“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”
This pronouncement by Robert Southey in a letter to Charlotte Brontë certainly puts the female writer firmly in her place. But there is something significant in Southey’s choice of words. Note that he does no say that writing is no place for a woman, but that a woman has no business in Literature. This is a critical distinction in the history of both poetry and prose.
I was reading The Adventures of Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett, published in 1748. In one section Random comes across some poetry by an eccentric woman. He notes that “what was very extraordinary in a female poet, there was not the least mention made of love in any of her performances.” It struck me that in order for Smollett to write that, he must have been familiar with poetry by women, and familiar enough to know that they wrote predominantly about matters of the heart.
How many 18th century women writers did I know? (Jeopardy theme plays…) Um…none? But there must have been some. I knew of Aphra Behn in the 17th century and Mary Herbert in the 16th, but my knowledge of 18th century women writers – and to tell the truth, any women writers before the 20th century – was pretty thin on the ground.
Coincidentally, I happened to be reading at the same time George Eliot’s Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. From Eliot’s references I deduced that there must be a number of 19th century female popular novelists I had never heard of. I am familiar with the most famous the women writers of the 19th century: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontës, but there must have been many more who are outside the Canon.
One 18th century writer was Ann Radcliffe whose three-volume novel, The Romance of the Forest was mentioned by Jane Austen in Emma. Another book named in Emma was The Children of the Abbey by Regina Maria Roche. Regina who? Regina Roche was a bestselling author in her day. The Children of the Abbey, published in 1796, remained in print until the latter part of the 19th century. Roche’s novel Clermont formed the basis of Austen’s attempt to use Gothic themes in Northanger Abbey.
Another 18th century novelist was Clara Reeve, whose work was derivative of her contemporary, Horace Walpole, but she is reputed to have been an influence on Mary Shelley. And then there was Charlotte Dacre, who sometimes used the name Rosa Matilda. Dacre wrote popular Gothic and Romance novels. She was admired by Percy Bysshe Shelley, but mocked by Byron, who mentioned her in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,
Far be’t from me unkindly to upbraid
The lovely Rosa’s prose in masquerade,
Whose strains, the faithful echoes of her mind,
Leave wondering comprehension far behind.
Charlotte Dacre married Nicholas Byrne, an editor at The Morning Post. The poetry editor of that paper was Mary Robinson, a poet much admired by Wordsworth and Coleridge. The fact that there was a woman newspaper editor in the early 19th century struck me as odd. It was my impression that such occupations fell under male dominion and women were excluded. But then I remembered that, Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, was editor of The Westminster Review. I began looking for more women in editorial positions and found that Mary Braddon, author of over 80 sensational novels, was editor of Temple Bar magazine and founded the magazine Belgravia. Mary Wood was the owner and principle contributor to Argosy, and Charlotte Riddell was editor and part owner of St. James’s Magazine. Lady Emmeline Stuart-Wortley edited The Keepsake literary magazine, and Charlotte Mary Yonge founded The Monthly Packet, remaining as editor for 40 years. So perhaps women editors, although not the norm, were not all that unusual.
There were women journalists as well: Mary Anne Broome, writing as Lady Barker, was a correspondent for The Times. Eliza Lynn Linton wrote for The Morning Chronicle and Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. Eliza Linton is reputed to be the first salaried woman journalist in England. At least women were not completely barred from literary positions.
Historically, women could always gain acclaim as diarists, essayists, letter writers, writers of memoirs, writers on travel, religion, morals, proper conduct, household management, and even as critics. There is a long line of such women writers stretching back to the 17th century; Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Astell, Dorothy Osborne, Lady Anne Halkett and Lucy Hutchinson, to name just a few.
As I continued my research (with a generous allowance from the Things To Do While Avoiding Writing My Novel Fund), I turned up many more 18th and 19th century women writers, all very popular in their day, but now languishing in obscurity. The reason is that they wrote popular Gothic and Romance novels, not Literature. Mary Ann Evans adopted the nom de plume George Eliot in order to distinguish her work from the silly novels of other lady novelists. She wanted her novels to be taken seriously, as a man’s would, and not lumped in with the trashy romances.
Why wasn’t writing by women taken as seriously as that by men? Why were they relegated to gothic tales, romances and ‘silver fork’ novels depicting the manners and etiquette of high society? We know from Tobias Smollett that the accepted realm for women’s poetry was love, and this attitude continued throughout the 19th century. Women ruled the heart and men the head. Women were swayed by irrational passions, whereas men relied on reason. Women were regarded as secondary beings, helpmates formed from Adam’s rib – and as a result fragile vessels who were not particularly bright.
