Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Overviews

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SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Female Tradition." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 3-36. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1977.

In the following excerpt, Showalter discusses the implications of identifying female sensibilities in the literary output of nineteenth-century female authors, identifying three distinct phases in the development of themes and gender battles as addressed in women's writing in the nineteenth century.

The advent of female literature promises woman's view of life, woman's experience: in other words, a new element. Make what distinctions you please in the social world, it still remains true that men and women have different organizations, consequently different experiences.…Buthitherto … the literature of women has fallen short of its functions owing to a very natural and a very explicable weakness—it has been too much a literature of imitation. To write as men write is the aim and besetting sin of women; to write as women is the real task they have to perform.

—G. H. Lewes, "The Lady Novelists," 1852

English women writers have never suffered from the lack of a reading audience, nor have they wanted for attention from scholars and critics. Yet we have never been sure what unites them as women, or, indeed, whether they share a common heritage connected to their womanhood at all. Writing about female creativity in The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill argued that women would have a hard struggle to overcome the influence of male literary tradition, and to create an original, primary, and independent art. "If women lived in a different country from men," Mill thought, "and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own." Instead, he reasoned, they would always be imitators and never innovators. Paradoxically, Mill would never have raised this point had women not already claimed a very important literary place. To many of his contemporaries (and to many of ours), it seemed that the nineteenth century was the Age of the Female Novelist. With such stellar examples as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, the question of women's aptitude for fiction, at any rate, had been answered. But a larger question was whether women, excluded by custom and education from achieving distinction in poetry, history, or drama, had, in defining their literary culture in the novel, simply appropriated another masculine genre. Both George Henry Lewes and Mill, spokesmen for women's rights and Victorian liberalism in general, felt that, like the Romans in the shadow of Greece, women were overshadowed by male cultural imperialism: "If women's literature is destined to have a different collective character from that of men," wrote Mill, "much longer time is necessary than has yet elapsed before it can emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses."1

There is clearly a difference between books that happen to have been written by women, and a "female literature," as Lewes tried to define it, which purposefully and collectively concerns itself with the articulation of women's experience, and which guides itself "by its own impulses" to autonomous self-expression. As novelists, women have always been self-conscious, but only rarely self-defining. While they have been deeply and perennially aware of their individual identities and experiences, women writers have very infrequently considered whether these experiences might transcend the personal and local, assume a collective form in art, and reveal a history. During the intensely feminist period from 1880 to 1910, both British and American women writers explored the theme of an Amazon utopia, a country entirely populated by women and completely isolated from the male world. Yet even in these fantasies of autonomous female communities, there is no theory of female art. Feminist utopias were not visions of primary womanhood, free to define its own nature and culture, but flights from the male world to a culture defined in opposition to the male tradition. Typically the feminist utopias are pastoral sanctuaries, where a population of prelapsarian Eves cultivate their organic gardens, cure water pollution, and run exemplary child care centers, but do not write books.

In contradiction to Mill, and in the absence, until very recently, of any feminist literary manifestoes, many readers of the novel over the past two centuries have nonetheless had the indistinct but persistent impression of a unifying voice in women's literature. In The History of the EnglishNovel, Ernest Baker devotes a separate chapter to the women novelists, commenting that "the woman of letters has peculiarities that mark her off from the other sex as distinctly as peculiarities of race or of ancestral traditions. Whatever variety of talent, outlook or personal disposition may be discernible among any dozen women writers taken at random, it will be matched and probably outweighed by resemblances distinctively feminine."2 Baker wisely does not attempt to present a taxonomy of these feminine "peculiarities"; most critics who have attempted to do so have quickly found themselves expressing their own cultural biases rather than explicating sexual structures. In 1852, Lewes thought he could identify the feminine literary traits as Sentiment and Observation; in 1904, William L. Courtney found that "the female author is at once self-conscious and didactic"; in 1965, Bernard Bergonzi explained that "women novelists … like to keep their focus narrow."3 Women reading each other's books have also had difficulties in explaining their potential for what George Eliot called a "precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience." Eliot herself tried to locate the female speciality in the maternal affections.4

Statements about the personal and psychological qualities of the woman novelist have also flourished, and have been equally impressionistic and unreliable. The "lady novelist" is a composite of many stereotypes: to J. M. Ludlow, she is a creature with ink halfway up her fingers, dirty shawls, and frowsy hair; and to W. S. Gilbert, a "singular anomaly" who never would be missed.5 To critics of the twentieth century, she is childless and, by implication, neurotic: "We remind ourselves," writes Carolyn Heilbrun, "that of the great women writers, most have been unmarried, and those who have written in the state of wedlock have done so in peaceful kingdoms guarded by devoted husbands. Few have had children."6 Nancy Milford asks whether there were any women "who married in their youth and bore children and continued to write … think of the women who have written: the unmarried, the married and childless, the very few with a single child and that one observed as if it were a rock to be stubbed against."7

There are many reasons why discussion of women writers has been so inaccurate, fragmented, and partisan. First, women's literary history has suffered from an extreme form of what John Gross calls "residual Great Traditionalism,"8 which has reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women novelists to a tiny band of the "great," and derived all theories from them. In practice, the concept of greatness for women novelists often turns out to mean four or five writers—Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf—and even theoretical studies of "the woman novelist" turn out to be endless recyclings and recombinations of insights about "indispensable Jane and George."9 Criticism of women novelists, while focusing on these happy few, has ignored those who are not "great," and left them out of anthologies, histories, textbooks, and theories. Having lost sight of the minor novelists, who were the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next, we have not had a very clear understanding of the continuities in women's writing, nor any reliable information about the relationships between the writers' lives and the changes in the legal, economic, and social status of women.

Second, it has been difficult for critics to consider women novelists and women's literature theoretically because of their tendency to project and expand their own culture-bound stereotypes of femininity, and to see in women's writing an eternal opposition of biological and aesthetic creativity. The Victorians expected women's novels to reflect the feminine values they exalted, although obviously the woman novelist herself had outgrown the constraining feminine role. "Come what will," Charlotte Brontë wrote to Lewes, "I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on these terms, or with such ideas, that I ever took pen in hand."10 Even if we ignore the excesses of what Mary Ellmann calls "phallic criticism" and what Cynthia Ozick calls the "ovarian theory of literature," much contemporary criticism of women writers is still prescriptive and circumscribed.11 Given the difficulties of steering a precarious course between the Scylla of insufficient information and the Charybdis of abundant prejudice, it is not surprising that formalist-structuralist critics have evaded the issue of sexual identity entirely, or dismissed it as irrelevant and subjective. Finding it difficult to think intelligently about women writers, academic criticism has often overcompensated by desexing them.

Yet since the 1960s, and especially since the reemergence of a Women's Liberation Movement in England and in America around 1968, there has been renewed enthusiasm for the idea that "a special female self-awareness emerges through literature in every period."12 The interest in establishing a more reliable critical vocabulary and a more accurate and systematic literary history for women writers is part of a larger interdisciplinary effort by psychologists, sociologists, social historians, and art historians to reconstruct the political, social, and cultural experience of women.

Scholarship generated by the contemporary feminist movement has increased our sensitivity to the problems of sexual bias or projection in literary history, and has also begun to provide us with the information we need to understand the evolution of a female literary tradition. One of the most significant contributions has been the unearthing and reinterpretation of "lost" works by women writers, and the documentation of their lives and careers.

In the past, investigations have been distorted by the emphasis on an elite group, not only because it has excluded from our attention great stretches of literary activity between, for example, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, but also because it has rendered invisible the daily lives, the physical experiences, the personal strategies and conflicts of ordinary women. If we want to define the ways in which "female self-awareness" has expressed itself in the English novel, we need to see the woman novelist against the backdrop of the women of her time, as well as in relation to other writers in history. Virginia Woolf recognized that need:

The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman's life—the number of her children, whether she had money of her own, if she had a room to herself, whether she had help in bringing up her family, if she had servants, whether part of the housework was her task—it is only when we can measure the way of life and the experience of life made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as writer.13

As scholars have been persuaded that women's experience is important, they have begun to see it for the first time. With a new perceptual framework, material hitherto assumed to be nonexistent has suddenly leaped into focus. Interdisciplinary studies of Victorian women have opened up new areas of investigation in medicine, psychology, economics, political science, labor history, and art.14 Questions of the "female imagination" have taken on intellectual weight in the contexts of theories of Karen Horney about feminine psychology, Erik Erikson about womanhood and the inner space, and R. D. Laing about the divided self. Investigation of female iconography and imagery has been stimulated by the work of art historians like Linda Nochlin, Lise Vogel, and Helene Roberts.15

As the works of dozens of women writers have been rescued from what E. P. Thompson calls "the enormous condescension of posterity,"16 and considered in relation to each other, the lost continent of the female tradition has risen like Atlantis from the sea of English literature. It is now becoming clear that, contrary to Mill's theory, women have had a literature of their own all along. The woman novelist, according to Vineta Colby, was "really neither single nor anomalous," but she was also more than a "register and a spokesman for her age."17 She was part of a tradition that had its origins before her age, and has carried on through our own.

Many literary historians have begun to reinterpret and revise the study of women writers. Ellen Moers sees women's literature as an international movement, "apart from, but hardly subordinate to the mainstream: an undercurrent, rapid and powerful. This 'movement' began in the late eighteenth century, was multinational, and produced some of the greatest literary works of two centuries, as well as most of the lucrative pot-boilers."18 Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Female Imagination, finds that "for readily discernible historical reasons women have characteristically concerned themselves with matters more or less peripheral to male concerns, or at least slightly skewed from them. The differences between traditional female preoccupations and roles and male ones make a difference in female writing."19 Many other critics are beginning to agree that when we look at women writers collectively we can see an imaginative continuum, the recurrence of certain patterns, themes, problems, and images from generation to generation.

This book is an effort to describe the female literary tradition in the English novel from the generation of the Brontës to the present day, and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture. Women have generally been regarded as "sociological chameleons," taking on the class, lifestyle, and culture of their male relatives. It can, however, be argued that women themselves have constituted a subculture within the framework of a larger society, and have been unified by values, conventions, experiences, and behaviors impinging on each individual. It is important to see the female literary tradition in these broad terms, in relation to the wider evolution of women's self-awareness and to the ways in which any minority group finds its direction of self-expression relative to a dominant society, because we cannot show a pattern of deliberate progress and accumulation. It is true, as Ellen Moers writes, that "women studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex";20 in terms of influences, borrowings, and affinities, the tradition is strongly marked. But it is also full of holes and hiatuses, because of what Germaine Greer calls the "phenomenon of the transcience of female literary fame"; "almost uninterruptedly since the Interregnum, a small group of women have enjoyed dazzling literary prestige during their own lifetimes, only to vanish without trace from the records of posterity."21 Thus each generation of women writers has found itself, in a sense, without a history, forced to rediscover the past anew, forging again and again the consciousness of their sex. Given this perpetual disruption, and also the self-hatred that has alienated women writers from a sense of collective identity, it does not seem possible to speak of a "movement."

I am also uncomfortable with the notion of a "female imagination." The theory of a female sensibility revealing itself in an imagery and form specific to women always runs dangerously close to reiterating the familiar stereotypes. It also suggests permanence, a deep, basic, and inevitable difference between male and female ways of perceiving the world. I think that, instead, the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society. Moreover, the "female imagination" cannot be treated by literary historians as a romantic or Freudian abstraction. It is the product of a delicate network of influences operating in time, and it must be analyzed as it expresses itself, in language and in a fixed arrangement of words on a page, a form that itself is subject to a network of influences and conventions, including the operations of the marketplace. In this investigation of the English novel, I am intentionally looking, not at an innate sexual attitude, but at the ways in which the self-awareness of the woman writer has translated itself into a literary form in a specific place and time-span, how this self-awareness has changed and developed, and where it might lead.

I am therefore concerned with the professional writer who wants pay and publication, not with the diarist or letter-writer. This emphasis has required careful consideration of the novelists, as well as the novels, chosen for discussion. When we turn from the overview of the literary tradition to look at the individuals who composed it, a different but interrelated set of motives, drives, and sources becomes prominent. I have needed to ask why women began to write for money and how they negotiated the activity of writing within their families. What was their professional self-image? How was their work received, and what effects did criticism have upon them? What were their experiences as women, and how were these reflected in their books? What was their understanding of womanhood? What were their relationships to other women, to men, and to their readers? How did changes in women's status affect their lives and careers? And how did the vocation of writing itself change the women who committed themselves to it? In looking at literary subcultures, such as black, Jewish, Canadian, Anglo-Indian, or even American, we can see that they all go through three major phases. First, there is a prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles. Second, there is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity.22 An appropriate terminology for women writers is to call these stages Feminine, Feminist, and Female. These are obviously not rigid categories, distinctly separable in time, to which individual writers can be assigned with perfect assurance. The phases overlap; there are feminist elements in feminine writing, and vice versa. One might also find all three phases in the career of a single novelist. Nonetheless, it seems useful to point to periods of crisis when a shift of literary values occurred. In this book I identify the Feminine phase as the period from the appearance of the male pseudonym in the 1840s to the death of George Eliot in 1880; the Feminist phase as 1880 to 1920, or the winning of the vote; and the Female phase as 1920 to the present, but entering a new stage of self-awareness about 1960.

