19th Century Women Writers
by Abby Wolf
In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf famously claimed that, in order to write, a woman needs her own income and her own room. Woolf also imagined that Shakespeare had a sister. As creative as this sister might have been, her life in Renaissance England would have denied her every opportunity to write, to be an artist like her brother. Some women of that period did write, and some of that writing remains: The journals of Margery Kempe are in print today, and Elizabeth I left written records of her reign. But the fact remains that until the 18th century, literacy rates among women were low, and evidence of women's writing is sparse.
Woolf also claimed that a revolution in literature began with the simple fact that in the 18th century, the middle-class woman began to write. In the English canon, we might move Woolf's date back a few years. Although Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is generally considered the first English novel, some critics prefer to give that distinction to Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688). Which title claims first place is less important, however, than the fact that Behn was the first woman to make writing her profession. And although more writing by men has remained in the eye of the public, in the past several years many literary critics have been on a kind of archaeological dig, unearthing a rich heritage of writing by English women.
The 18th century saw an increase in women's literacy and a corresponding rise in the number of female readers and writers. Although poetry and drama remained primarily male preserves, the novel had a number of female practitioners. The 'conduct' novel, with its emphasis on behavior and marriageability, targeted women readers, and Fanny Burney, whose first novel, Evelina, appeared in 1778, was one of the most successful authors of her time. Other women, more obscure now than Burney, also enjoyed wide public recognition: Sarah Fielding (the novelist Henry's sister), Amelia Opie, and Elizabeth Inchbald are examples. The 'Gothic' novel, characterized by exotic settings, seemingly supernatural occurrences, and young women in distress in dark castles, was one of the most popular forms at the end of the century. Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794) and The Italian (1797), was a favorite and is now considered the best of the Gothic writers.
Jane Austen's first novel, Northanger Abbey (written around 1798 but published in 1818), satirized the excesses of the Gothic novel, though some Gothic conventions would persist well into the 19th century. Austen tends to dominate discussions of women's literature of the early 1800s, but other women were writing at the time as well. The Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth was a contemporary of Austen's, and there were a few prominent female poets at the time as well, including Felicia Hemans and Anna Letitia Barbauld, whose poetry was for the most part sentimental and placid. But the poetry of Joanna Baillie, a contemporary of William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, shared their passionate Romantic sensibility.
Along with literary Romanticism, feminism grew out of the revolutionary movements of the late 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft, the wife of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the mother of the novelist Mary Shelley, is generally regarded as the first English feminist author. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), she advanced the philosophy that a "rational" education would produce women who were not only better wives and mothers but also the social equals of men. The first part of this philosophy was typical of early feminism, but the second part was revolutionary. As the 19th century progressed, women writers often viewed their gender's subordinate position as an index of other problems confronted by society, including poverty and labor unrest. Beginning in the 1830s, women novelists began to address these issues, and women ventured into other types of writing to do so as well. The journalist Harriet Martineau wrote widely in the 1830s on political economy. Fiction writer Caroline Norton agitated for the reform of divorce and property laws in 1854's treatise English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century.
Martineau and Norton exemplify the diversity of women's writing in the 19th century with their concern for both broad cultural topics and issues of particular interest to women. Female Victorian novelists such as the Brontës, Charlotte Yonge, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot displayed a similar variety. Although women wrote more novels than other types of literature, two of the most lasting Victorian poets were women. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, especially in her book-length poem Aurora Leigh (1857), and the Pre-Raphaelite Christina Rossetti, in her rhythmic poem "Goblin Market" (1862), addressed male subordination of women, especially as it related to issues of creativity faced by women artists.
By the middle of the 19th century, feminists had several male allies, most famously John Stuart Mill. His The Subjection of Women (1869) is often paired with Wollstonecraft's Vindication as fundamental feminist philosophy. But feminists also had a number of female antagonists. By mid-century, too, the image of the "Angel in the House" came to dominate mainstream representations of women: Even some feminist writers did not depart from the ideal of the woman whose life was wrapped up in the private sphere of the home and who may have sought influence over her husband's public life through good moral example, but never public participation in it.
The 1860s saw the rise of an organized feminist movement in England, a response to the "angelic" strictures advocated by writers like Eliza Lynn Linton and, earlier, Sarah Stickney Ellis and Mrs. Beeton whose cookbooks and guides for household management have remained in print since the 1850s. Josephine Butler and Frances Power Cobbe were two of the most prolific writers on women's rights in the 1860s and the following decades. Their advocacy not only of voting rights for women but also of health, education, and legal reform set the tone of British feminist writing into the early 20th century.
