Lord Walsingham’s servants found him in bed one morning in 1831, burnt to a crisp. According to a notice in The Spectator, “his remains [were] almost wholly destroyed, the hands and feet literally burnt to ashes, and the head and skeleton of the body alone remained presenting anything like an appearance of humanity.” His wife also suffered a tragic end: Jumping out of the window to escape the fire, she tumbled to her death.
The Family Monitor assigned Lord Walsingham a trendy death. He must have fallen asleep reading in bed, its editors concluded, a notorious practice that was practically synonymous with death-by-fire because it required candles. The incident became a cautionary tale. Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with “the most awful danger and calamity”—the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed. Instead, they were instructed to close the day “in prayer, to be preserved from bodily danger and evil.” The editorial takes reading in bed for a moral failing, a common view of the period.
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The link between morality and mortality was reasonable, in part. Neglected candles could set bed-curtains ablaze and in turn risk the loss of life or property. And so, to lie wantonly in bed with a book was considered depraved.
Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book: “The curtains took fire, and the flames communicating with other parts of the furniture and buildings, a great share of our possessions were consumed.”
Even the famous and the dead could be censured for engaging in the practice. In 1778, a posthumous biography chastised the late Samuel Johnson for his bad bedside reading habits, characterizing the British writer as an insolent child. A biography of Jonathan Swift alleged that the satirist and cleric nearly burned down the Castle of Dublin—and tried to conceal the incident with a bribe.
In practice, reading in bed was probably less dangerous than public reproach suggested. Of the 29,069 fires recorded in London from 1833 to 1866, only 34 were attributed to reading in bed. Cats were responsible for an equal number of fire incidents.
Why, then, did people feel threatened by the behavior? Reading in bed was controversial partly because it was unprecedented: In the past, reading had been a communal and oral practice. Silent reading was so rare that in the Confessions, Augustine remarks with astonishment when he sees St. Ambrose glean meaning from a text simply by moving his eyes across the page, even while “his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”
Until the 17th and 18th centuries, bringing a book to bed was a rare privilege reserved for those who knew how to read, had access to books, and had the means to be alone. The invention of the printing press transformed silent reading into a common practice—and a practice bound up with emerging conceptions of privacy. Solitary reading was so common by the 17th century, books were often stored in the bedroom instead of the parlor or the study.
Meanwhile, the bedroom was changing too. Sleeping became less sociable and more solitary. In the 16th and 17th centuries, even royals lacked the nighttime privacy contemporary sleepers take for granted. In the House of Tudor, a servant might sleep on a cot by the bed or slip under the covers with her queenly boss for warmth. By day, the bed was the center of courtly life. The monarchs designated a separate bedchamber for conducting royal business. In the morning, they would commute from their sleeping-rooms to another part of the castle, where they would climb into fancier, more lavish beds to receive visitors.
In early-modern Europe, royals set the tone for bed behavior across broader society. Modest, peasant households commonly lived out of one room. By necessity, the family would share a single bed, or place several simple beds side by side. In larger bourgeois homes with multiple rooms, the bedroom also served as the central family gathering place. The four-poster canopy bed was invented during this period, and with it, the modern notion of privacy. In a busy, one-room household, drawing the bed-curtains closed was a rare opportunity to be alone. And being alone created dangerous opportunities for transgression.
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In his history of masturbation, Solitary Sex, the historian Thomas Laqueur draws a direct link between 18th-century distress over solitary, silent novel reading and masturbation’s new status as a public menace: “Novels, like masturbation, created for women alternative ‘companions of their pillow.’” These “solitary vices,” as Laqueur calls them, were condemned for fear that individual autonomy would lead to a breakdown in the collective moral order.
As sleep transformed from a more public to a more private social practice, the bed became a flashpoint for that anxiety. Ultimately, the real danger posed by reading in bed wasn’t the risk of damage to life or property, but rather the perceived loss of traditional moorings.
Changes to reading and sleeping emphasized self-sufficiency—a foundation of Enlightenment thinking. The new attitude untethered the 18th-century individual from society. A social environment with oral reading and communal sleeping embeds an individual in a community. Falling asleep, a young woman senses her father snoring, or feels her younger sister curled up at her feet. When she hears stories read from the Bible, some figure of authority is present to interpret the meaning of the text.
People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.
The celebrated soprano Caterina Gabrielli was presumably reading one such novel when she neglected to attend a dinner party among Sicilian elites at home of the viceroy of Palermo, who had been intent on wooing her. A messenger sent to call on the absent singer found her in the bedroom, apparently so lost in her book, she’d forgotten all about the engagement. She apologized for her bad manners, but didn’t budge from bed.
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Moral panics accompany periods of social transformation. The internet, which has upended the way people read and communicate with others, is the contemporary world’s version of the novel—for good and for ill. Worries about its role parallel that of reading in bed during the 18th century. But now bedtime reading is the object of peril rather than its supposed cause.
“One must acknowledge the triumph [of] the screen,” the novelist Philip Roth told Le Monde in 2013. “I don’t remember ever in my lifetime the situation being as sad for books—with all the steady focus and uninterrupted concentration they require—as it is today. And it will be worse tomorrow and even worse the day after.”
Roth is probably right: Steady focus and uninterrupted concentration require solitude. But ironically, Roth’s 21st-century worry is exactly the opposite of his 18th-century counterparts. Today, when people repose by themselves in bed at night, a buzz of friends and strangers emanates from their screens. Social connection is hardly an issue when reading in bed. Now the problem is that one can never do so alone.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.