It is important to understand the female subculture not only as what Cynthia Ozick calls "custodial"23—a set of opinions, prejudices, tastes, and values prescribed for a subordinate group to perpetuate its subordination—but also as a thriving and positive entity. Most discussions of women as a subculture have come from historians describing Jacksonian America, but they apply equally well to the situation of early Victorian England. According to Nancy Cott, "we can view women's group consciousness as a subculture uniquely divided against itself by ties to the dominant culture. While the ties to the dominant culture are the informing and restricting ones, they provoke within the subculture certain strengths as well as weaknesses, enduring values as well as accommodations."24 The middle-class ideology of the proper sphere of womanhood, which developed in post-industrial England and America, prescribed a woman who would be a Perfect Lady, an Angel in the House, contentedly submissive to men, but strong in her inner purity and religiosity, queen in her own realm of the Home.25 Many observers have pointed out that the first professional activities of Victorian women, as social reformers, nurses, governesses, and novelists, either were based in the home or were extensions of the feminine role as teacher, helper, and mother of mankind. In describing the American situation, two historians have seen a subculture emerging from the doctrine of sexual spheres:

By "subculture" we mean simply "a habit of living"…ofaminority group which is self-consciously distinct from the dominant activities, expectations, and values of a society. Historians have seen female church groups, reform associations, and philanthropic activity as expressions of this subculture in actual behavior, while a large and rich body of writing by and for women articulated the subculture impulses on the ideational level. Both behavior and thought point to child-rearing, religious activity, education, home life, associationism, and female communality as components of women's subculture. Female friendships, strikingly intimate and deep in this period, formed the actual bonds.26

For women in England, the female subculture came first through a shared and increasingly secretive and ritualized physical experience. Puberty, menstruation, sexual initiation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause—the entire female sexual life cycle—constituted a habit of living that had to be concealed. Although these episodes could not be openly discussed or acknowledged, they were accompanied by elaborate rituals and lore, by external codes of fashion and etiquette, and by intense feelings of female solidarity.27 Women writers were united by their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers; by the internalized doctrines of evangelicalism, with its suspicion of the imagination and its emphasis on duty; and by legal and economic constraints on their mobility. Sometimes they were united in a more immediate way, around a political cause. On the whole these are the implied unities of culture, rather than the active unities of consciousness.

From the beginning, however, women novelists' awareness of each other and of their female audience showed a kind of covert solidarity that sometimes amounted to a genteel conspiracy. Advocating sisterhood, Sarah Ellis, one of the most conservative writers of the first Victorian generation, asked: "What should we think of a community of slaves, who betrayed each other's interests? of a little band of shipwrecked mariners upon a friendless shore who were false to each other? of the inhabitants of a defenceless nation, who would not unite together in earnestness and good faith against a common enemy?"28 Mrs. Ellis felt the binding force of the minority experience for women strongly enough to hint, in the prefaces to her widely read treatises on English womanhood, that her female audience would both read the messages between her lines and refrain from betraying what they deciphered. As another conservative novelist, Dinah Mulock Craik, wrote, "The intricacies of female nature are incomprehensible except to a woman; and any biographer of real womanly feeling, if ever she discovered, would never dream of publishing them."29 Few English women writers openly advocated the use of fiction as revenge against a patriarchal society (as did the American novelist Fanny Fern, for example), but many confessed to sentiments of "maternal feeling, sisterly affection, esprit de corps"30 for their readers. Thus the clergyman's daughter, going to Mudie's for her three-decker novel by another clergyman's daughter, participated in a cultural exchange that had a special personal significance.

It is impossible to say when women began to write fiction. From about 1750 on, English women made steady inroads into the literary marketplace, mainly as novelists. As early as 1773, the Monthly Review noticed that "that branch of the literary trade" seemed "almost entirely engrossed by the ladies." J. M. S. Tompkins finds that most eighteenth-century epistolary novels were written by women; the Minerva Press published twice as many novels by women as by men; and Ian Watt simply says that the majority of all eighteenth-century novels came from the female pen.31 At the same time, men were able to imitate, and even usurp, female experience. Oliver Goldsmith suspected that men were writing sentimental novels under female pseudonyms, and men did write books on childcare, midwifery, housekeeping, and cooking.32

Early women writers' relationship to their professional role was uneasy. Eighteenth-century women novelists exploited a stereotype of helpless femininity to win chivalrous protection from male reviewers and to minimize their unwomanly self-assertion. In 1791 Elizabeth Inchbald prefaced A Simple Story with the lie that she was a poor invalid who had written a novel despite "the utmost detestation to the fatigue of inventing."33 At the turn of the century, women evaded the issue of professional identity by publishing anonymously. In 1810 Mary Brunton explained in a letter to a friend why she preferred anonymity to taking credit for her novels:

I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant, to be pointed at,—to be noticed and commented upon—to be suspected of literary airs—to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred as literary women are, by the pretending of the other!—my dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer.34

Here again we need to remember the distinction between the novel as a form, and the professional role of the novelist. Many of the most consistent themes and images of the feminine novel, from the mysterious interiors of Gothic romance to the balancing of duty and self-fulfillment in domestic fiction, can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. Certainly nineteenth-century women novelists had some familiarity with Burney, Edgeworth, Radcliffe, and Austen, as well as with scores of lesser writers such as Inchbald and Hofland. But almost no sense of communality and self-awareness is apparent among women writers before the 1840s, which Kathleen Tillotson sees as the decade in which the novel became the dominant form. Tillotson points out that, despite the respectful attention paid by mid-Victorian critics to Jane Austen (attention that had some negative impact on Victorian women novelists), there appears to have been relatively little direct influence by Austen on Mrs. Gaskell, Harriet Martineau, the Brontës, and several minor writers.35 Even George Eliot's debt to Austen has been much exaggerated by the concept of the Great Tradition.36 The works of Mary Wollstonecraft were not widely read by the Victorians due to the scandals surrounding her life.



A figure of the "golden age" of nineteenth-century English literature, Gaskell is best known for her novels of social reform and psychological realism, notably Ruth (1853) and North and South (1854). Her treatment of issues ranging from prostitution to mother-daughter relations both captured the public imagination and generated controversy during Gaskell's own lifetime. Critics have emphasized the tensions—between the working and middle classes, between traditional authority and young women, and between the responsibilities of the public and the responsibilities of the individual—that animate Gaskell's novels and foreshadow major social reforms. Gaskell's refined and compassionate portrayals of her central characters—often young, unmarried women who suffer misfortune—and her skillful use of detail have established an enduring popularity for and interest in her work.

Born in London, Gaskell developed her life-long love of reading at an early age. She married William Gaskell, a young Unitarian clergyman, in 1832 and lived in Manchester. Of her six children, five survived infancy; it was in response to the death of her second child, William, from scarlet fever in 1845 that her husband suggested Gaskell begin writing as a form of distraction from mourning. The resulting novel, Mary Barton (1848), reflected Gaskell's interest in the plight of families, and particularly of women, affected by the industrialization of England. Gaskell was active in charitable endeavors, and developed friendships with a number of prominent persons of literary or charitable circles, including George Eliot, Mary Howitt, Charlotte Brontë, and Florence Nightingale. After the popular success of Mary Barton Gaskell produced a prolific number of short stories and novels over the remaining years of her life, many of which appeared in Household Words, a popular journal edited by Charles Dickens.

More important than the question of direct literary influence, however, is the difference between the social and professional worlds inhabited by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women. The early women writers refused to deal with a professional role, or had a negative orientation toward it. "What is my life?" lamented the poet Laetitia Landon. "One day of drudgery after another; difficulties incurred for others, which have ever pressed upon me beyond health, which every year, in one severe illness after another, is taxed beyond its strength; envy, malice, and all uncharitableness—these are the fruits of a successful literary career for a woman."37 These women may have been less than sincere in their insistence that literary success brought them only suffering, but they were not able to see themselves as involved in a vocation that brought responsibilities as well as conflicts, and opportunities as well as burdens. Moreover, they did not see their writing as an aspect of their female experience, or as an expression of it.

Thus, in talking about the situation of the feminine novelists, I have begun with the women born after 1800, who began to publish fiction during the 1840s when the job of the novelist was becoming a recognizable profession. One of the many indications that this generation saw the will to write as a vocation in direct conflict with their status as women is the appearance of the male pseudonym. Like Eve's fig leaf, the male pseudonym signals the loss of innocence. In its radical understanding of the role-playing required by women's effort to participate in the mainstream of literary culture, the pseudonym is a strong marker of the historical shift.

There were three generations of nineteenth-century feminine novelists. The first, born between 1800 and 1820, included all the women who are identified with the Golden Age of the Victorian authoress: the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, and George Eliot. The members of this group, whose coevals were Florence Nightingale, Mary Carpenter, Angela Burdett, and other pioneer professionals, were what sociologists call "female role innovators"; they were breaking new ground and creating new possibilities. The second generation, born between 1820 and 1840, included Charlotte Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant, and Elizabeth Lynn Linton; these women followed in the footsteps of the great, consolidating their gains, but were less dedicated and original. The third generation, born between 1840 and 1860, included sensation novelists and children's book writers. They seemed to cope effortlessly with the double roles of woman and professional, and to enjoy sexual fulfillment as well as literary success. Businesslike, unconventional, efficient, and productive, they moved into editorial and publishing positions as well as writing.

By the time the women of the first generation had entered upon their careers, there was already a sense of what the "feminine" novel meant in terms of genres. By the 1840s women writers had adopted a variety of popular genres, and were specializing in novels of fashionable life, education, religion, and community, which Vineta Colby subsumes under the heading "domestic realism." In all these novels, according to Inga-Stina Ewbank, "the central preoccupation … is with the woman as an influence on others within her domestic and social circle. It was in this preoccupation that the typical woman novelist of the 1840s found her proper sphere: in using the novel to demonstrate (by assumption rather than exploration of standards of womanliness) woman's proper sphere."38 A double standard of literary criticism had also developed with a special set of terms and requirements for fiction by women.

There was a place for such fiction, but even the most conservative and devout women novelists, such as Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik, were aware that the "feminine" novel also stood for feebleness, ignorance, prudery, refinement, propriety, and sentimentality, while the feminine novelist was portrayed as vain, publicity-seeking, and self-assertive. At the same time that Victorian reviewers assumed that women readers and women writers were dictating the content of fiction, they deplored the pettiness and narrowness implied by a feminine value system. "Surely it is very questionable," wrote Fitzjames Stephen, "whether it is desirable that no novels should be written except those fit for young ladies to read."39

Victorian feminine novelists thus found themselves in a double bind. They felt humiliated by the condescension of male critics and spoke intensely of their desire to avoid special treatment and achieve genuine excellence, but they were deeply anxious about the possibility of appearing unwomanly. Part of the conflict came from the fact that, rather than confronting the values of their society, these women novelists were competing for its rewards. For women, as for other subcultures, literature became a symbol of achievement.

In the face of this dilemma, women novelists developed several strategies, both personal and artistic. Among the personal reactions was a persistent self-deprecation of themselves as women, sometimes expressed as humility, sometimes as coy assurance-seeking, and sometimes as the purest self-hatred. In a letter to John Black-wood, Mrs. Oliphant expressed doubt about "whether in your most manly and masculine of magazines a womanish story-teller like myself may not become wearisome."40 The novelists publicly proclaimed, and sincerely believed, their antifeminism. By working in the home, by preaching submission and self-sacrifice, and by denouncing female self-assertiveness, they worked to atone for their own will to write.

Vocation—the will to write—nonetheless required a genuine transcendence of female identity. Victorian women were not accustomed to choosing a vocation; womanhood was a vocation in itself. The evangelically inspired creed of work did affect women, even though it had not been primarily directed toward them. Like men, women were urged to "bear their part in the work of life."41 Yet for men, the gospel of work satisfied both self-interest and the public interest. In pursing their ambitions, they fulfilled social expectations.

For women, however, work meant labor for others. Work, in the sense of self-development, was in direct conflict with the subordination and repression inherent in the feminine ideal. The self-centeredness implicit in the act of writing made this career an especially threatening one; it required an engagement with feeling and a cultivation of the ego rather than its negation. The widely circulated treatises of Hannah More and Sarah Ellis translated the abstractions of "women's mission" into concrete programs of activity, which made writing appear selfish, unwomanly, and unchristian. "'What shall I do to gratify myself—to be admired—or to vary the tenor of my existence?'" are not, according to Mrs. Ellis, "questions which a woman of right feelings asks on first awakening to the avocations of the day." Instead she recommends visiting the sick, fixing breakfast for anyone setting on a journey in order to spare the servant, or general "devotion to the good of the whole family." "Who can believe," she asks fervently, "that days, months, and years spent in a continual course of thought and action similar to this, will not produce a powerful effect upon the character?"42 Of course it did; one notices first of all that feminine writers like Elizabeth Barrett, "Charlotte Elizabeth," Elizabeth M. Sewell, and Mrs. Ellis herself had to overcome deep-seated guilt about authorship. Many found it necessary to justify their work by recourse to some external stimulus or ideology. In their novels, the heroine's aspirations for a full, independent life are undermined, punished, or replaced by marriage.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857) is one of the few autobiographical discussions of feminine role conflict. Aurora's struggle to become an artist is complicated by the self-hatred in which she has been educated, by her internalized convictions of her weakness and narcissism, and by the gentle scorn of her suitor Romney. She defies him, however, and invokes divine authority to reject his proposal that she become his helpmeet:

You misconceive the question like a man
Who sees the woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought …
I too have my vocation,—work to do,
The heavens and earth have set me. (Book >II>, 460-466)

Aurora succeeds as a poet. But she marries Romney in the end, having learned that as a woman she cannot cope with the guilt of self-centered ambition. It is significant that Romney has been blinded in an accident before she marries him, not only because he has thereby received firsthand knowledge of being handicapped and can empathize with her, but also because he then needs her help and can provide her with suitably feminine work. When Aurora tells Romney that "No perfect artist is developed here / From any imperfect woman" (Book >IX>, 648-649) she means more than the perfection of love and motherhood; she means also the perfection of self-sacrifice. This conflict remains a significant one for English novelists up to the present; it is a major theme for women novelists from Charlotte Brontë to Penelope Mortimer. Male novelists like Thackeray, who came from an elite class, also felt uncomfortable with the aggressive self-promotion of the novelist's career. As Donald Stone points out:

Thackeray's ambivalent feelings towards Becky Sharp indicate the degree to which he attempted to suppress or make light of his own literary talents. The energies which make her (for a time) a social success are akin to those which made him a creative artist. In the hands of a major woman novelist, like Jane Austen or George Eliot, the destructive moral and social implications of Becky's behavior would have been defined more clearly and more urgently. Jane Austen's dissection of Lydia Bennet, and George Eliot's demolition of Rosamond Vincy, for example, indicate both how and why the defense of the status quo—insofar as women of the nineteenth century were concerned—was most earnestly and elaborately performed by women writers. Their heroines are hardly concerned with self-fulfillment in the modern sense of the term, and if they have severely limited possibilities in life it is because their authors saw great danger in, plus a higher alternative to, the practice of self-assertiveness.43

