Reading in bed: illicit, stolen, feminine?


I have a bad habit of chasing ideas down rabbit holes when I do my research. I see something interesting, and off I go. That’s how I ended up reading Reading in Bed: An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 21 October 1999 by Hermione Lee, Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature.

Lee, a scholar, literary critic, and biographer of writers like Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather, is the first woman holder of the Goldsmiths’ chair, held until 2008, when she became president of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She used the occasion of her lecture to talk about “the solitary space of reading which for many woman writers has embodied one of the most formative pleasures of their lives.”

She begins with Woolf, noting how “erotic, sensual, and pleasurable” are her descriptions of reading:

“What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in & found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all. I could not resist carrying this one off and breaching it.” [Woolf, 24 Aug. 1933: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]

“Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. It’s a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here [i.e. in the country] with a violence that lays me low.” [Woolf, Letter to Ethyl Smith, 29 July 1934: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]

“Love is so physical and so’s reading.” [Letter to Vita Sackville-West, 29 Dec. 1928, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Lee]

From Woolf’s essay ‘Hours in a Library’ (as quoted by Lee):

“With a little thought we can most of us recall the stages at least of our own initiation. The books we read in childhood, having purloined them from some shelf supposed to be inaccessible, have something of the unreality and awfulness of a stolen sight of the dawn coming over quiet fields when the household is asleep. Peeping between the curtains, we see strange shapes of mist trees which we hardly recognize, though we may remember them all our lives; for children have a strange premonition of what is to come.”

Lee notes how illicit this language is: purloined, inaccessible, awfulness, stolen sight … words shot through with shame and secrecy. Lee asks where this sense of shameful reading comes from. She writes:

“The history of reading contains within it a conflict which recurs over and over again, in different formulations, between what one might call vertical and horizontal reading: the first regulated, supervised, orderly, canonical, and productive, the second unlicensed, private, leisurely, disreputable, promiscuous, and anarchic. The contrast between public and private, licensed and unlicensed, social and solitary reading has never been straightforward … but there are edicts and prohibitions galore to be found, over hundreds of years, warning against the danger of reading being done the wrong way, of the wrong books, by the wrong people, even in the wrong positions.”

Lee recognizes that the rules of reading, as they are promulgated in different ways in different cultures at different times, also apply to men, but focuses on the way edicts against dangerous reading have been directed at women. She notes “the dubiousness, even the threat of the solitary woman reader” and describes, in fascinating little vignettes, how this threat was addressed in Renaissance Italy, in Tudor England, even into the twentieth century. Margaret Atwood, for example,

“used to drag the really dubious books off into corners, like dogs with bones, where no one would see me reading them. I resorted to flashlights under the covers.” [From Antonia Fraser, ed., The Pleasure of Reading, 1992, as quoted by Lee]

In language familiar to women readers of genre fiction today, Lee describes “private, obsessive, addictive girlhood reading experiences” recounted by writers in memoirs or in autobiographical moments in their fiction. She notes how crucial this kind of reading is for many girls, done in opposition to so many things, even the rhythms of life of the family. And that the place of reading is as important as what is being read: not in the official reading spaces of the (of course, not impoverished) household — the office, the library — but in corners, under covers, curled up on a couch.

We can’t go back to that youthful space, emotionally or physically, but the hold that the books we read in our youth never wanes. For women writers, this hold is most apparent in their works. Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” is, according to Lee “one of the best accounts I know of horizontal reading … disreputable reading, junk reading, serendipitous reading, dream reading, reading while looking out of the window, reading while running a high fever…”

I remember very well the secret reading I did as a child. It was a little different for me, being raised by a newly divorced mom with a newly feminist consciousness, who nevertheless didn’t want me all up in her adult book shelf at age eight or ten.  I recall a horror novel called Lupe (1978), Scruples (1978) by Judith Krantz (which I pronounced “Scrupples” for years), Forever by Judy Blume (1975), Our Bodies Ourselves (1976), The Best of Life (1973, lots of gruesome pictures of war and genocide), and Go Ask Alice (1971).

