Women in Modern Literature Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ashley H. Thorndike

SOURCE: "Woman," in Literature in a Changing Age, The Macmillan Company, 1920, pp. 192-22.

[In the following essay, Thorndike examines the portrayal of women in works by both male and female writers from the Victorian period into the modern age.]

During the last century women shared in the profits that arose from the vast progress in education, democracy, industry, and invention. Indeed, they appear to have acquired some excess of profits and to have gained ground relatively to men. The wife in relation to the husband, the sister in comparison with her brother, the spinster in comparison with the bachelor, may still have inferior opportunities and privileges, but their inferiority is far less marked than a century ago. The advance has been by no means uncontested or unheralded. Woman has been the subject of discussion and legislation as never before. Women's education, women's rights, woman suffrage have become current terms representing great social movements. The rights of free association and free speech, which have been used by Englishmen with such important results in social and political change, have been employed even more effectively by Englishwomen. The feminist movement, by which term we may include all efforts for increasing the opportunities and activities of women, has availed itself of every weapon of organization and association, of public debate and propaganda. The woman question has taken its place alongside of the problems of poverty, labor, government, and religion as one of the permanent occupations for our minds and consciences. The tendency to treat of all the millions of individuals as compressed into the abstraction Woman, set off over-sharply against that other abstraction Man, doubtless often darkens and confuses counsel; but it is a symptom of the progress of women which has marked the century and still continues, conscious, militant, and expectant. We can scarcely discuss changing literature without asking what did changing woman have to do with it?


Woman and sex have always received a large amount of attention in literature, and notably in periods and places where culture has developed most highly. The influence of women both as readers and writers has often been considerable, although of course exercised only by a small class. Just as literature for and by men was usually a matter for the courtly or priestly classes, so literature for and by women was restricted to the lady. Possibly the most remarkable development of a feminist literature is to be found in Japan of the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the court was dominated by the queen mother and the court ladies. But the rise of courtly poetry in the Middle Ages and in the Paris Salons of the Bourbon era furnish striking examples of feminine influence. With the growth of the middle classes in England through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the influence of women rapidly widened. The leisure class came to include not only the great ladies but a large number of the wives and daughters of merchants. The "city madam" receives a good deal of notice in the Jacobean drama, and by Addison's time the Spectator and the Tatler rely for their support upon the fair sex. Indeed, a case might be made for the assertion that the growing preponderance of sentiment in the eighteenth century and finally the romantic movement itself were due in no small measure to the influence of women of leisure on manners, morals, and literature. If Rousseau was the father of romanticism, woman was its mother, or at least its nurse.

To whatever degree women were responsible for romanticism, they certainly did much to impose a decency, at least outward, upon English letters. The protest against the licentiousness of the Restoration drama came from the middle classes where women were becoming readers and theater-goers. From that time, the masculine pen has been more and more restrained by the consciousness that its products were to be sold to women, and to women looking to books for refinement and education as well as for entertainment. Since Fielding and Smollett there have been few robustious and masculine pens. In Victorian literature woman was the censor.

In addition to the host of women who wept over the sentiments of Richardson or Rousseau, or who wrote in imitation, there was also a growing class of professional women writers. These women were usually forced by some domestic disaster to earn their own living by the pen, and turned to the theater, the periodical, or the novel. At first these venturesome females were somewhat lacking in respectability, as Mrs. Afra Behn or Mrs. Manley, and Grub Street offered no road to reinstatement in polite society. But the growing popularity of the novel supplied a market in which women could readily compete. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a considerable number of women writers.

The novel provided a popular form with a technic much less exacting than the poem or the drama, and such as might be acquired by the novice or the amateur. Further, it required no extensive or specialized learning as did the more serious forms of prose, and no acquaintance with affairs such as was demanded by the pamphlet or periodical. Novels had for their themes love and marriage, which were supposed to be the main interests of women, and they soon had many women among their readers. Manifestly, a young girl might scribble away at home, despatch her manuscript to a publisher, and await the success or failure of her story without unduly infringing on any of the conventions by which her sex was bound and without going outside of the limits set by a narrow conception of women's sphere either in her reading or her experience. Young girls were, in fact, soon scribbling away behind their parents' backs with surprising results. Fanny Burney amazed her father and his friends, Dr. Johnson and Burke, by her Evelina, and opened the way for future novelists to deal with domestic and feminine affairs. Maria Edgeworth similarly astonished her father and his philosophical friends by the stories drawn from her experience in Ireland and in fashionable London. In Steventon rectory a girl of twenty-one wrote Pride and Prejudice and thereby gained a sure title to immortality. The acclaim of the great, large money payments, immortality—such were the rewards opened to women by the novel. Its significance for them, and theirs for it, have indeed gone on broadening and are now enormous; but they cannot be regarded as changes operating for the first time in our period. As we have seen, during the fifty years before Victoria came to the throne, woman had made the novel very much her own.


What then are the changes most manifest in the relations between women and literature in the Victorian era? Woman's increased opportunities and occupations have had abundant reflection, but it would be difficult to state precisely how the reflection of their interests has differed from that of preceding epochs. Moreover, they have shared in the great changes in education, religion, industry, politics, and morals which we have been considering as affecting the literature of the mid-century. It would again be difficult to state precisely in what way the resulting changes in literature have been due to women rather than to men. If such exact balancing is impossible, we may still be guided in our search for a reflection of changing woman by two important considerations. First, in the nineteenth century, women, in comparison with men, did more writing and more reading than ever before. Literature is one of the fields in which their increased activity is most apparent. Second, the literature of the century records in some measure the aims and effects of that increasing advance which we have called the feminist movement. The progress of woman like the advance of democracy, empire, religion, labor, and science, has left its effect on literature.