The dilemma is stated by George Eliot in Romola as the question of where "the duty of obedience ends and the duty of resistance begins."44 Yet this was the question any Victorian woman with the will to write would have had to ask herself: what did God intend her to do with her life? Where did obedience to her father and husband end, and the responsibility of self-fulfillment become paramount? The problem of obedience and resistance that women had to solve in their own lives before they could begin to write crops up in their novels as the heroine's moral crisis. The forms that the crisis takes in feminine fiction are realistically mundane—should Margaret, in Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, lie to protect her brother? should Ethel May, in Charlotte Younge's Daisy Chain, give up studying Greek to nurse her father?—but the sources were profound, and were connected to the women novelists' sense of epic life. At the same time that they recognized the modesty of their own struggles, women writers recognized their heroism. "A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life," wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch, "any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know."45

The training of Victorian girls in repression, concealment, and self-censorship was deeply inhibiting, especially for those who wanted to write. As one novelist commented in 1860, "Women are greater dissemblers than men when they wish to conceal their own emotions. By habit, moral training, and modern education, they are obliged to do so. The very first lessons of infancy teach them to repress their feelings, control their very thoughts."46 The verbal range permitted to English gentlewomen amounted almost to a special language. The verbal inhibitions that were part of the upbringing of a lady were reinforced by the critics' vigilance. "It is an immense loss," lamented Alice James, "to have all robust and sustaining expletives refined away from one."47 "Coarseness" was the term Victorian readers used to rebuke unconventional language in women's literature. It could refer to the "damns" in Jane Eyre, the dialect in Wuthering Heights, the slang of Rhoda Broughton's heroines, the colloquialisms in Aurora Leigh, or more generally to the moral tone of a work, such as the "vein of perilous voluptuousness" one alert critic detected in Adam Bede.48 John Keble censored Charlotte Yonge's fiction, taking the greatest care "that no hint of 'coarseness' should sully the purity of Charlotte's writings. Thus he would not allow Theodora in Heartsease to say that 'really she had a heart, though some people thought it was only a machine for pumping blood.' He also transformed the 'circle' of the setting sun into an 'orb' and a 'coxcomb' into a 'jackanapes'."49 While verbal force, wit, and originality in women was criticized, a bland and gelatinous prose won applause. "She writes as an English gentlewoman should write," the North British Review complimented Anne Marsh in 1849; "her pages are absolutely like green pastures."50 Reduced to a pastoral flatness, deprived of a language in which to describe their bodies or the events of their bodies, denied the expression of pain as well as the expression of pleasure, women writers appeared deficient in passion.

It is easy to understand why many readers took the absence of expression for the absence of feeling. In "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," W. R. Greg argued that woman's sexual innocence would prevent her ever writing a great novel:

Many of the saddest and deepest truths in the strange science of sexual affection are to her mysteriously and mercifully veiled and can only be purchased at such a fearful cost that we cannot wish it otherwise. The inevitable consequence however is that in treating of that science she labours under all the disadvantages of partial study and superficial insight. She is describing a country of which she knows only the more frequented and the safer roads, with a few of the sweeter scenes and the prettier by-paths and more picturesque detours which be not far from the broad and beaten thoroughfares; while the rockier and loftier mountains, and more rugged tracts, the more sombre valleys, and the darker and more dangerous chasms, are never trodden by her feet, and scarcely ever dreamed of by her fancy.51

The results of restrictive education and intensive conditioning were taken as innate evidence of natural preference. In an ironic twist, many reviewers who had paternally barred the way to the sombre valleys, the darker chasms, and the more rugged tracts also blamed women for the emasculation of male prose, finding, like the Prospective Review, that the "writing of men is in danger of being marked" by "the delicacy and even fastidiousness of expression which is natural to educated women" [my italics].52 When G. H. Lewes complained in 1852 that the literature of women was "too much a literature of imitation" and demanded that women should express "what they have really known, felt and suffered,"53 he was asking for something that Victorian society had made impossible. Feminine novelists had been deprived of the language and the consciousness for such an enterprise, and obviously their deprivation extended beyond Victoria's reign and into the twentieth century. The delicacy and verbal fastidiousness of Virginia Woolf is an extension of this feminized language.

Florence Nightingale thought the effort of repression itself drained off women's creative energy. "Give us back our suffering," she demanded in Cassandra (1852), "for out of nothing comes nothing. But out of suffering may come the cure. Better have pain than paralysis."54 It does sometimes seem as if feminine writers are metaphorically paralyzed, as Alice James was literally paralyzed, by refinement and restraint, but the repression in which the feminine novel was situated also forced women to find innovative and covert ways to dramatize the inner life, and led to a fiction that was intense, compact, symbolic, and profound. There is Charlotte Brontë's extraordinary subversion of the Gothic in Jane Eyre, in which the mad wife locked in the attic symbolizes the passionate and sexual side of Jane's personality, an alter ego that her upbringing, her religion, and her society have commanded her to incarcerate. There is the crippled artist heroine of Dinah Craik's Olive (1850), who identifies with Byron, and whose deformity represents her very womanhood. There are the murderous little wives of Mary Braddon's sensation novels, golden-haired killers whose actions are a sardonic commentary on the real feelings of the Angel in the House.

Many of the fantasies of feminine novels are related to money, mobility, and power. Although feminine novelists punished assertive heroines, they dealt with personal ambition by projecting the ideology of success onto male characters, whose initiative, thrift, industry, and perseverance came straight from the woman author's experience. The "woman's man," discussed in Chapter iv, was often a more effective outlet for the "deviant" aspects of the author's personality than were her heroines, and thus male role-playing extended beyond the pseudonym to imaginative content.

Protest fiction represented another projection of female experience onto another group; it translated the felt pain and oppression of women into the championship of mill-workers, child laborers, prostitutes, and slaves. Women were aware that protest fiction converted anger and frustration into an acceptable form of feminine and Christian expression. In the social novels of the 1840s and 1850s, and the problem novels of the 1860s and 1870s, women writers were pushing back the boundaries of their sphere, and presenting their profession as one that required not only freedom of language and thought, but also mobility and activity in the world. The sensation novelists of the 1870s, including Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, and Florence Marryat, used this new freedom in a transitional literature that explored genuinely radical female protest against marriage and women's economic oppression, although still in the framework of feminine conventions that demanded the erring heroine's destruction.

From Jane Austen to George Eliot, the woman's novel had moved, despite its restrictions, in the direction of an all-inclusive female realism, a broad, socially informed exploration of the daily lives and values of women within the family and the community. By 1880, the three-decker had become flexible enough to accommodate many of the formerly unprintable aspects of female experience. Yet with the death of George Eliot and the appearance of a new generation of writers, the woman's novel moved into a Feminist phase, a confrontation with male society that elevated Victorian sexual stereotypes into a cult. The feminists challenged many of the restrictions on women's self-expression, denounced the gospel of self-sacrifice, attacked patriarchal religion, and constructed a theoretical model of female oppression, but their anger with society and their need for self-justification often led them away from realism into oversimplification, emotionalism, and fantasy. Making their fiction the vehicle for a dramatization of wronged womanhood, they demanded changes in the social and political systems that would grant women male privileges and require chastity and fidelity from men. The profound sense of injustice that the feminine novelists had represented as class struggle in their novels of factory life becomes an all-out war of the sexes in the novels of the feminists. Even their pseudonyms show their sense of feminist pride and of matriarchal mission to their sisters; one representative feminist called herself "Sarah Grand." In its extreme form, feminist literature advocated the sexual separatism of Amazon utopias and suffragette sisterhoods.

In the lives of the feminists, the bonds of the female subculture were particularly strong. The feminists were intensely devoted to each other and needed the support of close, emotional friendships with other women as well as the loving adulation of a female audience. In this generation, which mainly comprises women born between 1860 and 1880, one finds sympathetically attuned women writing in teams; Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were even said to have continued the collaboration beyond the grave.55 Although they preached individualism, their need for association led to a staggering number of clubs, activities, and causes, culminating in the militant groups and the almost terrifying collectivity of the suffrage movement. They glorified and idealized the womanly values of chastity and maternal love, and believed that those values must be forced upon a degenerate male society.

In their lives and in their books, most feminist writers expressed both an awareness of, and a revulsion from, sexuality. Like the feminine novelists, they projected many of their own experiences onto male characters, creating, for example, the Scarlet Pimpernels, "effeminate" fops by day and fearless heroes by night, semi-androgynous symbols of a generation in uneasy transition. To some degree these tactics were typical of the period in which they wrote; male novelists were creating "masculine" independent women who, as Donald Stone puts it, "could be used as a cover for those men who, for one reason or another, were anxious to proclaim their own standards and follow their own instincts."56

As the feminists themselves often seem neurotic and divided in their roles, less productive than earlier generations, and subject to paralyzing psychosomatic illnesses, so their fiction seems to break down in its form. In the 1890s the three-decker novel abruptly disappeared due to changes in its marketability, and women turned to short stories and fragments, which they called "dreams," "keynotes," and "fantasias." At the turn of the century came the purest examples of feminist literature, the novels, poems, and plays written as suffragette propaganda and distributed by the efficient and well-financed suffrage presses.

The feminist writers were not important artists. Yet in their insistence on exploring and defining womanhood, in their rejection of self-sacrifice, and even in their outspoken hostility to men, the feminist writers represented an important stage, a declaration of independence, in the female tradition. They did produce some interesting and original work, and they opened new subjects for other novelists. Sarah Grand's powerful studies of female psychology, George Egerton's bitter short stories, and Olive Schreiner's existential socialism were all best-sellers in their own day and still hold attention. Through political campaigns for prostitutes and working women, and in the suffrage crusades, the feminists insisted on their right to use the male sexual vocabulary, and to use it forcefully and openly. The feminists also challenged the monopoly of male publishers and rebelled against the dictatorship of the male establishment. Men—John Chapman, John Blackwood, Henry Blackett, George Smith—had published the works of feminine novelists and had exerted direct and enormous power over their contents. Sarah Grand parodied the masculine critical hegemony by describing a literary journal she called the Patriarch, and feminist journalists, writing in their own magazines, argued against the judgments of the men of letters. In the 1860s the sensation novelists had begun to retain their copyrights, work with printers on a commission basis, and edit their own magazines. The feminists continued to expand this economic control of publishing outlets. Virginia Woolf, printing her own novels at the Hogarth Press, owed much of her independence to the feminists' insistence on the need for women writers to be free of patriarchal commercialism.

… Feminine, feminist, or female, the woman's novel has always had to struggle against the cultural and historical forces that relegated women's experience to the second rank. In trying to outline the female tradition, I have looked beyond the famous novelists who have been found worthy, to the lives and works of many women who have long been excluded from literary history. I have tried to discover how they felt about themselves and their books, what choices and sacrifices they made, and how their relationship to their profession and their tradition evolved. "What is commonly called literary history," writes Louise Bernikow, "is actually a record of choices. Which writers have survived their time and which have not depends upon who noticed them and chose to record the notice.57 If some of the writers I notice seem to us to be Teresas and Antigones, struggling with their overwhelming sense of vocation and repression, many more will seem only Dorotheas, prim, mistaken, irreparably minor. And yet it is only by considering them all—Millicent Grogan as well as Virginia Woolf—that we can begin to record new choices in a new literary history, and to understand why, despite prejudice, despite guilt, despite inhibition, women began to write.


