Real talk: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot have monopolized the 18th and 19th century “groundbreaking female author” title. While we greatly respect their hustle, it should be noted that kickass female authors were around even earlier. We’ve put together a list of these women for your reading pleasure—women who set the foundation for the great works we know today and made it slowly more acceptable for women to be writers. Even though they received some uncool lady-bashing from later female novelists (lookin’ at you, Willa Cather), it’s time to reinstate them into our dialogue.
Most likely the inspiration behind Jane Austen’s stylistic choices, Frances Burney was a novelist, diarist, and playwright whose works were hugely popular during her life, but whose mention would probably elicit a “who?” from most people today. Her many works include four novels: Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer. While all of her works richly explore the politics of female identity. Evelina might seem especially familiar: a young woman of lower ranking nobility attracts the attention of two men. One is a flirt, who tries to worm his way into the lady’s good graces, and with the other there is a shared attraction, but they struggle with misinformation and class barriers. Yeah, we’d say Jane was a fan.
Regarded as one of the first novelists, Aphra Behn was not just an author, but also a spy for the British Crown. She, along with Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood, made up a group of female writers called “The fair triumvirate of wit” (which, we must say, sounds like an awesome band name). Behn wrote and wrote in order to support herself, and at the time of her death she’d completed 19 plays—not to mention her poetry, translation, and novels. Unfortunately, despite her success, Behn died in poverty and was largely ignored by literary critics due to her vulgarity and “masculine” prose. She has some defenders, thankfully; to quote Virginia Woolf:
“All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance”
Another member of the literary triumvirate, Delarivier Manley was mostly regarded for her political pamphlets. She was also well known as an author and playwright, and wrote satirical works about the Whigs and her husband. Her personal life was almost as novel as her written work: she was married to a bigamist, roomies with the former mistress of Charles II, and expelled by the duchess for flirting with her son. Manley offended people with her personality, her marriage, her quarrels, her obesity and her politics. In other words, she was just too much of a HBIC for people to handle. Many female authors have been (thankfully) campaigning to reestablish her importance in literary canon.
The third part of the triumvirate, Eliza Haywood was something of the Nora Robers/E.L. James of her day. That’s not knocking her, but rather showing how widely she was read during her lifetime and how much she wrote (over 70 works!). She is one of the founders of the English novel, writing works with both titillating romance and women’s rights issues that involved women who were sexually free. Her first novel, Love in Excess: Or, The Fatal Enquiry, gives the fallen woman character a positive portrait and does not condemn her for not being “virginal.” “Fantomina; or Love in a Maze” is a short story about a woman who assumes several roles in order to seduce a man, who smirks as she fools the idiot time and time again. Feminist scholars have been bringing up Haywood’s work to showcase early transgressive female writing.
Edgeworth was an Anglo-Irish writer, whose life in Ireland had a profound impact on her political views and progressive ideology. In her work she tended to address the issues of sex, gender, class, and even race. She advocated for equal education of boys and girls and for women to marry based on mutual affection; she said that it was better to be an old maid than to be in a bad marriage. She greatly believed in the importance of the individual and thought middle class women should be more politically involved. Her novel Belinda has one of the earliest depictions of an interracial marriage (though this was omitted in later publications). Towards the end of her life, she helped provide welfare for the poor and those affected by the Irish Potato Famine, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy.
This should be a familiar name for anyone who has taken a Women’s Studies class (the vast majority of our readership, perhaps?). Mostly known for A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft was not just a philosopher, but wrote two feminist novels: Mary: A Fiction and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman. Both criticize marriage and the position that it inflicts upon women. In Mary, the heroine is forced into a financial marriage, but fulfills herself emotionally with two romantic friendships: one with a man and another with a woman. Maria, unfortunately, was published unfinished due to Wollstonecraft’s death, but is probably her most radical work. It features a woman imprisoned in an insane asylum by her husband who finds fulfillment in an affair with a fellow roommate. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, would also come to be a groundbreaking writer in her own right. She wrote a little book about a man who creates a monster, maybe you’ve heard of it?
Images c/co JASNA, Wikipedia