Who were these Victorian authoresses? The books, or at least the names, of a few are known to everyone—Mrs. Browning, Christina Rossetti, the Bronte sisters, Mrs. Gaskell, and George Eliot. But there were many others whose names were once on every tongue, though the fame of some has passed with the snows of yesteryear. There was Harriet Martineau, sturdy disciple of the utilitarians, who wrote a whole library of useful literature; and the Honorable Mrs. Norton, the brilliant and beautiful granddaughter of Sheridan and the original of Diana of the Crossways; and the much admired Letitia E. Landen who wrote countless novels and met a wretched fate, and Mrs. Mary Sewell, the most popular ballad writer of the century, of whose pathetic Mother's Last Words over one million copies were sold. And there were Felicia Hemans and Jean Ingelow among the poets; and Mary Mitford, Charlotte Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, Ouida, Mrs. Trollope, and Mrs. Oliphant among the novelists; and the Strickland sisters and Mrs. Jameson among the writers of miscellaneous prose. Much of the writing of these ladies is very feminine, if you will; but it is also very Victorian. In comparison with the work of men, it is easier to find general likenesses than general differences. Most of the women were moralists, but so were most of their brother writers. Most of their writing seems sentimental, but so does much of the poetry and fiction produced by male Victorians. The women were ardent in reforms, but so were Dickens and Ruskin. The most individual and sensitive and perhaps most feminine of the women, Christina Rossetti, displays in her verse no virtues or defects strikingly different from those to be found in other poets of the century from Coleridge to Francis Thompson. The most important woman writer in her influence upon subsequent literature has been George Eliot, but this influence can be defined in terms of the use of scientific knowledge and an analytical method in fiction, changes that might have been initiated by a man as well as by a woman. Charlotte Brontë in giving a woman's view of passion, made what was probably the most distinctly feminine contribution to fiction, but such a disclosure was inevitable, once women took to writing novels. It is rather in the variety and quantity of the literature produced than in any markedly feminine qualities that the Victorian women will be remembered. They were not so very unlike the Victorian men, but in letters they won a place as equals, competitors, and coöperators beside their brothers and husbands. In no other field did they accomplish such a public service or gain such public recognition.

Some of these women writers held established and comfortable positions in society and had normal experiences in life, but others were involved in domestic entanglements. The ancient gossip may be revived, not to intimate any discredit to the ladies of the past, where indeed very little discredit can be charged, but to suggest that these personal experiences had a certain effect on literature. George Eliot estranged herself from Victorian womankind by living as his wife with George Lewes, Mrs. Norton freed herself from an impossible dolt of a husband, but not without gossip that long pursued her. Letitia Landon suffered from an absurd scandal, a broken engagement, an unhappy marriage, and died from an overdose of prussic acid. There were disappointments and estrangements in the lives of Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Brontë. Even Mrs. Browning eloped with her husband and was never forgiven by her father. Personal discontent and sufferings have often enough found expression in literature, but with these women the expression is not so much that of personal unhappiness as of the unhappiness which is the peculiar lot of their sex. Their imagination, to be sure, was sensitive to any suffering, to that of the poor, the toilers, the oppressed, and especially to the wrong and pain inflicted upon children. But sympathy, protest, and revolt all quicken in behalf of woman tyrannized over by lover, husband, family, or society. Woman's work in letters may perhaps be sufficiently illustrated if we glance at the careers of two women, not of the first importance as writers, but who both exemplify special feminine service in letters and who both were active in the early stage of the feminist movement.


Caroline Norton was one of three sisters, granddaughters of Sheridan, who astonished early Victorian society by their beauty and talent. Married at nineteen to a stupid and niggardly husband, she sought the publishers not less from the need of money than from the desire for fame. Of her first volume of verse, published when she was twenty-one, she tells us that it defrayed "the first expenses of my son's life." The success of the young mother in both society and letters was immediate, and she was soon making a considerable income as editor and chief contributor to those Annuals which were one of the most curious literary products of the Victorian era. They appeared as Christmas gift books, handsomely adorned by steel engravings and containing prose and verse contributions, largely from persons of title or fashion, who presumably wrote for love rather than for money. Critics who consider the present state of literature to be degenerate might recover their optimism by consulting the insipidities of the Annuals, Keepsakes, and Garlands of the mid-century. They represent the popularization of belles lettres as an entertainment for the leisure class; but with all their sentimental banality they offered a certain field for women of real talent. The Countess of Blessington was the chief promoter of this sort of publication, and it was well supported by Mrs. Norton's abundant cleverness. After her separation from her husband, when she was in still greater need of money, she sometimes made £1500 a year through her pen. A few poems, such as "Bingen" and "Juanita" still survive, but her verses and stories are much less readable to-day than her letters, which still retain the gaiety and wit that everyone admired in her conversation. Beneath the imitative rhetoric, however, one may discern in her published work some of the generous emotions that were arousing the women of that day, pity for the children of the working classes and a growing sympathy for women subject to tyranny.

Mrs. Norton's quarrel with her husband received full publicity at the time and has been frequently retold, but without ever eliciting any sympathy for Mr. Norton. She left her petty tyrant in 1836. His ridiculous suit against Lord Melbourne failed utterly in court, and was supposed to have been instigated by political enemies of the prime minister. The wife had no chance to appear in the trial, and under the English laws of that time the husband kept possession of the three young children and even had a right to his wife's earnings. After long negotiations over the custody of the children and pecuniary matters, a legal separation was arranged; but the husband's malice increased with his wife's fame and fortune, the quarrel was again resumed and got into court in 1853 on the issue of the validity of a contract between them. Both husband and wife, he then fifty-two and she forty-five, stated their cases with much temper in long letters to the Times. The letters as human documents have not lost their force after these seventy years, and they constitute an important record of the tyranny of husbands and the rebellion of wives. From our point of view, however, their most significant feature is the wife's eloquent apology for her outburst on the ground that she is a writer, a woman responsible to the public and posterity.

