Let us start with Jane Austen.
“While the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of a man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogised by a thousand pens, – there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them. 'I am no novel reader – I seldom look into novels – Do not imagine that I often read novels – It is really very well for a novel.' Such is the common cant. ‘And what are you reading, Miss – ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel,’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame.
“... Or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Northanger Abbey, Ch. 5
The Reverend Barrett is Firmly Against Novels. And yet funnily enough he uses the fictional device of the epistolary novel to make his points. Using as his example the (presumably fictitious) young Lady Harriet ******, this is what he has to say:
Though Lady Harriet ****** is not yet fourteen years old, she has more than the airs and forwardness of a woman. Who can have taught this girl, that roses are expected to open all at once, and not by degrees?
Timidity and diffidence are the most attracting qualities of a girl... Boarding schools, it would seem, may be compared to hot-beds. They bring fruits and flowers quickly to their growth. But they have not their proper essence, healthiness, or flavour.
The girlish state is so pleasing, in itself, that we wish not to see it exchanged, before its time, for the caution, the artifices, or the subtle policy of age. It is desirable that a girl should retain, as long as possible, the innocent dress, manners, habits and sentiments of childhood. She will never be more captivating when she is a woman. ...
A forward girl always alarms me. Indelicacy, imprudence and improper connexions start up to my view. I tremble for her friends, and see her history gradually unfolding into indiscretion.
I could discover, from the conversation of Lady Harriet, that she was deeply read in novels and romances. Her expressions were beyond nature, turgid, and overstrained, where she only wished to convey a common idea.
A volume would not be sufficient to expose the dangers of these books. They lead young people into an enchanted country, and open their view to an imaginary world full of inviolable friendships, attachments, ecstacies, accomplishments, prodigies, and such visionary joys, as never will be realised in the coarseness of common life.
The romantic turn they create, indisposes for everything that is rational.
Fortitude they unnerve, and substitute, in its place, a sickly sensibility, that cannot relish common blessings or common things; that is continually wounded with its own fancies. ... Plays, operas, masquerades and all the other fashionable pleasures, have not half so much danger to young people as the reading of these books. With them, the most delicate can entertain herself in private without any censure; and the poison operates more forcibly because unperceived. The most profligate villain, that was bent on the infernal purpose of seducing a woman, could not wish a symptom more favourable to his purpose, than an imagination inflamed with the reading of novels.
... how proudly she would have produced it, and told its name; though the chances would be against her being occupied with any part of that voluminous publication of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of the papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation ... and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.
Coloured print of Jane Austen, University of Texas, Wikimedia Commons
Letters to A Young Lady, frontispiece: scan from book in author's possession
Young Regency lady reading: unknown provenance.