Charlotte invited me to participate in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month [wait — why national? Shouldn’t it be international?]) this year, so here I am, officially posting every day this month, instead of following my usual most-likely-but-not-necessarily-posting-every-day method. We’ll see how it goes. I’m feeling a tiny bit anxious about this, as though actually committing to posting every day is so much harder than making no commitment but doing it anyway.
So, I’ve finished Dale Spender’s excellent Mothers of the Novel and can say that it’s well worth the read, even though it’s over 20 years old and tons of research has been done on these novelists since Spender wrote. But it’s an excellent overview and gives information about tons of authors and if you pick it up, it will most certainly add to your reading list. You’ll find Spender’s list here, along with some other writers thrown in for good measure.
What I liked best about the book, besides the information on new writers it’s given me, is its description of the strength of an 18C tradition of women’s writing and the accompanying disappointment that this tradition has largely disappeared. Spender stresses over and over again how vibrant women’s writing was in the 18C and how well-respected many of these writers were. She also describes female critics from the 18C and 19C who wrote about these women writers, trying to acknowledge their strength and establish a lasting tradition — which didn’t work, as we now know. Now, I knew there were a lot of women writers from the 18C, but I’m not sure I quite realized how important they were in their time and how seriously they were taken. Here is what Spender says:
Jane Austen read ‘women’s novels.’ So too did the reverend gentleman, her father. What is frequently ‘forgotten’ is that he also made his regular visits to the circulating library for the latest novel by a woman, who explored the implications of many a moral question of his time. And Mr. Austen’s reading habits were by no means unusual for a man in his position.
She also argues that over time women’s novels have tended to be lumped into one big category, that of the romance, in spite of the fact that there is great variety in their writing, both of subject matter and of quality. On the other hand, while men often wrote (and write) novels that are about romance, these works are rarely described as romances and aren’t so easily dismissed.
This dismissal happens mostly in the 19C. By the time the 19C got going, women had experienced enough success that male writers were getting nervous:
If we want to explain the dismissal of early women novelists from the literary heritage it is necessary to go much further than the misleading accounts about mass audiences and sensation, sentimental ‘blotterature.’ For in the eighteenth century, many of the women novelists who were writing for a small, refined and morally conscious audience, were held in very high repute. It is only since their time that the pervasive notion of silly novels by silly women novelists has held such sway.
The systematic devaluation of women writers and their concerns is more a product of the nineteenth century. By this time women’s position as novel writers was so well established that there were more than mutterings among the men about the dangers of women’s preeminence in the genre.
It’s a depressing story, yes, but I also find it heartening to know more about this tradition, and particularly the way women writers read and refined each other’s work, commenting on and responding to the writers who had gone before them, thereby doing much to extend what the novel can do.
Ann has asked about where to start with lesser-known writers, and while definitions of “lesser-known” will vary and while I haven’t actually read tons and tons of this stuff, I’m happy to list some of my favorites. I’d definitely read Sarah Fielding’s novels, including The Adventures of David Simple. I’ve read and enjoyed Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess, Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney and The Victim of Prejudice, Mary Wollstonecraft’s two novels (Mary and The Wrongs of Woman), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story. And also Frances Burney’s Evelina and Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels.
As for ones Spender has inspired me to read, they include Mary Brunton’s Self Control and Discipline (Austen admired Brunton greatly and learned much from her), Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mobray, and anything by Maria Edgeworth I can find. I hope to read more novels by the women listed above, as well as authors discussed in my post here, if I can find copies in print.