In Persuasion, Jane Austen’s heroine acidly comments that ‘men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story … the pen has been in their hands’. Charlotte Bronte, 30 years later, explained her family’s choice of pseudonyms with reference to ‘a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’. Both authors’ words, along with their choice to publish anonymously or pseudonymously, frequently reappear in popular conceptions of women’s literary history. Removed from their original context, they become the emblem of a simplified concept of the history of women writers: a continual struggle in a male-dominated literary landscape, in which occasional disadvantaged, trailblazing women fight against the tide. The irony is that such a conception often appears in well-meaning attempts to celebrate women writers, but essentially serves to rewrite the past and erase women from the literary map.
Women have always formed part of the literary world; the first named author was, after all, the Sumerian priestess Enheduana. That is not to say they have always had easy entry to the literary marketplace. In the British context, there were many barriers to women’s involvement. Unequal access to education; legal barriers and social barriers, such as gendered behaviour codes, and a persistent connection between women writers and immoral living or ‘unsexed’ deviant femininity were all hurdles to women’s participation in the literary world from the early modern period into the 19th century.
It is tempting to construct from this a narrative of linear progress, as women writers slowly clawed their way to respectability and recognition. Such an idea, however, is little more than fiction, the product of early 20th-century canon creation, which somewhat ruthlessly expurgated women from literary history by discounting them from the category of ‘the great’ or ‘the important’. While feminist literary historical work has ‘rescued’ a succession of women writers from obscurity, the popular conception of literary history is still a tale of male domination and occasional female exceptions, frequently using the subterfuge of male pseudonyms or anonymity to survive in a male literary world.
There is no period that better breaks through that mythologisation of women’s absence from the history of literature than the 18th century.
Women published throughout the century, developing new forms and proving central to the reading and publishing boom associated with the circulating libraries. At the beginning of the (long) 18th century, the ‘fair triumvirate of wit’ – Delarivier Manley, Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood – were the most famous writers of amatory fiction and their prose experimentation was pivotal to the development of the novel. In the latter half of the century, Sophia Lee wrote historical fiction in The Recess (1783), decades before Walter Scott became famous for ‘inventing’ the genre. Charlotte Smith revived the sonnet form with her Elegaic Sonnets (1784) before John Keats or Percy Shelley ever picked up a pen. By the 1790s, more than half of British novelists were women, the theatre was dominated by female dramatists such as Hannah Cowley and Joanna Baillie and women were both active and innovative in the field of poetry. The historical reality is a world away from the vision of lone female geniuses forging weary paths through an exclusively male literary landscape.
The Gothic is an interesting case study. It may have started with a man – Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) – but it was Clara Reeve’s revision of the formula in The Old English Baron (1778) that set the trends which oversaw the rise of the genre. Fastidiously rejecting Walpole’s supernatural excesses, her tale of persecution, rampant villainy, unexceptional heroes, virtuous heroines and a suggestive or absent supernatural became the template for the popular works of writers like Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Regina Marie Roche and Eliza Parsons. While there were many male Gothic authors, women dominated the marketplace; the legend ‘By a Lady’ or the name of a star like Ann Radcliffe on the cover was a selling point. The Gothic could bring fame and fortune for writers like Radcliffe or provide a steady income for those, like Elizabeth Meekes, who formed one of the stable of writers for the Minerva Press.
Women worked not only as authors of Gothic texts but also as publishers. One of the most prolific publishers of Gothic chapbooks was Ann Lemoine. Other female-owned companies, like that of Joanna Bailey and later her daughters (Dean and Munday), also competed in the Gothic market. These publishers deliberately fostered and supported women writers, such as the prolific Sarah Wilkinson, giving the lie to the isolated female genius as the only viable model for literary success.
As the early Gothic was increasingly derided through the 19th century, the publishing landscape changed, but, while it became more male-dominated, women continued to form a significant part of it. The use of pseudonyms and anonymous publishing was widespread and cannot be entirely separated from the gendered judgement often attached to the woman writer and her work. However, the use of pseudonyms is not proof of women’s exclusion from the marketplace. Women were entrenched within it. Pseudonymous and anonymous publishing were commonplace regardless of gender and were adopted for many reasons, from questions of respectability to reflections of queer identity (Vernon Lee is a salient example); from a desire to separate public and private personas to the attempt to create different brand identities (Charlotte Dacre and Mary Elizabeth Braddon used different naming practices for different types of publication). The myth that women had to publish pseudonymously ignores questions of agency in a way that never occurs when discussing male writers. It also, of course, ignores every single woman who published under her own name.
It is easy to get caught in the trap of historical revisionism when it comes to women writers, but this revisionism is rarely along progressive lines – despite its claims. Instead, it is a conservative reimagining of women struggling to survive in a man’s world that erases the long and fascinating history of women writers and their achievements, contributions and impact. The truth is much more exciting.
Sam Hirst works at Manchester Metropolitan University and researches the early British Gothic and contemporary theology.