Basic question, but I've always wondered! We know Lizzie has a reputation as a reader, but what exactly would she have been reading? (and studious Mary for that matter!) I assume not predominantly novels (given they're seen as as 'light') but what would have been considered suitable for intelligent women? I guess some subjects (like classical languages, medicine or mathematics) would have been considered for male learning only, so what would have made a woman well-read, but not scandalously so?
Does she have a reputation as a reader? Miss Bingley accuses her of being a great reader who takes pleasure in nothing else, and Elizabeth is swift to deny both charges. She likes her walks and dances and other various amusements, and certainly doesn’t seem to devote as much time as Mary does to deep books and Improving Reading. Novels wouldn’t have been an unlikely source of reading-material for Elizabeth, as Austen defends them in Northanger Abbey via Henry Tilney, and allows Harriet and Robert Martin to bond over novels in a fashion which is not meant to mock or belittle them, but to illustrate the sweet simplicity of their romance.
Setting Elizabeth and whether/what she reading in particular aside, feminine education at the time was wide-ranging when it came to the ‘harder’ subjects, beyond accomplishments such as music and art. Classical languages, medicine, and complex mathematics (beyond arithmetic for housekeeping purposes,) would be unlikely–though of course modern-day authors cannot always help themselves and WILL write an 18th century heroine who is well-versed in such things. Which is not to say genteel lady autodidacts did not exist–but they would likely have been uncommon across much of their society, and not likely to have advertised such skills except perhaps letting it be known among close friends.
Languages such as Italian, French, and German were popularly taught as an accomplishment–usually to give cosmopolitan, well-traveled airs, as well as prompting a greater understanding of foreign music and art from the Continent. French was still a fashionable language, despite the wars, and often the lingua franca of the Englightenment, and the language of some royal courts, as in Russia. Basic geography might also be taught by a governess, though a woman’s understanding of it was likely meant more for practical and historical purposes rather than encouraging any commentary on political matters and foreign policy.
For a well-read genteel woman (whether this includes Elizabeth Bennet or not,) the likeliest ‘heavy reading’ would probably be collections of essays on various subjects–perhaps edging into politics and philosophy, but again, this would not be common. Fordyce’s Sermons is referenced as a very dry moral tract, but other more secular writings would have been popular, too, as well as poetry and novels.