I will, as far as 1 am able, defend a name which might have been only favourably known, but which my husband has rendered notorious. The little world of my chance readers may say of me, after I am dead and gone and my struggles over and forgotten, "The woman who wrote this book had an unhappy history," but they shall not say, "The woman who wrote this book was a profligate and a mercenary hypocrite." Since my own gift of writing gives me friends among strangers, I appeal to the opinion of strangers as well as that of friends. Since, in however bounded and narrow a degree, there is a chance that I may be remembered after death, I will not have my whole life misrepresented.

Let those women who have the true woman's lot of being unknown out of the circle of their homes thank God for that blessing—it is a blessing; but for me publicity is no longer a matter of choice. Defence is possible to me, not silence.

The wife had not only rebelled, she had carried her rebellion before the public; and she fought not merely for herself and her children but for wives and mothers in general. She put much of her own story into her novels and also into pamphlets and letters in support first of the infant custody bill, and later in the controversy over the marriage act of 1857. It was in no small measure due to her efforts that this law gave a wife the right to inherit and bequeath property, and, if separated from her husband, to contract and sue and to be protected in her earnings. Her friends usually attempted to dissuade her from the publicity that was thought unfeminine, but a reader of today must admire unreservedly the high temper and gallant courage with which she fought her cause. The writer for the fashionable keepsakes and scrap-books proved herself a real public servant. Apart from specific legislation, the whole case of the wife against the husband gained a general hearing because this particular wife happened to be a woman of letters. It must not be thought that she wrote as a thorough-going champion of her sex. It is in a conformist and not an ironical mood that she earnestly declares her belief that women are inferior to men and were so created by God, and disavows any intention to plead for equality. She was attacking particular tyrannies upheld by law. Though she might have been capable of the epigram that Meredith attributes to his Diana, "Menmay have rounded Seraglio Point; they have not yet doubled Cape Turk"; yet the main point of her attack on marital tyranny was financial and not sexual. But this is another sign of the times, for our commercial system manifestly has developed new difficulties between husband and wife as well as between capitalist and laborer.

Mrs. Norton's rebellion was more typical of the time and more significant of the advance of women than she herself could have realized. Through literature she was able to present to a large public the spectacle of a wife obviously superior to her husband in every intellectual and moral quality, and also excelling him as a money earner. In what did man's superiority consist? The legal status which permitted the indignities and persecutions that she suffered was doomed to destruction as soon as it was exposed to the reading public. Through literature she could win her own independence, and she could present a convincing plea for the greater independence of all wives.


Very different from Mrs. Norton's career was that of Harriet Martineau. She never possessed the senses of smell and taste, by the age of sixteen she had become very deaf, and during a large portion of her seventy-four years of life she suffered from serious illness. Yet it would be difficult to find a lifetime marked by more varied interests and occupations or by more copious industry.

Her girlhood, with its indigestion, nerves, broken schooling, and Unitarian pietism, does not seem to have directed her fancy to romance, for her first published work at the age of nineteen was an essay on "Female Writers on Practical Divinity." Her father's death left the family in poverty, and her virtual engagement to marry a fellow-student of her brother was opposed by his family and finally ended with insanity and death for him and long and prostrating illness for her. At twenty-seven she was penniless and struggling to earn a living by needle-work and writing. Success came through an offer by the Unitarian Association of prizes for three essays designed to convert the Catholics, the Jews, and the Mohammedans. Miss Martineau wrote for them all, won them all, and had forty-five guineas to the good. The money gave her leisure and encouragement to devise a scheme of a series of stories illustrating the principles of political economy.

The suggestion came partly from reading Mrs. Marcet's Conversations on Political Economy, and that lady must be regarded as Miss Martineau's predecessor in the art of popularizing knowledge. Among her books, some of which went through many editions, were, Conversations on Chemistry, intended more especially for the Female Sex, Conversations on Natural Philosophy designed for very young children, Game of Grammar, and Willy's Travels on the Railroad. Miss Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy filled nine volumes and made a great success. They were followed by other series of similar tales, Poor Laws and Paupers Illustrated and Illustrations of Taxation. At thirty-two she was a literary celebrity, the friend of all the radical and whig writers and politicians, and the chief glory of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Her health demanded a vacation, and after a voyage of forty-two days from Liverpool to New York, she spent two years in travel in the United States.

Such was her entrance into the field of letters, but space is lacking to describe the variety and extent of her continued activities. She refused several offers of pensions and persisted in relying on an independent pen. Her travels in America, where she consorted with the abolitionists and thereby aroused much antipathy, resulted in two books. She wrote various novels and a series of children's stories that are among her best remembered works. After an illness pronounced incurable had been relieved by mesmerism, she wrote Letters on Mesmerism, which aroused more antipathies. She travelled in Europe and in Egypt and Palestine, and under the influence of Henry G. Atkinson became more addicted to mesmerism and philosophical atheism, and became estranged from her brother James. In one twelve-month she wrote a two-volume history of contemporary England that is still a most readable and interesting narrative. She became a disciple of Comte and translated and condensed his philosophy. She wrote constantly for the reviews and newspapers, contributing in the course of fifteen years over sixteen hundred articles to the Daily News alone. She continued to fictionize and popularize useful information in various forms, such as Forest and Game Law Tales (information supplied by John Bright), Household Education and Guides to Service, including a handbook on The Maid of All Work. When expecting to die from heart disease she wrote her Autobiography, but she lived for twenty years more. These she occupied with running a farm, lecturing to workingmen, taking an active interest in all current events and reforms, including the American War and a building society, and with writing on The Factory Controversy, British Rule in India, and, in order to help Miss Nightingale, England and her Soldiers.

