Women's Literature in the 19th Century
Modern critical analysis of nineteenth-century women's literature seeks, in part, to understand the underlying reasons that women authors, especially in America, Britain, and France, were able to gain such widespread exposure and prominence in an age known for its patriarchal and often dismissive attitude toward the intellectual abilities of women. In addition, scholars have examined the broad thematic concerns that characterize much of the literary output of nineteenth-century women writers, many arguing that it was in the nineteenth century that gender-consciousness and feminist attitudes first came to the forefront of the literary imagination, changing forever how the works of female authors would be written and regarded.
The number of published women authors was greater in the nineteenth century than in any preceding century. Women's access to higher education increased exponentially during the century, providing them with skills that they could use to develop their art. The growth of market economies, cities, and life expectancies changed how women in Europe and the United States were expected to conform to new societal pressures, and made many women more conscious of their imposed social, legal, and political inequality. Finally, the many social reform movements led by nineteenth-century women, such as religious revivalism, abolitionism, temperance, and suffrage, gave women writers a context, an audience, and a forum in which they could express their views. While most scholars agree that many women writers expressly or tacitly accepted the separate sphere of domesticity that the age assumed of them, they also argue that as the century progressed, an increasing number of women began to express, in their writing, their dissatisfaction with gender relations and the plight of women in general. Throughout the Victorian era, the "woman question" regarding woman's true place in art and society was a subject that was hotly debated, spurred in large part by the rapid rise in literature by and for women.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, women writers were largely confined to the genres of children's literature and poetry. The emotionalism of poetry, particularly poetry in which depth of feeling and sentiment, morality, and intuition were expressed and celebrated, was considered a "feminine genre," suitable for women writers. As nineteenth-century women increasingly began to write fiction, however, critical reviews of the age often derided the inferior talents of women novelists, faulting what they perceived as women's lack of worldly experience, critical judgment, and rationality—traits thought to characterize men—and dismissing their works as little better than pulp designed to appeal to the unrefined tastes of an ever-expanding female readership. Many of the century's greatest novelists, including Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and George Sand, never completely escaped the condescension of critics whose negative assessments of their works were often based on the author's gender. Scholars argue that the legacy of this sexism has been a historic dismissal of the work of many of the age's most popular, gifted, and influential women writers, consistently judged as unworthy of academic study.
Some modern critics have continued to disregard the contributions of nineteenth-century women authors, while others have noted that by the end of the century, women novelists were more prevalent, and often more popular, than male novelists. Others have focused on representations of women in literature written both by men and women to illuminate the full spectrum of expectations of and perspectives on women and their perceived roles in society. Commentators have also compared the thematic concerns of women writers in England, France, and the United States, recognizing in these three cultures intersecting movements toward creative and feminist literary expression. In recent decades, critics have examined the contributions of African American and Native American women authors, as well as the influence of the nineteenth-century periodical press, analyzing the increasing radicalism of journals and essays edited and written by feminist pioneers such as Frances Power Cobbe and Sarah Josepha Hale.
Toward the end of the century, nineteenth-century women writers expanded their subject matter, moving beyond highlighting the lives and hardships suffered by women locked in domestic prisons. Instead, they increasingly expressed their individualism and demanded more equal partner-ships—in marriage, public life, law, and politics—with men.
Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion (novels) 1818
Miss Marjoribanks (novel) 1866
Jane Eyre (novel) 1847
Villette (novel) 1853
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Aurora Leigh (poetry) 1857
The Education and Employment of Women (nonfiction) 1868
The Awakening (novel) 1898
Frances Power Cobbe
Essays in the Pursuit of Women (essays) 1863
The Life of Frances Power Cobbe: By Herself (autobiography) 1894
Olive (novel) 1850
Romola (novel) 1863
Middlemarch (novel) 1871-72
Ruth Hall (novel) 1855
Woman in the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1845
Ruth (novel) 1853
Adam Bede (novel) 1859
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper (novella) 1892...
