What Is She Reading? by Emma Smith

Emma Smith

What Is She Reading?


During lockdown, a Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility (bio: ‘What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you’) gathered a hundred thousand followers for its witty captions attached to screengrabs of pundits and politicians using bookshelves as Zoom backdrops. One memorable tweet diagnosed a Cabinet minister’s upside-down copy of a book called What Works as a cry for help. We all ‘read’ people’s books as part of interpreting them and their self-presentation. Three ‘shelfies’ featuring women from across the centuries reveal that this is not a modern phenomenon.

The first is the 17th-century The Great Picture, produced for Lady Anne Clifford and now at Abbot Hall in Kendal. Clifford spent much of her adult life in legal battles for her Yorkshire inheritance. Her tenacity finally paid off and she celebrated her triumph by commissioning an extraordinary life-sized painting of herself, her parents and her siblings from an artist thought to be Jan van Belcamp.

The most prominent element in this triptych, painted in 1646, is not the people but the books. There are some fifty displayed in the painting and each one is a specific work, painted with its own label. Anne invites precisely that focus on bookshelves and what they say about their owners that the Bookcase Credibility Twitter feed provides. Her books suggest a well-read, well-bred woman with interests in geography, history, philosophy, literature and religion. She has fashionable books like Don Quixote, as well as standard works like St Augustine’s City of God.

The books trace not only her intellectual development but also her contacts. In 1620, for example, Anne commissioned a monument to the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser in Westminster Abbey; here on her bookshelf is a copy of his Works. As a young woman in her late teens, she danced at Whitehall in the lavish masques Ben Jonson wrote for Queen Anne; they too appear in her painted library. She heard John Donne preach and bought his collected sermons on the strength of it. She was tutored by the poet Samuel Daniel and displays his historical works prominently on her shelf.

The painting is, in essence, Clifford’s autobiography. It is a groundbreaking work, not least because it predates the modern bookcase itself, the invention of which is often attributed to Samuel Pepys, who commissioned freestanding glazed book cabinets from the joiner Simpson in the 1660s. In The Great Picture Anne Clifford has found true ‘bookcase credibility’.

So too has the sitter in the second ‘shelfie’, produced a century later. Jean Antoinette Poisson, known to history as Madame de Pompadour, was the official mistress of the French king Louis XV from 1745 to 1751. She worked with the painter François Boucher to rebrand herself as a woman valued for her intellect rather than her sexuality. Boucher’s life-sized portrait of her, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, shows Pompadour semi-reclining on a chaise, floating in a sea-green gown. She looks up from a book held in her lap. The suggestion that her reading has been momentarily interrupted is conveyed by her thumb marking the page she has reached.

In this portrait, Boucher draws naughtily on the iconographic tradition that grew up around the most famous female reader of all: the Virgin Mary. In medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation, the moment when Mary is visited by the archangel Gabriel and told that she will conceive a son whom she will call Jesus, the Virgin is often depicted reading. Boucher’s composition mirrors these older works, right down to the common pictorial elements of a curtain, cut flowers and a dog (Boucher finds space in his picture for Mimi, Madame de Pompadour’s spaniel). The image of Mary reading comes not from the Gospels but rather from apocryphal tradition, which imagined her in a state of studious sanctity as she prepared for her incarnational destiny – she was often assumed to have been reading either the works of the Old Testament prophets or the Psalms.

From the 12th century to the 18th, therefore, the template for a woman reading in a painting was the established iconography of the Annunciation. Its adaptation by Boucher represented a daring relaunch for the king’s former mistress. While another portrait of Pompadour made her book titles visible, here we do not know what volume from her extensive library she has chosen. Let’s just say it’s unlikely to be the Psalms.

Like Pompadour, Marilyn Monroe was often reduced to her sexuality; like her too, she used reading to realign her image. A photograph of Monroe by Eve Arnold (the first woman to join the influential Magnum photo agency) shows the star immersed in the final pages of a book: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Her full lips are slightly parted. She holds the book in her right hand, by the right-hand cover, steadying it against the crook of her elbow and her left forearm, which is hugging her knees – a pose which, because it does not enable easy page-turning, suggests that she undertakes the work of reading with slow, immersive concentration.

Arnold’s photo has long been considered a visual paradox, with its combination of high and low art, Irish laureate and Hollywood star, intellectual man and flibbertigibbet woman (in this, the composition finds an echo in Variety’s headline announcing Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller: ‘Egghead Weds Hourglass’). Many have struggled to imagine that Monroe could actually have been reading Ulysses, but Arnold’s account of how the photograph came into being sounds convincing: Monroe ‘kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time: she said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to try to make sense of it – but she found it hard going.’

Monroe’s pose is focused and intimate. And there is something distinctly racy about the specific edition she is pictured holding. Monroe and her copy of Ulysses bring together two symbols of sexuality, transgression and American modernity. For readers in the 21st century, Joyce’s work is known as a modernist masterpiece. In the middle of the 20th century, however, it had not yet shaken off the scandal attached to its early publication history. Serial publication of the novel was halted in 1920 by an obscenity trial and copies of the first edition, published in Paris by Shakespeare and Company, imported to Britain and the United States were intercepted and confiscated. All we need to know here is the ominously Victorian name of the director of public prosecutions at the time: Sir Archibald Bodkin. His selective reading of the book’s final section was sufficient to convince him that Ulysses was obscene and therefore publication of it should be banned in Britain. Similar measures were taken in the United States.

But in the early 1930s, Random House forced the issue by openly importing copies to the United States. The groundbreaking case of United States of America v One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce was heard in 1933. The judge ruled that the book was artistic rather than pornographic and therefore could not be banned under obscenity legislation. A new edition was promptly produced, incorporating an account of the struggles to publish the book and the legal arguments against censorship in the prefatory material. It’s this self-consciously post-censorship edition that Monroe is reading. Like her, this specific hardback is a symbol of liberation.

The photograph makes it clear that, like the outraged Sir Archibald himself, Monroe is reading from the last few pages of the book. The final episode of Ulysses is ‘Penelope’, Molly Bloom’s famous monologue – eight long, unpunctuated paragraphs ending in the repeated affirmation, ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Arnold’s picture places Monroe at the centre of the 1950s sexual revolution. Her iconic photograph, like the portraits of Anne Clifford and Madame de Pompadour, shows how books can be our companions, our confidantes and our publicists.

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