Much of Miss Martineau's writing interprets or applies the utilitarian principles and much of it was in response to that movement for diffusing useful knowledge, in which Brougham was a leader. But the range of her interests and knowledge is no less amazing. Almost every theory or ism which perplexed the mid-century received her study. Unitarianism, abolition, utilitarianism, political economy, mesmerism, and positivism at one time or another received her devoted support. This loyal devotion to causes was united with a faculty for idolizing leaders or teachers, which she sometimes carried to the verge of fanaticism. Last Carpenter, a Unitarian minister, Priestly, her brother James, and Comte, successively, and Henry G. Atkinson finally and permanently, were the gods of her idolatry. Devotion and idolization are often deemed essentially feminine qualities, but so too perhaps is the shrewd practicality which Miss Martineau displayed in the conduct of her affairs and in the production of books. She wrote modestly of herself, "With small imaginative and suggestive powers, and therefore nothing approaching to genius. . . . she could popularize while she could neither discover nor invent." One new and important function of literature in the nineteenth century was this popularizing of knowledge, this extension of education to an enlarged reading public. To this service she brought notable gifts of expression and a mind at once progressive and practical. In a century of schoolmarms, she was their chief.

Her good sense was displayed in all her activities in the feminist movement. She was not much troubled by theories about woman's rights but very much concerned with every movement or means for bettering the position of women. From the day she wrote of Female Writers on Practical Divinity, she maintained a special interest in women, and felt herself responsible before the public as their representative. She was actively interested in their education and notably in their new part in industry and in various legislation to remove legal disabilities; and in later years in the agitation of the early seventies for suffrage. But her great influence upon the changing ideas as to woman's ability to take an enlarged part in the work of the world, was exercised not so much through her advocacy of various reforms as by the example of her own active and industrious life. Here was a woman with pronounced physical disabilities, and with no opportunity for the usual feminine domesticity, who made a name for herself and spent fifty years in constant public service. This atheist with her ear trumpet became a literary lion, a figure in society, capable even of managing the ursine Carlyle upon the lecture platform; also this teacher of children and workingmen and factory girls was influencing and directing public opinion and the general progress of ideas. She traveled about the world and she studied economics, politics, theology, philosophy, and nearly everything else that men studied. She taught men as well as women, and had statesmen and philanthropists as well as the youthful and ignorant among her pupils. In her own experience she enlarged woman's sphere, and she did this through literature. For Harriet Martineau, literature proved an opportunity not to display her own personality and sensibility but to show how efficiently women could help in that share of the work of the world which modern literature must perform.


The careers of Miss Martineau and Mrs. Norton, so different in many respects, illustrate ways in which women were making an advance in freedom and usefulness through literature. The career of almost any woman writer would similarly illustrate both a literary service in some measure peculiarly feminine and a particular contribution to the general emancipation of the sex. The steps in that emancipation were too numerous and often too imperceptible at the time to secure full record in the careers of women writers; but in the writing of men as well as of women, and indeed in the whole course of literature, there is a continuous response to the gradual though rapid changes which the century was bringing to woman. It must suffice here to glance at some of the more striking connections which mark this extended relationship between literature and the feminist movement.

I have already noted in the writing of Mrs. Norton and Miss Martineau an interest in improving the conditions of employment of women and children, in the better education of women, and in freeing wife and mother from some of the ancient tyrannies sustained by law. At the middle of the century the most important ideas at work to affect woman's position undoubtedly focussed on higher education. The enormous advances that have since been made in England and America had a starting point in the establishment of Queen's College in 1848 through the initiative of Frederick Denison Maurice. In the preceding year appeared "The Princess" by his intimate friend Tennyson. Though no one now views the poem as a revolutionary or radical document on the woman question, still it was a response to the most advanced ideas of its own day. If we remember that even Mrs. Norton was then proclaiming the God-created inferiority of women, there is a forwardmoving sweep in Tennyson's oft-quoted generalizations—

In true marriage lies
Nor equal nor unequal.

For woman is not undevelopt man
But diverse.

Within a dozen years the agitation for woman suffrage had advanced to the foreground. The election of John Stuart Mill to the House of Commons in 1865 gained a parliamentary discussion for the proposal, and his essay four years later "On the Subjection of Women" placed the question in the forum of literature. The active effort that continued through the seventies and eighties to make woman suffrage a part of the Liberal program of electoral reform, was, however, only an advance guard engagement. The progress of the army of women was being made in other ways and was slowly but surely moving up to the support of the advanced detachment.

In literature this general progress was naturally best represented in the novel. The freedom offered by the novel for the depiction of changing woman was, however, seriously fettered by two of its established conventions. In the first place, it was expected to tell a story of youthful love culminating in marriage for better or worse until death do us part. In the second place, the heroine was expected to be very good as well as very beautiful, faultless in heart and face—requirements not easy to jibe with reality. The effort to present the new woman was compelled to attack these two conventions, and was first manifested in the presentation of married woman and her difficulties and in the greater reality applied to the analysis of women, whether good or bad. Two novels by masters of fiction that were appearing simultaneously in the late forties illustrate both of these tendencies. In Edith of Dombey and Son, Dickens attempts without success to portray the unhappy wife in modern circumstances. In Becky Sharp, Thackeray draws a full portrait triumphant in its reality and satire. A few years later in America, Hawthorne's Blithedaie Romance more explicitly recognizes the struggle of a woman against the confines of sex. In England the application of reality to the presentation both of the passion of love and of the aspirations and social sympathies of women was accomplished with fine art in the novels of Charlotte Brontë and Mrs. Gaskell, and with a still more profound and searching knowledge by George Eliot.