The traditional and proper spheres for women and men were set out by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem The Princess:
Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey.
There was a sentimental vision of the ideal woman that pervaded the 19th century: gentle, quiet, uncomplaining, self-sacrificing, industrious and above all virtuous. A large dollop of innocent beauty helped as well. Such angelic figures can be seen in Charles Dickens’ characters Little Dorrit and Little Nell. Notice the appellation ‘Little’ used to describe the perfect woman.
While sentimental idealization honored the enigmatic feminine, there was always something morally suspect about women. Ever since Eve enticed Adam to bite that apple and Delilah seduced Samson, women have been regarded as a dangerous snare for men. And they suffered for it. In 18th century England, a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock could be sent to Bridewell Prison. The father was not so punished.
The moral censure of women was so strong that when John Stuart Mill came to write The Subjection of Women in 1869, he was afraid to refer to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman from 1792 because of the immorality of her lifestyle – she had affairs, bore a child out of wedlock and twice attempted suicide. One of the reasons Mary Ann Evans wrote under a man’s name was to conceal her identity to avoid condemnation for her scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived without benefit of marriage.
Women participated in this type of moral censure as well. Novelist and feminist writer Mary Hays, for example, was initially influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft and they became acquainted. However, after reading the shocking revelations in William Godwin’s Memoir, published after Mary’s death, Hays wouldn’t include her former mentor in the six volume work, Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries.
The opinion of society was not something to be taken lightly; it could make or break reputations and careers. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins says of Lydia’s licentiousness that, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this…this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who, as lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.”
And, as Mary Bennet reminds us, “that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable – that one false step involves her in endless ruin…” Although Austen was writing fiction, there was truth behind her words. Better off dead.
Take the case of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who published under the initials L.E.L. She was a much loved poet and her eager audience waited breathlessly for the next issue of the Literary Gazette to read her latest verse. Soon rumors began to circulate that she had an affair with the editor of the Literary Gazette, William Jerdan, and even had children by him. Landon’s fiancé broke off their engagement because of the rumors. To escape the malicious gossip, Landon married the reluctant George Maclean, Governor of the Gold Coast colony, and left England. Two months after arriving in West Africa, Letitia was found dead, a bottle of cyanide in her hand. We will never know what horror drove her to such a desperate end.
American poet Frances Sargent Osgood also suffered from public scandal. When rumors flew of an affair with Edgar Allan Poe while both were still married, hinting that Poe was the father of her third child, Frances and her husband fled New York for Philadelphia. In another sensational case, English writer Caroline Norton’s husband sued her close friend Lord Melbourne, then Britain’s Prime Minister, for having an affair with Caroline. Her reputation was left in tatters and her friendship with Melbourne ended, even though the case was thrown out of court. The scandal very nearly brought down the government.
While society promoted feminine propriety, female authors often produced works that showed women in a different light than the demure ideal. You never knew what immodest and immoral behavior the characters created by female authors would get up to next. The main character of Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya; or, The Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century is a murderess. In East Lynne, by Mrs. Henry Wood, the heroine deserts her husband and children, elopes with a lover and bears his illegitimate child. In Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon’s protagonist murders her husband and abandons her child, sets fire to a hotel, is involved in a bigamous marriage and gets up to other mischief. Not the sort of woman one would invite home for tea. The author of Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon, lived with and had three children by publisher John Maxwell, who was already married. When, after many years, Maxwell’s first wife died, he and Mary were finally wed. The secret of their iniquitous relationship came out and caused a scandal. It’s said that all of their servants gave notice.
The majority of women authors, however, perpetuated the male ideal of female virtue as exemplified in Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson. Charlotte M. Brame, who wrote upwards of 130 popular novels, struck a high moral tone in her books, emphasizing the virtues of honor, sense of duty, and self-sacrifice. The works of Harriet Parr, who wrote under the name Holme Lee, were promoted by Charles Edward Mudie, the founder of London’s largest lending library, because her fiction appealed to his strict sense of propriety with “its depictions of shy maidens and their decent love problems.”
Besides their often questionable morality, another obstacle for women writers was the social perception of manliness. A man’s home was his castle and he was responsible for maintaining his wife and family. The man was supposed to wear the pants in the family and a man whose wife went to work was seen as less of man. Irish writer Annie Hector was a victim of this attitude. Her husband disapproved of her writing and forbade her to publish. After his death, she became a very popular author, writing as Mrs. Alexander, and published over forty novels.
