Mothers of the Novel

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.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

20 responses to “Mothers of the Novel

  1. Now this sounds like a really interesting book. I wonder what the ratio between male and female readers was back then. I had no idea that men ever used a female pseudonym. It makes you wonder what wonderful books have been lost to us by women authors. I hope you do share more from this book.


  2. Fascinating bits of information! I had no idea there were so many women writers before Austen and that men took female pseudonyms. Please feel free to post about what you are learning in this book as often as you wish!


  3. Edd


    The statistic of 20% of women published writers today is interesting and I actually do not know the current figure but out of the Mystery and Thriller genre, many of the most successful writers are women – I know because I read a large percentage of their books. It matters not the gender this old reader does not give a hoot and never has!


  4. verbivore

    This sounds fascinating!


  5. Stephanie

    I’m doing my PhD thesis on this very area, so I am tickled pink that you’re reading that book. It’s a little dated in that a lot of the women are getting more attention these days (particularly people like Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe), but some of them are still virtually unknown and hard to find. I mean, I’ve never been able to find an Eliza Haywood in a bookshop, and she was HUGELY prolific and just as popular, if not more so, than Defoe.

    I can very much recommend Charlotte Smith (either The Old Manor House or Celestina), but really, they’re all fabulous.


  6. That’s also really interesting about Eliza Haywood and Charlotte Smith–recently someone on my campus ordered multivolume sets on both authors and I remember looking at them when they came in. I may have to look them both up now.


  7. Edd brings up a good point. Certain genre fiction today is dominated by women, and it is wildly popular, but it’s still fluff and will soon be forgotten. Why doesn’t that apply to the 18th C too? We certainly didn’t invent fluff, nor did we invent the appetite for it. People have always loved melodrama, scandal, easy answers, and catharsis. For all we know, any women who tried to rise above that never got published because it wasn’t ladylike or marketable. Men had the privilege to experiment a little, and their best efforts ended up in the canon. If what was published by women (and the other men) just isn’t as good, we shouldn’t try to shoehorn it into the canon for the sake of making up the numbers.


  8. So interesting! This reminds me of a moment that comes up in Northanger Abbey (which I will finish tonight, I will, I will…) when the Catherine discusses novels and shows surprise that Tilney also reads novels, because she considers novel-reading (although not writing) a feminine activity.



  9. Danielle — I’m sure I will share more! I wish Spender had given some examples of men who took on women’s names, but she didn’t. As for Haywood and Smith — there are at least a couple Haywood novels available on Amazon, although you probably won’t see them often in a bookstore (too bad!). I found a Charlotte Smith novel in a store once and snapped it up — it was The Young Philosopher and I liked it.

    Stefanie — I’m finding it fascinating too, and am finding so much to post on!

    Edd — that’s an interesting point about genre; it certainly makes a difference what type of book we’re talking about — and it made a difference in the 18C too, as I doubt women were so dominant in other genres besides the novel.

    Verbivore — yeah, I haven’t gotten very far in the book but already it’s proven itself a worthwhile read.

    Stephanie — oh, thanks for commenting, and do stop by and share how your research is going now and then! I worked on 18C literature for my diss, and so I’m a bit obsessed. I haven’t read either of the Smith novels you mention, and I would like to — as well as more of her poetry.

    Sylvia — good questions as always, and, as usual, I’m not agreeing with you! 🙂 Well, I do agree that there’s always been fluff — but whose definition of “fluff” are we using here … and I agree that we shouldn’t shoehorn stuff into the canon simply because we want to. But I think it’s highly, highly unlikely that were would be SO many women writers without one of them writing great stuff (and I know from reading some of these writers that they do write good stuff, but that’s another point). I mean, don’t those numbers just scream that there’s another story going on?

    Courtney — yes, the relationship of women and the novel is so interesting (I took a course on this topic once and it was great). Novel-writing and novel-reading was so closely associated with women before and during Austen’s time — although we’re talking about certain kinds of novels, polite, acceptable ones.


  10. The numbers just tell me that there was a particular publishing phenomenon going on–novels written by women for women were popular and profitable. It seems more likely to me that any novels by women that were more biting than the usual fare would not get published at all.


  11. Stephanie

    Sylvia – not really the case. A lot of the novels published by women were hugely scandalous and weren’t just about romance, either. See Charlotte Smith’s Desmond for that. It’s basically a philosophical meditation on different ways of thinking about the French Revolution. Also, writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays and Mary Robinson were writing feminist novels that (especially in Wollstonecraft’s case), were fictional extensions of their essays.

    And Charlotte Lennox rewrote Don Quixote from a female point of view.

    So, all in all, lots of really interesting, dynamic work that goes far beyond romance – and even if it does work within the basic romance framework, there is a lot more going on than just the ‘boy meets girl’ thing.


  12. I’m very curious about this period of writing and I have a question. I wonder if the reason some of these writings are not in the canon, or really available now is that these women’s writings are not seen as valid as men’s — or to say it a different way–a woman’s experience as valid as a man’s? I’m not sure I’m asking the right question–but it seems as though “romance” is very denigrated. I realize romance/bodice rippers are and can be complete fluff (especially a lot of what is out there now), but I like what Stephanie says about the boy meets girl story–it isn’t just about that. It seems as though the moment you put any sort of romance situation in the equation (especially when the author is a woman) it is less worthy than other stories. Of course I am in no way well read in this area and am just a student still for so much of this sort of literature, so perhaps I am way off in my thinking!?


  13. Thanks for that, Stefanie, its good to get specific. I guess the question remains: are they canon-worthy? Did they change the literary landscape? Were they artistically ground-breaking? Are they eternal?


  14. hepzibah

    How interesting! I always learn something new from you Dorothy! 🙂

    It’s sad that only 20 percent of women writers today are published today though, it doesn’t sound quite right…


  15. Thanks for getting specific Stephanie! Sylvia — I wonder what you would think of The Female Quixote. I liked that book quite a bit — it’s not the most polished narrative in the world (a true inheritor of DQ!) but quite interesting. And yes, I think some of the novels we’re discussing are canon-worthy and they certainly changed the literary landscape — they are really at the root of the modern novel. But as I don’t believe in objective aesthetic standards or in eternity, I’m probably not the best person to ask. 🙂

    I’m glad Hepzibah!


  16. You won’t like what the Encyclopaedia Britannica says about Charlotte Smith: “her work belongs essentially with that of the derivative 18th-century romantic tradition of women novelists.” And what could be more derivative than “The Female Quixote”?


  17. Well if her novel “Female Quixote” is deemed too derivative then Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist” cannot be considered a worthy inclusion either, because I could make a very, very long list of all the similarities. It was sooo strong I was puzzled as to how it was barely mentioned in the book’s introduction.


  18. You’re right. Jacques isn’t on the mainstream canon lists, though it is on one list that has 500 titles.


  19. No, I don’t like that about Charlotte Smith! Actually it makes me want to read more of her novels — I’ve read only one and that was a while ago. But there’s certainly more going on in her work than romance. About being derivative, don’t many, many works retell old stories from different perspectives? Or show strong influence like Jacques the Fatalist? I mean, Shakespeare, after all, took stories from other people and retold them. Was he being derivative?


  20. I think you’re right–most (if not all) stories have been told before. I guess genius is telling an old story in a way that makes it seem new again.


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