  1. "The Subjection of Women," in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill, Essays on Sex Equality, ed. Alice S. Rossi, Chicago, 1970, ch. >III>, p. 207.
  2. "Some Women Novelists," History of the English Novel, >X>, London, 1939, p. 194.
  3. G. H. Lewes, "The Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, n.s. >II> (1852): 137; W. L. Courtney, The Feminine Note in Fiction, London, 1904, p. xiii; Bernard Bergonzi, New York Review of Books, June 3, 1965. In a review of Beryl Bainbridge's The Bottle Factory Outing, Anatole Broyard comments "that quite a few extremely attractive women write rather despairing books" (New York Times, May 26, 1975, p. 13).
  4. "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Westminster Review >LXVI> (1856); reprinted in Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney, London, 1963, p. 324.
  5. "Ruth," North British Review >XIX> (1853): 90-91; and "Ko-Ko's Song" in The Mikado. The stereotype of the woman novelist that emerges in the early nineteenth century conflates the popular images of the old maid and the bluestocking; see Vineta Colby, Yesterday's Woman: Domestic Realism in the English Novel, Princeton, 1974, pp. 115-116, and Katharine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature, London, 1966, pp. 201-207.
  6. Introduction to May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, New York, 1974, p. xvi.
  7. "This Woman's Movement" in Adrienne Rich's Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, New York, 1975, p. 189.
  8. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, London, 1969, p. 304.
  9. Cynthia Ozick, "Women and Creativity," in Woman in Sexist Society, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, New York, 1971, p. 436.
  10. Letter of November 1849, in Clement Shorter, The Brontës: Life and Letters, >II>, London, 1908, p. 80.
  11. Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women, London, 1979, pp. 28-54; and Ozick, "Women and Creativity," p. 436.
  12. Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination, London, 1976, p. 3.
  13. "Women and Fiction," Collected Essays, London 1976, p. 142.
  14. See, for example, Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden from History, London, 1973; Martha Vicinus, ed., Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, London 1980; Mary S. Hartman and Lois N. Banner, eds., Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, New York, 1974, and Françoise Basch, Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel, London, 1974.
  15. Linda Nochlin, "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" in Woman in Sexist Society; Lise Vogel, "Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness," Feminist Studies >II> (1974): 3-37; Helene Roberts, "The Inside, the Surface, the Mass: Some Recurring Images of Women," Women's Studies >II> (1974): 289-308.
  16. The Making of the English Working Class, London, 1968, p. 13.
  17. Vineta Colby, The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1970, p. 11.
  18. "Women's Lit: Profession and Tradition," Columbia Forum >I> (Fall 1972): 27.
  19. Spacks, p. 7.
  20. Moers, "Women's Lit," p. 28.
  21. "Flying Pigs and Double Standards," Times Literary Supplement, (July 26, 1974): 784.
  22. For helpful studies of literary subcultures, see Robert A. Bone, The Negro Novel in America, New York, 1958; and Northrop Frye, "Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada," in The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society, London, 1970, pp. 278-312.
  23. "Women and Creativity," p. 442.
  24. Nancy F. Cott, introduction to Root of Bitterness, New York, 1972, pp. 3-4.
  25. For the best discussions of the Victorian feminine ideal, see Françoise Basch, "Contemporary Ideologies," in Relative Creatures, pp. 3-15; Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, London, 1957, pp. 341-343; and Alexander Welsh's theory of the Angel in the House in The City of Dickens, London, 1971, pp. 164-195.
  26. Christine Stansell and Johnny Faragher, "Women and Their Families on the Overland Trail, 1842-1867," Feminist Studies >II> (1975): 152-153. For an overview of recent historical scholarship on the "two cultures," see Barbara Sicherman, "Review: American History," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society >I> (Winter 1975): 470-484.
  27. For a sociological account of patterns of behavior for Victorian women, see Leonore Davidoff, The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season, London, 1973, esp. pp. 48-58, 85-100.
  28. Sarah Ellis, The Daughters of England, London, 1845, ch. >IX>, p. 338.
  29. Dinah M. Craik, "Literary Ghouls," Studies from Life, New York, 1861, p. 13.
  30. Letter of October 6, 1851, in Letters of E. Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle, ed. Mrs. Alex Ireland, London, 1892, p. 426. For Fanny Fern, see Ann Douglas Wood, "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote," American Quarterly >XXIII> (Spring 1971): 1-24.
  31. J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800, London, 1932, pp. 119-121; Dorothy Blakey, The Minerva Press 1790-1820, London, 1939; and Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, London, 1963, pp. 298-299.
  32. Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England 1650-1760, New York, 1920, pp. 89-91.
  33. William McKee, Elizabeth Inchbald, Novelist, Washington, D.C., 1935, p. 20.
  34. "Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Mary Brunton by Her Husband," preface to Emmeline, Edinburgh, 1819, p. xxxvi.
  35. Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, London, 1956, pp. 142-145.
  36. For a refutation of Leavis's view of Austen and Eliot, see Gross, Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, pp. 302-303.
  37. Quoted in S. C. Hall, A Book of Memories of Great Men and Women of the Age, London, 1877, p. 266.
  38. Inga-Stina Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Female Novelists, London, 1966, p. 41.
  39. Saturday Review >IV> (July 11, 1857): 40-41. See also David Masson, British Novelists and Their Styles, Cambridge, 1859, p. 134.
  40. Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant, ed., Mrs. Harry Coghill, London, 1899, p. 160.
  41. "An Enquiry into the State of Girls' Fashionable Schools," Fraser's >XXXI> (1845): 703.
  42. Sarah Ellis, The Women of England, London, 1838, ch. >U>, p.35.
  43. "Victorian Feminism and the Nineteenth-Century Novel," Women's Studies >I> (1972): 69.
  44. Romola, London, 1863, >II>, ch. >XXIII>.
  45. Middlemarch, ed., W. J. Harvey, London, 1965, "Finale," p. 896.
  46. Tacita Tacit, >II>, p. 276; quoted in Myron Brightfield, Victorian England in Its Novels, >IV>, Los Angeles, 1968, p. 27.
  47. The Diary of Alice James, ed. Leon Edel, London, 1965, p. 66.
  48. British Quarterly Review >XLV> (1867): 164. On the term "coarseness," see Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere, pp. 46-47.
  49. Margaret Mare and Alicia C. Percival, Victorian Best-Seller: The World of Charlotte Yonge, London, 1947, p. 133.
  50. James Lorimer, "Noteworthy Novels," >XI> (1849): 257.
  51. "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," National Review >VII>, (1859): 149.
  52. "Puseyite Novels," >VI> (1850): 498.
  53. "The Lady Novelists," p. 132.
  54. "Cassandra," in The Cause, ed. Ray Strachey, London, 1978, p. 398.
  55. See Maurice Collis, Somerville and Ross, London, 1968, for an account of the careers of Edith Somerville and Violet Martin. After Martin's death in 1915, the "collaboration" continued through psychic communications. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper wrote under the name of "Michael Field"; the sisters Emily and Dorothea Gerard used the name "E. D. Gerard" for such joint efforts as Beggar My Neighbor (1882).
  56. "Victorian Feminism and the Nineteenth-Century Novel," p. 79.
  57. The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950, New York, 1979, p. 3.

Works Cited

Books on women and the novel, Victorian women, the women's movement, individual novelists.

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel. 10 vols. London: Witherby, 1924-1939.

Basch, Françoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and The Novel. London: Allen Lane, 1974.

Brightfield, Myron. Victorian England in its Novels. 4 vols. Los Angeles: U.C.L.A., 1968.

Coghill, Mrs. Harry, ed. Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant. London: Blackwood, 1899.

Colby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York U. Press, 1970.

——. Yesterday's Women: Domestic Realism in the English Novel. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1974.

Cott, Nancy F. Root of Bitterness. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972.

Courtney, William L. The Feminine Note in Fiction. London: Chapman & Hall, 1904.

Davidoff, Leonore. The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season. London: Croom Helm, 1973.

Edel, Leon, ed. The Diary of Alice James. London: Hart-Davis, 1965.

Ellmann, Mary. Thinking About Women. London: Virago, 1979.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Novelists. London: Edward Arnold, 1966.

Gornick, Vivian and Barbara K. Moran, eds. Woman in Sexist Society. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Hartman, Mary S. and Lois Banner, eds. Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Ireland, Mrs. Alex, ed. Letters of Geraldine Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle. London: Longmans, Green, 1892.

Mill, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill. Essays on Sex Equality. Ed. Alice S. Rossi. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1970.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: The Women's Press, 1978.

Moore, Doris Langley. E. Nesbit: A Biography. London: Benn, 1967.

Pinney, Thomas, ed. Essays of George Eliot. London: Rout-ledge, 1963.

Rogers, Katherine M. The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature. Seattle and London: U. of Washington Press, 1966.

Rowbotham, Sheila. Hidden From History. London: Pluto Press, 1973.

Shorter, Clement. The Brontës: Life and Letters. 2 vols. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. London: Allen and Unwin, 1976.

Stone, Donald. Novelists in a Changing World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1972.

Strachey, Ray. The Cause. London: Virago, 1978.

Thomson, Patricia. The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal. London: Oxford U. Press, 1956.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. London: Oxford U. Press, 1954.

Tompkins, J. M. S. The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800. London: Methuen, 1932.

Vicinus, Martha, ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. London: Methuen University Paperbacks, 1980.

Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. London: Oxford U. Press, 1971.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. >II>. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Articles in nineteenth-century periodicals, listed chronologically.

[Lorimer, James]. "Noteworthy Novels," North British Review, >XI> (1849), 255-265.

"Puseyite Novels," Prospective Review, >VI> (1850), 512-534.

[Lewes, G. H.]. "The Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, n.s. >II> (1852), 129-141.

[Greg, W. R.]. "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," National Review, >VII> (1859), 144-167.

"Romola," British Quarterly Review, >XXXVIII> (1863), 448-465.

"George Eliot," British Quarterly Review, >XLV> (1867), 141-178.

Wood, Ann Douglas. "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote," American Quarterly, >XXIII> (Spring 1971), 1-24.


SOURCE: Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. "Introduction: Literature and Society." In Femininity to Feminism: Women and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 1-15. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

In the following essay, Gorsky describes women's dominating role in development of the realistic novel in the nineteenth century, arguing that a century filled with profound change was heavily influenced by female authors and readers.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own1

Exploring the role of women during the nineteenth century means considering the evolution of feminism, a loaded word that implies a variety of ideas and arouses conflicting reactions. Feminism suggests a practical determination to alter unjust laws, whether about divorce, property, or voting rights. But it also implies a philosophical questioning of traditional values and ideas, from women's intellectual and emotional capacities to male-female relationships to the ways women and men think, act, and feel. A lot happened to women's roles and the women's movement during this period of ferment. The greatest visible changes occurred in family life, education, and jobs, areas that affect all aspects of human existence.

England and America share a heritage of culture, assumptions, laws, and beliefs. American law has its origins in British common law, American literature has often imitated England's and America's dominant religions came over with the pilgrims. Until the nineteenth century, philosophical and artistic movements tended to cross the Atlantic from east to west. In the 1800s, however, America found that unique political, economic, and social realities in the New World required new attitudes, laws, and literature. Through war and economic expansion, the American territory spread from sea to sea and beyond. Westward pioneers pursued dreams of land, freedom, and wealth, and the creation of canals and roads suggested that the vast land could become one nation. Sectional differences threatened the fragile alliance, painfully reasserted through the Civil War. An earlier war separated the American colonies from England, but by the nineteenth century the British Empire stretched from Africa to Asia, from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean. It included more than fifty colonies—areas as diverse as today's New Zealand, Sierra Leone, India, and Jamaica.

The nineteenth century is often seen as a time of relative stability, when people shared the values of family, progress, patriotism, and God; but it was truly an era of change. Cities and industries erupted in the countryside. Social reform, new educational opportunities and jobs, and writings like Darwin's Origin of Species challenged the established order of the universe and the position of humankind. Romanticism legitimized individuality, imaginative expression, and freedom, fostering an atmosphere in which to explore feminist ideas. In this era of search, change, and retreat, familiar patterns seemed sometimes a comforting sanctuary, sometimes a trap to destroy. Accepted values and behaviors sanctified by lip service could mask a reality quite different from the myth. The impact of change is especially obvious in women's lives.

Women's position at the end of the eighteenth century was little changed from the Middle Ages. According to British common law and thus American law, women were essentially men's property: before marriage, a woman's life was determined by her father; after marriage, by her husband; the unmarried woman was considered somehow unnatural. A woman's social status and economic well-being depended on the man in her life, and, to a very large degree, her happiness depended on his goodwill. She had almost no opportunity for education, no chance to develop special interests or choose a career other than wife and mother.

In establishing its constitution, the United States made it clear that neither slaves nor women deserved the full rights of citizenship. A few years after emancipation, male former slaves were granted the right to vote, but it took another half century for women of any color, born slave or not, to earn the same right in the United States and in England. Symbolically and actually, women were seen as less than fully human.

The roots of this attitude lie deep in Western culture. Laws codified attitudes dating back at least to the Old Testament, reinforced by Christian writings. The Book of Genesis states that the first woman was created from man, thus establishing a hierarchy that persists in church doctrine and practice to this day. Anne Bradstreet underscores the positions of God, man, and woman in her poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband" (1678): "Thy love is such I can no way repay / The heavens reward thee manifold I pray."

The Bible defines woman as saint and sinner, mother of the human race, source of suffering and source of salvation. Eve, tempted by the devil, in turn tempts Adam to sin, and thus sorrow and death enter the world. Mary, untouched by sexuality, gives birth to the son of God and thereby offers a path out of sin and suffering. The Old Testament God is a patriarch; the New Testament offers God the Father and God the Son. The most significant women in the Judeo-Christian tradition appear only in relationship to male figures, as wife or mother. So women were defined for centuries.

Women who maintain socially acceptable relationships with men are "good" women; those who defy the norms are "bad." The archetypal good woman starts as a virtuous, obedient daughter and ends as a submissive wife and nurturing mother. If, through fate or accident, she remains unmarried, she can become a saint, devoting her life to religion, good works, her parents, or perhaps her orphaned nieces and nephews. The archetypal bad woman undercuts the role and power of men: if married, she becomes a shrew or nag; if unmarried, she might be seductive, perhaps bearing a child out of wedlock, or mannish, perhaps seeking an education or career. Even her unintentional defiance of the norm disturbs society's equanimity.

In time the social norm, inherently destructive of women's individuality and rights, had to change. Recognizing the opportunity provided by the new nation's birth, Abigail Adams warned her husband: "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."2 While John Adams responded, "I cannot but laugh," women—and some men—soon took such ideas quite seriously.

The early feminist movement, from late in the eighteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, addressed both practical and theoretical issues. Feminists sought to change marriage laws, control their own property, and obtain jobs and education. They wanted political power, the "voice or representation" to make laws themselves. But they also attempted to change their second-class status in another sense, desiring recognition as independent people defined by their actions and valued in and for themselves. These philosophical issues lay beneath the surface of pragmatic actions and goals. By the early twentieth century, feminists made many practical gains, but women's position did not yet equal men's. The nineteenth-century feminists left a legacy of change, but also a legacy of work yet to be done: they sought—as today's feminists still seek—true equality.

Literature in a Time of Change

Literature both influences and reflects the times in which it is written, sometimes prefiguring events in society and sometimes supporting an earlier reality by suggesting that it still exists. In the nineteenth century, poetry tended to be stylized, formal, and often dissociated from social reality; an exception is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem about child labor, "Cry of the Children" (1844). In part because of Victorian censorship, the theater largely degenerated into imitations and revivals of eighteenth-century comedies, presentations of Shakespeare's plays suitably purged to fit new sensibilities, and banal or melodramatic contemporary works: Mark Twain's "Royal Nonesuch" parody is more apt and less exaggerated than many modern readers of Huckleberry Finn (1844) realize.

Fiction dominated the literary scene. The chosen vehicle for many great writers, the novel reached the widest and most varied audience and most directly revealed social change. Because it was women who most often read and wrote novels, changing attitudes toward women's roles are most reflected in and perhaps influenced by fiction. Finally, as Virginia Woolf suggests in the words heading this chapter, many women wrote about and for themselves. Thus, the best literary source for considering women's changing roles is fiction, especially the realistic novel.