Novelists came out on various points of the feminist spectrum: The "New Women" of the 1890s, such as Mona Caird, Vernon Lee, and Sarah Grand, tended to embrace radical reform, while more conservative writers like Mrs. Humphry Ward and Flora Annie Steel advanced more measured positions. The span of women's writing over the century is perhaps most clearly exemplified by two women travel writers who spanned it. In 1827, Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans filtered her observations of the "new world" through an Austenian lens of civility and propriety. In 1892, Mary Kingsley, of the prominent Cambridge University Kingsley family, traveled alone in West Africa on scientific expeditions, gathering materials for her studies of fish.
Frances (Fanny) Burney
Fanny Burney's upbringing resembled that of a heroine of an 18th-century novel. The daughter of musicologist William Burney, she was born into an artistic and well-connected family. Her formal schooling was minimal -- she didn't learn to read or write until at least age 10 -- but her education in decorum and conduct began at an earlier age, typical of middle-class girls in England in the mid-1700s.
Conduct books for girls were tremendously popular in this period and considered a necessary part of the middle-class girl's education. The novel -- also aimed squarely at an increasingly female readership -- flourished as a genre at the same time, and a number of the earliest novels can be read as attempts at teaching the rules of conduct to English readers. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) are the most influential examples of this convergence. Burney learned early that humility, not displays of vanity, flattered a young lady, and she in fact destroyed her first attempt at written "exhibition," the 1767 manuscript The History of Caroline Evelyn. Out of the ashes of this first effort came the wildly popular Evelina (1778), subtitled "The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World," which she published anonymously.
Word of her authorship spread quickly, however, and in the same year as Evelina's publication, Burney began a friendship with Samuel Johnson and his circle. Of Burney's four novels, Evelina is the one read most frequently today. Its epistolary form, in which Evelina writes meticulously detailed letters about her adventures in London and receives letters of advice from her guardian and other adults, is typical of the early novel, as is its moral of "virtue rewarded" (the subtitle of Pamela) by a good marriage and money.
Burney wrote a number of unproduced comedies and dramas, and three other novels: Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796), and The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). In 1793, Burney married the French exile, Alexandre d'Arblay and their 25 years of marriage saw frequent, though not acrimonious, separations, in which d'Arblay attempted to retrieve property he had lost during the French Revolution. They had one son, Alexander, who died in 1837.
Burney underwent a radical mastectomy in 1811, and she describes the unanesthetized experience in grueling detail in her multi-volume journal. Burney died in London in 1840.
Maria Edgeworth is often considered either the 'Irish Jane Austen' or the 'female Sir Walter Scott,' although her writing actually influenced both. Her novels and stories fall into three categories: sketches of Irish life, commentary on contemporary English society, and instruction in children's moral training. Published between 1796 and 1834, her work is characterized by both a Scott-like Romantic attachment to the past and an Austenian wit and rationalism.
The English-born Edgeworth was the second of 21 children (by four wives). Her father was Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who held both an Irish estate and progressive ideas on education, particularly on the shortcomings of female education. Maria Edgeworth was schooled in Derby, England, and then in London. Her father believed that education was central to the construction of the "new" individual of the 18th century, who would rise on merit rather than birth -- an idea derived from and also spurring the revolutions in politics and philosophy in the late 1700s.
In 1782, Edgeworth went to live with her father at Edgeworthstown in Ireland to serve as his property manager. Here she collected material for her novels about Irish landlords and peasants, but she also ingested his theories of education. Thirteen years later, Maria Edgeworth's first published work appeared: "Letters for Literary Ladies," a plea for women's education reform. She would later collaborate with her father on Practical Education (1798) and Essays on Professional Education (1809). These writings asserted that women educated in the use of reason would be better wives and mothers, a common idea among advocates of girls' schooling at the turn of the 19th century.
Edgeworth avoided her father's heavy editorial stance when she published her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), anonymously. But even without her father's participation, her novels advanced a moral purpose. Like Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) was a novel of female education which Austen thought noteworthy. Edgeworth also dealt with subjects -- namely, Ireland -- that her English counterparts did not. The Absentee, published in 1812, traces the detrimental effects on Irish rural life of the system of absentee landlordism, in which Irish landowners lived in England. Edgeworth's concern for Ireland was more than literary: During the Irish famine (1845-1847), she worked arduously for the relief of the Irish peasants. She died in Ireland in 1849.