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STÉPHANIE-FÉLICITÉ DUCREST, COMTESSE DE GENLIS (ESSAY DATE 1811)
SOURCE: Ducrest, Stéphanie-Félicité. “Preliminary Reflections.”In The Influence of Women on French Literature, translated by Matthew Bray and Amy Simowitz, pp. 208-11. Paris: Maradan, 1811.
In the following essay, Ducrest relates the importance of women writers to French literature.
Men of letters have over women authors a superiority of achievement that, assuredly, one cannot fail to recognize or contest. All of the works of women taken together are not worth a few choice pages from Bossuet or Pascal, or a few scenes from Corneille, Racine, or Molière. But it is not necessary to infer from this that women’s natural ability is inferior to that of men. Genius composes itself out of all those qualities which we know that women possess, often to the highest degree: imagination, sensibility, and elevation of spirit. Lack of study and education having in all ages cut off women from a literary vocation, they have displayed their grandeur of spirit not through tracing historic deeds, nor in presenting ingenious fictions, but rather through genuine, material actions. They have done more than write: they have often, by their conduct, furnished models of sublime heroism. It may be true that not one woman has, in her writing, painted the great spirit of Cornelia, but what does this matter,...
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SOURCE: Smith, Elizabeth Oakes. Woman and Her Needs, pp. 10-29. New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1851.
In the following excerpt, Smith underscores the importance of "Woman thought."
Whatever difference of opinion may exist amongst us as to the propriety of the recent Conventions held in our Country, called "Woman's Rights," the fact stands by itself, a handwriting on the wall, proclaiming a sense of wrong, a sense of something demanding redress, and this is fact enough to justify the movement to all candid eyes. Indeed enough to render it praiseworthy. For one, I am glad to see that our Republic has produced a class of women, who, feeling the Need of a larger sphere and a better recognition, have that clearness of intellect and strength of purpose by which they go to work resolutely to solve the difficulty. They might stay at home and fret and dawdle; be miserable themselves and make all within their sphere miserable likewise; but instead of this, they meet and talk the matter over, devise plans, explain difficulties, rehearse social oppressions and political disabilities, in the hope of evolving something permanently good.
All this is well, and grows naturally from the progress of institutions like our own, in which opinions are fearlessly discussed, and all thought traced home to its source. It isn't in the nature of things that any...
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SOURCE: Butler, Josephine. "The Education and Employment of Women." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 162-65. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
In the following excerpt, originally published in The Education and Employment of Women in 1868, Butler describes two separate rationales for women's rights to equal education, concluding that educated women would prove to be a benefit to gender relations and society as a whole.
There are two classes of advocates of the improvement of the education and condition of women The one class urge everything from the domestic point of view. They argue in favour of all which is likely to make women better mothers, or better companions for men, but they seem incapable of judging of a woman as a human being by herself, and superstitiously afraid of anything which might strengthen her to stand alone, prepared, single-handed, to serve her God and her country. When it is urged upon them that the women who do and must stand alone are counted by millions, they are perplexed, but only fall back on expressions of a fear lest a masculine race of women should be produced, if we admit any theories respecting them apart from conjugal and maternal relationships.
On the other hand, there are advocates who speak with some slight...
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SOURCE: Cobbe, Frances Power. "To Elizabeth Garrett Anderson." In Women's Writing of the Victorian Period 1837-1901: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, pp. 181-82. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
In the following poem, originally published in 1871, Cobbe details many of the institutions that the women's rights movement needed to overcome.
TO ELIZABETH GARRETT ANDERSON
The Woman's cause was rising fast
When to the Surgeons' College past
A maid who bore in fingers nice
A banner with the new device
"Try not to pass!" the Dons exclaim,
"M.D. shall grace no woman's name
"—"Bosh!" cried the maid, in accents free,
"To France I'll go for my degree."
The School-Board seat came next in sight,
"Beware the foes of woman's right!"
