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Review | To find great female novelists, stop looking in Jane Austen’s shadow

Review | To find great female novelists, stop looking in Jane Austen’s shadow


For almost a century, sleuthing critics have been taking a trowel to the literary past in search of forgotten female novelists. How many undiscovered Jane Austens or Charlotte Brontës, they wondered, had been buried by sexist beliefs about the limits of women’s genius? Quests to find lost figures crystallized after Virginia Woolf’s stirring 1929 “A Room of One’s Own,” and by the 1980s a staggering number of early female writers had been unearthed by second-wave feminist literary critics who enjoined us to read and evaluate them.

Some of these early novelists wrote for themselves or private audiences, but a surprisingly large number turned out to have published their work to a wider readership, only to have it forgotten. The task of recovering them is telegraphed in the title of Dale Spender’s “Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen” (1986). Austen’s genius remained a given, but the reality that many “good” predecessors had been sidelined by sexism was laid bare. Nevertheless, no other early works of fiction by women have yet been bumped up from “good” to “great.” Why?

Shouldn’t we have discovered more Austens and Brontës — or even another writer as singular as Mary Shelley — among these pioneering hundreds by now? A cynic might answer that we haven’t because there aren’t any others. To this way of thinking, three female geniuses (or five, maybe six, if we include every Brontë and George Eliot) survived because a meritocracy of authorship worked out perfectly.

Five myths about Jane Austen

A more optimistically patient person might answer that, even after all these years of feminist archaeology, we still haven’t looked hard enough. It may be that finding female fiction writers who’ve been absent from history for more than a century requires another century for collective recognition and rediscovery.

But perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the ways we’ve been looking are part of the problem. When we go in search of new Austens or Brontës, we’re imagining we’ll find novels that remind us positively of theirs. We claim we’re searching for something new, and equally original, but in effect we’re seeking out literary echoes, not wholly distinct virtuoso performances.

It’s the same way of reading that often leads today’s audiences of Austen-inspired film and television adaptations to experience deep frustration. The widespread critical contempt that greeted the recent Netflix “Persuasion” adaptation is a case in point, with many complaining that the film got the heroine wrong, instead of watching it on its own revised comic terms. The film disappointed Austen-aware viewers because it was deemed a bad copy — a mode of interpretation by no means limited to screen adaptations.

In fact, this turns out to be a very old problem. The dangers of copying Austen, and reading with Austen in mind, date back to the first years after she died in 1817. It’s a little-known fact, even among experts, that many other novelists began to imitate her almost immediately. One reviewer complained in 1828, in an essay in the Atlas titled “Novels: Plagiarisms From Miss Austen,” that fiction of the day was rife with unacknowledged pilfering from her “admirable mine for prudent plagiarism.” Not that you had to be all that clever back then to spot Austen copyists. Susan Ferrier’s novel “The Inheritance” (1824) begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there is no passion so deeply rooted in human nature as that of pride.” (This audacious sampling of “Pride and Prejudice” [1813] notwithstanding, Ferrier’s little-known novels rise to the level of good.)

Jane Austen-inspired books keep coming out. Some work better than others.

Some of Austen’s copyists were male. Another early imitator was American James Fenimore Cooper, of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826) fame. His first novel, “Precaution” (1820), combined Austen’s “Persuasion” (1818) with “Pride and Prejudice to craft the derivative story of a retrenching baronet’s three daughters and his prejudiced but well-meaning matchmaker wife, who lacks reasoning powers. After “Precaution” failed, Cooper wrote a novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott, which proved a commercial success.

If it’s easy to see these parallels, though, it’s partly because we’re so used to looking for Austen-ness or Brontë-ness. I’ve often been asked whether any of the other 18th- and 19th-century female writers I’ve read or taught were “as good as Jane Austen.” Reader, I have gotten so tired of this question. It has no good answers.

Whenever I replied “No,” I worried that I’d wronged a female writer who’d already been wrongly disregarded. Could this question ever be answered in the affirmative? Surely no author could out-Austen Jane Austen, any more than a contemporary writer could, say, out-Joyce James Joyce. For too long, we’ve used the few women who made the cut into the canon as our sole guides to seek out lost or undervalued voices. It’s time to try new methods and modes of reading.