Jane Austen, whose name itself has become a totem of civility, manners, and etiquette, received little public recognition in her lifetime. The four novels which were published while she lived -- Sense and Sensibility (1811); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1814); and Emma (1816) -- appeared without her name on the title page; usually their authorship was attributed only to "a lady."
Austen was born at Steventon, her father's vicarage in Hampshire, into a well-off family. There she wrote her first three published novels. (The first was actually Northanger Abbey, not published until 1818, a year after her death). Between 1801 and 1809, the Austens moved frequently. In 1801, the family moved from the Steventon vicarage to Bath, an English seaside resort which played a prominent part in her last novel, Persuasion (published jointly with Northanger Abbey in 1818). After six years, the family relocated to Southampton; two years later, in 1809, Austen went with her family to Chawton, near Winchester, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Austen wrote of the genteel society she knew in these places, of what we would now call the upper middle class -- those with some land and some money, generally without titles, and always with the pressure of navigating the treacherous waters of social codes and expectations. The world of Austen's novel of manners was a limited one; Mansfield Park is unique among the six novels in that it spends an extended episode in the urban home of a poor family.
Although Austen is now often revered for her handling of romantic love, her social conservatism was actually at odds with the Romantic sensibility. With her advocacy of reason over fancy and moderation over excess, Austen wrote of marriages and social relations based on rational companionship rather than on the feverish emotionality espoused by the Romanticism that was dominant when she wrote. Her deft irony and subtle but firm morality refined the genre of the novel, which was really still in its early childhood at the turn of the 19th century. Austen, the great narrator of courtship and marriage, never married, and she died among her family in Winchester at the age of 42.
Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley
A number of feminist critics read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as an elaborate metaphor for childbirth. They draw on the links between creativity and birth that the novel suggests, but it is true that Shelley was physically concerned with birth during the year that Frankenstein was written: She gave birth to a son six months before she began the novel, and completed it four months before the birth of a daughter. Stories of the novel's origins are often rendered in terms of birth as well: Shelley "conceived" Frankenstein on a challenge from Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to tell the most frightening ghost story. What Mary Shelley produced was not so much a ghost story as a meditation on the dangers of genius and creativity, and of man's responsibility to his own creations, and to the world into which he introduces them.
Shelley was the daughter of the radicals William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both of whom sought to reform European society by means of ideas generated by the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, but the young Mary read all of her mother's writings by the age of 10. Her unorthodox upbringing owed much to the philosophy of Godwin (although he was at times a remote figure in her childhood), whose deeply held belief that the individual has "absolute sovereignty" over himself found numerous adherents among contemporary Romantics. In fact, it was through Percy Shelley's connection to Godwin that Mary met her future husband.
Frankenstein, with its mad genius and its sad monster, shows the marks of both the intellectual ferocity she grew up with and the losses she suffered in her early years. Mary Shelley's life with Percy Shelley, much of which was spent in Italy, was also marked by loss: Three of their four children died before the age of three, and Percy Shelley himself died in 1822, a month before his 30th birthday and after only six years of marriage. Frankenstein remained enormously popular for three decades, although none of the novels that followed were a success.
Shelley gave up writing novels in the late 1830s when the Victorian 'triple-decker' began to gain popularity. She continued to oversee the publication of Percy Shelley's poetry and letters and to publish travel narratives of her own until her death in 1851.
Tremendously popular in her lifetime, Elizabeth Gaskell now tends to be overshadowed by the Brontës and George Eliot. Cranford (1853) and Wives and Daughters (1866) have been the most acclaimed of her works, although today Mary Barton (1848), her first novel, and North and South (1855) receive more critical attention. The two pairs of novels represent Gaskell's prevailing interests as an author: provincial life and urban issues. In all of her writing, Gaskell was concerned with how individual lives play out against the pressures of history and social life.
Gaskell was the daughter and wife of Unitarian ministers. Born in London, the infant Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was sent, after the death of her mother, to live with an aunt in the Cheshire village of Knutsford, which would become the model for Cranford and for Hollingford in Wives and Daughters. After her father's death, she visited the urban centers of London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester, and it was in Manchester that she met and married William Gaskell in 1832.