It’s funny that the idea of secret reading is now also associated with adult women — especially romance and erotica readers using digital devices. When we are sitting on a train, on a bench, at a work desk, at a table in a restaurant, on a plane, with our Kindles or Nooks or smartphones, we aren’t actually horizontal, but so many of the same associations are there for some readers, for some onlookers, and for some breathless journalists. Interestingly, digital reading seems to have created private spaces in public for men, too, who read romance and other feminine coded genre fiction in “secret” while in a crowd.

I really enjoyed Lee’s address, which I had to request from a different university library than my own. I wish it were available in digital format. It’s the first copyrighted work I’ve ever had the urge to scan and upload for public consumption (I didn’t). If you come across it, you could do worse than take a few minutes, curl up in the nearest corner, and read it for pleasure.

18 responses

  1. I love this post, as Miss Bates is guilty guilty guilty of constant illicit reading: favourites include reading over lunch at work (and neglecting paper work), reading before church services, reading on a park bench, reading into the night, reading in the early morning.


      • Love it. My absolute favourite “illicit” reading is the BFF’s run-in with a cop when she was reading … ahem … Whitney, My Love … at a traffic light on her way to the hospital. She’s a psychiatrist. 😉


  2. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to hide any book I read, which means I never experience a sense of shame over what I read — except perhaps a book on remedial math skills.

    I was not aware there was a stigma attached to reading romance fiction or that so many women read it in secret until I started writing it. For me reading a romance novel was no different to reading a spy novel, no shame in that either. The ‘reading in secret’ for me came from reading when I wasn’t supposed to, like under the bed covers with a flashlight when I should have been sleeping.

    As for Krantz’s Scruples… I only felt guilty watching and enjoying the 80s TV miniseries, which I did in secret. A few times.


    • wow! Did you have romance readers in your house or among your friends?

      I think it’s not just shame, but reading when you “shouldn’t” be. So “in bed” references sexy reads, illicit reads, but also a kind of wanton laziness, like, what are the hell are you doing reading when you could be productive, or domestic, or something.


  3. As a child, I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted; my parents figured it was best to let me read whatever interested me, and they would talk to me about anything that confused me. But some things you just don’t want to talk to your parents about, especially not at 12 or 13. I used to babysit for a family friend who was a single mom (a little scandalous back then), and she had some pretty racy books on her shelf. So for me, illicit meant reading about sex.

    As an adult, especially as a young wife, student, teacher and mother, I felt guilty about reading unless everything else was done — housework, school work, et cetera. Reading happened when everyone else was asleep or busy, or when I found myself actually home alone. But it felt sneaky to be reading if there was something else I “ought” to be doing. It took longer than it should have for me to figure out that reading was necessary to my happiness. and that I needed to make time for it. I had to shake up my priorities and learn that doing some things for myself was actually best for my family in the long run; I’m a better partner and parent when I’m content. (I know, that probably seems really obvious, but it’s an area where I was not good at asserting myself for a long time.)

    That TL;DR personal stuff is by way of saying that I find this fascinating, and I identify with it.


    • We are close in age and have very similar experiences with this, which is probably why we both identify with this. I agree totally about not feeling guilty. It took me until after my career was settled to really start reading what I wanted, when I wanted. Thank you for sharing!


      • “It took me until after my career was settled to really start reading what I wanted, when I wanted.”

        I recognize myself in that. And in a lot of this post and comments. This is lovely, and I’m going to request the Lee via ILL.


        • I think someone with your background will get even more out of the essay than I did. It contains loads of references to authors and books, many of which I haven’t read.