But how real is the realistic novel? Some historians use fiction as a source, arguing that since history tends to ignore women, novels provide more useful information about their lives; theorists may even challenge the objectivity of history itself, suggesting that it, too, is fiction. Further complicating matters, some literary critics argue that the author is also a kind of fiction. Yet clearly literature has an author, a human being influenced by the beliefs and events of the time and whose writings are likewise colored; clearly, regardless of bias, historians use facts differently from novelists.

Novels use details of external reality to establish a character, describe a setting, or suggest a theme. They use social data not necessarily to provide an accurate picture of society at a given time and place but to enhance some element of fiction. Given that purpose, they distort fact, whether consciously or unconsciously. To expect fiction to serve as a literal source of history is to ignore what makes it art. Yet, while not social documents, novels are closer to reality than most other genres.

The fictional use of realistic detail derives from and affirms an aesthetic theory and philosophical stance with these premises: the world "out there" is objectively definable; it is separate from the perceiver; it is "real" and significant in itself, not just in relation to the perceiver. When these ideas lost their widespread acceptance around 1900, the nature of the novel began to change.

Nineteenth-century fiction presents a fairly consistent picture of daily life: Husband and wife live comfortably with one or two children and at least one servant in a fairly large private house. Each day except Sunday, the man goes to work in one of the professions or in business. The woman spends her days close to home, visiting neighbors, performing charitable acts, sewing, reading, or subtly forwarding her daughters' chances of marriage. The boys attend school and perhaps college, while the girls receive little education but acquire a few graceful arts. Marriages almost never end in divorce, men are nearly always faithful, and women virtually never work outside the home. But social reality did not always match this picture, for a variety of reasons.

Because even the most realistic novel is still art, it reflects literary convention as much as social reality. Understanding how writers define women's changing roles and the evolution of feminist thought requires recognizing the interrelationship between literature and reality and knowing something about literary heritage.

The Realistic Novel

Early in the eighteenth century, the novel developed both the parameters that loosely demarcate the genre and the constant bending of those parameters that gives the genre its characteristic flexibility. Defoe explored the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; Richardson tried various modes of narration; Fielding struggled tongue-in-cheek to connect the new genre to the old ones, suggesting that Joseph Andrews (1774) might be either a biography or a "comic epic-poem in prose" (7). As early as 1767, Laurence Sterne could challenge the barely established conventions with the outrageous, great, and experimental Tristram Shandy. The genre's versatility appears not only in the work of these masters but also in a proliferation of variants. Sterne's exploration of psychological theory and human nature found followers; Walpole, Radcliffe, and others introduced the Gothic novel; Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) prefigured Jane Austen's more important novels of manners, and all of these authors had uncounted imitators.

By the early nineteenth century, the novel was established as the genre that most directly represented real life. True, Sir Walter Scott's historical romance, designed to reflect the imagination of the author more than the reality of ordinary life, had many followers who met the universal need to escape from the ordinary and to savor the enchantment of other worlds. Romanticism dominated America's extraordinary midcentury literary flowering, but even Melville and Hawthorne adhered to the fundamental rule of allowing their audience to identify with their characters and situations. England's "penny dreadfuls" and America's "dime novels" spawned a plethora of adventure tales with contemporary references, bloodshed, and violence; Dickens adapted this popular genre to his purposes. Gothic fiction also remained, to find major exponents such as Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, to sneak into the works of Scott and the Brontës, and to be satirized in Austen's Northanger Abbey (1803). But every variant of the novel has some realistic portrayal of human nature if not of ordinary human life; literature would hold little interest if it lacked connection with its readers' real concerns.

The dominant form in the nineteenth century had a far more direct connection with the real world: through variations such as the novel of manners, the problem novel, and the psychological novel, the genre consistently attempts to portray reality in fiction—to use ordinary language to show ordinary people doing ordinary things. Regional fiction, such as the short-story collections A New England Nun (1891) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) by Sarah Orne Jewett, set its characters' situations in the context of a specific culture—thus revealing social history, especially women's daily lives. Among these local colorists were other poets and novelists of the American south and west: Kate Chopin, Mary Murfree, Grace Elizabeth King, and Constance Fenimore Woolson, sometimes described as the first realistic writer. The romantic love story of Jackson's Ramona (1884) depends upon the actual struggle for land and power among Indians, Mexicans, and whites in California. So, too, propagandistic fiction like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) or historical romances like Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1859) let us ask what the Victorians considered "the question of supreme interest in art, the question upon which depends our whole interest in art": namely, "what are its relations to life?"3

Mimesis—the notion that art imitates the world outside itself—is an ancient aesthetic theory. Devoted to truthful representation, realistic novels are designed to reflect the authors' understanding of the world immediately around them, a world whose attributes can be determined through direct experience, and in which the consequences of actions can be discerned. Authors deal not with absolute truths but with relative ones, not an ideal sought through transcendence but a reality found in experience. Such a theory of art pretty much demands a representational mode: thus, realists strive to present a world very much like the one they perceive, and they struggle to make their perception widely accepted rather than esoteric.

Most practitioners of the realistic novel tend to see themselves partly as teachers or moral guides. Realistic novels display an unusual degree of social consciousness, attempting to address the conscience and redress the ignorance of their readers. The most trivial plot may work toward this end. Decrying the sentimentality and escapism they see in romantic fiction, and usually avoiding overt moralizing, realists present a picture of ordinary life designed to inculcate in the reader an understanding of some truth, to enhance a sense of morality or reveal essential human bonds. Moralizing or propagandizing novels necessarily assert a fairly direct relationship between art and life: if art did not imitate life, it could not hope to influence it. Early-nineteenth-century novelists, more comfortable with the assumptions of their age, tend to speak for them, whereas later writers tend, however subtly, to criticize their society, as is obvious when they deal with the transformation of women's roles.

Concerned with presenting an immediately significant world with which their readers can sympathize, realists focus on character, the external and psychological effects of action, the outcome of moral decisions or ethical positions, and, above all, the everyday details of normal life in ordinary middle-class society. Because of the realistic novel's social setting and educational or moral purpose, its plot often revolves around a social problem. The heroic adventures and misadventures of the romance and the distancing effect of the historical novel give way to the mundane events and issues relevant to men and women supposedly very much like the men and women reading about them. The point is verisimilitude, though not simply for its own sake. The small truths should lead to greater ones.

Victorian novelists and critics questioned how imagination affects writing and how a novel relates to the world it reflects. Defending Oliver Twist (1841) as realistic, Dickens, in his preface, claimed to present degraded figures "as they really are," without the "allurements and fascinations" used by less realistic writers, because truthfulness is artistically and morally justified (ix). Many authors insist on the veracity of the most romantic tales: Hawthorne may call The Scarlet Letter a "romance," distinguishing it from a "novel"; yet even in the pretense of finding tantalizing historical records in the "Custom House" introduction, he symbolically reminds us of what Thackeray, in the "Preface" to Pendennis (1850) calls "the advantage of a certain truth and honesty." Charlotte Brontë argues that a book in which "Nature and Truth" are the sole guides would probably lack an audience and would wrongly ignore that "strong, restless faculty," the imagination.4 Bored by popular realistic fiction, one critic proclaimed, "We may hope that the next fashion in fiction will take us to something more exciting and poetical than the domestic sorrows of brewers' wives."5 Some argue against restrictions of topic or language, others say realism limits the place of ideas in fiction. George Eliot is not alone in objecting that those writers who claim to be most realistic are often the least, for they base their characters on convention rather than life. Literature is not life: literature selects, organizes, unifies, and transforms what exists outside it. Still, the predominant form of prose fiction, most popular at midcentury but flourishing to the end, had at least a pretense of realism, for both literary and philosophical reasons.

The forms and devices of eighteenth-century fiction, like the values and beliefs of the Enlightenment, lingered only briefly into the new century. Novels with tighter structures replaced the episodic picaresque. David Copperfield (1850), Ruth (1853), Adam Bede (1859), and even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though literary descendants of Tom Jones (1749) and Moll Flanders (1722), bring the adventures nearer to home and present characters with more ordinary lives, interests, and problems. Character and realism take center stage. While Dickens and Twain may echo the "comic epic-poem" in their hyperbole and symbolic stock figures, they more honestly merit Joseph Andrews's name of "biography" than does the original.

Dickens and Twain use aspects of melodrama and low comedy; Eliot, Gaskell, and Hawthorne, psychological fiction and symbolism; Alcott, sentimentality; the Brontës, Gothic romance. Yet all of their novels are more or less faithful to the society they describe, more or less designed to call attention to human nature as revealed through social interaction. Prison reform, slavery, sexual double standards, the poor laws, contemporary religious practice, jobs for women, education, or class distinctions—the most popular novels confront such issues directly and with thematic purpose.

The realistic novel may or may not be propagandistic or well formed; it may or may not make use of symbolism, melodrama, mythic patterns, or traditional plots. This variety makes it more difficult to determine whether a realistic novel accurately reflects society or skews its analysis of a given social issue, either intentionally or unintentionally. To complicate matters, society underwent fundamental redefinition on both sides of the Atlantic during these years.

The Society Reflected in Literature

Nineteenth-century life in England and America was extremely diverse. To identify the "typical" reader or character, one must consider a variety of issues, including place, time, and social class.

As America grew from a strip of land along the Atlantic Ocean to a nation stretching beyond continental bounds, where one lived implied differences in citizenship (state or territory?), economics, and life-style (factory owner or mill-hand? plantation owner or slave?). While social distinctions outweighed regional ones in England, agriculture dominated the south, factories the midlands and the north. A London home could be a slum tenement, a fine urban residence, or a house in a garden suburb. Each variation profoundly affected daily life, from religion to education to attitudes about women.

The extent of change in social reality and in attitudes in the nineteenth century was so great that it is very difficult to determine when our typical person lived. The first years of the century were a time of optimism during which many people believed that science and technology could resolve all of society's problems. In contrast, by the end of the century, the overall picture was one of agricultural depression, labor unrest, and increasing political, economic, and ideologic tensions. Thus life in 1895 barely resembled life in 1855 or 1805.

Much of the new hope derived from technological and attitudinal changes. In 1825, the new Erie Canal symbolized America's growth, and in 1832 the First Reform Bill ushered in an era of English social reform. In these early decades, Manifest Destiny seemed natural, economic prosperity and expansion seemed assured. In 1851, American literature flourished, and England celebrated the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, better known as the Crystal Palace. From 1851 to 1881, Britain's gross national product doubled; Britain became the world's wealthiest country, London the greatest city. Cities and railroads multiplied, the middle class expanded and moved upward, and the working classes also reaped some financial rewards.

Yet the seeds of disillusion were always present: from the beginning of the period, reformers pointed to miserable conditions in slums and factories, even worse on plantations. By mid-century, events ranging from the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species to the Crimean War had rocked the Western world. The United States experienced a bloody, demoralizing Civil War; the closing of the frontier by the 1890s further undercut the American dream. As the English argued over new laws like the Second Reform Bill (1857) which gave town workers the vote and suggested that political and social power might slip from traditional aristocratic leaders to the "masses," similar fears emerged in the postwar American South when freed black slaves sometimes outnumbered former masters. And in England, Prince Albert's death led Queen Victoria into a period of seclusion suggesting to many the end of the monarchy.

Still, the Queen's Jubilee in 1887 showed that Victoria was both alive and beloved, whatever the state of the monarchy. She outlived the period that bears her name, dying long after the halcyon era of progress and certainty gave way to the incipient doubts inherent in the transition to modernism. The derogatory sense of the term "Victorianism," used since the 1890s, aptly suggests a conservative tendency in manners and mores. Victorianism remains a complex and loaded term, increasing the difficulty of defining a "typically" Victorian time period.

Once we have identified when and where, we still need to decide who best represents nineteenth-century life. Despite stunning diversity in society and culture, two significant and related features are the rise of the middle class and the rise of the realistic novel, which was written largely about and for that middle class.

In Sybil (1845), Disraeli made popular the idea of England as "two nations … the rich and the poor … between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws" (74). Was it two nations, as Disraeli says (a sufficiently startling idea), or three—the traditional "upper," "middle," and "lower" (or "working") classes—or five, or ten, or more classes, each distinguishable by some economist or social historian? Important distinctions existed, based on objective factors such as income, housing, occupation, and education, and unquantifiable factors such as the status and power traditionally associated with a particular occupation or school, a set of manners or beliefs. Despite professions of egalitarianism, America shared some of England's emphasis on class.

Believing in the rightness of a preordained social hierarchy, the English also felt that worthy individuals could rise "above their station," an idea intrinsic to the American dream. Yet antagonism between classes and jockeying for position within a given class characterized both nations, and often appear as literary themes, with special relevance for women.

The once-stable British society became frankly pluralistic. Urban laborers differed from farm laborers; both opposed mill operators; all three differed from aristocrats, some of whom maintained a traditional feudal relationship with tenant farmers while others, discovering coal on their land, became great mine owners. In the United States, such distinctions were most obvious in the South, where white plantation owners outranked rural "poor whites," who maintained a sense of superiority by forming the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan to harass and terrorize former slaves. Slaves and American Indians stood outside the social stratification defined by property, education, religion, and background. Yet as a nation of immigrants, America more easily defined people through individual achievement rather than group identity.

In England, where birth normally establishes status, the hereditary nobility remained far more than a titled and leisured class. They were the nation's acknowledged leaders, whose attitudes and values had profound influence. While others struggled to acquire the attributes of gentility, birth and training gave the aristocrat style, grace, courage, and nobility of manners. When aristocrats bought up much of the "commons" (commonly used meadowlands) early in the century, they increased their tangible power along with their acreage. Feudal landlords on immense holdings, they might invite tenants to agricultural fairs or coming-of-age feasts or evict them from modest family homes; tenants were wooed for their votes—and the secret ballot was unknown until 1872.

Next came the gentry, the country families, younger sons of peers, the baronets, squires, and "gentlemen." Law and tradition gave them power in local government and society. Land conferred status, financial clout, and the right to play landlord, sportsman, or country host. The impact of both the gentry and the aristocracy spread as the middle class tried to emulate if not enter higher social circles.