Out of her observations of the Manchester poor came Mary Barton, which was one of an array of novels written in the 1830s and 1840s that brought the miserable living conditions of the working poor to the public's attention. Along with Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Kingsley, and Charlotte Brontë (in 1849's Shirley), Gaskell wrote of the "Condition of England." Coming from different points on the reform spectrum, these authors borrowed from the emerging field of sociology (Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England was first published in 1844) to document the problems of poverty with the goal of social change in mind. Although northern industrialists opposed Gaskell's representation of the exploitative rich and the working poor, and some critics charged her with overly broad characterization, Mary Barton was immediately successful and brought Gaskell fame as a writer.
With Cranford's serialization from 1851 to 1853, she became affiliated with Dickens's magazine Household Words. Something of a celebrity in England, Gaskell lent her support to raising funds for her friend Florence Nightingale's work in the Crimea in 1854. The following year, Gaskell was asked by the father of Charlotte Brontë (also her friend) to write her biography. Published in 1857, Life of Charlotte Brontë received the support of Brontë's widower but was challenged by other parties concerned in it. Despite this blot on her literary reputation, Gaskell continued to write until her sudden death in 1865, with Wives and Daughters serialized into 1866.
The eldest of the three writing Brontë sisters, Charlotte Brontë assumed some of the maternal care of her younger siblings (including a brother, Branwell) after the death of her mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. In The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Elizabeth Gaskell brought the eccentricities of the Brontës's lives in Yorkshire to public view. It is this view of the sisters -- locked into the solitary world of the moors and their own fevered imaginations -- that has persisted. But this image of Charlotte Brontë is incomplete.
In 1824, she was sent with Emily and the two elder sisters (who both died that same year) to Cowan School, on which Brontë based the draconian environment of Lowood School in Jane Eyre (1847). A few years after leaving Cowan School, Brontë served as a teacher at Roe Head (where Emily studied briefly), and she developed relationships outside her family that lasted her lifetime.
From 1842 to 1844, Brontë lived in Belgium, where she attempted to gather information (again, briefly with Emily) to set up her own school in England. The plan failed, but she drew on her Belgian experience for two of her four novels, The Professor (written before Jane Eyre but published posthumously in 1857) and Villette (1853).
If Jane Eyre, with its exploration of the world of imagination and social responsibility, is her most famous novel, Shirley (1849), about the Luddite Rebellion of 1811 and 1812, is the one which shatters the Brontë mold. It is a "condition of England" novel, and demonstrates Brontë's concern not only with private dramas but also with public issues of labor and poverty.
Although she did live much in isolation with her increasingly demanding clergyman father, Brontë, long an admirer of the Romantics, made the personal acquaintance of a number of eminent literary Victorians, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, Gaskell, and G.H. Lewes (George Eliot's partner). Brontë also broke the spinster mold often associated with the sisters, marrying A.B.Nicholls, her father's curate, in 1854. However, true to bleak Brontë lore, she died in pregnancy only a few months later.
Charlotte Brontë described her young sister Emily as an unrelenting genius, an idea which Elizabeth Gaskell translated into still-standing myth in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857).
Emily Brontë's reputation as such now rests overwhelmingly on her one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). With its storm-darkened moors and roiling psychological landscape, Wuthering Heights combines some of the most popular mid-Victorian genres -- realism, fantasy, horror, and melodrama -- to produce a novel influenced by the Romanticism of the 19th century's first three decades. Influencing the physically and psychologically violent "sensation novels" which would become so popular in the century's second half, the novel remains singular and category-defying in the canon of British literature.
Except for Charlotte's few anecdotes about Emily, little is known about the younger Brontë's life: she left no correspondence or journal, and only the one novel, a few poems, and her elaborately drawn juvenile writings -- composed with Charlotte, their younger sister Anne, and brother Branwell -- about the rival kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.
Brontë returned to Haworth, their Yorkshire home, where she was educated with her sisters and brother after a one-year stint at Cowan School. Brontë's other attempts at school, as both student and teacher, generally ended quickly, due to her poor physical health and homesickness. Her stay in Belgium with Charlotte, beginning in 1842, was cut short for the same reasons.
