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 with 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, and 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—Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
Pictures from top: "Catherine reading": an illustration from Northanger Abbey.
Title Page from A Vindication of the Rights of Women