This model of the family with the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker persisted well into the 20th century and can be seen in television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best and The Dick Van Dyke Show, among many others.
These were the values of the time and, just as many women today fulfill their socially accepted, gender defined roles, women of the 19th century took for granted the divide between masculine and feminine. When Gertrude Atherton broke with feminine convention and revealed to her American family that she was a writer, she was cast out. She went on to publish over fifty books. However, while on a visit to London she passed up an opportunity to meet Oscar Wilde, saying that his style displayed “the decadence, the loss of virility that must follow over-civilization.”
So maintaining virility, and its corollary femininity, was essential to preserving society, culture and, ultimately, civilization. The proper stations and ethical behavior of men and women were reinforced by Conduct Books such as Hannah More’s Moral Sketches, which contains a chapter on ‘Unprofitable Reading,’ warning young women away from improper books such as Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
Even women who felt that the contribution of the weaker sex was undervalued and promoted better education for women, such as Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, felt that the woman’s place was in the home, that women should be content with being mothers and teachers and keep well out of politics. Beecher reinforced these attitudes in her monumental Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper: containing five hundred recipes for economical and healthful cooking; also, many directions for securing health and happiness, a 500 page book which became a standard for young wives attempting to master the arts of household management and achieve domestic bliss. Jane West, a mother of three who wrote didactic novels and improving conduct books, felt that the importance of a woman’s domestic duties outweighed her creative endeavors. “My needle always claims the pre-eminence of my pen,” she wrote.
Queen Victoria herself, who set the moral tone of much of the 19th century in Britain, spoke out against the Suffragettes and votes for women, a position supported by journalist and novelist Eliza Lynn Linton. Linton wrote that politics was the sphere of men and that women should be the wives and mothers of great men rather than seeking recognition for themselves.
Challenging the status quo of gender roles could bring the approbation of other women, as Charlotte Smith – who wrote on themes of the legal, economic, and sexual exploitation of women by marriage and property laws – found when poet Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, accused Smith of being vain and indelicate for exposing her husband to public contempt.
The harsh reality for women is exemplified by the fate of Catherine Dickens, wife of novelist Charles. Charles Dickens, who wrote so much about wholesome family life, threw Catherine, his wife of 22 years and mother of his 10 children, out of the house and prevented her from seeing her children (he wouldn’t even let her attend her daughter’s wedding). He then took up with Ellen Ternan, a young actress 27 years his junior. Catherine lived out her lonely life in rented rooms while Charles occupied the large house and garden at Gad’s Hill, Kent, surrounded by family, friends and admirers.
In another instance, when author Caroline Norton, a noted feminist and social reformer, left her abusive husband in 1836, she was unable to get a divorce and was denied permission to see her three children. Her husband also took all the earnings from her writing, claiming that a wife’s income legally belonged to the husband. Caroline then ran up bills in her husband’s name and referred the creditors back to him for payment saying the debts were legally his. Caroline Norton became an activist for reform of the laws governing women and saw, before her death in 1877, the passing of Custody of Infants Act of 1839, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
Education was another area that kept women from attaining the airy heights of Literature. Before the mid-19th century, to be educated meant to have a Classical education. That included a firm grounding in Greek and Latin authors in the original languages. Such education could be afforded only by the affluent and was available solely to boys, except for the few girls who had the rare advantage of a refined governess. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was only able to learn Latin and Greek by commandeering her brother’s tutor.
Without this classical learning, women were unable to make the kinds of cultured references to the past that was expected in serious Literature. The Woodard Schools in England were founded in 1848 to provide education for the middle classes, but were not open to girls until the establishment of Abbots Bromley School for Girls in 1874. Nathaniel Woodard, who headed the foundation, resisted starting a school for girls, believing that educating women was a waste of money. The first college for women at Oxford University wasn’t established until 1876, and women were not allowed to take degrees there until 1920. Higher education was very much a male privilege.
There were movements to increase educational opportunities for women, although they were limited in their effect and largely restricted to the upper classes. One of the better known was The Blue Stocking Society, active from about 1750 to the end of the century. The Bluestockings hosted informal gatherings of women, and some men by invitation, to discuss politics, literature and the arts.
