I Take Up My Pen: 19th Century British Women Writers
Poets and Novelists
“This which is the age of so many things – of enlightenment, of science, of progress – is quite as distinctly the age of female novelists… The vexed questions of social morality, the grand problems of human experience, are seldom so summarily discussed and settled as in the novels of this day which are written by women”
(Margaret Oliphant, novelist, 1855).
The list of pivotal nineteenth-century female novelists and poets is long. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti and many other women took up their pens to become serious contributors to what had been a male-dominated literary scene. Not content with focusing only on the confined space of home, many of these women used writing to tackle complex political and social issues.
Novels and poetry had long been popular genres for female writers, but many such works had been belittled as comparatively trivial and insignificant. Women continued to produce vast numbers of sentimental and sensationalist romance novels throughout the century in response to huge public demand, making it difficult for women as a group to achieve recognition as serious writers. Furthermore, strict gender roles made it difficult for women to justify a literary career.
Prominent Women Writers
Jane Austen is arguably the most significant nineteenth-century contributor to the literary canon; her six much-loved novels, including Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, continue to inspire twenty-first century readers. Austen’s combination of wry wit and social realism stood out against the traditional perceptions of women’s writing, and her strong-willed heroines challenged the image of the weak, effeminate, obedient heroine.
The most prominent and respected women writers of the Victorian era included poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti and novelists George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the leading poets of her day. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and Aurora Leigh (1856), for instance, were hugely popular. Christina Rossetti also garnered wide critical praise as one of the most important poets of her time. She wrote a variety of romantic and devotional poems, but perhaps achieved her most lasting renown for “Goblin Market.” The poem, which might initially seem to be a nursery rhyme about two sisters’ encounters with goblins, has been variously interpreted as an allegory about temptation, a “fallen woman” story, a tale of erotic desire and redemption, and a feminist critique of Victorian gender roles.
George Eliot (Mary Ann or Marian Evans) was one of the leading realist novelists of the nineteenth century. Her novels are distinguished by sophisticated character development, intricate, intertwined plots, and deep psychological insight. Her best-known works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871–72) and Daniel Deronda (1876). Charlotte Brontë, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, was another highly influential Victorian poet and novelist. She is best known for her much-loved novel Jane Eyre, the fictional autobiography of a governess.
During the Victorian era, novels were often published in installments. These would most often appear in popular magazines or periodicals over a period of many months. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a social novel about the rise of the industrial north, was published over a 22-week period in Charles Dickens’s periodical Household Words. The novel dramatizes the clash between traditional southern and industrial northern worlds, explores the hardships of the factory workers, and features a brave and independent heroine – Margaret Hale – who at one point throws herself between Mr. Thornton (the factory owner and hero of the novel) and an angry mob.
Novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch were also published in cheaply bound sections before they appeared as more expensive bound volumes. Middlemarch is a multi-layered story of provincial life, intertwining various complex plots to create a world of reform in which idealism vies with self-interest. Serial publication made novels more affordable to a wider readership, and it also sparked intense interest from readers eager to find out what would happen next in a particular plot.
Prolific Writers and the “Romance” Novel
Many extremely popular and prolific Victorian women writers didn’t attain the lasting critical success of George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, or Christina Rossetti. Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, for example, wrote over 40 novels, including the best-selling sensation novel East Lynne. Margaret Oliphant, who had to support her three children by her literary activity after the death of her husband, wrote over 120 separate works in her lifetime. Her autobiography gives a vivid account of her struggle to meet her family’s financial need with her literary output.
Alongside the more respected contributions to fiction and poetry, women were also prolific producers of less “literary” works. Poems and stories by both men and women appeared in countless gift books and periodicals. In response to the reading public’s huge demand for novels, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed the publication of a plethora of relatively cheap, one-volume novels. Often reviled as “trashy,” these novels satisfied a craving for entertainment, and they were often highly sentimental or moralizing. Paperback “Railway Library” editions, such as Catherine Gore’s The Ambassador’s Wife, were much cheaper and easier to handle than triple-decker novels. Catherine Gore was an extremely popular and prolific writer of fashionable “silver fork” novels. At one point in her career, Gore was able to turn out between two and three multi-volume novels each year.
Because rigid gender roles often made it difficult for women to justify literary careers, many women published anonymously or under male pseudonyms. Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), was written “By a Lady.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was published anonymously; some early reviewers assumed her husband, Percy Shelley, was the author. Marian Evans published as George Eliot and Katherine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper wrote poetry together under the name Michael Field. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë published under the androgynous pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. In an 1850 preface to Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights, Charlotte would later explain their reasons for choosing such names:
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' -- we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”