"Beware the awful husting's fight!"
Such was the moan of many a soul—
A voice replied from top of poll—
In patients' homes she saw the light
Of household fires beam warm and...
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SOURCE: Coleridge, Mary Elizabeth. "The Witch." In The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Second Edition, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, p. 1147. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
In the following poem, originally published in 1892, Coleridge characterizes marriage as being akin to death for women.
I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
The cutting wind is a cruel foe.
I dare not stand in the blast.
My hands are stone, and my voice a groan,
And the worst of death is past
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart's desire.
She came—she came—and the quivering flame
Sank and died in the fire.
It never was...
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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Female Tradition." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 3-36. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1977.
In the following excerpt, Showalter discusses the implications of identifying female sensibilities in the literary output of nineteenth-century female authors, identifying three distinct phases in the development of themes and gender battles as addressed in women's writing in the nineteenth century.
The advent of female literature promises woman's view of life, woman's experience: in other words, a new element. Make what distinctions you please in the social world, it still remains true that men and women have different organizations, consequently different experiences.…Buthitherto … the literature of women has fallen short of its functions owing to a very natural and a very explicable weakness—it has been too much a literature of imitation. To write as men write is the aim and besetting sin of women; to write as women is the real task they have to perform.
—G. H. Lewes, "The Lady Novelists," 1852
English women writers have never suffered from the lack of a reading audience, nor have they wanted for attention from scholars and critics. Yet we have never been sure what unites them as women, or, indeed, whether they...
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SOURCE: Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. "Introduction: Literature and Society." In Femininity to Feminism: Women and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 1-15. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
In the following essay, Gorsky describes women's dominating role in development of the realistic novel in the nineteenth century, arguing that a century filled with profound change was heavily influenced by female authors and readers.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own1
Exploring the role of women during the nineteenth century means considering the evolution of feminism, a loaded word that implies a variety of ideas and arouses conflicting reactions. Feminism suggests a practical determination to alter unjust laws, whether about divorce, property, or voting rights. But it also implies a philosophical questioning of traditional values and ideas, from women's intellectual and emotional capacities to male-female relationships to the ways women and men think, act, and feel. A lot happened to women's roles and the women's movement during this period of ferment. The greatest...
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SOURCE: Harris, Susan K. "'But is it any good?' Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women's Fiction." In The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers, edited by Joyce W. Warren, pp. 263-79. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Harris attempts to define specific methodologies to help evaluate the literary merits of nineteenth-century women's fiction.
The revival of interest in nineteenth-century American women's literature is less than fifteen years old.1 Since Nina Baym published Woman's Fiction in 1978, it has become academically respectable to acknowledge interest in works like Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World or Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, and they are slowly becoming features of the academic terrain. Mary Kelley's Private Woman, Public Stage,2 Alfred Habegger's Gender, Fantasy, and Realism,3 Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs,4 the articles in Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing, and articles in Signs, American Quarterly, ESQ, and others are all signposts to the new territories. But with the notable exception of Tompkins, few scholars have ventured to construct appropriate evaluative criteria. Rather, there appears to be an unspoken agreement not to submit...
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SOURCE: Mermin, Dorothy. “Entering the Literary Market.” In Godiva's Ride: Women of Letters in England, 1830-1880, pp. 43-59. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Mermin describes the subject matter and other literary elements that defined the novels of nineteenth-century women authors.
The pleasures fame brought women writers show not only the gap between premonitory terror and a realized fact but also changes occurring in the literary world. It has been estimated that half the novels published in England in the eighteenth century were written by women, but the prestige of the genre was low, in large part because of its female associations. In the Victorian period, however, it became the dominant literary form. As the status of the novel rose, the status of women writers rose with it. Of the 878 novelists included in John Sutherland's Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 312 are women, who published an average of 21 novels each, while 565 men published on average 17.7. And for the first time in the history of any literary genre women authors were a significant proportion of those most highly esteemed. The low prestige of novel writing allowed women to enter the field; later in the century fiction became defined as high art and women were pushed to the periphery.1 But in the...