  4. I love this so much! I was never forbidden from reading particular books, but I certainly remember reading under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep and snatching reading time in odd moments and at odd places. More recently, I’ve struggled a bit to embrace my inner lowbrow. I felt for a long time that I ‘ought’ to be reading serious books and highbrow literature. In the same way, I always felt I ‘ought’ to appreciate classical music and serious drama. But actually, what I love is romance novels and musical theatre, and now I am proud of that.


    • My husband and I argue about the old reading in bed past bed time thing, whenever we go up to bed and see a suspiciously weak light spilling out from under one of the boy’s bedrooms doors. I am always delighted by it, but he worries about morning grumpiness and lost brain cells. Men!


      • Hub and I have always been a sucker for the “one more chapter” argument, especially when it’s one of our old favorite books. I do have concerns about sleep-hygiene, though. I’ve always had trouble with insomnia and good sleep hygiene, particularly not reading in bed, has helped a lot. I know my son used to be an excellent sleeper and now tosses and turns. 😦

        (I cheat some — I do read in bed, but turn myself foot to head. Seems to work.)


  5. I’ve never been an in-bed reader – it NEVER puts me to sleep or relaxes me.

    Oh, Scruples though. I have fond memories of taking it on a long marching band trip (4 loaded buses from central Illinois to Phoenix). The girls I roomed with were not all that thrilled with being stuck with the bookworm… until they flipped through some of the pages of THAT book. By then I’d been reading romance for awhile and totally pulled off “blase’ “.


  6. There’s so much here that speaks to me; thank you for this wonderful post!

    I’m again reminded of the YA book I’ve been tweet-nattering on about recently ( IT ALL BEGAIN WITH JANE EYRE, by Sheila Greenwald, 1980) – this is a novel I read when it came out, and the premise – a girl who liked books ‘too much’, obsessed about Jane Eyre, and hid in the closet reading, with snacks – both described and offered pleasure that was as intense and “secret” as my sneak- reading of Harold Robbins and Judith Krantz. (In 1980 when this book came out I was already a little old for it, but the premise and the focus on my beloved Jane and Rochester, was irresistible, and I bought it new, in hardcover, with babysitting earnings).

    It’s so true that horizontal or “in bed” reading is really a state of mind, an opting-out from interaction, activity, chores, work, etc. I’m doing it now, although I’m “talking” about reading rather than actually reading. My kids are arguing over whose turn it is on the computer downstairs, the laundry needs attention, there’s vacuuming to do and I have company coming this evening. Yet here I sit, cozy in bed on Black Friday with my second cup of coffee. My favorite place to “work” on my blog, or talk about books on twitter, is my bed. But my laptop goes everywhere, and whether or not I’m in my bedroom, the choice to spend the time either caught up in fiction, or responding to it, feels slightly illicit because there is never a moment when all the “real” work and chores are done.

    And for many, I think, the presence of favorite food/beverage is part of it, which Sheila Greenwald got when she put her protagonist in the closet with a flashlight, a book, and a bag of potato chips. There’s something that’s harder to pick apart about the uncomfortable equating of women reading, addiction, and eating, and all the tired metaphors about “voracious” readers, etc. But there’s also something true about the combination of reading and consumption… the engagement of other senses simultaneously — this is why people have favorite reading circumstances — even if we sneak reading in the car or over lunch at our desks, most readers I know have preferred spots to curl up with a book, and these can incorporate music, certain lighting, beds, couches, pets, blankets, hammocks, beach chairs, etc. It’s rare that the favorite reading spot doesn’t also address sensory creature comforts…

    Thank you again for this excellent post – perfect for mulling over on a long weekend!


    • It’s so great that the post encouraged you (all) to share your own experiences. I often throw things up unthinkingly, and I confess, it didn’t occur to me when I posted this that I would get back so many great memories and reflections.

      The food thing is interesting. I’m someone who eats when she’s eating. I actually don’t like to multitask with food… I don’t even engage in the American habit of walking around or driving with a beverage. But I agree that for many that’s part of the pleasurable package, and that the pleasure of taste is yet another that many of us experience as fraught in so many ways.



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