[PDF Notes] Short notes on the rise of women novelists during eighteenth century

When we come to the early years of the eighteenth century, it is manifest that women were beginning to realize their aptitude for novel-writing.

One of the earliest Englishwomen to write fiction was Mrs. Aphra Behn, who had lived her early life in India, and later on at Antwerp, before she settled in England. Writing at a time when the old-fashioned romance was in favour, and the romance at its worst, she is noteworthy for the use she made of everyday facts and experience, thus anticipating the method of Defoe. But she had nothing of Defoe’s genius for actualizing her material, and could not escape the “high-faulting” style of the elder Romanticism.

But the fact that the Oronoco she made use of her acquaintance with Eastern races, and that in The Fair Jilt she paints a modern adventure distinctly Continental in type, is certainly to her credit. Her technique is imperfect and imitative. She has little idea of putting the woman’s point of view. Had she done this she would have stood on a far higher level, for she was a woman of intelligence. As it is, she follows in the wake of the male storyteller.

Immediate successors to Mrs. Behn, and contemporaries of Defoe, were Mrs. Manley with her New Mantis (1709), and Mrs. Haywood with her Utopian Memoirs. These two ladies were prolific writers, and Mrs. Haywood dealt largely with the short story.

The little trivialities that go to make up life were actualized by woman with a fineness which had escaped man’s more blundering touch, and which man could not hope to equal. His knows; might be more varied his experience wider, but certain complexities of existence, light and shade effects of character, women on the whole were far more suited to portray.

Miss Fielding:

Selecting an environment of adventure she showed in David Simple (1744) a gift of painting character greatly in excess of previous writers.

Later on we have a certain imaginative power shown by Frances Sheridan – mother of the dramatist in her Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761).

Then towards the close of the age come yet greater signs of promise of Mrs. Radcliffe, mention is made elsewhere. Her influence on her generation and on her successors is indubitable, despite her crudeness and absurdities.

The Robertson and School of Drama has been dubbed the “Cup-and-Saucer School”; the term is equally applicable to the fiction of Miss Burney and Miss Austen.

What helped women like Fanny Burney, and Maria Edge worth, Susan Ferrier, and above all Jane Austen, to realize the real extent on their powers and to give us the fruit of their own experiences of life, rather than imitations of the man’s point of view, was the change of manners that took place at the close of the eighteenth century.

The coarse brutality of Fielding and Smollett’s day gives way to an era when a greater refinement and a quieter taste of life became fashionable. This was clearly advantageous to the woman writer.

Hannah More (1745-1833) was the daughter of Gloucestershire schoolmaster, and the friend of Garrick, by whom she was introduced to the Johnson circle. Her single novel, Celestin Search of a Wife (1809), shows the satirical bent that was to find such lively expression in the feminine fiction of the near future. But Fanny Burney’s Evelyn is the first book of distinctive literary power in this direction.

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) came of a Norfolk family, being born at King’s Lynn, where her father was an organist. Her girlhood was spent in London, and from an early age she showed a passion for writing, greatly to the dismay of her stepmother, who thought such pursuits were unladylike.

Impressed, no doubt, by this unfavorable opinion, the sensitive story-teller solemnly burnt her first novel The History of Caroline Evelyn’s; but stories have a strange vitality of their own that defies material destruction, and it was not long before the history of Caroline becomes incarnate again in Evelyn, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, published anonymously.

The success of the book was instantaneous, and the author’s name soon leaked out. Fanny Burney found her famous, approved of by the great, gruff Doctor himself, and warmly praised by such men as Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The book is an admirable picture of the manners of the time, from the woman’s point of view. Of humor there is a pleasant spice, though it is subdued; of characterization there is singularly little; and there is next to no sentiment.

In fact, the book lives by its spirited and delicate externalization of the life of her age. Evelyn herself is not interesting; her conventionality and shy self-effacement make of her a colorless young woman, out some of the coarser-feminine types are excellently handled, and the pictures of the eighteenth-century “blood”, from the feminine standpoint, is undeniably effective.

The motif of the story, of a young lady of good family and slender fortune ignorant of ‘ world, trying to make her way in the London life of the time was perhaps suggested by a nova’ by Mrs. Frances Brooke, entitled the Excursion (1777).

Literary power early showed itself and her first work, when but fifteen, was a translation of Madame de Genlis’ Adele et Theodare, a collection of letters on education, later, she was called upon to assist her father in a book on Practical Education, his own large family of twenty-one children giving him ample scope for putting his theories to the test.

Maria Edge worth was also a prolific writer on educational matters, and published The Parent’s Assistant, in six volumes, in 1800; but her real power lay in the domain of fiction, and particularly in her delineation of Irish peasant characters.

Her first novel was written before she was twenty, though it did not appear till 1814, under the title of Patronage. In 1800 the famous Castle Rack-rent was published, and Belinda a year later. She also wrote a large number of tales for the young, some comic dramas published in 1817 and in 1820 the Memoirs of her father.

Maria Edge worth shows greater vivacity, and a more genial breadth than Fanny Burney, but less delicacy of touch, though her education theories, largely inspired by Thomas Day and by her father, hindered her as a literary artist. “It has been my daughter’s aim,” said Richard Lovell Edge worth, “to promote by all her writings, the progress of education from the cradle to the grave. An interesting and characteristic fact about Susan Ferrier is that she wrote only three novels: Marriage (1818), The Inheritance (1824), Destiny (1831). She was perfectly acquainted with her métier, and never attempted what was out of her line.

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