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American Women Writers
SOURCE: Simson, Rennie. "Afro-American Poets of the Nineteenth Century." In Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World, edited by Rhoda B. Nathan, pp. 181-91. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
In the following essay, Simson argues that the small amount of literary output available by nineteenth-century African-American women is deserving of scholarly attention.
As long ago as 1893 Dr. L. A. Scruggs in his book Women of Distinction (a work discussing noted Afro-American women) made the observation that it was "a painful experience to see how little is known of our great women and their works."1 This neglect is echoed in the words of contemporary scholars. Bert Lowenberg and Ruth Bogin in their recent work, Black Women in 19th Century American Life, commented: "If the black male's words, before the most recent period of ferment, were recorded only spasmodically, those of the black female were still less frequently set down on paper."2 In their introduction to Sturdy Black Bridges, an anthology containing works by and about Afro-American women writers, the editors state:
Only slight attention has been given to Black women in creative literature, thus evoking grave concerns among female artists and scholars.… Recently a number of Black Anthologies and major critical works have been...
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Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. "Why Try a Writing Career?: The Ambiguous Cultural Context for Women Writers of the Mid-Nineteenth Century." In Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 2-13. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
In the following excerpt, Coultrap-McQuin details the second-rate treatment that women writers in the nineteenth century received, detailing one incident involving the Atlantic where women writers were excluded from a dinner party which celebrated the anniversary of the literary magazine.
On December 17, 1877, H. O. Houghton and Company, publishers of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, hosted a dinner party to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their literary magazine and the seventieth birthday of one of its major contributors, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Among the sixty guests were such famous writers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Held in the East Room of the fashionable Hotel Brunswick in Boston, the event included a seven-course dinner, served with various wines and followed by lively speeches marking the historic occasion.1 But one group of Atlantic contributors was missing. Women had not been invited to the celebration, even though they were a considerable percentage of the...
(The entire section is 6067 words.)
SOURCE: Pryse, Marjorie. "Origins of American Literary Regionalism: Gender in Irving, Stowe, and Longstreet." In Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, edited by Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, pp. 17-37. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
In the following essay, Pryse argues that Harriet Beecher Stowe helped pioneer the literary genre of regionalism that allowed her and other women to seize greater narrative freedom beyond the traditional space allotted to women.
Any attempt to construct a narrative of the origins of regionalism must begin by acknowledging the problematic status of such an attempt in a critical climate where both "origins" and "regionalism" are themselves contested terms. In a survey of this problem, Amy Kaplan builds her discussion of late-nineteenth-century regionalism on the post-Civil War cultural project of national reunification. For Kaplan, this project involved forgetting a past that included "a contested relation between national and racial identity" as well as "reimagining a distended industrial nation as an extended clan sharing a 'common inheritance' in its imagined rural origins" ("Nation" 242, 251). My own project in this essay takes up the concept of origins from an earlier historical point than does Kaplan. In her first published fiction, "A New England Sketch" (1834) (or "Uncle Lot," as...
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SOURCE: Sizer, Lyde Cullen. "Introduction: My Sphere Rounds Out: Northern Women and the Written War, 1850-1872." In The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, pp. 1-15. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Sizer argues that controversies leading to and following the American Civil War encouraged many women authors from the North to reject their exclusion from public affairs and to use their writings to influence public opinion.
And I shall not confine myself to my sphere. I hate my sphere. I like everything that is outside of it,—or, better still, my sphere rounds out into undefined space. I was born into the whole world. I am monarch of all I survey.
—Gail Hamilton (Mary Abigail Dodge), Skirmishes and Sketches (1865)
The start of the Civil War found Chicagoan Mary Livermore in Boston tending her sick father. "It was a time of extreme and unconcealed anxiety," she wrote in 1889, when "the daily papers teemed with the dreary records of secession." Nevertheless, she and her father were amazed and heartened at Boston's swift response, and this minister's wife and mother of two joined the swelling tide of activism. "If it be a question of the supremacy of freedom or slavery underlying this war," she remembered thinking, "then I pray God...
