Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era


"It might not have been the revolution that Mary Wollstonecraft called for in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but the Romantic era did witness a dramatic change in women's lives. Combining literary and cultural history, this illustrated volume brings back to life a remarkable, though frequently overlooked, group of women who transformed British culture and inspired new ways of understanding feminine roles and female sexuality. Now-obscure female astronomers, photographers, sculptors, and mathematicians share these pages with celebrated writers such as Mary Shelley; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft; and Mary Robinson, who in addition to being a novelist and actress was also the mistress of the Prince of Wales. This book also makes full use of The New York Public Library's extensive collections, including graphic works and caricatures from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, manuscripts, hand-colored illustrations, broadsides, drawings, oil paintings, notebooks, albums, and early photographs. These images depict these women, their works, and their social and domestic worlds."


Lyndall Gordon

Who were the women in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds who set themselves apart from social expectations? Before Victoria, drawing primarily on the New York Public Library's great Pforzheimer Collection, opens up the lives of an array of women who turned away from the beaten track during the fifty years before the rise of “the Woman Question,” the more familiar movement that took off during Victoria's reign.

In 1787, two years before the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was a restless governess, reading Rousseau in an Irish castle and collecting matter for her first novel, Mary (1788). “The soul of the author” was to animate “the hidden springs” of a new kind of being called by her own name: “in a fiction, such a being may be allowed to exist;… not subjugated to opinion; but drawn by the individual from the original source.”

Later that year she took the novel to London, determined to shed the limited occupations open to women. She meant to find a new plot of existence for her sex. “I am … going to be the first of a new genus,” she confided to her sister Everina. “I am not born to tread in the beaten track - the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.” When “Mary” in the novel rejects the practice of “giving” a bride in marriage, the author herself was germinating the new character who found fruition in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Every phase of her life was an experiment: the school she set up in her twenties, her years in France during the Terror, her travels to Scandinavia, and her unconventional union with William Godwin, the foremost radical philosopher of the day. As we trace her experiments, above all “that most fruitful experiment,” her relation with Godwin, we see everywhere a single purpose: to center the affections as a counter to the twin predators of violence and commerce.

Her one-time pupil Margaret King Moore, Lady Mount Cashell also broke with women's traditions. in 1806 she abandoned her aristocratic life and disguised herself as a man in order to attend medical lectures at the University of Jena. She went on to practice medicine in Pisa (in the respectable guise of helping the poor), rejecting harsh and hopeless interventions as well as lucrative drugs, in favor of gentler cures, particularly with children, and better use of the body's own curative powers. Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft's daughter, earned her living as a writer, most famously as author of Frankenstein. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, played the overture to Rossini's new opera Cenerentola, and her voice, trained to performer's standard, thrilled their Pisa circle in one of Shelley's greatest poems, “To Constantia, Singing.” After Shelley's death, Clairmont supported herself as a governess in what she called “my ice cave” - Russia - where she developed . . .

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