Exploring and appreciating women’s writing and literary history before 1900
There will not for many years be another decade like the 2010s for major anniversaries relating to women authors. 2017 alone sees the bicentenaries of Jane Austen’s death (July), and the publication of her last two novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (December); and on 1 January 2018, it will be 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The two hundredth birthdays of two of the Brontë sisters also fall during this decade – Charlotte’s was commemorated in 2016, and Emily’s is to come in 2018 – while George Eliot’s will be marked in 2019.
It might have been hoped that all the media attention focused on these iconic authors’ anniversaries would generate more interest than it has done in other women’s writing and literary history of the same, or even earlier, periods. If the Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë bicentenaries give any indication, however, their effect seems largely to have been to reinforce these authors’ exceptional status as canonical figures (however much merited). Only infrequently have their long shadows been lifted from a host of other, important literary women of the same and earlier periods, many of whom achieved at least equal fame in their lifetimes.
Neglected women writers of later periods have enjoyed a more visible and sustained renaissance in print and on the internet. Feminist publishing imprints such as Virago and Persephone have long championed ‘forgotten’ twentieth-century women writers (and in its earlier years, Virago also published works by pre-twentieth-century women). More recently, online and social media initiatives such as #Readwomen and Women In Translation Month on Twitter, and a plethora of podcasts, have expanded public awareness of a diverse range of women’s writing – though with authors from the twentieth-century and contemporary periods again tending to predominate.
Far from being dissatisfied with these projects, I’ve been delighted to find them lavishing so much attention on some of my own favourite twentieth-century authors. I’ve also loved discovering new modern and contemporary authors through others’ blogs and tweets. As a specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature in English, however, it seems to me that many women writers of pre-1900 periods still deserve to be better appreciated, beyond the mainly academic publications, conferences, and social media feeds where they tend to be discussed (with a scattered few, very recent exceptions).
I’ve set up this Twitter handle (@Fem_Scribblers) and hashtag #FemaleScribblers as an experimental space for the exploration and discussion of pre-twentieth-century women’s writing and literary history, for at least the 2017-18 period during which Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë will remain so prominent in both the academic and public domains. My intention is to draw together insights from recent and current scholarly research in different pre-1900 periods, alongside relevant items of news and informed comment from beyond academia, and links to primary texts. I hope to be able to include information on women’s writing in all genres – and from as many national and cultural backgrounds as possible (while Austen and the Brontës will by no means be left out).
And why #FemaleScribblers? Decades before Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous 1855 denunciation of the ‘scribbling women’ he feared were infesting the American literary marketplace, the English author M. G. Lewis wrote to Lady Charlotte Campbell in 1811 that he had ‘an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers’ – meaning women writers like his acquaintance Susan Ferrier, who hoped to publish a novel. ‘Scribbler’ still occasionally crops up with derogatory reference to journalists and non-‘literary’ authors of fiction in particular. The term has recently (if my online searches are anything to go by) been applied disproportionately to women writers, and so is perhaps ripe for the feminist reclamation which is already in progress – as it is increasingly being adopted as a badge of pride by individual women writers, and women’s writing groups.
#FemaleScribblers is not only intended to reclaim a misogynistic slur in the manner of #DerangedPoetess, however – though many historic women authors’ lives and writings do have striking relevance to current debates concerning women writers’ identities, purposes, and public visibility. ‘Scribblers’ also simply seemed appropriate to my main period of focus – that era before the pc, or (for the most part) the typewriter, when, whether or not an author intended to publish her work, she had to inscribe it physically – to scribble – in order to bring it into existence at all.
Do follow @Fem_Scribblers – or join the discussions using #FemaleScribblers.