Although excluding popular writers such as Anne Radcliffe and Regina Roche, the Bluestockings give something of an overview of the intellectual world of women in the 18th century as the group included poets and novelists such as Frances Burney, Sarah Fielding, Clara Reeve, Sarah Scott, and Anna Williams, as well as essayists, critics and historians such as Mrs. Barbauld, Catherine Talbot, Catharine Macaulay and Hester Thrale. Other members, such as Hannah More and Hester Chapone, wrote books advising women on proper conduct. Hannah More also wrote successfully staged plays, but stopped after being accused of plagiarizing the works of Hannah Cowley.
Before the introduction of compulsory education in 1880, some of the English aristocratic literati took up education of the lower classes as an active cause and literacy generally increased. Popular writer Lady Georgiana Fullerton, for example, founded Saint Walburga’s School in Bournemouth.
With the rise in literacy, the market for popular literature grew. Women had jobs in factories, mines and shops which provided money for books and periodicals of popular fiction. Mrs. Gaskell achieved fame by writing novels of factory life in the midlands. Some of her stories were serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. American writer Rebecca Harding Davis published Life in the Iron Mills; or, the Korl Woman (1861), a novella about the plight of women in factories. She realistically portrayed the tribulations of marginalized people, such as people of color, women, Native Americans, immigrants, and the working classes.
But still, advanced education and manners separated the gentleman from the great unwashed. The Literature of the 19th century abounded with literary references to Milton and Spencer and Shakespeare, as well as classical allusions and mythological references. Sometimes you need a copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology handy just to make out what the writer is getting at. Here’s a sample from John Keats,
As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright…
Not a pure Ida with it snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe where Jove griev’d a day;
It wasn’t only classical references that were expected in Literature, but knowledge of classical forms and meters as well. Elegy, ode and epic were all ancient Greek poetic forms. The metrical feet of iamb, trochee, dactyl, spondee and anapest were adopted from classical Greek poetry. Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonis, Matthew Arnold’s Thyris and Swinburne’s Ave Atque Vale are all based on the Greek and Latin pastoral elegy tradition.
One thing that aided women authors of the time in their literary pursuits was that there were no classical models for the novel; they therefore had a freer hand in expression and form uninhibited by classical restraints. Women writers with progressive ideas, such as Maria Edgeworth, could help shape the novel as a literary form. The first edition of Edgeworth’s novel Belinda (1801) was shocking as it included the marriage of an African servant to an English farm girl. These sections were expunged from subsequent printings.
In spite of the growth and development of the contemporary novel, the prevailing opinion was that classical writing was superior to anything produced since. As Matthew Arnold wrote in 1853, “I fearlessly assert that Hermann and Dorothea [Goethe], Childe Harold [Byron], Jocelyn [Lamartine], The Excursion [Wordsworth], leave the reader cold in comparison with the effect produced upon him by the latter books of Iliad, by the Oresteia, or by the episode of Dido.” Contemporary writing in general, not only that by women, was held in small regard.
Arnold wrote for an educated, and therefore male, audience. In his The Study of Poetry, he included quotes in the original Latin and Greek, expecting his audience to be able to read them and to be familiar with the source. He wrote passages like,
Piping a ditty for Bion’s fate;
And cross the unpermitted ferry’s flow [the river Styx],
And relax Pluto’s brow,
And make leap up with joy the beauteous head
Of Persephone, among whose crowned hair
Are flowers first opened on Sicilian air,
And flute his friend, like Orpheus, from the dead.
The power of classical references lasted into the late 19th century, but weakened to the point where we find Oscar Wilde (who majored in Classical Studies at Trinity College, Dublin) making vague general allusions,
The western wind is blowing fair
Across the dark Aegean sea,
And at the secret marble stair
My Tyrian galley waits for thee.
As the 19th century progressed, education became more accessible to the common people and the importance of the Classics waned, opening the way for more women writers to be acknowledged as important contributors to the history of Literature.
From perusing the Canon of 18th and 19th century Literature, the names of men predominate. This gives the impression that only men were writing at the time. But that’s a skewed vision. There were a significant number of women writers who were read by men and who influenced some of the male writers. The Literature of the Romantic era would probably be very different had not Charlotte Smith introduced the imagery of rural nature and popularized the sonnet form, which had fallen out of favor during the reign of Dryden and Pope. Her Elegiac Sonnets was published in 1784, fourteen years before Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.
Because of the social and cultural pressures of the time, women were relegated to popular writing, whereas men wrote Literature. However, something happened in the 19th century that eventually helped women writers be taken more seriously: there was a blurring of the line between popular writing and Literature. This was due in large part to the work of writers such as Dickens, Longfellow and Tennyson whose writing was popular, but was also recognized as literary.
