Forbidden Fruit manages to excavate a fresh and fascinating corner.