I have begun Dale Spender’s book Mothers of the Novel, and I have the feeling I’ll be posting on it regularly, as it’s full of interesting information. The book looks at women’s novels in the time period before Jane Austen, arguing that while we tend to think of Jane Austen as the first great woman novelist, it’s really the case that Austen drew on a long tradition of women’s writing as she created her own work. Mothers of the Novel was published in 1986 and there’s been tons of critical work (tons!) done on women novelists of the 17C and 18C since then, but this book is still a valuable overview. I’ve already added a couple writers to my reading list, including Amelia Opie and Mary Brunton.
Here are some interesting things I learned:
- The majority of novels in the 18C were written by women, and the novel was so closely associated with women that some men used a female pseudonym when they published their books. This caused a backlash against women writers which was at least partly successful, so that by the 1840s, the situation was reversed and women were adopting male pseudonyms when they published. This backlash is partly why the “canonical” novelists of the 18C are Fielding, Richardson, Defoe, Smollett and Sterne, a list which, of course, doesn’t include any women.
- Scholars have concluded that women today constitute only 20% of published writers (I don’t know how dated this figure is), which makes the statistic about women writing a majority of 18C novels even more interesting. Spender says this is evidence that the publishing world wasn’t always so unfair to women. I’m fascinated by the fluctuations in women’s status and the quality of their lives over the years; it hasn’t been a steadily upward trend by any means.
- Spender argues that women were successful at and interested in writing novels because novel writing is “a logical extension of women’s role” — many novels of the time were epistolary, and letters were a form of writing women were encouraged to participate in. She says letters are a good form in which to explore emotional and familial concerns, both subjects of the novel.
- Spender says her research into the novel has turned up over 100 women novelists before Jane Austen and no more than 30 men. So to end up with 5 canonical novelists all of whom are men doesn’t make much sense, unless it could possibly be the case that those 5 are better than over 100 women writers, which seems highly unlikely (assuming we could establish what “better” means). This is a perfect example for thinking about how the canon is flawed.