According to the author of How to Read Novels Like a Professor (Foster, Thomas C., 2008), Victorian novels were often not written or published in the same manner as novels are published today. British novels in the mid-to-late 19th century were often published monthly, sometimes weekly, in the magazines and periodicals of the time. A reader could even purchase an author’s newest installment directly from the book stand (p.7). The point is, the authors of the day had unique challenges: maintain continuity over a long writing period, keep the plot, characters, and information in the story both manageable and memorable, and above all, keep their audiences loyal month after month.
So how did women novelists contribute in such an arrangement? For this question, we turn to the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Eliza Lynn Linton, Harriet Martineau, Mary Kingsley, and Annie Besant, to name just a few of the female writers of the era. The women of that time were prolific storytellers and incredibly vocal on social issues.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a society in flux. Industrialization was taking off, bringing about major upsets in social, political and economic structures. However in the midst of that, gender roles were remaining fairly stagnant, with the expectation that women were to stay at home and focus on their domestic and social commitments. Women found themselves shut out of the world of business and politics, with no way to get their voices heard. Except through print.
This quote can be found on the introductory website of an exhibit at Duke Library and sums up the prevailing drive for Victorian women writers:
Early in the century, Jane Austen, in her last novel, Persuasion (1818), heralded the arrival of a more confident female literary force. In a conversation between her heroine, Anne Elliot, and Captain Harville about women’s “inconstancy” and “fickleness,” Anne defends her sex against prevailing literary stereotypes:
No reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.
The conversation is overheard by Austen’s hero, Captain Wentworth, who is busy writing a declaration of love to Anne. Only a few lines earlier, Austen has Wentworth accidentally drop his pen. The pen is no longer confined to men’s hands. Women writers like Austen took up their own pens and were, throughout the nineteenth century, confidently “telling their own story."
Because novels were rarely published as single-volume works, novelists had the unique advantage of not only reaching an instant audience, but also engaging that audience for an extended time, reacting to public opinion and adapting their stories to keep up the debate. Women were able to bring gender issues to public attention and keep them there in a way that had never before been open to them. They did such a good job, it is fair to note, that a recent study by the BBC revealed that Britain’s 19th century women novelists dominated the BBC Cultures Critics’ Polls of the top 100 greatest British novels.
For more information about women’s literature and the rise of Feminism in the 19th century, read: