“Of all the wonderful things I experienced during this journey, the best occurred at the end, as I stood in front of a bookshelf full of new titles, each of which introduced me to new women, new worlds, new windows into British history.”
Everyone has heard of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, perhaps the most famous women writers in British literature. All have been the subject of film and television adaptations, and Jane Austen will grace the new £10 bank note being released in Britain in 2017. But do you know Sara Coleridge (yes, she is related to Samuel Taylor) or Catherine Crowe? Perhaps you’ve heard of King George IV’s scandalous mistress, the actress Mary Robinson, but didn’t realize she was also a writer? Shelley DeWees selects seven British women writers of the Romantic and Victorian periods who were at least as famous as Austen and the Brontës during their lifetimes, if not more so, and often outsold them. Not Just Jane shines a light on their less-remembered works, while also showing the difficulties women faced in becoming writers, and the censure they faced when they succeeded.
DeWees’ subjects are not entirely forgotten so much as they are ill-remembered outside the halls of academia. I was familiar with all of the women from the Romantic period, which is the area I focused on during my undergraduate degree. Funnily enough, I even referenced Charlotte Turner Smith my review of The Fire This Time a few months ago. I was less familiar with the Victorians, with the exception of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If you’ve never heard of Braddon, try to imagine a novelist as prolific as Nora Roberts and as famous as J.K. Rowling, and then imagine that almost no one has heard of that novelist a hundred years from now.
In large part, DeWees is not analyzing why the Brontës and Austen have been remembered, and her seven women have been forgotten. She ventures a few guesses, such as how Charlotte Brontë’s legacy was bolstered by a well-timed biography penned by Elizabeth Gaskell, who was herself an extremely successful novelist. She also hazards a guess that some of the women were willingly forgotten because of their scandalous and unconventional personal lives. But for the most part, she is concerned with illuminating the forgotten writers, rather than with trying to figure out exactly why they are not well-remembered today.
All seven women have interesting biographies that illustrate the problems commonly faced by Romantic and Victorian women. Many of them were married young to degenerate men who ran up debts they could not pay. The long-suffering wives then took up the pen to pay off their husbands’ debts and support their children. It was extremely hard to obtain a divorce, and both Smith and Robinson ultimately left their husbands without the legal niceties. Both Robinson and Braddon would become tabloid scandals for their extra-marital activities, Robinson for her role as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Braddon because she lived with and bore children to a man whose first wife was still living, but was confined to an insane asylum in Ireland. These women faced censure for the contents of their personal lives as well as the content of their novels, their punishment for being so bold as to publish under their own names rather than anonymously or “By a Lady.”
Perhaps because the works of her subjects are not always well-known, DeWees references Austen and Brontës frequently, using examples from their work to explain a social custom of the period, or point out a common literary trope. As she moves into the Victorian period, the works of Charles Dickens often fill this role in the text. At other times she hold Austen and the Brontes up for stylistic contrast, showing how her seven women are different, and often less comforting than their better-remembered counterparts. DeWees’ background is in ethnomusicology, and her readings sometimes seem selectively chosen or read to make a point. Not Just Jane is at its weakest when it tries to explain why, but shines when the women themselves step to the forefront. DeWees ably highlights the gaps in our knowledge as she advocates for an expansion of the canon.
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3 thoughts on “Not Just Jane”
I’ve really enjoyed reading books that highlight women in history lately. I’ve been surprised by how much women accomplished in the sciences before that was something they were conventionally “allowed” to do. I’m sure the same would be true of women in literature and I’d love to pick this up to learn more!