The burgeoning middle class (or classes) came next, defined by jobs, living conditions, and attitudes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term middle class was first used as early as 1812. The Industrial Revolution added commercial men and manufacturers to the original shopkeepers and professionals. As they gained wealth, acumen, and polish, the new members increased their upward mobility. Each level imitated the manners and mores of the group immediately above, with tremendous impact on women.

The desire for gentility supported the traditional social hierarchy. The title of "gentleman" might accrue to a village shopkeeper, doctor, or small landowner. The size, location, stock, and clientele of a shop determined the status of the owner and his wife. Manufacturers and industrialists purchased land and sent their sons to the right schools in order to approximate membership in the gentry. Through his efforts, a man could become a gentleman; a woman could become a lady by marrying a gentleman.

Theoretically, anyone could obtain the moral ideal of respectability, honor, industry, courage, and self-control, and in that sense be genteel. Respectability, the most important of these qualities, reflected the power of absolutes derived more or less directly from the Bible, variously interpreted by different religious groups. The implication that individuals could redeem themselves through faith and good works supported the idea of labor as ennobling and the value of deferring immediate gratification in favor of higher but ultimately attainable goals. Yet this same theory led to restrictive codes of behavior, censorship, unwavering assertions of moral propriety, and the fervor to convert a whole populace, which in turn contributed to both hypocrisy and psychological confusion.

While opinions varied about the propriety of card-playing or dancing, respectability always connoted decorous dress and manners, honesty, chastity, a serious attitude toward family and work, cleanliness, tidiness, and an earnest avoidance of mere frivolity. Although interpretation of the rules might be more or less liberal or sanctimonious, it was always sufficiently strict to support the status quo. True, some people flaunted their rebellion by gambling, maintaining a mistress, or succumbing to a bohemian artist's life. Against such behavior, the middle class strove through example and preaching to make real an image half borrowed from the gentry and half derived from its own sense of moral and social propriety. From this, and against it, developed the realistic and social-problem novels. Though not always representative, the "respectable" were vocal, and they read realistic fiction.

In all social classes and almost without exception, women earned their status from their fathers and husbands. Middle-class men demonstrated financial success by giving wives and daughters lives of leisure, and genteel ladies did not work outside the home or for pay. These families had to ensure women an idle respectability in which feminine pursuits replaced useful activity unless related to charity or family life. The devaluation of women's jobs from pre-Industrial times to the middle of the century, a devaluation based largely on economics, was handily supported by the fundamental belief that women were men's physical, moral, and mental inferiors. In turn, the belief in women's innate inferiority fostered the view of women's work as socially undesirable. This vicious circle caused profound differences in education, expectations, responsibilities, and opportunities for girls and boys.

In contrast, lower-class men and women worked together in fields and factories, and women were exploited rather than sheltered. As the middle class became increasingly aware of the poor people crowded into mews and alleys just behind the fashionable city streets, reform movements grew. The objects of attention included farmers, semiskilled or unskilled workers, servants, slaves, craftsmen dispossessed by machines, and country laborers dispossessed as small farms merged into large ones. The urge for reform fit middle-class ideas of social and moral responsibility, but it also resulted from labor agitation and publicity exposing the workers' plight. Fearing that slums bred not just physical but moral disease, reformers looked first at the obvious misery of factory workers and slum dwellers. The smoke rising from new factories became symptom and symbol of the Industrial Revolution.

Artisans might aspire to rise in status by emulating middle-class virtues, but most laborers merely sought to survive the long hours and poor conditions of mines or factories, if they even found work. By 1900, reform efforts eradicated the worst conditions—five-year-olds working in mines, fifty-hour work weeks for nine-year-olds in the cotton industry, pregnant women (cheaper than horses) strapped to coal carts, mining towns without water, urban slums with one privy for half a dozen families.

Literature about slum life and industrialization became popular, especially during times of agitation for reform. Yet even that literature was directed at the middle class, who might do something to help. Throughout the century, the middle class formed both subject and audience of the most important literature.

The Novel and the Middle Class

The phenomenon of a mass reading public began in the nineteenth century.6 Poems appeared in magazines and in slim books that might grace a parlor table. But the most popular reading material was fiction, whether published in one volume or three, serialized in newspapers or magazines, bought or borrowed from libraries. As inexpensive editions of popular works proliferated to meet the new literacy and interest of the middle and working classes, the ability to own books spread downward. Still, most middle-class readers subscribed to circulating libraries or patronized "free" libraries designed to give workers access to books.

Opening a package from the circulating library was a family occasion. Like advertising today, a subscription library such as Charles Edward Mudie's "Select Circulating Library" in England could determine a book's success through large orders and a seal of approval. Circulating libraries, assuming they knew the public's taste and morals, supported the prevalent censorship. Moral rather than literary merit often determined a book's availability and popularity.

For the upper classes, reading was not a new interest or skill. Although workers' literacy increased, reading for pleasure differs greatly from signing your name or deciphering a job application. Poor lighting, crowded living conditions, and exhaustion made theaters, parks, railway excursions, and other forms of cheap entertainment more popular than reading. Still, workers whiled away long train rides with books, sought advancement through tracts and moral tales from public reading rooms and libraries, or relaxed over a penny dreadful or dime novel, an easy-to-read adventure tale or sentimental story, a newspaper or tabloid, a broadside featuring grisly or sensational stories, or even a condensed Shakespeare play or Scott novel.

The middle class had more money, time, and literacy than the lower classes, and more interest in education and advancement than the upper classes. Even in recreation, they sought the useful and uplifting as well as the entertaining. They connected moral and social improvement, ideas fostered by the American Puritan heritage and the English Evangelicals and Utilitarians. If reading for fun might injure rising and righteous members of the middle class, wholesome literature with a moral purpose could benefit them. Reading became the dominant form of entertainment as well as a way to enforce morality and family unity: each evening, families would gather into the famous reading circle with the latest newspapers, magazines, or novels.

That image influenced publishers, libraries, and writers, and censorship was a fact of literary production. In 1818, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, containing oddly expurgated versions of the plays, changing words and altering scenes to protect the innocence of daughters in the reading circle. Bowdler gives his name as well as his practice to many "bowdlerized" books. With the innocent young girl as touch-stone, editors cut and altered words in contemporary and earlier works. First to go were unorthodox opinions and hints of sexuality—references to the body, passion, or pregnancy. The editors' purpose and defense lay overtly in the desire to uphold the contemporary moral ideal and covertly in the desire to avoid offending readers.

One observer, evaluating the books found in miners' houses, suggests laborers are "backward to attempt anything that requires steady thinking": miners "had rather read any popular work, such as The Christian Philosopher, the Pilgrim's Progress, or Walter Scott's novels, choosing fiction, history, geography, and books about British warfare rather than logic, mathematics, economics, and grammar."7 Modern readers hardly judge the selection as frivolous, but Victorians read sermons, biographies, essays, scientific texts, religious tracts, inspiring tales with overt morals, and self-help books. Weeklies and monthlies carrying serious literature, art criticism, debates on social, moral, and religious issues matched papers devoted to sports, humor, adventurous exploits, and household hints. And always there was a market for fiction.

Determining the popularity of a given book would require knowing both sales and library circulation figures. Even that information falls short, for a dozen people might hear a book in the family circle, and a whole neighborhood might share a single newspaper. Inflated advertisements and manipulated sales figures create further inaccuracies. Attempts to outline the story of nineteenth-century readership rely on such data plus trade rumors and comments in private diaries or letters.

We cannot know for sure which novels were most popular, or which best represent contemporary life. Given the sheer volume of literature produced and the fact that some is unavailable, we cannot read exactly what Victorians read. But we know that fiction was the most popular genre, and within that genre, the most popular was the realistic novel dealing with and read by the middle class. We also know that a fair representation must include novels that, though now unread, were once popular enough to leave a mark on literature and society. Remembering Woolf's words at the head of the chapter, we know that women were central, as both writers and readers. Women both influenced and were influenced by social change, and they both influenced and were influenced by literature. Novels written by, about, and for the middle class reveal a great deal about women's roles, people's reactions to those roles, and the evolution of feminism.


  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929), 68.
  2. Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1777, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1875), 149.
  3. Eneas Sweetland Dallas, The Gay Science (London, 1866), 2:287, quotes in Richard Stang, The Theory of the Novel in England, 1850-1870 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), xi.
  4. Currer Bell [Charlotte Brontë] to G. H. Lewes, 6 November1847, quoted in Nineteenth-Century British Novelists on the Novel, ed. George L. Barnett (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1971), 136.
  5. On the general issue of social class, see Richard Faber, Proper Stations: Class in Victorian Fiction (London: Faber and Faber, 1971). Good sources on the reading public and the marketplace include: Margaret Dalziel, Popular Fiction One Hundred Years Ago: An Un-explored Tract of Literary History (London: Cohen and West, 1957); and Richard Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1957). Also useful are: Stang, Theory 3-88; Guinevere L. Griest, Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970); Amy Cruse, The Victorian and Their Books (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935); J. A. Sutherland, Victorian Novelists and Publishers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Richard Altick, Victorian People and Ideas (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1973); and Frank Luther Mott, Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best-sellers in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1947).
  6. Seymour Tremenheere, Report on the Mining Districts (1850), Parliamentary Papers 1850, 23: 53-54; cited in E. Royston Pike, "Golden Times": Human Documents of the Victorian Age (New York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), 254-55.


SOURCE: Harris, Susan K. "'But is it any good?' Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women's Fiction." In The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers, edited by Joyce W. Warren, pp. 263-79. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

In the following essay, Harris attempts to define specific methodologies to help evaluate the literary merits of nineteenth-century women's fiction.

The revival of interest in nineteenth-century American women's literature is less than fifteen years old.1 Since Nina Baym published Woman's Fiction in 1978, it has become academically respectable to acknowledge interest in works like Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World or Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, and they are slowly becoming features of the academic terrain. Mary Kelley's Private Woman, Public Stage,2 Alfred Habegger's Gender, Fantasy, and Realism,3 Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs,4 the articles in Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing, and articles in Signs, American Quarterly, ESQ, and others are all signposts to the new territories. But with the notable exception of Tompkins, few scholars have ventured to construct appropriate evaluative criteria. Rather, there appears to be an unspoken agreement not to submit nineteenth-century American women's novels to extended analytical evaluation, largely, I think, because the evaluative modes most of us were taught devalue this literature a priori.

I propose that we initiate an ongoing dialogue that will enable us to talk fruitfully about pre-twentieth-century American women's literature in terms of "good" and "bad," that we begin creating methodologies that will ramify the implications of Tompkins's Sensational Designs. One avenue is to learn how to describe noncanonical American women's literature in terms of process—that is, to see it within the shifting currents of nineteenth-century American ideologies. Acknowledging that imaginative literature is both reactive and creative, we can examine the ways that it springs from, reacts against, or responds to the plots, themes, languages in the discoursive arena that engendered it at the same time that it creates new possibilities for that arena by reshaping old words into new ones. For Richard Rorty, this happens through the creation of new metaphors that evolve over time into new ideas; "truth," he claims, is neither "out there" nor "in here"; rather it is compounded of a set of linguistic contingencies. What we know, believe, is dependent on our ability to speak it, and our ability to speak it depends on the slow historical conjunction of ideas, images, and metaphors that evolve into the languages available to us.5 For Hans Robert Jauss, literary works continuously interact with their readers to create, over time, new moral and aesthetic perceptions: "The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflections."6

If we accept these fluid accounts of the relationship between language, consciousness, and social change as the bases for reshaping our ways of perceiving what imaginative literature is, what it does, and how it "works," we will have a tool that will help us create criteria for evaluating non-canonical literatures of the past and, equally important, for acknowledging our own motives for doing so and the implications of our own critical acts. Our first step is to acknowledge the ideological basis of our endeavor. What teleological shape the literature we are examining has is imposed on it by us, retrospectively; it is not inherent in the material itself. We are doing so, first, because we see ourselves positively, if not as end points then at least as significant markers; second, because we are drawn to nineteenth-century women's texts despite their apparently antithetical values and want to find some way of talking about them; and, third, because we are searching for antecedents to ourselves and the future we envision that we have not found in canonical texts and canonical ways of reading them.

I am not suggesting that we read these texts ahistorically. Rather, historical contextualization is a vital aspect of what I am calling process analysis. I am suggesting, however, that we clarify our own motives. Acknowledging why we are doing what we do will enable us, once we have understood the books' relationships with their own time, to reach back and see how they contribute to ours. If we look at them as both reactive and creative rather than asking them to self-consciously embody "timeless truths," we can understand their aesthetic, moral, and political values, both for their contemporaries and for us. While traditional criticism tends to examine literary works either historically, rhetorically, or ideologically, the method I am calling process analysis investigates all three axes in its contemplation of any given work. Consequently, although specific analytical tasks may look the same as they have always looked (pursuing metaphors, for instance), the final mosaic produced by process analysis looks very different because it has shifted the hermeneutic and evaluative projects into a far more complex socio-temporal scheme. And unlike traditional Anglo-American criticism, process analysis foregrounds the relationship of the literary-critical task to the critic's stance in her own time.

In order to show, within the scope of an essay, how this can work, I am going to focus on sentimental novels written by American women primarily between 1840 and 1870. We have begun to create a literary history for nineteenth-century American women's novels, a "remapping" of hitherto unknown terrain.7 Within this history, enough research has been conducted among the novels that used to be classed as "literary sentimentality" to enable us to make some generalizations about the group, and this in turn should help us formulate critical questions about individual texts. For instance, critics have long noted—mostly with distaste—that the large majority of nineteenth-century American women's novels have "happy endings" in which their heroines marry and give up any idea of autonomy.8 Recent critics, however, have pointed out that a closer view shows that the novels also question that inscription, even when their structures submit to it.9 Despite following a fairly consistent pattern culminating in the protagonist's marriage to a dominating man, most sentimental novels also challenge the idea of female subordination, either through their plots, their narrators' addresses to the reader, or their patterns of rhetoric. In other words, their themes and structures tend to work at cross-purposes. Once dismissed as confused, such texts are now described as dialogic. This is not simply a cynical relabeling for young jargonists. Rather, it is evidence of a critical paradigm shift that gives us much more access to the novels than we ever had before. Attuned, on the one hand, to shifts in structural approaches to fiction, and, on the other, to reader-response criticism, we are now able to recognize that the dialogic patterning inherent in the novels' structures facilitates readers' participation in the novels' ideological debates. In other words, attention to structure is central to contextual placement. Prior to evaluating any given nineteenth-century sentimental novel, then, it is important to establish the terms of the debate(s) in which the text participates, the positions it takes, and how these positions are embodied in its textual structure.

