Women and Libraries – Unchained

Jean Burnett

Today’s post is by Jean Burnett. As well as writing historical novels, Jean has a penchant for the gothic. Her short story for Unchained is  ‘The Judge’s Chair’  which  takes place in the famous Bristol Room of the Central Library.

Thought for the day – “A clever woman is like a long tailed sheep. She’ll fetch no better price for that.” (The Mill on the Floss)

Women have had a fraught relationship with libraries through the ages. Traditionally, they had no relationship at all because they were usually illiterate or semi-literate. A few examples of learned women occurred in the ancient world and during the Renaissance, and those women usually ended badly. Elizabeth the First  was famously well-schooled, but a queen was an exception.

In general, popular belief echoed the words of a Louisa M. Alcott character, “She has read too many books and it has turned her brain.” In Victorian times it was seriously believed that too much book learning affected a woman’s fertility.

By the 19th century, middle and upper class women had access to the new subscription libraries where they devoured three volume novels and the Gothic tales of Mrs Radcliffe. The serious stuff was still out of reach. As late as the 1920s Virginia Woolf complained that she had been refused admission to the Bodleian library in Oxford because she was not a member of the university. (Women were not fully admitted until 1974).

Many years ago I joined the intimidating London Library where I reached for the same volume as the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. He stared down at me from his great height in astonishment at my temerity. I dropped the book and scurried to the reading room where I found I was sitting at the same table as three famous (male) writers. Thoroughly demoralised, I fled the building, never to return.

The New Birmingham Library
The New Birmingham Library

Happily, no such problems occur in the nurturing aisles of Bristol’s libraries.

Later this month, a sixteen year old girl, shot for going to school in her own country, will formally open Birmingham’s amazing new central library.

Women and libraries – unchained.



Who Needs Mr Darcy, Jean’s picaresque novel following the exploits of Lydia, the bad Miss Bennet, was published in 2012 by Little Brown.

Photo credit: The new Birmingham Library by Brian Clift on Flickr

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  1. Hi Jean – I must admit I hadn’t realised it was so recently that the Bodleian admitted women. I assume this is in some formal sense as there were plenty around when I was working there in 1974! AliB

  2. Sometimes I forget how far we have come. Hard to imagine the Bodleian didn’t admit women until 1974. I didn’t know about the Birmingham library opening but how inspiring!

  3. I think reaction to the actual building in Birmingham has been mixed, but a great flagship for city libraries I would say. AliB .

    1. I agree, Alison. The biggest in Europe! And opening here, in Britain. I think that says something about our on-going belief in the written word – past, present and future. Even if the library is ultra-high-tech, it’s also got a lot of books. And how perfect that Malala should be the person to open it. Great post, Jean. Love the quotes!

  4. Lots of things used to happen until really very recently that would now strike us absolutely shocking. Not just no women in the Bodleian, but no right to equal pay or maternity leave, and if you wanted a bank loan and were married, your husband had to sign the papers…

    As far as libraries are concerned, I’d guess women have more than made up for lost time – especially in terms of jobs in libraries, where (unless my experience is untypical) the ratio of male:female staff seems pretty similar to that in primary schools, ie men very much in the minority. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a discussion I won’t venture to start!

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