Female authors were a bit of a rarity in Britain when they first appeared in the early 18th century when the novel became established as a central literary form in Britain. It then had an ideology of sensibility and benevolence. Women had an active role in the development of fiction which was hardly surprising as they were the main readers of it! Their inspiration came from life in city and village, experiences of travel, love and marriage, religion or education. The idea of the novel came from Europe, and novel is from the Italian “novella” meaning new.
One of the chief founders was Aphra Behn (1640-89) born in Canterbury and who died in London. This lady from the Restoration era was one of the first English women to earn an income as an author breaking cultural barriers to become a leading literary role for generations of other women authors. She married a Dutch merchant in London who died the same year, spied in Antwerp for King Charles II and travelled to Surinam where she allegedly met an African slave leader. He became her inspiration for Oroonoko in 1688 which was an anti-slavery critique tinted with feminism and post-colonialism. This book is believed to be one of the first abolitionist and humanitarian novels printed in English and the first anti-slavery novel. In her time, she was esteemed as a poet, a leading playwright and author of satirical London. She included female pleasure and sexuality in her poetry, very radical at the time, and cause for much criticism during her life and after her death. Her poem Disappointment is a comic account of male impotency from a female point of view – totally outrageous for her time.
Virginia Woolf’s wrote about her in her famous book, A Room of One’s Own:
“All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Her grave is not included in the Poets’ Corner but lies in the East Cloister near the steps to the church.
A century after Behn we have Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804) who was born in Gibraltar and died in London. Her father was a Scottish captain in the British army, and she spent her childhood in England and New York. She was shocked at life in the colonies. She had a volume of poetry published in 1747 while she was the companion to Lady Isabella Finch in London and dedicated it to her. It was based on themes of female friendships and independence. When she married, she earnt money by acting to have her own income. She was very friendly with Samuel Johnson who thought her superior to his other female literary friends because she tried to write professionally rather than anonymously. His patronage protected her reputation in print. She was not popular with the Blue Stocking Society who faulted her for her housekeeping among other things, as she was lower-class, grumpy and had preposterous self-confidence. Her most successful novel was The Adventures of Arabella or The Female Quixote, which was translated and sold on the continent. In 1753 her Shakespeare Illustrated was the first work of literary criticism. Separated from her husband she relied on support from the Literary Fund and died a pauper.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is the writer who first gave the novel its distinctly modern character through her depiction of ordinary people in their everyday lives. Austen is a great comic ironist and one of the finest social observers of English writing, her world centred on southern England. She was educated at Brasenose College in Oxford, Abbey school in Reading, lived and took vacations in Bath at the height of its fame in the mid 18th century, Southampton, London, Brighton, Lyme Regis, Steventon, Chawton (where she was most happy and productive in her writing) and Winchester where she died. Her novels still enchant people and have been made numerous times into movies.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was born in London, her mother was the famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – also a female writer, the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died shortly after her birth. She was bought up by her father whose household entertained some distinguished guests during her childhood including the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge and educated herself using his extensive library. She eloped with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814. later marrying in 1816 after his wife committed suicide. They travelled Europe struggling financially and it was while staying in Switzerland with some friends that Lord Byron suggested that they should all try writing a horror story. Mary wrote Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus which became her most famous novel first published anonymously. Widowed aged 24, she had to work hard to support herself and her son writing more novels and promoting her husband’s poetry, dying of cancer aged 53 in London.
Haworth in West Yorkshire was the home of three sisters who wrote some of the most important novels in the English language. This grim, grey village was the mid-nineteenth century home of Charlotte (1816-55), Emily (1818-48) and Anne (1820-49) Bronte. These three lonely, intelligent and imaginative sisters lived disappointing lives in miserable isolation but managed nonetheless to write iconic, passionate and violent novels, including the character of Heathcliff, the darkest soul in British fiction. They did not publish under their real names but used masculine pen names. Their home, the Parsonage, is now a museum and you can still experience the solitude of the moors. Many settings were from real life and pilgrims can follow in their footsteps (the schools they went to, the houses they worked as governesses and the homes of their friends), and there is the lure of Bronte country – the moorland. The newest film about the lives of these talented sisters is To Walk Invisible (see the preview below).