Felicia Hemans, who mined the heroic vein before Tennyson gained fame, was immensely popular and well regarded in her day. Admired by Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was Blackwood’s highest paid contributor and her books outsold every writer of the day, except for Byron and Walter Scott. On her death, Wordsworth and Landor wrote memorial verses for her. She is barely remembered today. Another forgotten poet is Adelaide Anne Procter, a favorite of Queen Victoria and one of the most popular poets of the mid-19th century.
The fact is that there never has been a shortage of women writers. It only appears so because it is predominately male writers who are read and studied. Why? For the reasons already cited: social and cultural norms, education and traditional attitudes. Women were seen as helpmates rather than leaders – and many women perceived themselves in these terms – and because of this, female writers tended to be not as innovative as their male counterparts.
Women largely followed the lead of men in writing just as they did in life, as they were expected to do. This doesn’t mean that women were incapable of original thought or of writing innovative literature, but that there was no demand and no outlet for it. The status of women writers can be seen in Sir Walter Scott’s comments on fellow Scottish novelist Susan Ferrier, “This gifted personage, besides having great talents, has conversation the least exigent of any author, female at least…”
Many women turned to writing as a source of income rather than as a literary pursuit and, of course, writing for money meant sticking to the popular Romances and Gothic tales. Charlotte Smith supported herself and her six surviving children – she had twelve – by her pen. She published ten novels, three books of poetry, four children’s books, and other assorted works before she died destitute at the age of 57. Barbara Hofland was married to artist Thomas Christopher Hofland. Even though he was a respected landscape painter and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the family depended mainly on the income from Barbara’s writing.
Novelist and historical writer Mrs. Oliphant, left penniless after the death of her husband, sustained herself, her three children, her brother and his children, and a cousin by her writing. In the course of her life she wrote over 120 works of fiction, history, biography, criticism and travel. Ellen Wood, known as Mrs. Henry Wood, took up writing to support her four children at the age of 46 after the failure of her husband’s business. At the time of her death at age 73, having published more than thirty novels, she left an estate worth over £36,000, a great deal of money in 1887.
Elizabeth Inchbald was a touring actress with her ill-matched husband. After his death, she turned to writing for a living, penning over twenty plays and two novels. Julia Kavanagh, known for her independent and resourceful heroines, published her first novel at 23 and supported herself and her invalid mother by her writing until her death at 53. Frances Trollope, after an unsuccessful sojourn at a utopian commune in America, returned to England where she earned enough to keep herself and her seven children by writing both fiction and non-fiction, eventually publishing over 100 volumes. Her fourth son, Anthony Trollope, became a successful author in his own right.
There were many other women in similar situations and it makes one wonder about their lives and the intense effort it took to survive. The obscure Adelaine Sargeant lived alone in Bloomsbury and pumped out over ninety novels to keep body and soul together.
Although women, in time, came to be seen as capable of writing important works, the divide between heart and mind remained. Even in our own era, women writers tend to focus more on relationships and male writers focus more on events. Popular action novels, like those by Tom Clancy and Dan Brown, are written predominately by men; romance novels, such as those by Nora Roberts or Jude Deveraux, are the work of women.
Gender roles have come under much scrutiny in the last few years and many women writers of the past have been elevated from obscurity to prominence. There has been a shift in the definition of Literature to include more women writers – as can be seen in college texts and the addition of women writers to anthologies – but there is still a long way to go before the contribution of women writers to the history of Literature is fully acknowledged and a lot more women writers to uncover. Who, for example, was Mary E. Bennett? We know she was born in 1841 and wrote books such as The Canadian Girl, or, The Pirate of the Lakes and The Jew’s daughter, or, The witch of the water-side: a story of the thirteenth century, but beyond that her biography is a blank. Was she one of George Eliot’s silly lady novelists whose works are best consigned to the shadows of history? Hopefully, someday soon, we will know.
John C. Goodman is a Canadian writer and Pushcart Prize nominee. He has published three collections of poetry, most recently *Dark Age* (Grey Borders), as well as a novel which was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award. Forthcoming is a novella from Quattro Books. He also authored the non-fiction work Poetry: Tools & Techniques (Gneiss Press). John is the past editor of *ditch,* (www.ditchpoetry.com), an online magazine of experimental poetry. He currently lives in British Columbia, Canada.