In her great series of women, Maggie, Romola, Dorothea, and Gwendolen, we have the tragedies of high-souled women, moved by great aspirations which end in resignation or reconciliation, related with the profoundest knowledge not of woman's heart alone but of all the possibilities of her nature for intellectual and moral progress. It was given to the most highly educated and intellectual woman of the century to lead in intellectualizing the novel and its presentation of women.

Within a few years of Middlemarch Meredith and Hardy were publishing novels appreciative of the wide potentialities of women in modern society. In 1879, the year after Daniel Deronda, appeared Ibsen's Doll's House and Meredith's Egoist. In the English novel the attack is made on the masters of the dolls' houses, who in the person of Sir Willoughby Patterne are covered with ridicule for their masculine egoism. If The Egoist did not make the immediate commotion produced by Ibsen's play, it was no less a revolutionary document for rebellious women, and five years later Meredith won his first popular success with a brilliant imaginative re-creation of the career of Mrs. Norton. Unfortunately the crucial incident of Diana of the Crossways was taken from a false bit of gossip that attributed to Mrs. Norton the betrayal of the secret of Peel's intended volte face on the repeal of the corn laws, an errancy even less conceivable in Meredith's heroine than in the more violent-tempered original, and perhaps as falsely aimed at the sex as at Mrs. Norton. But the novel elevated to romance that modern battle of a woman for independence from the restrictions of sex which her career had typified. By this time Meredith's poems, Hardy's novels, and many other books were representing the struggle of women with the bonds of flesh and circumstance and sex toward a participation and leadership in the advance of civilization. Though there were still many tenants of dolls' houses in fiction, there were also many women refusing tenancy or revolting against their landlords. The movement was worldwide, and the literatures of various countries were debating the good and evil in women with a growing recognition that her further participation in affairs of all kinds was inevitable.

It is not contended that this late-Victorian reading of women discloses a superiority in manners or brains over Shakespeare's heroines or a truth to fact greater than in those of Miss Austen. Undoubtedly imaginative art had placed women at least on an equality with man long before the Victorian era. Jane Eyre is not superior to Juliet, or Diana to Beatrice. Miss Austen's Emma with a little practice could doubtless run a modern department store. The change is not so much in proving woman's abilities as in establishing her freedom and greater opportunity. Juliet and Beatrice exist only as they are being wooed, visions of convincing reality but glimpsed only through the radiances of romance. Emma has no goal except to marry the best man of her limited acquaintance. In Dorothea, Gwendolen, Clara Middleton, and Diana, the complexities of woman's opportunities in modern society receive full exposition; and if she is still a creature to be wooed, she is not to be won without a full appreciation of her purposes and efficiencies. In George Eliot and Meredith, women appear not merely as wonderful individuals but as participants in social progress and in the march of ideas.


In spite of Meredith's insistence on "more brain" as essential for women's work in civilization, and in spite of his denunciation of sentimentalism as "fiddling harmonics on the strings of sensualism," fiction has not been wholly converted. With all her greater accomplishments and interests in comparison with her older sisters, the heroine of the modern novel is often studied mainly as a creature of sex. The two most persistent attitudes in such presentation are, first, that of conventional sentimental fiction which passes hero and heroine through familiar vicissitudes to complete happiness, and, second, that of the ancient legend of the fall of man which views woman as his temptress and hence chiefly to blame for all the ills that arise from the sexual instinct. Even in these venerable attitudes of art, I think we may discern considerable change of late.

The sentimentality that still characterizes popular fiction scarcely seems as dangerous as it did to Meredith. The Keepsakes and Annuals of Mrs. Norton's day have their successors in hundreds of novels and thousands of short stories that amuse and entertain us in about the same way as a game of backgammon or cribbage. There is no real uncertainty, no real tension on the emotions, only a little superficial perplexity and a faint curiosity as to just how the hero will be rescued or what substitute for Desdemona's handkerchief will cause the misunderstanding. Such novels have just as little to do with sex as our popular detective stories have to do with crime, or our game of backgammon with intellectual progress. If they fill our leisure with a meaningless entertainment, they are no worse in this respect than the Galaxies and Keepsakes. Indeed, if some tireless student would make a tabulation, our magazines and best sellers would probably be found to present an improved class of heroines, less insipid and timorous, more self-reliant and intelligent than those of the mid-century. They would be found more likely to rescue the hero and less likely to be rescued by him, more readily triumphant over misunderstandings caused by handkerchiefs or otherwise, and exhibiting prowess in many fields outside of the art of fascination. Though popular fiction continues to multiply the permutations and combinations in its game of youthful love, it appears to have lost most of that certain condescension toward females which distinguished Victorian sentimentality.

