Friday, March 20, 2009

"Sisterhood of the Pen"

(Hello all—I’m back. Sure did miss everyone while away; thanks for the nice wishes. Here’s another installment in Eberle’s Women’s Art is Women’s Work series. Hope you enjoy it; I may have another post up this afternoon as well)

Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)

Long before the internet came on the scene, women were creating virtual communities among themselves. Jane Austen includes fictional characters as well as authors and readers in the female community she sketches out in Northanger Abbey. Women who would probably never meet could connect wit
h each other both in and through literature. In reading the female-authored novels of the day, women had a body of opinions and narratives to discuss, and in reading novels written by women in the past, a specifically female history to explore. Women took novels so seriously that it was a literary commonplace to make fun of their inability to separate romance from reality—perhaps because the reality offered to them outside of fiction seemed at times so unreal and certainly lacking in the romance so vaguely promised to the womanly woman.

Women authors referred to fictional characters from other works in their novels, and also talked about sister authors being read by their fictional characters, as Louisa May Alcott does in this excerpt from Little Women:

“Here!” answered a husky voice from above, and, running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over the Heir of Redclyffe, wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo's favorite refuge, and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by and didn't mind her a particle.
Louisa May
Alcott, Little Women (1868)

One way to start recovering the lost trail of women authors is to trace these authors whom women embedded in their own writing. Charlotte M. Yonge (1823–1901) was the British author of the best-selling Heir of Redclyffe mentioned by Louisa in Little Women. Charlotte had a long and successful career as a novelist and she was also the editor of a magazine for young ladies for close to forty years. It was through Charlotte’s close friendship with another woman writer, Marianne Dyson, that she got the idea for the Heir of Redclyffe. Marianne showed her the notes to a story she had abandoned and offered the idea to Charlotte. It produced Charlotte’s first commercial success.

Without knowing that these women considered themselves part of a sisterhood, it’s easy to think of them as writing in isolation. But they were all reading each other, both in England and America. Jane Austen praised the works of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Maria was also one of Beatrix Potter’s favorite authors, and she admired the New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett as well. Elizabeth Gaskell had friendships and correspondence with Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, an
d Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning at the age of ten read A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, written by Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and its effect on her was life-long. Her husband Robert did not approve of novel reading or novel writing—what Elizabeth referred to as “women’s books.” Elizabeth describes these books, including works by George Sand, as having ministered to her through the prison bars of her isolation—“though in dear discreet England women oughtn't to confess to such reading,” she goes on to say.

Emily Dickinson read Emily Brontë's poetry and was so moved by it that she requested that Brontë's “No coward soul” be read at her own funeral. “No coward soul” was the last poem Brontë wrote before her own death in 1848.

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,

And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life—that in me has rest,
As I—Undying Life—have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;

So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,

And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Pictures from top: "Catherine reading": an illustration from Northanger Abbey.
Charlotte Yonge
Title Page from
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Emily Brontë


  1. Nice post. Glad you're back safe and sound! Hope all is well.

  2. Hi Willow: Thanks-- yes, everything's ok out this way-- but I do have oodles of reading to catch up on blog-wise over the weekend!

  3. wonderful post, I so enjoy eberle's series....

    thank you

  4. Suyperb post. Interesting all the way through.

  5. Welcome home, John. We missed you.

    Re Eberle's post: It sounds exactly like the internet, doesn't it? (except that the internet is faster....usually!)

    One question, though. Eberle, when you speak of the "literary commonplace to make fun of their inability..." etc., do you mean a commonplace within the commmunity of women writers? Self-mocking? Or do you mean mocking by male authors?

  6. Hi Willow, Mouse, and Dave,

    Thanks for your comments on the Sisterhood of the Pen—it’s really nice to know you enjoy reading these pieces. Something I’ve always liked about women’s literature (although I guess the same could be said about any marginalized group of authors) is being a reader-detective and following clues to discover authors that other women authors in the past thought were cool but who have now gone largely invisible. I first read Storm Jameson because she was mentioned in a detective novel by Dorothy Sayers, for example. As a younger woman I was outraged by the suppression of women’s writing; as an older woman, I still feel outrage, but I also recognize more nuances in the situation—like one of the benefits of women writers being less canonized than men is that it’s easier to interact with their works personally and immediately, unfiltered by cultural ideas of “greatness”; and that it’s fun to find one’s own way through the history of literature rather than a traditional or authorized way. Since the 90s I started focusing on women writers between the first two World Wars and hope to write some essays on them in the future. I never seem to catch up with the present, though, which troubles me sometimes. I made it all the way up to the 1950s briefly, including a re-discovery of Shirley Jackson and a quest to find and read all of her works (some are out of print); lately however, I’ve been distracted by ancient Sumerian texts including works specifically by women in 3,000 B.C.! Will I ever make it back? I don’t know. Thanks again for reading and being in touch!


  7. Hi Sandra thanks for writing--and that's a question whose answer could go on a long time. The two books I think I had in my mind about women's relationship to fiction were Northanger Abbey by Austen and The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox (also 18th century.) The heroines of both books take their notions of reality from works of fiction, specifically women's fiction, and I think this is seen as both a weakness and a strength-- a source of comedy but also of the heroine's ultimate triumph in both cases-- meaning they had the last laugh instead of the laugh being against them. I think in male literature the issue might be one that is used to simply mock women-- that wouldn't surprise me at all-- and in some cases where the authors are women this probably happened too-- but with Austen and Lennox I think the issue is much more complex, and certainly at least part of the heroines' over-identifying with women's literature is portrayed as positive. In fact, one day a number of years ago it struck me as quite pungent that Austen in Northanger Abbey, through the "foible" of her heroine is able to present a possibility that the father of a prestigious family is a perpertrator of domestic crimes against women,including murder-- an interesting light on the subject... Thanks again for reading and for your insightful question!

  8. Hi Kimy, Dave & Sandra:

    Yes, great to be back & am very much looking to catching up on everyone's posts over the weekend. For those who might be interested, it appears "The Female Quixote" is available as a free download here

  9. Thank you, Eberle and John. Don't you love free e-books?

  10. As a great Dickinson fan you've got me wanting to read Emily Bronte's poetry.
    Incidentally, the Bronte's Parsonage in Haworth is not far from here and I used to live just over the hill from it.

  11. Hi Dominic: Thanks for commenting-- & for following! Am looking forward to visiting your blog soon-- am a little behind on such things, as I've been away. Eberle knows Bronte's poetry much better than I do, & I believe she's going to write a comment later about that specifically.

    Very gratified by your interest in what we're doing here.


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