Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

Some Facts on Women Literary History

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2.1Some Facts on Women Literary History

The female reference to literature and culture in general has been discrepant from the conditions of men. Schools, colleges and universities were open only for men, so women were actually excluded from the education system. Although women obtained less education than men, they still took part in literary culture once they learned to read and write. The first female attempts contain private writing, in particular letters and diaries. However, in the course of history, more men were educated than women and this condition created a severe sieve for women, which formed mainly male writers in the literary field. Throughout the previous centuries women writers appeared to be more and more important and their works have become firmly rooted in the literary world. Writers, such as Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, or Virginia Woolf remain perennial figures. In the twentieth century, many more women infiltrated into many genres and helped shape the prolific aspect of literature.

From the seventeenth century the literary field starts gaining a new writers and readers since people gradually move towards the modern world. Jane Austen becomes the first major female writer with a great talent, but even a century before this significant woman writer’s era, women, “in ever increasing numbers and with spectacular success, had been trying their hand at fiction” (Spender 16). As Spender further states, women writers come from different backgrounds, various regions, and with diverse ideas and predominantly start publishing by the end of the 1700s. Even though the exact number of the female and male novels cannot be presented precisely, women can “be granted a half-share in the production of fiction in the 1700s” (Stevenson 17). Women “tried to increase their chances of publication by pretending to be men” (Spender 18) and, therefore, the actual evidence of women writers fades into darkness. Another reason for the female literary contribution, which is partly hidden due to the female intentions and strains, is the fact that women “who did not write for a livelihood were mostly poets, and they often circulated their work in manuscript, rather than seeking publication” (Stevenson 35). There exist two groups of writers; one group writes because they desire to express themselves and do it for pleasure, the other writes for living. The first woman who is known to have published prose fiction in the hope of making money is Lady Mary Wroth, who lost her husband and suffered a severe financial crisis.

In the eighteenth century women writers mainly focus on courtship and a young heroine who is inexperienced and no more than twenty years old. The novels raise moral and social aspects of the community and it was Elizabeth Haywood who first introduces into English fiction “the familiar opposition of an aristocratic villain harassing a virtuous girl of lower social rank […] a fictional formula which was to have a long life before it, underlying as it does the plot of Jane Eyre and the whole tradition of female Gothic writing” (Stevenson 55). This shift of literary concern from the action towards the sentiment creates a major landmark in the history of English literature. An excellent example provides Jane Austen who concentrates more on her characters than the plot. All her novels possess a young heroine in the center “who by the last page of the novel is happily married to an entirely suitable man” (Stevenson 73). The heroines play innocent, modest and very decent girls whose reward is their happiness and husband. Austen represents a Christian writer and, therefore, all her heroines strive to restore the conservative and traditional values of society. Due to Austen’s writing methods, she is considered to be a representative of the female voice with all her feminine characteristics of heroines.

Since the time of Jane Austen, women writers have become genuinely significant. Austen launches into literature the focal issues of morality and social institutions, as mentioned above, and the social trend continues throughout the next century, although the nineteenth century is characterized by the Industrial Revolution which changes the structure of population living in the country who starts moving towards the bigger cities and also shifts from the agricultural labor to factories in the urban area. In Victorian fiction the historical novel begins to infiltrate into literature too. Another considerable approach introduced by two sisters, the Brontës, “struck a new note in English literature with the passion of their writing and the stark violence of their plots” (Stevenson 104). They describe in detail their experience using the heroines who express their feelings and are sexually active which sometimes seems to be too vulgar. The female protagonists are not only attractive and virtuous, but also dangerous and powerful women. Emily Brontë (1818-48) epitomizes a sort of feminist “who was one of the few people in history who actually lived according to the slogan of the American Revolution, ‘give me liberty or give me death’” (Stevenson 106), while other women writers and even her sister, Charlotte Brontë (1816-55), need some degree of dependency. The highest acclaim is now given to the novelist of the nineteenth century, George Eliot (1819-80), who wins recognition due to her personal affair sharing life with G. H. Lewes without marrying him. She slightly dislocates the main area of interest of female writers towards religious and philosophical issues since she is very well educated: “her didactic intentions, though expressed mostly through humdrum characters and undramatic incident, were central to her fiction” (Stevenson 110). In other words, Eliot reflects more social and intellectual English women in her texts, in contrast to the Brontës who form more passionate and intense female protagonists.

The modern era brings several advantages for literary development; better educational system, better access towards literary works, and definitely better social and cultural situation within society. The most profound female representative of the first half of the twentieth century becomes Virginia Woolf who is evidently known for her tragic and controversial life rather than her own fiction. She rejects the traditional society since she believes that it failed and, therefore, describes very complicated and difficult characters and their relationships which make her a playful writer. Woolf belongs to the first women writers of the twentieth century who “feel and express the urgent need for a woman writer to identify a woman’s tradition in writing” (Stevenson 138). She seeks for female literary figures in literary history which assigns her to her feminist position within society and literary world. From now on the list of women writers exceeds the growing number of authors who gain their position within the literary community and out of the many fundamental genres; crime fiction obtains its notably accurate spot in female literature.

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