The second persisting view of woman, that of Adam toward Eve, has received a peculiar reënforcement through modern realists. In the protest against sentimentalism and idealism, the realists have been always prone to search out the more physical and less spiritual aspects of sex as well as its more morbid or baser connections. In part, this has resulted in a wholesome enough frankness and honesty, in striking contrast with the earlier Victorian prudishness. In part, however, it results in the persistence of a very masculine explanation of the ills of the universe in terms of woman. If one marked outcome of the sexual instinct is the idealization of one sex by the other, there is also a manifest tendency for each to blame the other for the evils and disasters accompanying sex. This recurs in many forms, in the adventuress or temptress of conventional fiction, in the sensual woman of the modern realist, in the satirical extravagance of Mr. Shaw or in the pessimism of Mr. Hardy. It has been remarked that his women however charming and lovable, are likely to be regarded as the most irrational elements in a confused universe, as somehow especially blamable for the complications of sex which make the destiny of man the more hopeless. English literature, however, has never gone to the length of continentals such as Zola or Strindberg, either in the exploitation of the physical and pathological accompaniments of sex or in piling the blame for these upon woman.

The change to be noted in this persistent Adamite conception lies in the greater truth and honesty brought to the study of sex. Not only is there more frankness and more science, there is manifest both in such a philosopher as Hardy and such a wit as Shaw an effort to view the facts. Though masculine prejudice will doubtless continue to survive, it is less likely to be unsupported by at least a partial study of reality. We may expect in the future a still greater frankness in respect to the facts of sex, and we may expect—what was spared to the Victorian era—woman's imaginative reaction to these facts. The Victorian era did not itself contribute but it prepared the way for what the world has long waited—Eve's account of the Fall of Man, and of Woman. This will unquestionably shock a good many men but in the end it may contribute to that mutual understanding of the sexes which Meredith held forth as a worthy goal for imaginative art. His "Essay on Comedy" thus sums up the new attitude of art toward women.

Comedy is an exhibition of their battle with men, and that of men with them; and as the two, however divergent, both look on one object—namely, Life—the gradual similarity of their impressions must bring them to some resemblance. The comic poet dares to show us men and women coming to this mutual likeness: he is for saying that when they draw together in social life, their minds grow liker.


In The Education of Henry Adams there is a rather metaphysical discussion under the caption, "The Dynamo and the Virgin." The phrase suggests the contrast between old gods and new, between medieval and modern faiths, and also the possibility of a profound change in women themselves if they desert the ancient ideal of the Madonna for the modern ideal of an increased production of commodities. With these perplexities the literature of the mid-century has had small concern, yet it may afford a clue to their answer.

Certainly it is full of the worship of motherhood. That excites the tenderest tributes even from its satirists like Carlyle and Thackeray, and is the crown of womanhood for its idealized Pompilias or its realized Dianas. The mother, to be sure, is no longer worshipped only as a saint, but as the indispensable life-giver, eternally sacrificing herself for us. For men swayed by the ideas of democracy and biology her function is no less august and her sacrifice no less beautiful than for those worshippers who built the cathedrals of Notre Dame at Paris and Chartres. If art in the nineteenth century has offered no such monuments, literature has at least been loyal in its devotion, offering as it never has before, even in its Shakespeare or Chaucer, the tribute of its imagination to the mothers of the race.

With the mother is joined the child. In no earlier epoch is literature so devoted to children. The beginning of this tide of imaginative interest, as we have noted, goes back to the end of the eighteenth century, to the followers of Rousseau, to the infant schools, to the paintings of Reynolds, and to the poems of Wordsworth and Blake. But it has continued and grows apace. With our changing ideas, it is no longer the child as the type of the natural man or the child as the innocent breath of the divine, uncorrupted by the contagion of men, that we worship, but the child as the heir of the ages and the next step in a progressive humanity. He is our creation and our hope; and, as never before, the emotions of mankind have been engrossed in watching his early years.

Children crowd the novels of the century. On this host of children in Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot and elsewhere, the humor, tenderness, and sympathy of both their authors and millions of readers have been lavished. The imagination of many an author has worked with most enthusiasm when it has turned back to recollections of his own childhood. From infancy through boyhood and girlhood and adolescence, the novel of the last century has journeyed over and over again, garnering a harvest that the preceding centuries left unreaped. There has grown too a vast literature for boys and girls. The greatest of our novelists and poets have written for them, and in recent years the foremost of our men of letters, Stevenson, Kipling, and Barrie, have been at their very best when writing for children. The child's world has been brought into literature, and a large amount of literature has been created for childhood and youth. The education of the child has become one of the functions of literature, a function carried on not only by some of the masters of the art but by an army of translators, adapters, and teachers who have made books for his guidance. I have noted some of the humblest educational booklets which prepared the way for Harriet Martineau's tales; and, after all, a book which tries to adapt natural philosophy to children is not so very distant in aim from the wonderful Jungle Books or the Child's Garden of Verse. They are all seeking an imaginative kinship with the child in his awakening sense of the wonderful world he has inherited.

Women have shared with men in making these books for and about boys and girls. And who have read them? Who have read them to the children if not the mothers and older sisters and teachers? It is rather a hopeless task to speculate on the choice of reading between men and women. But, if woman's influence as a reader has been exercised decidedly anywhere, it is in this field of juvenile books. Not that the fathers may not also enjoy with the children "Peter Pan" and the "Jungle Books," and "Alice in Wonderland," but it is surely the mothers who have encouraged the vast creation of entertainment, instruction, sympathy, and fancy for their children. And the teachers too, who have the duty of guiding children into the world of imagination, they have had a quick welcome for those books which really reached the child's mind and won from it a voluntary response. We may be sure that among the many changes that literature has undergone, this is likely to be one of the most permanent—its more intimate appeal to childhood and youth; and we are safe enough in attributing this acquired function in no small part to the increased numbers and intelligence of women readers.

