Feminist Long Fiction (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Feminist long fiction features female characters whose quest for self-agency leads to conflict with a traditionally masculinist and patriarchal society. These novels have been harshly criticized and dismissed—and even ridiculed—for their nontraditional female characters.
Feminist ideology in the Western world traces its roots to the late eighteenth century. One particular work considered foundational to feminism is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), by English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Not until the twentieth century, more than one hundred years later, would women begin to reap some of the benefits of a long campaign for basic human rights. Feminism led to radical changes for women in politics, the public sphere, the workplace, the home, and the cultural realm, including the arts and literature. Popular literature, especially, began to reflect women’s previously silenced voices.
As early as the end of the seventeenth century, however, women were publishing works of literature. Aphra Behn (1640-1689), likely the first Englishwoman to support herself through writing, published the highly popular Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), a prose romance. This novel was the first in English to express sympathy for the plight of slaves.
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The eighteenth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Fiction, a genre that did not fully develop until the eighteenth century, provided a perfect vehicle for women who sought a voice through writing. The first long fiction in England consisted of what may generally be termed “romances.” Men traditionally received credit for developing long fiction and, eventually, the novel form. Touted examples include Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741), and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). However, earlier novels were written by women, a fact not widely acknowledged until the twentieth century. Mary de la Rivière Manley (c. 1670-1724) published The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians in the early eighteenth century (1705). The novel is a version of the roman à clef. This type of fiction featured real-life personalities thinly disguised as its characters. Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), a highly political figure, also wrote romances, including The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753). She is now frequently mentioned as an important figure in the development of the novel.
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The nineteenth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The nineteenth century became a golden age of writing for women. Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote seven novels, often called novels of manners, that parody the ludicrous activities of genteel society and criticize inequitable social rules. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Persuasion (1818), and Sanditon (1925) uncover the oppressive lives of women, including confining environments, a shameful lack of education, and pitiful dependence upon male relatives for survival. Austen’s Northanger Abby (1818) satirizes as sentimental its heroine’s love for the gothic genre, fiction that offers readers mysterious castles or mansions with secret passages, dark shadowy beings, a damsel threatened by death, a hero with an obscure past, and visions and ghosts.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) would rejuvenate the public’s appreciation for the gothic in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. Rather than emphasize the traditional elements of the gothic, Shelley produced a complex psychological study of her characters, imbuing her horror and science-fiction story with disturbing imagery of aborted creations and multiple deaths. Feminist critics link these elements to Shelley’s real-life experiences.
By midcentury, Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) were producing novels featuring a new hero based on the...
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The twentieth century (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Feminist fiction writer Kate Chopin (1851-1904) published The Awakening in 1899, a novel that many libraries refused to shelve, despite Chopin’s earlier popularity as a writer of “traditional” fiction. Her book shocked readers with its heroine who took pleasure in sexual relations and its suggestion of the connections between the imagination, the artist, and sex. The hostile criticism it received centered on its heroine’s rejection of the traditional oppressive role of wife and mother, causing even Chopin’s hometown library in St. Louis, Missouri, to ban the book.
In 1920, the year women won the vote in the United States, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) published The Age of Innocence. She became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the novel in 1921, even though the work focuses on society’s inequitable treatment of women.
As Wharton’s career flourished in the United States, the English feminist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who was also an essayist and editor, also enjoyed popularity. She began her publishing career in 1915 with the novel The Voyage Out, which required seven years of work. In early adulthood, Woolf studied Greek, an unusual subject for a young woman of her time; taught at a college for working women; performed menial chores for the suffrage movement; and wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, a prestigious publication. All these experiences influenced her...
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A female aesthetic (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
With the exodus of men fighting the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, American and English women entered the workforce in record numbers to occupy positions other than that of the traditional nurse, teacher, or secretary. As women’s roles in the world changed, so did the characterizations of women in novels. Female writers began to connect their work and their lives. They discovered a number of disparities between their own ambitions, ingenuity, and creativity on one hand and the limited, often secondary, roles assumed by the majority of traditional female fictional characters on the other hand. This reality was easily explained, as the majority of novelists were white men. By the mid-twentieth century, a plethora of long fiction by women began to appear, with realistic female characters. Women’s fiction transformed from products of imitation of a male aesthetic to protests against that aesthetic, eventually becoming self-defining works of literature.
The success of these new novelists was propelled by the work of feminist literary critics, especially scholars in academia. In the 1960’s, critics began questioning the characterizations of women as either angels or monsters. They also questioned the representation of women in popular literature written by men and, most important, refused to accept the exclusion of women from literary history. Their diligence in rediscovering female novelists from previous centuries and decades...
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Bibliography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Acampora, Christa Davis, and Angela L. Cotten, eds. Unmaking Race, Remaking Soul: Transformative Aesthetics and the Practice of Freedom. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Collection of essays on the power of creativity—including writing—to transform the lives of women of color. Argues for the importance of “aesthetic agency” to literature and other forms of creative experience.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Classic text that considers nineteenth century stereotypes of female fictional characters and of the writers who created them, framing its discussion with ideas governing restrictive social mores. Essential reading for understanding feminist literature and writers.
_______, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. Comprehensive anthology of women’s writing, featuring works from medieval times through the early twenty-first century. Biographies, works, and excerpts are presented chronologically, with each era preceded by introductions that examine the culture in which each woman wrote.
Lauret, Maria. Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America. New...
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