Women and the Novel

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments on my post from the other day about women and the 18C novel, and I wanted to pick up on some of the ideas. Danielle asks:

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?

My short answer — that’s exactly it. Or perhaps I would say that for much of the last 200 years critics, most of them male, have tended overall to see women’s experiences as less valid than men’s and so have not taken women’s writing that expresses women’s experiences as seriously. In the last 20 years or so there’s been an explosion of interest in women’s writing and an attempt to think about what makes this writing valuable, but for so long 18C novels by women didn’t get attention because of a long tradition of criticism that wasn’t interested in understanding them.

Dale Spender writes about how it wasn’t so bad for women to write in the 17C and 18C as far as their reputations were concerned, but to publish their writings was risky. Here’s what she says about the 17C, before the novel took off:

The public world of letters was already by the seventeenth century a world of the ‘men of letters’, because so many women decided that the price of publicity was too high to pay, and made few or no attempts to encroach on this area of male territory. And this absence of women in print still has ramifications today, for, apart from the fact that it gave men a free hand to decree the literary conventions of the time (conventions which still make their presence felt), there is also the additional difficulty which is encountered when it comes to tracing the origins of women’s literary traditions. Women published much less, and what they published was more likely to be anonymous, little favored, and easily ‘lost’. This is in contrast to the extensive, varied public heritage of men which has been more readily preserved.

This is part of the story, that women writers struggled because entering public discourse was such a dangerous act, which meant that male writers could influence literary trends and decide what constitutes good writing, and women didn’t have much say in the matter. (I just can’t believe in objective aesthetic standards!)

The other part of the story is that once novel writing took off in the 18C and women writers began to publish in greater and greater numbers, male critics started to get dismissive about the value of novel writing. Yes, they said, novels are hugely popular, and yes women are successful at writing them, but the novel isn’t a serious genre, it’s just light entertainment, and so we’ll let women have it. Here is the dismissiveness about women’s writing and experiences that Danielle was asking about. For the longest time I don’t think we had the tools to understand and appreciate 18C novels by women because we didn’t have a tradition of thinking about them and trying to understand them.

As far as romance is concerned (another topic that has come up in the comments), that is more complicated, not least because “romance” can mean a number of things, including novels with marriage plots and novels that follow in the tradition of courtly romances with high-born characters, adventures, etc. But about the marriage plot, men and women both were writing about it — and the marriage plot is really about money and property and status when it comes down to it. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela is about a servant girl trying to break into a higher class through marriage and Austen’s plots are about love but also about how women of marginal status survive and about who is going to end up mistress of the big estate. It seems that everyone, men and women alike, were obsessed with what to do about young women and marriageable young men.

Oh, I could go on and on. I’d like to write soon about Anna Laetitia Barbauld who is a great example for thinking about how criticism and canon-formation hurt women writers.


Filed under Books

9 responses to “Women and the Novel

  1. Stephanie

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Dorothy. The domestic is seen as less important than the political, for example – witness the people who claim that Jane Austen isn’t interesting because she doesn’t overtly mention the Napoleonic Wars in her novels (although I would argue that they are still in there). Yet, her novels have survived, because they deal with universal experiences, rather than historically specific events. And as you said, the marriage plot isn’t just about “romance”, it’s about how to class and status and the very real question of how women could negotiate their way through 18th-century society.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying Dale Spender’s book – it’s fab. Another one that you’d enjoy is The Domestic Revolution by Eve Tavor Bennet. It deals with the same writers, but looks more at the Marriage Act and how the domestic space was rewritten by both conservative and liberal female novelists.


  2. Thanks so much for answering my question. I really haven’t read much from this period, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately (in part since I’ve been reading Ann Radcliffe)–and your recent post made me wonder about this question. It seems like so much women’s writing tends to fade away so easily since it is often about the domestic sphere of life. In any case I’d love to read more about what you have to say about this period!


  3. verbivore

    I like what you’re doing with these posts. I wish I knew more about how to look and evaluate 18C women’s novels. So I can’t wait to hear more about this book and your own thoughts on the subject.