There are many ways of going about situating a text within a historical debate. As groundwork for evaluating sentimental novels by American women, however, it seems especially important to investigate the impact of public ideologies on market strategies because these directly influence the novels' structures. Nineteenth-century America was characterized by strident—although often contradictory—public pronouncements about what constituted the nature of the two sexes (any others were not mentioned). I stress public because it is clear that, privately, there was considerable agonizing over the subject, just as there was over the subject of different races and their intrinsic "natures" and "characteristics." The differences between what reviewers saw happening in the texts and what we see happening when we factor in the existence of more than one linguistic construct of gender is a fascinating illustration of ideologically based reading strategies. By and large, reviewers and publicists subscribed to an essentialist definition of female nature, while the texts attempt to persuade women that they can re-create themselves. Given the nature of the public discourse and the power it had in the marketplace, writers aiming for a popular audience had to observe, at least superficially, essentialist rules for inscribing female protagonists and for their narrators' attitudes toward their heroines' adventures.

The conflict between public and textual definitions of female possibilities may well be the primary cause of the tensions between structure and theme that the novels display. One of the areas opened up by the study of noncanonical literature has been the examination of "the marketplace" as a condition of production. (Perhaps no surer proof exists of the influence of the New Critics than the fact that this is a "discovery.") By "conditions of production" I mean less the biographical circumstances of the individual author—which is Mary Kelley's focus in Private Woman, Public Stage—than the demands of the booksellers, reviewers, and buyers for whom the book is intended and that women authors could not—at least if they wanted to publish—ignore. With Kelley's study, Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture,10 Baym's Novels, Readers, and Reviewers,11 and Cathy N. Davidson's Revolution and the Word12 give us information about the values held by eighteenth and nineteenth-century arbiters of literary taste. For instance, Baym speculates:

Apart from the question whether novelists were or were not radical in the particularities of their social, sexual, or personal world views … lies the possibility that the form of the novel assumes discontent as the psychological ground from which it springs. The essence of plot … is that something is wrong; there is a disturbance that needs correcting. Because women and youths mostly read novels, it was thought, their discontents in particular would be ministered to and hence exacerbated. The conviction of many contemporary students of popular culture that popular forms sedate discontent was not held by this earlier group of critics. If, as many feminist critics have argued, the "better novel" appears regularly to be instinct with misogyny, this may not be an accident. Novels putting women in their place may well have been selected by reviewers as better than—more true to nature than—novels that legitimated their discontents.13

Of course what this meant for authors was that any challenges to the public definition of "women's place" had to be covert if they wanted to sell. The contradictions between structure and theme provide one way of doing that: the emotional and cognitive discrepancies aroused by the texts permit readers alternative modes of processing them. One mode, written to conform to "public" values, privileges female subordination through structural closure; the other, appealing to "private" values, privileges female independence through structural open-endedness. Processing these novels, then, depends on the reader's choice of interpretive modes. Challenges to the public definition of women's place are embedded in texts' structures and accessible only to readers who are predisposed to grasp them.

Evidence suggests that nineteenth-century readers were quite capable of reading texts in more than one mode. One of the most illuminating examples that I have discovered of this multileveled reading process was recorded in 1848 by the author Lydia Maria Child in a letter to a close friend:

I had read Jane Eyre before you had the kindness to send a copy. I was perfectly carried away with it. I sat up all night long to finish it. I do not at all agree with the critics who pronounce Rochester unloveable. I could have loved him with my whole heart. His very imperfections brought him more within the range of warm human sympathies. Ought Jane to have left him at that dreadful crisis? She was all alone in the world, and could do no harm to mother, sister, child, or friend, by taking her freedom. The tyrannical law, which bound him to a mad and wicked wife, seems such a mere figment! I wanted much, however, to make one change in the story. I liked Rochester all the better for the impetuous feeling and passion which carried him away; but I wanted conscience to come in and check him, like a fiery horse reined in at full gallop. At the last moment, when they were ready to go to church to be married, I wish he had thrown himself on her generosity. I wish he had said, "Jane, I cannot deceive you!" and so told her the painful story he afterward revealed. There might have been the same struggle, and the same result; and it would have saved the nobleness of Rochester's love for Jane, which has only this one blot of deception. I am glad the book represents Jane as refusing to trust him; for in the present disorderly state of the world, it would not be well for public morality to represent it otherwise. But my private opinion is, that a real living Jane Eyre, placed in similar circumstances, would have obeyed an inward law, higher and better than outward conventional scruples.14

Here Child demonstrates both awareness and approval of social constraints—the sense that public morality was fragmenting and that literature's function was to teach readers moral conduct—and applauds the text's resulting definition of female nature (Jane flees from the horror of bigamy because in order to be a heroine she has to be instinctively virtuous). At the same time, however, Child reveals her private reading, which recognizes that a character as independent as Jane would have pursued her own desires rather than complying with social fictions. The sexual and social tensions inherent in the text itself stimulate the modes in which it will be processed. In Child's "public" reading, social mandates are foremost. In her "private" reading, autonomy and sexual desire are privileged over social mandates. The possibilities for autonomy inherent in each "reading" of female nature are embodied in the radically different episodes of the novel. Child processes both, in full consciousness of what she is doing.

Child's enthusiastic response to Jane Eyre was typical; Charlotte Brontë was one of the most powerful direct influences on American women writers, and their novels reflect the energy with which she inscribed Victorian conflicts about gender and autonomy. Moreover, in the American texts the energy produced fuels new possibilities for female self-creation. The contradictory structures of sentimental American texts highlight rather than obscure these possibilities. If a heroine creates an autonomous self and succeeds in impressing it on her society and her reader for six hundred pages, she has left convincing evidence that it can be done. The fact that she gives it all up upon marriage in the last twenty-five pages should have less of an impact on readers—especially readers themselves entertaining dreams of autonomy—than the fact that she succeeded. (Or less long-term impact. My personal theory is that the renunciation of autonomy in the face of the marriage proposal has its strongest impact when these books are first read—probably because it involves sex15—but that over time readers tend to remember protagonists' extended quests for autonomy rather than their sudden, and fairly formulaic, renunciations.) The standardized conclusions may even have annoyed nineteenth-century readers as much as they do twentieth, thus undermining their "message."

Moreover, the "middles" of sentimental novels—the long narratives of the heroine's self-creation and social success—may well explain why such very different texts emerged later in the century. There is a fairly sharp ideological dissimilarity between the apparently conservative sentimental women's novels of the 1840s-1860s and the fairly radical ones of the 1870s-1890s. Examining the earlier novels as process enables us to see that rather than springing forth unheralded, the later novels evolve from the quests for autonomy explored in their predecessors and articulated so frequently that, despite their failures, the "traces" they left came to be "real." For Herman Melville, referring to his own work, such traces were accessible to the "eagle-eyed reader," who grasped truths "covertly, and by snatches." Melville contrasts this perceptive reader to the "superficial skimmer of pages,"16 the same reader whose reading behavior Augusta Evans Wilson (author of St. Elmo) castigates as the "hasty, careless, novelistic glance."17 Both writers acknowledge the subversive capacities of written texts, the fact that some, at least, were deliberately written to pass muster with a careless or conservative readership and to appeal to discerning readers. In regard to mid-century women's novels, perceptive readers would recognize that these texts argued against essentialist definitions of the feminine. In Jauss's terms, these early texts articulate new possibilities for female aspiration and behavior that are later realized both in subsequent fiction and in the social and political realms.18

To understand thoroughly what the readers as well as the reviewers saw in these texts we would have to do an exhaustive reader-response search, a project I have attempted and found exceedingly difficult, largely because, then as now, few ordinary readers recorded their responses to books they read. Those who did seemed to share our predilection for dividing their reading into high and low cultures; they recorded responses to "serious" literature (biographies, essays, sermons) far more often than for "light" novels. But this division is also part of the social construction of literary values,19 an aspect of the linguistic revolution with which we are concerned. What may be more important than diary and letter records of actual reading is the fact that the same writers also indicated in other contexts a variety of concerns that the novels address. For example, many expressed a wish to improve their educations—their classical, not their domestic, educations—to learn Greek, Latin, and the higher mathematics. As Gerald Graff has recently reminded us, these were the cornerstones of the most esteemed educational apparatus, enabling those who mastered them to enter the ministry and law.20 Despite the disaster most classical educations may have been in fact, in theory men so educated had mastered society's highest wisdom. Women's desire to achieve similar educational levels suggests that they, too, sought wisdom—in a culture that publicly and medically denied women the ability to think beyond their ovaries.

When, then, a woman protagonist in a novel masters abstruse languages, philosophy, world history, and mythology (as does the heroine of St. Elmo), she presents a model of female achievement for readers already predisposed to valorize educated women. What Wilson presents is a quest for autonomy and power that succeeds before she forces it to fail; not only does the protagonist become a scholar, she also becomes famous, powerful, and fully conscious of her own imperatives, a heroine who cries out that "I love my work! Ah, I want to live long enough to finish something grand and noble … something that will follow me across and beyond the dark, silent valley … something that will echo in eternity!"21 By the time she gives it up to marry her overbearing minister-lover, the text has proved that women can become very powerful intellectuals.

In terms of its plot, St. Elmo manages to juggle sexual attraction, intellectual zeal, and public success, all before it surrenders to the requirement that it end by merging its heroine with the male figure who embodies everything she had sought for herself. In terms of its structure, it creates a heroine whose relationship with her self and her public mirrors the relationship Wilson implies exists between her text and its readers. Seen within the process framework I am proposing, St. Elmo is an excellent novel because it not only textually embodies the heroine's quest but also self-consciously places that quest within the cultural struggle over gender possibilities and then critiques its own project.

In preparing to reevaluate these novels, then, one set of questions we can ask is functional and historical: what needs did they serve for their intended audience? Did they, as imaginative literature, somehow present the "spiritual truth" of women's aspirations as essays and other more forthright genres could not? Did they give hope to readers, let them know that there were other questing souls out there? (In Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis, Avis discovers her life's goal to be an artist while reading Aurora Leigh.) What effect does the text's structure have on its theme or themes? What kinds of cognitive or emotional discrepancies exist, and how might contemporary readers have responded to them? What is the power of fascination the texts hold? Is it the same power that holds us (those of us who read them) today? If so, can we describe it? Is it sexual?—moral?—aesthetic?—affective?

Because we have admitted that our endeavor is ideological, we can evaluate the novels in terms of their contribution to the expansion of women's possibilities (i.e., politically), as well as for the degree of power with which they present their subjects. For the novels to be published and favorably reviewed, they had to conform to the strictures articulated above; for them to achieve their "subversive" objects, they had to find a form that would embody these dual, and often contradictory, ideas. There are a number of ways this can be done: as in St. Elmo, the plot can outweigh the narrator's interpretive gestures or the dense "flowery" rhetoric can hide heretical phrases and clauses; as in Ruth Hall, the narrator can play more than one role (in which case the text risks being labeled "confused"). However this task is accomplished, there must be a point on which the antithetical impulses balance. Another set of evaluative criteria, then, lies in determining how well the texts strike the balance between socially and textually created ideological imperatives.

Creating a methodology for evaluating textual structures and assessing readers' access to subversive propositions is one side of the task. The other is to create one for evaluating the language(s) that constitute the texts' building blocks. Process analysis lets us see how the discoursive modes of nineteenth-century texts both reflect and engage their society's ideological diversity. In a culture shifting from the conception of truth residing "out there," in the objective world, or "in here," in the subjective world, to a conception of truth as linguistically determined (i.e., contingent, in Rorty's use of the term22), women were latecomers. The novels that have been labeled "sentimental" embody women's entry into the fray. These display the battle of languages with particular intensity because they focus on the ways that language creates gender and the possibilities for autonomous selfhood. One of the objections often raised about these novels is that their protagonists do not have strongly defined, individual characters—that they are not female American Adams, creating a New Woman for a New World. Here, as Baym did in "Melodramas of Beset Manhood,"23 we can approach women's texts by looking at criteria used to evaluate American male texts, criteria that tend to thematize the struggle between an autonomous self associated, in some way, with timeless truth, and a corrupt, temporal society (Huck's struggle with his conscience). In these canonical male texts, the traditional critical story informs us, heroes flee from social coercion (mostly defined as female). One of their strategies is to get rid of the women, to exist, as critics from Leslie Fiedler on have suggested, in an essentially and happily single-sexed universe. These are American Romances; their models are Christian texts, and their premise is that truth and selfhood are "real," that they reside within the individual and can and should be discovered. Canonical American male novels value the individual over his society.

In contemporary women's texts, on the other hand, the basic thematic is less self against society than self against self; that is, the women's internal conflicts represent conflicting definitions of womanhood. The characters battle themselves far more often, and with greater intensity, than they engage an openly corrupt society. One of the selves is most usefully seen as Nietzschean, willing itself into power and existence (which is what differentiates it from Huck, whose integral self is discoverable by readers, but not willed into being by the character); the other is the self that is socially determined. Both selves are presented metaphorically: in Richard Rorty's terms, these texts embody a battle for definition that pits two linguistically contingent worldviews against one another. Neither the self struggling to come into being nor the one (usually spoken by the narrator) socially determined has any intrinsically objective reality; rather, the validity of each rests on the reader's capacity for processing it. If the male texts are quintessentially Christian/Romantic quests, demonstrating the value of the True Soul against a corrupting society, the female ones are self-consciously contingent: they concern protagonists willing themselves into existence in an effort to create their own society. Never going so far into fantasy as to assume the possibility—or desirability—of living without other people, the women's novels anticipate the real problem of the twentieth century: how to nurture and protect a self that has only just become aware of its own possibility and that is trying to work out the parameters of its obligations to others.