In 1846, the three sisters pseudonymously published The Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, but only Emily's poetry is considered to be of any lasting merit. The Brontës's lives were famously marked by loss: Their mother died in 1821; the two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died within months of each other in 1824; and Anne died in the spring of 1849 at the age of 29. Less than a year earlier, Branwell had succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction at the age of 31; at Branwell's funeral, Emily took ill and died within three months, in December 1848.
George Eliot, probably the most learned of Victorian novelists, studied French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew both at school and later. But her novels, almost without exception, concerned English life (1863's Romola is the only one set entirely outside of England).
Born Marian Evans in Warwickshire, her early life, though marked by a private education with tutors, was otherwise a typically provincial one. She lived with her brother and her carpenter-turned-land agent father. After her father's death in 1849, she traveled in Europe and settled in London, where she became associated with the Westminster Review. By the mid-1840s and into the 1850s, Eliot (still as Evans) worked extensively as a translator of contemporary philosophy, most notably of Feuerbach and Spinoza. Her life in London as an editor, reviewer, and translator brought her into contact with a rarefied intellectual community, including the empiricist Herbert Spencer, the feminist Barbara Bodichon, and the writer G.H. Lewes, with whom she lived from 1854 to 1878. (They never married at least in part because Lewes's wife would not grant him a divorce.)
She assumed the pseudonym "George Eliot" with the 1857 publication of Scenes of Clerical Life. As a young woman, Eliot had been an evangelical, but her novels bear the marks of her adult conversion to a secular rationalism; Adam Bede, published in 1859, deals with the questions of spiritualism and worldliness Eliot confronted in her early life. Typical of the mid-century realist novel, Eliot's writing turned away from what had come to be perceived as the self-interest of Romanticism -- typified by Wordsworth's poetry -- toward an outward-looking interest in social life and social reform.
Her interest in reform differed from that of her contemporaries Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, though. Eliot was not unconcerned with material reform (Felix Holt, Radical, from 1866, takes up the issue directly), but her greatest interest lay in the effects of social crisis on an individual's interior life rather than exterior condition. Set against the background of the 1832 Reform Bill, which reapportioned parliamentary representation and extended the franchise to any man owning a household worth 10 pounds, Eliot's masterwork Middlemarch (1871-1872) is more concerned with the shifting psychological allegiances and aspirations of the provincial town's inhabitants than it is with the machinery of political change.
After Lewes's death in 1878, Eliot surprised her acquaintances by marrying John Cross, an American 20 years her junior. Seven months later, in December 1880, George Eliot -- now Marian Evans Cross -- died.
Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon
Known in the second half of the 1800s as the "Queen of the Circulating Libraries," Mary Elizabeth Braddon had immediate success as a novelist upon the publication of her first novel, Lady Audley's Secret, in 1862. Her second, Aurora Floyd, which appeared the following year, was equally popular.
Braddon stoked the phenomenon of the "sensation novel," which had first appeared in England with the publication of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne (1861). Sensation novels, which were frequently serialized, played out mystery, violent crime, and intrigue in ordinary middle- and upper-middle-class settings. The popularity of sensation novels coincided with two key events in the history of reading in England: the repeal of the stamp duty on paper in 1855 (which dramatically increased the circulation of newspapers and generated a larger reading public for them), and the proliferation of circulating libraries throughout the Victorian period, where "triple-decker" Victorian novels were plentiful and easy to obtain.
Braddon's life itself could have provided ample material for her novels. She had a brief career on the provincial stage from 1857 to 1860. In 1862, she began to live with the publisher John Maxwell, at whose request she wrote Lady Audley's Secret in a matter of weeks to boost circulation of his fledgling magazine. Maxwell was married at the time to a woman who was institutionalized. Braddon married Maxwell in 1874, but in the intervening years had given birth to six children while rearing five from his earlier marriage. The sensation genre which Braddon was instrumental in popularizing remained vibrant throughout the rest of the century, although its heyday was the 1860s.
Braddon would go on to write more than 80 books, most of them novels, during her lifetime; she could count among her admirers Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Although conservative critics lambasted sensation novels for their violence and "immorality," an argument can be made that they mirrored the social landscape of the 1860s, in which novels and newspapers both brought prosperous middle-class Victorians into confrontation with the underbelly of English prosperity: poverty, prisons, and madness.
In the years before her death in 1915, Braddon watched as the novel-centered literary scene was transformed by film, and in 1913, she viewed the silent film of her Aurora Floyd.
Abby Wolf is a lecturer in the History and Literature program and in Women's Studies at Harvard University.
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