The number and quality of treatises discussing women’s talents or lack there of was high sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The works were divided up by genre and were available in both printed and handwritten form. It is an established fact that readers in the Nordic countries were familiar with European concepts such as “Feminae illustres” (illustrious women), “Feminae doctae” (learned women), “Musa decimal” (the tenth muse), and so forth. Awareness of “feminae illustres” or “feminae doctae” seems to have been linked to the Renaissance period. There were, of course, earlier examples of learned women, but the desire to count them and classify them, and even promote them, would seem to have been a Renaissance inclination that surfaced among the progressive male learned circles.
The nineteenth century was the century of reading, and from the outset women – as readers and writers – captured a large part of the rapidly expanding literary market. Given that it was the women who had formerly been left out of the (Latin) academic culture, these women now formed the majority of all the new readers. Readers were particularly enthusiastic about entertaining prose fiction. Of the new varieties now put into production by the media, the main genres were first the fantastical (Gothic) and later the realistic novel. Women writers had access to the media, if, that is, they could tap into the readers’ desires and needs – and this they could.From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, female authors put their stamp on European popular literature in a manner that literary history has by no means chronicled to any adequate extent.
The middle-class novel develops during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in an intensive interplay with the reading woman. To a great extent the new literary genre of the time is addressed to and is about her. For the middle-class woman who was confined in so many ways, reading was to become both a diversion and an education in the woman’s new role. It also became a much discussed and criticised occupation.Ever since the eighteenth century, women had been the best costumers in the bookshop, the keenest borrowers at the libraries, and the most reliable members of the reading clubs, but their reading had constantly been the object of criticism. And in the later part of the eighteenth and in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when novels are gaining ground in Sweden, this is accompanied by heated discussions about the harmful effect of the genre on its female readers. Novel reading was thought to be unwholesome and to render the reader passive. It made women unrealistic, dreamy, and incapable of living.