    I also think this debate is just as important nowadays. Women writers are slowly getting the credit they deserve but so much of what they write is still labeled ‘domestic’ – in a pejorative sense. How frustrating.


  4. Wonderful post Dorothy. The domestic is definitely viewed as somehow less important and less interesting and women are thought less for writing about it. But then if women try to write about something other than the domestic they are dismissmed too for writing about things outside their “sphere”. It’s a double-edged sword. I appreciate you pointing out how men dismissed the novel when women writers became so popular. This happens historically with more than just writing. It seems any work women make inroads into men (not all men) decide it is not as valuable. Gender politics! I wish we could get past them and just be people.


  5. These are such interesting posts Dorothy. What I found interesting in your last post on the topic was that the majority of 18C novels were written by women? And, yet, I’ve been sitting here thinking and thinking but I cannot remember having read a single book in high school written by a woman. University wasn’t much better either. I beginning to wonder if this is why I now gravitate more often to books written by women?


  6. But I wonder what the pioneering women authors would think of the publishing world today, with the proliferation of “chick-lit”. Wouldn’t they shudder at the Sophie Kinsellas and the like and wonder why more female authors today aren’t talking about the real issues women confront, doing more to document/make women aware of the events relating specifically to women in the dark ages that preceded the likes of Virginia Woolf, etc? I think women authors have a special responsibility to correct past inequities and show themselves worthy of being held in the same esteem as the very BEST of their male counterparts. Too many fall far short of that ideal….and part of the problem are the women readers who are wasting their time on crap instead of tackling more challenging (and rewarding) works.


  7. Hmm. I’m not much for any author being made obligated to carry on any particular tradition because of what came before. Be aware, alert, curious, write what you like and all parts of you — gender, race, family, education, country etc. — will enter your work in some way. It’s the same argument used on postcolonial authors, people telling them they have a special duty to write about certain topics because of what came before, and anything else isn’t “worthy” of critical review. Stuff and nonsense. Writers are artists, first and foremost, not political activists. At least that’s the quality I look for in my fiction authors.


  8. I don’t think I was speaking specifically about politics, Imani, when I wrote of the necessity of women authors to deal with real issues and meet the same literary standards as the BEST of their male counterparts. The problem with these replies is that, by necessity, they must be brief when we should be hashing this out over a table of drinks, among a horde of fellow book-lovers. The proliferation of “chick lit” has done much to diminish the stature of female authors, creating a silly sub-genre that lacks universality and plays on the image of women as superficial creatures obsessed with their weight, clothes, finding the perfect man, etc. Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes and
    Dorothy Parker are spinning in their graves…


  9. Thank you Stephanie, and thank you for the book recommendation; it sounds fascinating, and it’s one I hadn’t heard of before, so I’ll be pleased to check it out.

    Thank you for your question Danielle! I’ve always said that you ask good questions 🙂 The funny thing about domesticity being looked down upon is that _everybody_ has some experience of domesticity, _everybody_ has a home, needs to eat, has a mother, etc. Not everybody goes on adventures! It would seem that domesticity would be the universally valued theme, if anything would be.

    Verbivore — yeah, I think we’re still dealing with the legacy you describe, of women not getting respect for writing about home and family.

    That’s exactly it, Stefanie, and I tried to illustrate your point with an example in my post today — Barbauld got soundly criticized for venturing into the ‘wrong’ subject.

    Iliana — it’s wonderful to get out of school and be able to read whatever you want, isn’t it? I never read that many women either — it’s difficult because the canon is such a self-perpetuating thing — you need to know it because everybody else knows it, and yet it’s so limited!

    Cliff — I’m kind of uncomfortable with the notion of women (or anyone) having a special responsibility to do anything, but I agree that the existence of chick-lit makes it easy once again to dismiss what women are doing. I suppose I think everyone should have the right to write and read whatever trash they want, and they have no responsibility to represent their “group,” whatever it is, but I also reserve the right to ignore trash I don’t like. I do wonder, though, what Woolf would say about the chick lit phenomenon.

    Imani — yep. I agree.


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