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British Women Writers
SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Double Critical Standard and the Feminine Novel." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 73-99. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
In the following essay, Showalter describes how women authors in the Victorian age, including George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, were unable to escape the condescending judgment of critics who refused to believe that women were capable of producing art that was equal to that of men.
To their contemporaries, nineteenth-century women writers were women first, artists second. A woman novelist, unless she disguised herself with a male pseudonym, had to expect critics to focus on her femininity and rank her with the other women writers of her day, no matter how diverse their subjects or styles. The knowledge that their individual achievement would be subsumed under a relatively unfavorable group stereotype acted as a constant irritant to feminine novelists. George Eliot protested against being compared to Dinah Mulock; Charlotte Brontë tried to delay the publication of Villette so that it would not be reviewed along with Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth. Brontë particularly wanted to prevent the male literary establishment from making women writers into competitors and rivals for the same small space: "It is the nature of writers to be...
(The entire section is 8455 words.)
SOURCE: Sears, Albert C. "The Politics and Gender of Duty in Frances Power Cobbe's The Duties of Women." Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 2 (spring-summer 2000): 67-78.
In the following essay, Sears argues that Frances Power Cobbe viewed the transition of the women's movement into the political sphere not as an abrogation, but rather as an extension of their domestic duties.
In 1880 Frances Power Cobbe delivered her series of lectures, The Duties of Women, to audiences in London and Clifton (near Bristol), inciting women to assume political roles in the public world. Later, in 1881, the lectures were published, and they successfully went into several editions in England and America.1 Only a few years earlier, Cobbe's own activities might be seen as exhibiting the kind of public power to which she called women in these lectures. In 1878, her article "Wife-Torture in England" effected Parliament's amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act. The article so thoroughly exposed the inadequacy of laws pertaining to domestic violence that Parliament answered her call for legislation by passing a bill within two months.2 Cobbe's actions illustrated what would be one of her most salient points in her last lecture of The Duties of Women: "We are bound to do all we can to promote the virtue and happiness of our fellow-men and women, and...
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Sanders, Valerie. “Women, Fiction and the Marketplace.” In Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900, edited by Joanne Shattock, pp. 142-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
In the following essay, Sanders reports the treatment of women writers in the literary marketplace of the nineteenth century.
I have now so large and eager a public, that if we were to publish the work without a preliminary appearance in the Magazine, the first sale would infallibly be large, and a considerable profit would be gained even though the work might not ultimately impress the public so strongly as ‘Adam’ has done.1
George Eliot, discussing with John Blackwood the best way to publish The Mill on the Floss, sounds shrewd and confident. Her comments show an awareness of the business issues involved in selecting the right formula for a relative newcomer on the literary scene, and one whose first appearance had set the public gossiping and speculating. Margaret Oliphant's observation that the nineteenth century, ‘which is the age of so many things—of enlightenment, of science, of progress—is quite as distinctly the age of female novelists’, has now become a truism.2 Yet the ways in which professional women writers handled their careers changed significantly from the...
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Ardis, Ann L. "The Controversy over Realism in Fiction, 1885-1895." In New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism, pp. 29-58. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
Analyzes the condescension that typically marked the critical review of novels written by women authors in the late nineteenth century.
Bauer, Dale M., and Philip Gould, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 366 p.
Collection of essays on a range of issues related to the literary production of nineteenth-century American women writers, much of it focused on their reformist rhetoric.
Bernstein, Susan David. Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 206 p.
Study of the thematic concerns of gender and power in confessional literature of the Victorian era.
Bloom, Harold, ed. British Women Fiction Writers of the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999, 160 p.
Collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century reviews and critical essays on the literary...
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