Women and the Eighteenth-Century Novel

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The eighteenth-century canon is still largely dominated by male writers but researchers have shown increasing interest since the 1980s in eighteenth-century women not only as readers but as writers. My students are often surprised to learn that freedom of speech as we enjoy it in the UK today did not exist in eighteenth-century England. Women were further marginalised by their often limited social freedom. While some women managed to escape social confines spectacularly and operate as ‘highwaymen’ or sailors, even soliders, they were rare and had to pass as male to do so.

Extract from lecture on Sensibility and the Eighteenth-Century Novel:

It is hardly surprising that many [women] turned to reading and indeed writing, and that these concerns [courtship and marriage] should be reflected and discussed in their fiction. Women did not generally have access to coffee house discussions of current events and were often excluded from the more interesting aspects of dinner conversation; Mary Hays’s Emma Courtney objects to having to withdraw to the drawing room, ‘Whither I was compelled, by a barbarous and odious custom, reluctantly to follow, and to submit to be entertained with a torrent of folly and impertinence'(II, ch 5, p.44), recognising that ‘That some of the gentlemen, present, should object to a woman’s exercising her discriminating powers, is not wonderful, since it might operate greatly to their disadvantage'(II, ch 5, p.41) – published in 1796. Fiction was an alternative forum to discuss socio-political and legal issues of interest.

Novels became increasingly popular among leisured women. Circulating libraries brought books within the province of most women who could read. The first such library began in Bath in 1725 but by the 1780s they were in all major towns.

Women novelists were popular and numerous but received no respect from the male dominated literary establishment. In our times, people warn of the dangers of TV but in the 18th century, people complained in much the same way that novels, particularly those written by women, were at best wasting their reader’s time on idle fantasies and at worst eroding the moral fibre of the nation.

You can read the full lecture text here.


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