One useful standard might be to look to the novelists who were imitated in their own days. We should, in other words, stop searching for undiscovered Austens and start looking for the women who shaped our literary present in their own ways, even if their contributions have been forgotten or suppressed.

Frances Burney’s best-selling “Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World” (1778), for example, is a comic coming-of-age story, told in letters, about the teen title character’s modesty and innocence under threat, thanks to her uncertain parentage. Some of its humor doesn’t hold up, including a cruel bet over a footrace between elderly women. But much of it does, especially its satiric sendups of consumerism and society manners. It prompted imitators who borrowed the names of her characters and reused her title words.

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Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda” (1801), too, is ripe for reevaluation, with its story of a young woman’s entrance onto the marriage market. It has gripping scenes and unusual dramas, including the prospect of a female duel. At the time, it attracted controversy for depicting the marriage of a working-class Black man and a White farmer’s daughter. Edgeworth, caving in to the criticism, edited out the Black character in subsequent editions. Readers today know it’s challenging to find past novels that share present sensibilities, but that’s partially because some novelists at the time struggled to write stories that mattered for resistant audiences. Edgeworth went on to become one of the most highly paid fiction writers of her generation and inspired copycats, especially of her Irish stories and moral tales.

Gothic-sensation novelist Ann Radcliffe, whose suspense-filled bestsellers of the 1790s launched the “explained supernatural,” in which everything that goes bump in the night is later debunked, deserves reconsideration. We may get bogged down by her long descriptions of the natural world, but these sections once functioned like fictionalized travel writing, meant to prompt a reader’s reverie. Her work was so often copied that she was said to have spawned a “Radcliffe School” of writers, pioneering a fictional formula that may now seem pat but was once groundbreaking — and deserves to be acknowledged as such.

My students, however, might vote to bring back early novelist Eliza Haywood, whose raucous, fascinating amatory fictions include “Fantomina” (1725), a novella about a young woman who disguises herself to repeatedly seduce the same unsuspecting man, and “Love in Excess” (1719-20), a bestseller about female desire and a reformed rake. Haywood’s work was widely reprinted and imitated, but she fared poorly with critics who believed that her books were dangerously corrupting. Her novels, written at a time when the genre was more episodic and less psychological, deserve a fresh read on their own terms.

Jane Porter, too, deserves a long look. Her best-selling sensation, “Thaddeus of Warsaw” (1803), describes the economic and romantic hardships and bigotry faced by a refugee-hero escaping war-torn Poland for England. Then “The Scottish Chiefs” (1810), a tale of William Wallace, secured her place as a major author of global fame. Her books were once widely acknowledged as having created a new species of writing, until the credit for inventing the modern historical novel was yanked away and given to Sir Walter Scott. His best-selling “Waverley” (1814) came to be called the first of its kind.

Scott never publicly credited Porter with having inspired him, although they were childhood friends. Jane and her sister, Anna Maria Porter (also a historical novelist), waited 15 years to publicly call out Scott for failing to give credit where it was due. It didn’t go well for them, with powerful supporters lining up behind Scott. Porter’s prose is sometimes dense and her moralizing sharp, but she deserves to be celebrated as the figure who made “Waverley” possible, as I argue in my new biography — the first book devoted to their lives and writings — “Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës.” The Porters effectively made a path for a whole lineage of historical novelists, up to and including the late Hilary Mantel.

Revisiting heavily imitated authors of centuries past absolutely won’t catch every deserving lost work or writer. It could, however, get us closer to a more expansive notion of what the category “classic” might have been — or could yet be. What’s evident is that Austen’s and the Brontës’ deserved literary triumphs have come at a cost. Our enduring love of them and their works may have inadvertently prevented other worthy female novelists from coming into better focus. We must look beyond these long-acknowledged greats if we ever hope to count more of them as brilliant.

Devoney Looser, foundation professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author of “The Making of Jane Austen” and “Sister Novelists.”

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