Meanwhile, other voices continue to insist that women are Platonic essences, that the individual is only a historical accident, and that what really matters is her conformity to the eternal feminine. The clashing of these antithetical constructs provides the aesthetic and moral energy of the texts; moreover, the slow swells, the burgeoning of figures recording protagonists' struggles to create themselves, constitute the linguistic "traces" that enable us, in retrospect, to track the evolution of what would eventually become the figure of the New Woman. When Hagar Churchill, of E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Deserted Wife, insists that "I have a will! and tastes, and habits, and propensities! and loves and hates! yes, and conscience! that all go to make up the sum total of a separate individuality—a distinct life! for which I alone am accountable, and only to God!"24 and then proceeds to create a successful life for herself and her children without male help, she has inscribed a dynamic predecessor to later novels that celebrate independent women. Similarly, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard's The Morgesons foregrounds the word "possession" in reference to its iconoclastic protagonist; the figure shifts from its demonic to its self-creating (as in "self-possession") associations as the heroine increasingly understands her own powers. With our consideration of how well the text juggles its thematic and structural obligations, then, we can determine how effectively it embodies the discoursive battles that engender it.

This involves a more thorough investigation into the nature of sentimental language and its values than most twentieth-century academic readers have cared to conduct. In fact, sentimental language is probably the aspect of pre-twentieth-century American women's literature that modern readers resist most. It is often difficult to process because it is so baroque, and it often seems vacantly redundant. But these are precisely the aspects of it that can and should be directly engaged. Certainly one function of sentimental language was to create a sacred space dedicated to women, analogous to the private sphere in which they moved. As Jane Tompkins demonstrates, sentimental language is intertextually related to religious language, both functionally and aesthetically.25 Religious language functions as part of a ritual intended to draw participants' attention away from their temporal lives and make them focus on their spiritual relationship to the divine. Auditors are encouraged to conceive of their experiences metaphorically, placing them in a universal context, to reenvision themselves as part of a set of universal patterns. Similarly, sentimental language functions ritualistically, having set patterns of imagery and rhythm that strive to reenvision women, to continually project them in terms of universal patterns. Ultimately, what is created is a Platonic image of the feminine that is intensely intertextual. Shot through with allusions to nature, the Bible, classical mythologies, and medieval literature, sentimental language is constantly referring to texts beyond the boundaries of that in which it appears. Sometimes these are empty, mindless. Often, they project an image of ideal womanhood whose implications for the individual are painfully repressive. Just as often, however, they serve to place the female protagonists within a world/historical context of female endeavor and, obliquely, female oppression. In fact, the intertextual portions of the individual novels, taken out of the contexts of the works and brought into conjunction with each other, create a dialogue of their own about the nature and status of women that is simultaneously historicized and universalized. It is the locus of the ideological battle about women.

Our devaluation of the language with which this battle has been conducted has prevented us from recognizing it. Once we do so, we also can evaluate its occurrence in individual texts. How effectively does it engage the issues? What is the author's position? How astutely does she analyze her subject? What are the energy exchanges between the way she inscribes women in general and the way she describes her heroine? What, exactly, does her figurative language do?

Any analysis and/or evaluation of sentimental discourse must determine how deliberately its figures are employed. The prevailing critical assumption has been that in these novels the baroque metaphors are all rather mindlessly borrowed. Borrowed they are, but very self-consciously; they are used to serve a variety of functions, and, over time, they are revitalized, feminized into figures pregnant with possibility. At least one writer uses them offensively: to attack as well as to explore definitions of female nature. In Ruth Hall Fanny Fern alternates between sentimental and acerbic language, all in the interest of defending women's right to be economically independent. The girl whom we meet on her bridal eve meditating on her future and wondering "would love flee affrighted from [her] bent form, and silver locks, and faltering footsteps"26 finds that love has nothing to do with survival; after her husband's death Ruth painfully learns that the patriarchal society that valorizes clinging, dependent women will also shut its doors if they ask for cash. Before the book ends Ruth has not only become a successful writer, she has also learned to hold her maternal ("sentimental") affections in abeyance while she negotiates long-term publishing contracts. This time meditating not on love but on her choice between immediate money, available by selling her copyright, or a percentage, which would delay her reunion with one child and incur continued privation for the other, Ruth muses that the copyright money is "a temptation; but supposing her book should prove a hit? and bring double, treble, fourfold that sum, to go into her publisher's pockets instead of hers? how provoking!" and she decides, "No, I will not sell my copyright; I will rather deny myself a while longer, and accept the percentage" (RH [Ruth Hall], 153). Juxtaposed to the figurative language with which Ruth was introduced, this sharp language of commerce challenges the original inscription's premise that true women have to depend on love for survival.

Another way sentimental language is used to change consciousness is as a political tool, as when Frances Harper, in Iola Leroy, images her black, enslaved heroine as a fair damsel imprisoned in a dark castle: the narrator refers to "the beautiful but intractable girl who was held in durance vile" and images her rescue as being "taken as a trembling dove from the gory vulture's nest and given a place of security."27 Here, the language is directed to those who identify with the values of the white community; its figures strenuously attempt to make readers accept Iola as a white ("dove") heroine because that is the only way these readers will identify with her as a "real" woman/human. In other words, the language itself acknowledges white Americans' inability to empathize with black Americans. Harper's language here has a double function: first to project her black protagonist within the parameters of white sympathy, i.e., as white, then to lift her female protagonist to heroic status as a damsel from the heroic ages. Only after having captured the white-oriented reader's sympathy through this idealized image does the text then project its other heroine, the heroine's heroine, Lucille Delany: a physically black woman who Iola claims "is my ideal woman. She is grand, brave, intellectual, and religious" (IL [Iola Leroy], 242). In other words, the fair damsel the text valorizes has her own agenda; she does not speak in white figures herself, and she looks to black women for role models. Thus the inter-textually "white" or "European" references serve both to obscure and to point toward the text's alternative values. Seen retrospectively, the trace record left by Iola's own values makes the novel a precursor to twentieth-century black American women's texts that self-consciously valorize dark-skinned black women.

The oneiric nature of sentimental language also merits examination, for it often signals the existence of a radically feminist shadow text. Stowe's The Minister's Wooing, for instance, constantly places its protagonist, Mary Scudder, within a cosmic dream, associating her with shells, nests, and the ocean. With repeated references to the Virgin Mary, with Mary Scudder's friendship with an unhappily married woman named Virginie who insists that her private self, the self capable of happiness, is unmarried; and with the example of independent "spinsters" who arrange life to suit themselves, these references create a countertext within the novel that argues against marriage—the story's plot—and for a state of empowering "virginity." As with the medieval allusiveness of Harper's figures, the oneirism of Stowe's portrayal serves at once to obscure—it can be read as part of Stowe's portrayal of Mary's adolescent sensibility—and to highlight this countertheme. If dreams express our repressed desires, texts that dream (as opposed to texts that feature dreams) have to be evaluated for the contexts, and contents, of their dreams.

Structure and language, then, are the dual focuses of process analysis. Each demands three levels of study: the first, contextual, places the text within its own time; the second, rhetorical, examines narrator/narratee contracts and the ways in which the text may play with cultural significances; the third, retrospective, searches for traces of changing consciousness, building blocks for an ideologically self-conscious literary history. Together, they offer a paradigm that produces evaluative as well as investigative questions.

Some of these questions have arisen in the course of this essay. While continued dialogue will change it, a tentative list might look something like this:

  1. What is the author's degree of consciousness about her protagonist's status in a patriarchal society; that is, where does the novel stand in the sociopolitical spectrum of its time? How does the author demonstrate her political stance? What thematic, narrative, and aesthetic choices does she make in order to exhibit its position within her sociopolitical world? Books I would rank high on this list would include Stoddard's The Morgesons, Warner's The Wide, Wide World, Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island, and Southworth's The Deserted Wife.
  2. What modes (thematic, narrative, linguistic) does the author employ to balance the story of her protagonist's self-creation with the socially and/or generically dictated need to deny female selfhood and originality?
  3. How does the text embody the linguistic debate; that is, what discoursive worldviews are brought into conjunction or confrontation? Though I have only addressed sentimental language in this essay, there are many other modes operating in the texts themselves. Two often discussed in earlier critical works are "realism"—i.e., representational discourse—and the vernacular. With sentimentality, these are probably the most relevant discoursive modes in nineteenth-century sentimental novels by American women. But many other modes operate as well. A fruitful way to approach these might be through a methodology constructed from Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia, which gives us a "poetics" for discussing the fictional representation of multiple discoursive modes and the worldviews they express.28 For example, even the most genteel women's texts often feature vernacular and/or working-class characters whose voices implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) counter the dominant, essentialist definitions of female nature held by the middle-class protagonists, the narrators, and, often, the authors.
  4. What functions do the characters serve and what means has the individual author used to "mark" her characters for her readers? It has always struck me that Susan Warner chose an extraordinarily resonant name for the feisty, independent aunt against whom the sanctimonious heroine of The Wide, Wide World struggles. Fortune Emerson, who tries to teach her reluctant charge that only self-reliance will bring self-respect, stands alone in the novel as a fully realized, financially and emotionally independent woman. Disliked by the protagonist, and cast within the frame of the wicked stepmother by the author, she nonetheless exists as an example of the rugged, rural American woman. Readers seeking to read Ralph Waldo Emerson into female possibility can see in Aunt Fortune Emerson one way for women to achieve success in the American landscape.
  5. What stylistic devices does the author choose and how skillfully and appropriately does she employ them to embody the issues with which she is concerned? For example, if she employs classical allusions, how does she use them to illustrate her own, or her characters', positions in the ideological debate in which she is engaged? For instance, Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple (1794) plays with the semantics of the word "content" as she evokes a classical image of female virtue whose "name is Content."29 This text valorizes passive heroines, but its implication that contented women lack content is a position that later sentimental novels will vigorously refute.
  6. What were the marketing conditions under which the novel was produced (including serialization) and how well does the author juggle the marketing demands and her artistic and thematic requirements?
  7. What is the intertextual gestalt of the novel? From what other texts does it take its premises? How does it transform these premises to fit its own peculiar needs? How appropriate is its "rereading" or its "misprisioning" of the earlier texts? (Louisa May Alcott's Work: A Story of Experience is framed by Pilgrim's Progress. Yet its Celestial City is temporal, and its holy community distinctly female.)
  8. What later ideological or political debate does it anticipate? Reading retrospectively, what textual trace-markers can we detect that could have helped change the shape of later women's novels? How useful is this text as a precursor of that debate? (Does Fortune Emerson become Alexandra Bergson? Does Lucille Delany become Dessa Rose?)

    This is of course only a sketchy overview of some of the ways nineteenth-century American women's novels work and some of the questions we can ask about them. As we continue to study them and the culture that produced them, we will be continuously finding new areas to explore. Meanwhile, it is time for us to begin assessing the territories already discovered.


  1. Prior to World War II, American women's literature had a recognized place in literary history, as works by Herbert Ross Brown (The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860 [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940]) and Fred Lewis Pattee demonstrate. Pattee's The First Century of American Literature, 1770-1870 (1935; reprint, New York: Cooper Square, 1966) is generally measured and fair. Not until his The Feminine Fifties (New York: Appleton-Century, 1940) did he set the tone for the intensely misogynist evaluations, and finally silence, that followed. With the exception of Helen Waite Papashvily's All the Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote It, the Women Who Read It, in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper, 1956) and parts of Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1950), little work focusing specifically on nineteenth-century women writers was produced before the "revival" of the 1970s.
  2. Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  3. Alfred Habegger, Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
  4. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
  5. Richard Rorty, "The Contingency of Selfhood," in Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 27-28.
  6. Hans Robert Jauss, "Literary History as Challenge," in Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 41.
  7. See Annette Kolodny's "A Map for Rereading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts," New Literary History II (1980): 451-468; reprinted in Elaine Show-alter, ed., The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature Theory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 46-62.
  8. Papashvily, All The Happy Endings.
  9. A good example of this is Joanne Dobson's "The Hidden Hand: Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-Nineteenth-Century Women's Novels," American Quarterly 38 (Summer 1986): 223-242.
  10. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon Books, 1977).
  11. Nina Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
  12. Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and The Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  13. Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, 172.
  14. Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Hollands, eds., Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), 238-239.
  15. Habegger's Gender, Fantasy, and Realism, especially pages 15-20, probably has the best analysis to date of the sexual appeal of nineteenth-century American women's novels.
  16. Quoted by Steven Mailloux in Rhetorical Power (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 36-37. I am grateful to Professor Mailloux for furnishing me with advance pages of this text and reminding me of Melville's remarks.
  17. Augusta Evans Wilson, St. Elmo (Chicago: M. A. Donohue & Company, n.d.), 439.
  18. "The horizon of expectations of literature distinguishes itself before the horizon of expectations of historical lived praxis in that it not only preserves actual experiences, but also anticipates unrealized possibility, broadens the limited space of social behavior for new desires, claims, and goals, and thereby opens paths of future experience" (Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, 41).
  19. See Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, for an analysis of the Victorian creation of taste and its impact on mid-century American literature.
  20. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), esp. ch. i.
  21. Wilson, St. Elmo, 371.
  22. "[O]nly sentences can be true, and … human beings make truths by making languages in which to phrase sentences" (Rorty, "The Contingency of Language," in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 9).
  23. Nina Baym, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors," American Literature 33 (Summer 1981): 123-139; reprinted in Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, 63-80.
  24. E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Deserted Wife (Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, 1855), 229.
  25. Tompkins, "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," in Sensational Designs, 122-146.
  26. Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall and Other Writings, ed. Joyce W. Warren (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 13. Subsequent references to this text are cited parenthetically as RH. In her Introduction to the novel, Warren discusses both the theme of economic independence and the stylistic dualities of Fern's writing.
  27. Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy (1893; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 38. Subsequent references to this text are cited parenthetically as IL.
  28. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). The most pertinent essay is the last, "Discourse in the Novel." A preliminary model for such an analysis is David R. Sewell's Mark Twain's Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
  29. Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 34.


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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Overviews

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Overviews