Memorable Quotations: British Women Writers of the Past
I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over.
25 Women to Read Before You Die - Powell's Books
One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also. Sayers, Are Women Human? Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. They are clever liars to fathers and husbands; yet they never hold their tongues too long, nor keep ardent typing fingers still. She is one who is wise enough to know that it will attract the man she will gladly share it with. A writer is a foreign country.
Borderline personality disorder being an overwhelmingly gendered diagnosis. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention. The very idea is astonishing.
It's her own, it's uniquely hers. Not because she is a "female" but because she is, or was, Virginia Woolf. But then I suppose critics must have something to write about. As for female writers, they are first "feamle" and only then "writers". I don't remember. We talked so hard and sat so still that I got cramps in my knee.
We had too many cups of tea and then didn't want to leave the table to go to the bathroom because we didn't want to stop talking. You will think we talked of revolution but we didn't. Nor did we talk of our own souls. Nor of sewing. Nor of babies. Nor of departmental intrigue. It was political if by politics you mean the laboratory talk that characters in bad movies are perpetually trying to convey unsuccessfully when they Wrinkle Their Wee Brows and say valiantly--dutifully--after all, they didn't write it "But, Doctor, doesn't that violate Finagle's Constant?
It was professional talk. It left my grey-faced and with such concentration that I began to develop a headache.
We talked about Lady Murasaki, who wrote in a form that no respectable man would touch, Hroswit, a little name whose plays "may perhaps amuse myself," Miss Austen, who had no more expression in society than a firescreen or a poker. They did not all write letters, write memoirs, or go on the stage. Sappho--only an ambiguous, somewhat disagreeable name.
Women's Literature in the 19th Century: British Women Writers
As late as , there were a few hardy souls who continued to deny that women could write novels. Coventry Patmore conceded that "there certainly have been cases of women possessed of the properly masculine power of writing books, but these cases are all so truly and obviously exceptional, and must and ought always to remain so, that we may overlook them without the least prejudice to the soundness of our doctrine. In J. Ludlow glumly advised his readers, "We have to notice the fact that at this particular moment of the world's history the very best novels in several great countries happen to have been written by women.
Even those critics who disapproved of changes in the doctrine of the two sexual spheres were far from advocating women's retirement from the literary field. The new questions of women's place in literature proved endlessly fascinating, and the Victorians approached them with all the weight of their religious commitments and their interest in the sciences of human nature.
Although most periodical criticism, especially between and , employed a double standard for men's and women's writing and seemed shocked or chagrined by individual women's failures to conform to the stereotypes, a few critics, notably G. Lewes, George Eliot, and R. Hutton, were beginning to consider what women as a group might contribute to the art of the novel. Most of the negative criticism tried to justify the assumption that novels by women would be recognizably inferior to those by men.
When the Victorians thought of the woman writer, they immediately thought of the female body and its presumed afflictions and liabilities.
They did so, first, because the biological creativity of childbirth seemed to them directly to rival the aesthetic creativity of writing. The metaphors of childbirth familiarly invoked to describe the act of writing directed attention toward the possibility of real conflict between these analogous experiences.
In an review of Mrs. Browning, Gerald Massey wrote: "It is very doubtful if the highest and richest nature of woman can ever be unfolded in its home life and wedded relationships, and yet at the same time blossom and bear fruit in art or literature with a similar fulness. What we mean is, that there is so great a draft made upon women by other creative works, so as to make the chance very small that the general energy shall culminate in the greatest musician, for example. The nature of woman demands that to perfect it in life which must half-lame it for art. A mother's heart, at its richest, is not likely to get adequate expression in notes and bars, if it were only for the fact that she must be absorbed in other music.
Second, there was a strong belief that the female body was in itself an inferior instrument, small, weak, and, in Geraldine Jewsbury's words, "liable to collapses, eclipses, failures of power … unfitting her for the steady stream of ever-recurring work. They maintained that, like the "lower races," women had smaller and less efficient brains, less complex nerve development, and more susceptibility to certain diseases, than did men.
Any expenditure of mental energy by women would divert the supply of blood and phosphates from the reproductive system to the brain, leading to dysmenorrhea, "ovarian neuralgia," physical degeneracy, and sterility. Physicians estimated that "maternal functions diverted nearly 20 percent of women's vital energies from potential brain activity. Female intellectual distinction thus suggested not only a self-destructive imitation of a male skill but also a masculine physical development.
Elizabeth Barrett referred in a general way to this widespread association when she apostrophized her heroine, George Sand , as "thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man," but it was often used more snidely in allusions to George Eliot's "large hand" and "large eye"—metaphors of artistic mastery that invariably suggested to the Victorians large noses and large feet. The bizarre theories of the phrenologists and the quacks were reinforced by the expertise of scientists like James Macgrigor Allan, who stated dogmatically to his fellow anthropologists in that "in intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.
