Write down a list of ten great authors of world literature alive or dead.
Now consider the names on your list.
- How many are/were Italian?
- How many write/wrote in English?
- How many are/were African or Asian (or of African or Asian origin)?
- How many are/were women?
Compare your list to that of your friends. What reflections do your choices suggest?
So much of world literature focuses on romantic relations between men and women, yet until relatively recent times there were few women authors. We need only to glance at the contents of anthologies of literature to confirm the predominance of male writers and almost total absence of female authors until the 19th century. Writing was a luxury, the exclusive preserve of those (men) who had education as well as the wealth and leisure time to indulge in any form of literary composition. In most societies this reflects the disadvantaged social position of women. Until the 19th century most women did not have the education or the free time to write.
The voice says so much and so clearly about the question is the voice of Virginia Woolf, whose fascinating essay “A Room Of One’s Own” (1929) opens the discussion with these words:
“The title women and fiction might mean,[…] women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”
Woolf states very clearly that lack of money and independence have always obstructed women’s path in literature:
“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own.”
Woolf goes on to describe the frustrated ambitions, misadventures and tragic end of “Judith Shakespeare”, hypothetical talented sister of the famous poet and playwright who could not emerge in 17th-century England, where women were not even allowed to perform on stage.
Shakespeare, of course, has left us countless fascinating female characters, yet they are necessarily women facing the difficulties of living in a man’s world. Lady Macbeth is unquestionably a strong character, stronger and more determined than her husband, but as a woman she cannot commit murder herself and must act through her husband. Juliet fights for the right to love whom she wishes but will be destroyed by a paternally-governed society that refuses to give her this freedom. Portia, the female protagonist of The Merchant of Venice, plays a decisive role as a lawyer’s assistant and saves the life of Antonio, but can only do so by disguising herself as a young man, using the name Balthazar.
The same century, however, did bring two interesting female writers: Aphra Behn (1640-1689) author of the novel Oroonoko (1688) and of several plays, and the noble Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720). Finch’s anger at the impediments that men impose bursts out in her poetry:
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime.
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our utmost art and use.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the situation slowly begins to change for the better. Two names stand out:
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), whose pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first written document of the feminist movement, brought the question of women’s rights to public attention.
I then would fain[wish to] convince reasonable men of the importance of some of my remarks; and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the whole tenor of my observations. – I appeal to their understandings; and, as a fellow-creature, claim, in the name of my sex, some interest in their hearts. I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion, to make her a help meet [suitable] for them! Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens.
Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary (Wollstonecraft) Shelley (1797-1851), wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley but famous in her own right as the author of what many consider the first and greatest science-fiction novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818).
Other English women began writing successful novels in the early nineteenth century, including Jane Austen (1775-1817), highly praised for her studies of the social and psychological behaviour of her time in works like Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Successful though she was, Jane Austen still found it necessary to publish anonymously and to write in secret.
Like Austen, the Brontë sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily wrote at home and lived secluded lives with no more experience of life than what they could see as daughters of a respectable country clergyman. Like Austen, the three sisters hid their true identities. They published their works under male pseudonyms – Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell respectively. Despite all these limits they have left us such outstanding novels as Jane Eyre (1847, Charlotte) and Wuthering Heights (1848, Emily).
Another successful contemporary female novelist was George Eliot (1819-1880), author of works such as The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861). The name George Eliot hides the true identity of Mary Ann Evans, who used this pen name to distinguish herself from what American author Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as that “damned mob of scribbling women,” the female authors of popular romances.
The Victorian Age saw the long reign of a powerful queen, but did nothing at all to mitigate the unashamed misogyny and male chauvinism that still held women in check. The great Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson commented that the two great social questions impending in England were 'the education of the poor man before making him our master, and the higher education of women’. Yet verses in his poem The Princess (1847) offer a rather disappointing view of women’s condition:
Man for the field and woman for the hearth [focolaio domestico],
Man for the sword and for the needle [ago] she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey.
1861 saw the publication of a book which has no place in the history of literature, but which was (and still is) a best-selling text. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, written by Isabelle Beeton, a complete guide to running a home, is still being revised, updated and published today over 150 years after Mrs Beeton’s death. What is truly striking is the comment made by Isabelle’s husband Samuel Orchart Beeton, a foolish, incompetent man of no talent or merit whatsoever who grew rich on the profits from his wife’s manual:
“Generally speaking, it is injudicious for ladies to attempt arguing with gentlemen on political or financial topics. All the information that a woman can possibly acquire or remember on these subjects is so small in comparison with the knowledge of men...”
The highly popular comic operetta by Gilbert (librettist) and Sullivan (composer), The Mikado (first performed 1885) ironically includes female writers in the list of people who would not be missed if they were to be eliminated (beheaded!):
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don't think she'd be missed — I'm sure she'd not be missed!
The modern era brought changes to women’s place in the world. The Crimean War (1853-1856) brought a number of women out of their homes and into the battlefield with the establishment of the nursing profession under Florence Nightingale, but the First World War (1914-1918) was truly the moment in which all women were freed from their domestic confines, called upon to work in industry, transport and agriculture in the place of the men engaged in the conflict.
Society changed and writing changed too. Whilst women writers of the past had tended to focus on the experiences and insights of female characters, their domestic and social difficulties and settings, women now began to develop their own expression. Virginia Woolf wrote novels that made fiction into more than a description of characters and events. Both Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) present the lives of women protagonists as they experience the changes in life and times around them.
The 20th century and the new millennium have witnessed an acceleration in the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women in much (though not all) of the world, together with similar advances for a range of so-called minority groups. A curious reflection of the past, however, can be seen in the woman who is still the best-selling female author of our time: J.K. Rowling, multi-millionaire creator of Harry Potter, who was “advised” to publish using her initials J.K. rather than full name Joanne Kathleen since the market for fantasy books might be put off by a female name!
The names that we might list today are many and different, coming from all over the world, and seven of the winners of
the Nobel Prize for Literature in the last twenty years have been women. Women’s voices have rung out in protest all over the world, with Malala Yousafzai battling for the right to education for girls, with Hillary Clinton reminding the world that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” (1995 – the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women, Beijing, China), with Angela Merkel “reigning” for 16 years in Germany and the EU, and with the USA electing Kamala Harris as its first-ever woman as vice-President.
The great American novelist, editor and professor Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize, spoke out clearly in a speech to female students in 1979. Her speech, generally referred to as “Cinderella’s Stepsisters”, takes the question one step further, reminding women who have achieved power of their responsibility to help other women realise the potential and their ambition.
Literature as we see has come a long way like so many aspects of life and society and, we may now affirm, at least in western Europe and north America, is no longer “a man’s job”.