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.