George Eliot wondered whether women's lack of originality might be attributable to her brain structure: "The voltaic-pile is not strong enough to produce crystallization. Although women writers often believed that they did labor under innate handicaps of mind and body, they nonetheless felt pressured to prove both their reliability and their physical endurance. What women must demonstrate, Eliot wrote, is the capability for "accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command.
In reviewing Harriet Martineau 's Autobiography in , for example, Mrs. Oliphant could not conceal her annoyance at Martineau's woeful claim that overwork had destroyed her health and would send her to an early grave.
Oliphant commented that "many a hard literary worker will smile at these tremendous prognostications. Even so, arguments from physiology retained sufficient force in to lead Virginia Woolf to ignore a century of three-deckers and suggest that women's physical weakness meant that they should write shorter books than men. Another explanation given in criticism for the inferiority of female literature was women's limited experience.
Vast preserves of masculine life—schools, universities, clubs, sports, businesses, government, and the army—were closed to women. Research and industry could not make up for these exclusions, and, as indicated in Fraser's, women writers were at a disadvantage: "A man's novel is generally a more finished production than a woman's; his education and experience give him a wider range of thought and a larger choice of character, and he usually groups his personages and incidents more artistically, and writes better English than his rivals.
Further, it required a complete set of emotions. Since the Victorians had defined women as angelic beings who could not feel passion, anger, ambition, or honor, they did not believe that women could express more than half of life. Dallas proclaimed it "evident that from that inexperience of life, which no amount of imagination, no force of sympathy, can ever compensate, women labour under serious disadvantages in attempting the novel. Denied participation in public life, women were forced to cultivate their feelings and to overvalue romance.
In the novels, emotion rushed in to fill the vacuum of experience, and critics found this intensity, this obsession with personal relationships, unrealistic and even oppressive. The chief fault of Julia Kavanagh's Daisy Burns, according to the Westminster, was the fatiguingly sustained high pitch of emotion that it shared with other novels by women: " Human nature is not so constituted as to be able to keep a never-failing fountain of tears always at work; deep passion and wild sorrow pass over us—whom do they spare?
Harriet Martineau , George Eliot, Mrs. Oliphant, and Florence Nightingale also criticized the overemphasis on love and passion in feminine fiction, but they understood that lack of education, isolation, and boredom had distorted women's values and channeled creative energy into romantic fantasy and emotional self-dramatization. The simplistic psychology and naive religious optimism characteristic of some feminine writing reflected a female subculture in which confirmation in the church was often the most dramatic external event between the schoolroom and marriage; church-organized charity work, the only activity outside the home; and piety, the speciality of women and children.
Reviewers deplored the immaturity of the fiction but could not bring themselves to do away with or expand the role. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins parodied the Puseyite fanaticism of Charlotte Yonge's Heir of Redclyffe in Household Words ; even Guy's death scene they found "marred or made obscured, either by the writer's want of experience of human nature, or utter uncompatability of abstraction from one narrow circle of ideas.
Greg, although he abhorred the "false morality of lady novelists," their faith in the expedience of self-sacrifice and in the workings of providence, could not see how women's ethical horizons could be much expanded: "If the writer be a young lady, whole spheres of observation, whole branches of character and conduct, are almost inevitably closed to her. While it was theoretically possible for women novelists to write about female physical experience, including childbirth and maternal psychology, they faced many obstacles to self-expression in their own sphere.
Victorian women were taught to keep these experiences to themselves, to record them in very private diaries such as Mrs. Gaskell's diary about her first child, Marianne , or to share them in intimate friendships with one or two other women. There were strong taboos against sharing them with men.
Was there ever a “Female Gothic”?
As one historian explains: "From early childhood, girls … were taught self-effacement and modesty, were encouraged to feel shame about their bodies, and were advised to try to 'hide' the natural conditions of menstruation and pregnancy. The single woman of the middle-class was forced to deceit if she was to taste any of the freedom of knowledge given her brothers.
The married woman of the class was constantly told not to trouble her husband with her own petty problems, to bear the pain of illness in silence, and to prevent knowledge of all indelicate matters from reaching 'innocent' ears. Victorian critics agreed that if women were going to write at all they should write novels. Yet this assessment, too, denigrated and resisted feminine achievement. Theories of female aptitude for the novel tended to be patronizing, if not downright insulting. The least difficult, least demanding response to the superior woman novelist was to see the novel as an instrument that transformed feminine weaknesses into narrative strengths.
Women were obsessed by sentiment and romance; well, these were the staples of fiction. Women had a natural taste for the trivial; they were sharp-eyed observers of the social scene; they enjoyed getting involved in other people's affairs. All these alleged female traits, it was supposed, would find a happy outlet in the novel.
Dallas, "have a talent for personal discourse and familiar narrative, which, when properly controlled, is a great gift, although too frequently it degenerates into a social nuisance. To critics who sentimentalized and trivialized women's interest in psychological motivation, the novel was the inevitable crystallization of femininity. The spectacle of J. Ludlow, straining to explain away Mrs.