So what did a well-brought-up young lady read?
Well, there was frequently a difference between what she was expected to read and what she wanted to read. Reading material was supposed to be uplifting and improving, so the Bible was always a safe choice, as were other religious works. The most famous of these was James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, published in 1766 but still read (and eventually laughed at) well into the 1800s. They emphasized the weakness and delicacy of young women and preached subordination to men in all things, and were dreadfully sentimental in tone to boot. So it can definitely be surmised that many a young lady may have concealed other books inside their copies of Fordyce to fool watchful parents and governesses… books like:
Evelina: Fanny Burney was a reader to Their Majesties George III and Queen Charlotte, and was evidently inspired by her job to try her own hand at penning books. Evelina, Cecelia, and Camilla were stories about young women entering society and learning to distinguish between rakes and reputable men. Nothing racy, but nowhere near as improving as Mr. F.
The Monk: This 1795 novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis (who was forever after known as “Monk” Lewis) was racy stuff, involving a young woman disguising herself as a monk and entering a monastery for love of the monastery’s abbot…except that she turns out to be a demon in disguise. If you were caught with this novel tucked inside your Fordyce, you were in BIG trouble.
The Mystery of Udolpho: Ann Radcliffe wrote several spooky, over-the-top dramatic gothic novels in the late 1790s that were extremely popular. They generally featured beautiful young heroines being somehow endangered by sinister but handsome villains in exotic locales and eventually rescued by equally handsome but noble heroes. Definitely not Fordyce-ish. Other of Mrs. Radcliffe’s titles include The Romance of the Forest, The Castle of Wolfenbach, and The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents.
Not everyone was swept up in the Gothic novel craze, with their fevered plots and supernatural overtones. Walter Scott’s 32 Scottish historical novels, the first of which, Waverley, came out in 1814, were enormously popular and actually still readable today. Those were books you might not have to hide behind Fordyce. Ditto for the novels of the divine Jane Austen, which were also very popular, from Pride and Prejudice to Northanger Abbey, which makes fun of gothic novels.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Charles Dickens was, of course, everyone’s favorite novelist. But also popular were so-called “silver fork novels”, a series of glitz-and-glamour, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous type novels released by publisher Henry Colburn, complete with mention of product names like Macassar Oil (and you thought the recent uproar over Cover Girl product placement in books was a new phenomenon?). By the time these were popular, though, Fordyce was mostly a thing of the past…which in a way was too bad. He’d been frightfully useful to hide other books behind.