Wednesday, February 25, 2009
That D****d Mob of Scribbling Women
(Here’s another installment in the “Women’s Art is Women’s Work” series. In this section, Eberle discusses the community of women writers in the 18th & 19th centuries—so be sure to keep checking back for more installments.)
One way to know for sure what’s been important in the past is to look at what’s been left out of history. Women’s writing has had a curious tendency to get pushed out of sight, but the trail of ruffled feathers it has left behind can be traced across the centuries.
In 1855, a well-known male author complained to his publisher about the “damned mob of scribbling women,” as he referred to the American women writers of his day. Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t think highly of the best-sellers penned by women; however, his main worry was not about their literary quality, but about the way they might cut into the sales of his own books.
America is now wholly given over to a d****d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash--and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumberable editions of The Lamplighter and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1855)
For a long time, writing was largely an old boys’ club, created by limiting education to men and by establishing criteria that effectively excluded women, granting privileged status to the male perspective—a writer had to know Greek and read the classics, had to be able to “see life.” And “seeing life” was conveniently defined more along the lines of visiting prostitutes than being one, for example-- or giving birth or raising a garden or learning how to make elderberry wine. Mary Astell (1666-1731) was one of the first to make a plea for higher education for women in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of True and Greatest Interest (1696). It was published anonymously and proposed the foundation of an academic community for women. Although her idea attracted some enthusiastic support, men in positions of power opposed the idea.
However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a literary revolution began to threaten the dominant status of the educated and wealthy male author. Writers from outside that privileged sanctum were finding publishers and, what was worse, they were finding hordes of readers. Ever since women began penning novels, efforts have been made to write them out of history. Gallons of ink went toward the project of explaining just why it was that women couldn’t write anything worth reading. None of that verbiage, though, solved the most troubling problem with women writers: their success.
In spite of success, women writers could sometimes get annoyed at the constant belittling of their work. In Northanger Abbey (1818) Jane Austen lashed out unsparingly at criticisms of novels, most of which were being written by women:
Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.
Jane specifically describes writers and readers of novels as being women— holding up the works of Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney and their readers as examples. In contrast to these, Jane heaps scorn onto the work of “the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne,” commenting that the praise these men receive in contrast to women novelists is not always in proportion to their worth.
Jane makes a separation between the work of male and female authors and there is ample cause for this separation. Women, it has been noted, often seem to speak a different language than men. When women first became novelists they continued this tradition, speaking to each other in ways that men did not readily interpret. They wrote in a kind of code strewn with bustles and buttonhooks, where a bonnet could be a secret weapon and a scrub-brush give a heroine the courage to finally speak her mind.
The everyday mechanics of the household made up much of the material these women writers used to comment on the world around them. They wrote in this shared language, giving each other hints and help, analyzing society and behavior from this shared perspective. Many of the ways they spoke to each other were invisible to those unfamiliar with the intricate map of the domestic landscape. And so, dear reader, to find your way through scullery and armoire, the airing closet and the spring house, to become initiated into the secrets of pelisses and pariahs—read on.
Elderberry wine is particularly associated with spinsters—an association that is a remnant of the days when spinsters were not only making wine but herbal remedies and potions and sometimes credited with magic. In addition to wine, preparations of shoots, bark, and root of the elderberry tree were described in seventeenth century books on medicines. Also known as Lady Elder, the tree has ancient associations with magic. Elder wands were hung in doorways of houses and barns to drive away enchantment. Norse mythology tells of the Hyldemoer, or Elder Tree Mother-- the spirit who lives in the Elder tree, watches over it, and can take revenge if violence is done to the tree. Hawthorne and some of his colleagues wrote about witchcraft—but you can bet bustles to broomsticks they never learned how to make elderberry wine.
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009
Pix are all PD images from Wiki Commons; from top:
Title Page to A Serious Proposal to the Ladies
Title Page to the 1818 edition of Northanger Abbey & Persuasion
Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra Austen
An illustration by Lorenz Frølich from Hans Christian Andersen's story about the Hyldemoer