Mothers of the Novel

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.


Filed under Blogging, Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Mothers of the Novel

  1. Hmmm…maybe you should do a challenge for 2008? (Make it a really, really simple, not-t00-demanding one, so I’ll actually be able to complete it.)


  2. Caroline

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book, Dorothy. I ordered it from my university library, and since receiving it yesterday, I have done virtually nothing but read it. I can’t wait to read some of the novels Spender, and you, suggest. Having loved Fanny Burney’s novels, it is great to know that there are many more out there for me to enjoy. It is also somewhat depressing, as you say, that these women writers have been ignored and dismissed for so long, but it is heartening to note how many of the novels Spender mentions are now in print (in the Oxford World’s Classics, among others), and that my university education, coming only a few years after the publication of Mothers of the Novel, actually included the reading of (a few) of the novelists she mentions as part of the syllabus (notably Ann Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth). Thanks again for all the reading suggestions – keep them coming!


  3. Thanks for writing so many great posts about this book. I will be looking for it at the bookstore this coming weekend. And thanks for the link too, ’cause my TBR list needed more books and authors on it! 😀


  4. Stephanie

    I’d very much recommend Mary Robinson. Her books can be hard to find, but Broadview has published Walsingham (which is fantastic) and her Letter to the Women of England & The Natural Daugther in a combined volume.


  5. verbivore

    This book sounds wonderful and thanks for the list of authors – it is always helpful to have an idea where to start.


  6. How interesting! The book on romance I was reading also spoke about the denigration of the genre, brought about in the 19th century by the novel becoming both more literary and more commercial and thus requiring to be seen as ‘virile’ in order to be validated. This created an underclass of novel writing which pretty much included anything written by women. I agree that was a crying shame!


  7. Sadly, Adeline Mowbray just went out of print (although a rather annoying version–they interrupt the text with essays about various historical topics–is available through College Press or something like that–it’s paired with Memoirs of Emma Courtney). And I’m reading Edgeworth right now (Ennui, and it’s paired with Castle Rackrent, so I’ll read that on my own after). Spender’s book sounds like something I need to add to my TBR pile! And Haywood….so many books!


  8. My library has the Spender book so I will have to take a look at it. I am greatly enjoying reading Ann Radcliffe (though I am moving somewhat slowly through it), and plan to read more of her work. Many of those authors you list are new to me, but I will have to search them out, as I do want to read more from this period. It’s nice to know that at least through discussions like these, these authors are not totally forgotten and unappreciated. Thanks for posting about the book.


  9. LK

    I definitely want to read Radcliffe and Burney.

    I really enjoyed Love in Excess, and would like to read Bestsy Thoughtless. Have you read that one, Dorothy?

    Thanks for this absorbing post! Lots of good future reads here…


  10. Emily — you mean an 18C challenge? Or a neglected women authors challenge? Could be fun!

    I’m glad you are enjoying the book Caroline! And it IS encouraging all the changes that have happened, in academia at least, in the last couple decades. I didn’t take a class in 18C women authors, but it was available to me, and I did read some of these authors in other classes.

    Stefanie — I’m glad to help out a bit with the TBR list! 🙂

    Stephanie — thanks for the recommendation; I’m not familiar with Robinson, but she sounds great! I love Broadview books.

    Verbivore — glad to help out!

    Litlove — very interesting story; perhaps I should check out your book, or find a book like Spenders that treats the 19C — I’m sure such a book is out there.

    Sarah — I think my husband has read those Edgeworth works you mention, so we should have them around here somewhere — Spender had such good things to say about her. I’m hoping to find Adeline Mowbray somewhere, perhaps used, which would be fine.

    Danielle — the Spender book has fabulous lists — it’s worth checking out for that reason, even if you don’t read the rest. I’m so glad you are enjoying Radcliffe!

    LK — no, I haven’t yet read Betsy Thoughtless, but so many people like it, I’m eager to get to it. I feel like I have SO many books from this period to read!


  11. I have my hands on a copy now too. 🙂 (My university library had 4, which suggests that it’s still being used on a syllabus.) I’m sure the list of 106 women novelists in the middle is going to be dangerous – all those new books to covet! As is the discovery of Broadview press and their 18th century reprints. Happily, my library seems to have a subscription with them and the catalogue returns hundreds of hits, including many of the novels that Spender mentions. That means I can book them out and not feel at all guilty at my gluttony. 🙂


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