The mother and the child, so far as literature can reassure us, seem in no danger of diminishing influence. The imagination will doubtless continue to be excited by variabilities of the eternal feminine, but it seems likely to continue its devotion to the responsibilities and nobilities of motherhood and to the romance and education of childhood. As to the dynamo, it may be the most appropriate symbol for the age in which we are about to live, and perhaps both women and men are modelling themselves and their lives on its example rather than on the precedents of the saints or the sages. In current fiction women are sometimes described as live wires, and I have noted signs in literature of an increasingly dynamic character in the heroines. Literature of the future must view woman in many new occupations, increasingly concerned with industry, business, and politics, and it may have to relate her struggle with the dynamo. Some hints of that conflict are to be found in the writers who preached a selected production whether by dynamo or madonna, restricted by considerations of quality and welfare; and possibly the literature of the future may support this philosophy. All we can conclude from our survey is that the literature of the Victorian era records no trepidation at the conflict and no fears for the result. Perhaps it has too little knowledge of the dynamo, but it exhibits great confidence in the madonna.

Our survey has revealed a larger number of women engaged in creating literature than ever before. They have been active not only as poets and novelists but in the many miscellaneous kinds of writing that have so increased, especially in those that may be called educational. Heretofore literature has been made by men; henceforth, probably in an increasing degree, this work will be shared by women. But this does not indicate any great change in the character or functions of literature. It has already recognized the equality of women, pled for their independence, and idealized their attributes. The greater participation of women as writers and readers has already maintained a decency and refinement of expression, it seems likely to encourage an increase of good sense and a diminution of masculine prejudice in the treatment of sex. Woman as the worker, as the companion of machines, as the toiler and thinker, should demand increasing attention; and the problems of sex should become less enigmatical to a literature designed for and by both sexes. Then, the devotion of the imagination of the last century to motherhood and children will prove itself one of the most efficient preparations for the battle which the coming epoch must wage to subdue the dynamo to the service of a humane civilization.

Naomi Lewis

SOURCE: "In Spite of Lit," in The Twentieth Century, Vol. 164, No. 978, August, 1958, pp. 114-25.

[In the following essay, Lewis discusses various stereotypes of women in nineteenthand twentieth-century literature. ]

Anyone would think from reading Literature that it is by no means an agreeable thing to be a woman. (By Literature I mean, at this moment, practically any invented narrative, good or bad.) It is a curious error, and it may be one of the reasons why, for many years, I have given up reading the stuff at all. To be sure, in the course of professional duty one's eye travels in a month over many more thousands of pages of Lit—current fiction and all—than one would like to believe. It is surprising what the system will tolerate (as doctors, lawyers and plumbers must think sometimes) in the way of Work. Left to myself, however, I find it harder and harder to read the fictional page; Lucky Jim, for instance, and Bonjour Tristesse go so heavily that after two years or so I have not reached the end of either. I sometimes wonder what those conclusions may hold.

Life may have come before letters, but life (that is, behaviour) is a follower, often years or centuries behind the thoughts that speed it along. And so it happens that Literature (fiction) starts as our reflection and ends too often as our model, imposing ideas and emotions that would never otherwise have troubled us. Love, tastes, manners, desires, beliefs—practically all the conventions in these important affairs come out of books. The relation between parents and young, assumptions about forgiveness, fidelity, duty, kinship, monogamousness, virginity—how many people in the past few hundred years have been untouched by the current fictional rulings on these matters? Florence Nightingale herself, when past the age of thirty, still felt a sense of sin in crossing the will of her appalling parents, and in leaving the subservience of her home. Genius does not always go with intelligence. Here, the comment by Mrs Browning on Miss Nightingale's later activities is of peculiar interest. Look through the personal irritation and you see a really shrewd attack on one of the most popular aspects of the myth.

Every man is on his knees before ladies carrying lint, calling them 'angelic she's', whereas if they stir an inch as thinkers and artists from the beaten line (involving more good to general humanity than is involved in lint), the very same men would curse the impudence of the very same women.... I do not consider the best use to which we can put a gifted and accomplished woman is to make her a hospital nurse.

There is a comical note about this, of course, but we can see what she means. Why should woman be merely an 'angelic she'? Why—to carry the question further—should we assume that every woman desires to be a wife or a mother, or to have a 'career' (whatever that may be) as a rigid alternative? What if she wants to live happily alone, without even a budgerigar? Perhaps it is hard to make a novel about a delicious solitude, but, if a poem is possible, why not a tale? Only do not make the fictional mistake of placing the lady inside convent walls. Nothing could be less solitary than this communal world, with its ordered dependence even in private thoughts.

The conventions do not remain constant, it may be observed. I cannot, for instance, feel that the unmarried girls in Jane Austen's novels—the Bennets and others—suffered from sexual frustration or other such textbook neuroses of our time. Chagrin, failure, boredom with home life—but nothing more than that: the other things had not been invented. I can remember myself, at the age of eighteen, being puzzled for a moment by a lecturing don (eighteenth century Lit) who spoke of 'the battle of the sexes'. The phrase was meaningless. Battles between siblings, of every kind, I well understood; but there it was prestige of age or youth that turned the jealous scale. This, as I see it now, was a clear—perhaps unique—case of ignorance of or uncontamination by Lit.

The laws of fiction have rarely been on the side of women, but is it not largely the fault of women when such injustices persist? As readers they believe: as writers, with very few exceptions, they betray. Novelists do not all go as far as Charlotte Yonge, who stated, on grounds that she would have thought were theological: 'I have no hesitation in declaring my full belief in the inferiority of women, nor that she brought it upon herself'—and used her female characters accordingly. 'Self-denial is always best, and in a doubtful case the most disagreeable is always the safest' was one of her rules. It seemed to her quite in order that Dr Moberly, father of fifteen children, should make her promise that she would never let Ethel May of The Daisy Chain marry, nor the philoprogenitive Dr May of her story ever die. Theology has always been one of the most dangerous forms of Lit, particularly to female victims. Few have recovered: not one has come out unscarred.