A contemporary also using a male pen name was Mary Ann Evans (1819-80) who published as George Elliot. She was born in Chilvers Coton on the estate of her father’s employer in Warwickshire and wrote about rural and industrial middle England from the First Reform Bill of 1832 to the second. One of the leading writers of the Victorian era, she settled in London and in 1851 she worked for three years as sub-editor of The Westminster Review, making it enjoy under her influence a brilliant run. She had many radical journalist friends and as an author developed a method of psychological analysis which is characteristic in modern fiction. Well known novels are The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. Once filled with religious ardour, education changed her. For nearly 25 years she lived with the versatile journalist George Henry Lewes as if married – which he was, but had left his unfaithful wife without a divorce – and it was he who fostered her genius and took her to Europe. Her relationship with him led her to be shunned by her family and friends, although the popularity of her novels bought her social acceptance later in life. After he died in 1878, she founded a scholarship in his name at Cambridge and aged 61 she married a 40-year-old banker, dying later that year in London. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Elisabeth Gaskell (1818-65) was bought up by her aunt in Knutsford in Cheshire. This small village was the inspiration for Cranford and Hollinford in Wives and Daughters. She married in 1832 and moved to Manchester, a centre of great political change and radical activity. Observing the social tensions, she used them in her novels such as Mary Barton, which had a huge impact on the reading public and provoked widespread discussions on its subjects of appalling poverty for the workers in the industrial centres of the North. Her sympathy to their plight not only pricked the conscience of the nation, but attracted the attention of Charles Dickens who offered to print her work in his periodicals. These varied stories made her a popular author. She was an active humanitarian using her novels to convey messages about the need for social improvements and better understanding and improvement of attitude between the classes and towards women. Her novels were well researched, and she took care to reproduce northern dialects. Today she is considered one of the most highly regarded British Victorian novelists.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) is one of the most beloved children’s authors of all time. She bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, got married and focused her attention on her farm and land preservation in the Lake District, being a fierce campaigner on local conservation issues. She was an astute and forward-thinking businesswoman. When she died, she left 4,000 acres of countryside and 14 working farms to the National Trust so they could be enjoyed and preserved for prosperity.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most innovative and influential writers of the 20th century. Her work captures the fast-changing world in which she was living and explores key motifs of modernism, such as the subconsciousness, time, perception and the impact of war. These include Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and A Room of One’s own. She had a considerable impact on the cultural life around her and her home was a hub for cultural activity. She had her own publishing house, The Hogarth Press. It published not only her work but became the English language publisher for Sigmond Freud. She was a member of the Bloomsbury group which included her friend and lover Vita-Sackville West, author of a gardening column in the Observer and of many poems and novels. Virginia suffered mental health issues and her death by suicide was seen as the end of an era.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) is the best-selling novelist of all time with estimated sales of over 2 billion. She wrote detective novels based on Poirot and Miss Marple and the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap. She was largely homeschooled by her American father, travelled to France and Egypt with her mother, went on to marry Archie Christie in 1914 and travelled the British Empire with him. They divorced in 1924, and she fulfilled her dream of travelling on the Orient Express. She went on the archaeological dig at Ur, where she met her second husband Max Mallowan who was 25 years old, she was 15 years older. She was famous early in her career and sometimes wrote under an alias to enjoy the freedom of writing without the pressure of being Agatha Christie.
Andrea Levy (1956-2019) was born in Britain to Jamaican parents. Her work explores topics relating to the racial, cultural and national identities of Jamaican people in Britain, and the difference between those who immigrated and those who were born here; the situation facing all children of postcolonial immigrants and the Windrush generation. Small Island (BBC series) does this so well as does Fruit of the Lemon being compassionate, funny and wise.
Joanne Rowling was born in Yate in 1965. She is a British writer and philanthropist whose Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history, even after being rejected by 12 publishers. After her degree, she worked at Amnesty International as a researcher, a teacher and all the time she wrote. In 1990 she married in Portugal but divorced soon after. She returned to Edinburgh with her daughter and while struggling to support them on welfare, Rowling worked on her first Harry Potter Book. Her publisher requested that her books be published with initials as an obviously female author might not appeal to the target audience of young boys. She has also written crime novels under the pen name of Robert Galbraith, these have also been made into a TV series for BBC1. This incredible lady is a rag to riches story, someone who rose from poverty to eventually become the world’s first billionaire author.
Some of these great women are known the world over, their works read and studied, the stories made into tv-series and great films. They have been instrumental in making their contemporaries aware of social and racial injustice as well as promoting equality for women. They have given us some of the most iconic characters we know today, who hundreds of years later in some cases still have their appeal or have the desired scarry effect be they monsters like Frankenstein, the struggles of Jane Eyre, Peter Rabbit and Harry Potter. These women often used pen names to avoid notoriety, to ensure their privacy and sales sometimes even to avoid becoming a celebrity.
First Row, from left to right: Virginia Woolf (Image in Public Domain), JK Rowling (Image by Daniel Ogren, licensed by Creative Commons), Mary Wollstonecraft (portrait by John Opie, Public domain) and Aphra Behn (portrait by Sir Peter Lely, Public Domain)
Second Row, from left to right: Mary Shelley (portrait by Richard Rothwell, Public Domain), Agatha Christie (Creative Commons), The Bronte Sisters (painting by their brother, Branwell, Public Domain) and Jane Austen (Colourised version of an engraved depiction of Jane Austen, Public Domain).