Female authors in British Literature

Biblio-file: Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
April 1, 2009

 

A stack of British literature
 
 

When Eliza Haywood's novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless was published in 1751, Haywood had won success as an author but was still something of a curiosity.  Known as part of the "Fair Triumvirate of Wit" with fellow professional authors Aphra Behn and Delarivier Manley, she was one of only a handful of popular female authors of her time.

By 1888, when Amy Levy published Reuben Sachs, a novel of the Jewish experience, the British literary land-scape was filled with women writing in virtually every genre, many as professionals. A recently acquired collection of 130 works of literature by British women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provides insight into not only the development of the novel, but also of new literary genres in general and the societal forces that gave rise to female authors in the Victorian era.

In addition to the Haywood and Levy novels mentioned above, the collection includes works by Mary Shelley, Sophia Lee, Elizabeth Linton, and Mary Braddon. Also included are a number of "silver fork" novels (a term coined to symbolize the frivolous consumption of the upper class) by writers such as Catherine Gore, which exemplify the moralistic tone of fiction set in Victorian high society.

Gothic romances, epistolary novels, and societal "problem" novels are also represented in the collection and attest to the role of female authors in developing the novel as a form.

The collection serves as a useful guide to book history. We now think of novels as single-volume publications, but in Victorian England, they were commonly published in multiple volumes. The popular "triple-decker," or three-volume format, allowed circulating libraries that charged patrons to borrow books to profit three times for one work. Some of the volumes in this collection still have the labels listing the costs and regulations of these commercial libraries.