Foreground women (as opposed to servants, needy relatives and other furniture) may have had a slightly better time in other novels of that day, but certain rules were almost invariably observed. Women who sinned, whether professionally (poor Nancy in Oliver Twist) or by a single lapse (poor Em'ly in David Copperfield, or Ruth in Mrs Gaskell's Ruth) had to die, and that was that. Becky Sharp, remember, was a lawfully married woman before many chapters were gone. But in our own liberal age, there is a dreadful impulse still to torment one's female characters. Plays like Nine till Six or The Women, or Autumn Crocus—0 that theme about the sad teacher—Miss Hepburn or another—having her one and only fling ('the last chance') on her Continental hols!—where do you or I fit in with all this crowd? And ought it all to go on and on and on as it does? Literature, as I have said before, is a model for life; it is a wonderful weapon, a means of creation or revenge, a sort of magic, the unanswerable word, in fact, if you happen to have the gift. See what Jane Austen did with it—an achievement on the side of women (no yearning stuff, no squalor and yet no cheating either)—that could still serve as a model.

Horrifying as its power may be in its time, nothing is more absurd than a convention that has decayed. This should be a warning to women, if they will (or would) but take it. The position of the governess in nineteenth century England is a fair example; any member of this melancholy profession had to be poor but of good family, a compulsorily depressed gentlewoman, in order to be able to mix with the children of the house but also to be treated as an inferior by her employers. God has ordained that this is, was and ever will be the way of Life, the theory ran. We know to-day, of course, that it was one of the teachings of Lit. Mrs Pryor, in Shirley, has some enlightening things to say about the matter.

You told me before you wished to be a governess; but, my dear, if you remember, I did not encourage the idea. I have been a governess myself a great part of my life . . . when I was young, before I married; my trials were severe, poignant. I should not like you to endure similar ones. It was my lot to enter a family of considerable pretensions to good birth and mental superiority.... I was early given to understand that 'as I was not their equal', so I could not expect 'to have their sympathy'. It was in no sort concealed from me that I was held 'a burden and a restraint in society'. The gentlemen, I found, regarded me as a 'tabooed woman,' to whom 'they were interdicted from granting the usual privileges of the sex', and yet who 'annoyed them by frequently crossing their path'. The ladies too, made it plain that they thought me 'a bore'. The servants, it was signified, 'detested me'; why, I could never clearly comprehend. . . . It was intimated that 'I must live alone, and never transgress the invisible but rigid line which established the difference between me and my employers'. My life in this house, sedentary, solitary, constrained, joyless, toilsome .. . began ere long to produce mortal effects on my constitution—I sickened. The lady of the house told me coolly I was the victim of 'wounded vanity'. She hinted that if I did not make an effort to quell my 'ungodly discontent', to cease 'murmuring against God's appointment,' and to cultivate the profound humility befitting my station, my mind would very likely 'go to pieces' on the rock that wrecked most of my sisterhood—morbid self-esteem—and that I should die an inmate of a lunatic asylum.

All the 'quoted' phrases in this speech are taken from that famous essay which appeared as a perfectly serious contribution to The Quarterly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Some of the prize assertions, however, are to follow, from the lips of the eldest daughter of the house.

There were hardships (allowed this young lady) in the position of a governess, but .. . it must be so. She had neither view, hope, nor wish to see these things remedied; for in the inherent constitution of English habits, feelings, and prejudices, there was no possibility that they should be. Governesses, she observed, must ever be kept in a sort of isolation: it is the only means of maintaining that distance which the reserve of English manners and the decorum of English families exact. . . . We need the imprudences, extravagances, mistakes, and crimes of a certain number of fathers to sow the seed from which WE reap the harvest of governesses. The daughters of tradespeople, however welleducated, must necessarily be underbred, and as such unfit to be inmates of our dwellings. . . . We shall ever prefer to place those about our offspring who have been born and bred with somewhat of the same refinement as ourselves.

This is really a peerless example (note the hammering use of the word 'ever') of the effect of Lit at its most fantastic, on manners and beliefs. And also, for once, of the riposte through the same medium. Remember, though, that there were a hundred meek, voiceless, nameless governesses in the fictional background of the earlier nineteenth century for one Jane Eyre.

For Jane Eyre, the all-level best seller, is one of the few novels on the high level of genius which are aware of the power of Lit over life, and use it in the heroine's cause. (In her later governess-book, Villette, the author quailed and fell into the old guilty heroine-punishment pattern.) But Jane herself is superb, succeeding entirely on her own (that is her author's) terms. She is prim and neat, small and plain (well, sort of), sharp in speech, prickly in temper, and alone, an orphan. She is Miss Charlotte Brontë with the foil of a Rochester. Her wardrobe is Quakerish and slight—a black stuff gown for day, a dove-colour for occasions: 'my best dress (the silver-gray one, purchased for Miss Temple's wedding and never worn since) .. . my sole ornament the pearl brooch'. The pearl brooch—we know it as if it were our own. How cunningly she describes the 'beauty' of her rival, Miss Ingram, with her 'noble bust' and 'rich raven ringlets', her 'arched and haughty lip'. 'Queen Boadicea, leaning back against those purple cushions,' is Mr Rochester's contribution. Jane gets all the benefit of the contrast.

'Don't address me as...

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