Form and Content
In Quill Pens and Petticoats: A Portrait of Women of Letters, H. E. Stowell gathers together a group of women who were determined to express themselves in writing. The long-lasting achievements of these exemplary individuals are significant because of the obstacles that they overcame, including the simple fact of being female. As Stowell explains, during the years covered by this work, women frequently had very limited access to education. Furthermore, women’s intellect was generally considered inferior to that of men, so that women were encouraged to devote themselves wholly to domestic matters. The opportunities available to women were restricted by law, by economic factors, and by social convention; few women had the courage and the strength to flaunt the confines of these dictates. Stowell praises these women who refused to be discouraged or defeated by the prevailing attitudes, detailing not only the works themselves but the lives of the authors as well.
Stowell presents the authors in chronological order, beginning at approximately 1400 with Dame Julian of Norwich, who wrote Revelations of Divine Love, a religious treatise, and ending with George Eliot, a novelist who died about five hundred years later. Although the book’s emphasis is on the women themselves, not simply their works, several types of writings are represented, including letters, journals, articles and sketches, plays, poetry, and novels. Each author is considered in a separate chapter; biographical history and discussion of the author’s work appear in conjunction, with clear indications of the influence of the former upon the latter.
Because of the lack of biographical information on the earlier writers and the difficulties in preserving the handwritten copies of the manuscripts, the sketches near the front of the book tend to be much shorter than those near the finish. In all instances, however, Stowell includes anecdotes from the author’s life, drawn from contemporaries of the author whenever possible, and critical information on the type, quantity, and quality of work produced. She also includes many significant quotations from the works of each author, some of which may run to nearly a full page in length, and which often give the reader a clear sample of the author’s ability to paint character and temperament. Although no illustrations are provided, Stowell does include easily followed notes on biographical sources, giving a substantial list that is categorized by subject.