Magazine article The Spectator

'Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature', by Shelley DeWees - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature', by Shelley DeWees - Review

Article excerpt

When resurrecting forgotten writers of the past, make sure they're not neglected for good reason, says Philip Hensher

One of the most interesting developments in modern publishing has surely been the revival of interest in women writers of the past. Beginning with Virago Press, publishers have delved back and rediscovered exceptional female writers from the 17th century onwards. These have either been rescued from oblivion, or from the frequent fate of being dismissed as middle-brow and narrowly domestic. Editors and a new generation of scholars have unearthed excellent writers, from Fanny Burney to Elizabeth Taylor, and have changed literary taste forever.

The success of the enterprise probably means that it is now easier to find a new readership for a once-popular female author than for a largely forgotten male author. The first generation of literary archaeologists had a traditional and rather strict criterion of literary quality. Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, was very clear that there was a level beneath which those green-backed classics would not sink. Germaine Greer wrote an excellent and scrupulous book, Slip-shod Sibyls , arguing that many women poets of the past were actually very bad: they had no possibility of being otherwise.

Women writers may still need excavation, but it is crucial that critical judgment is preserved. The excellent work that Virago did -- along with underrated investigators of particular fields, such as Roger Lonsdale, who produced an astounding anthology of 18th-century women poets for OUP -- demonstrated what good writers these were. But if judgment is abandoned, we might reasonably question why we are being encouraged to read terrible writers on the basis of their sex alone.

Inquiring readers ought to be steered towards really good women writers. Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story is an exquisitely refined piece of work. Hardly anyone reads Hannah More. Susan Ferrier's three novels are a delight. Maria Edgeworth clings on by the skin of her teeth, but Castle Rackrent is quite a minor work compared to her longer novels. I don't understand why Charlotte Yonge has never been revived extensively (I simply adore The Daisy Chain ). Margaret Oliphant is dauntingly prolific, but splendidly inventive. Even very curious readers only get as far as the Chronicles of Carlingford and the ghost stories. Patient investigation by a writer with good judgment would probably unearth many more.

Shelley DeWees has written a book about the lives of 'seven amazing women writers who transformed British literature'. She ingenuously confesses that when she started out, she only really knew of five female British authors between 1800 and 1940: Jane Austen, two Brontës, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. (I suppose she had heard of a third Brontë, but still...). She investigated, and found that Elizabeth Gaskell had 'some fame in modern England, due to recent BBC adaptations', as well as some others. She decided to write a book about seven 'missing' women writers in the 18th and 19th century.

The justly neglected Charlotte Turner Smith

The trouble is that most of them are, quite manifestly, terrible. Why is one is being directed towards Mary Robinson instead of Elizabeth Inchbald, or Catherine Crowe rather than Ouida? Indeed why read any rubbish by justly forgotten women when Peacock and Surtees lie genuinely neglected? Pope's contemporary Eliza Haywood is quite an interesting writer in some ways, but it seems odd that she is now more read than The Dunciad .

The two genuinely enjoyable writers DeWees has hit upon are Dinah Craik and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Neither is particularly obscure or neglected. Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman was a popular favourite until quite recently, and was dramatised in the 1970s for BBC Sunday teatime TV. I quite like its moral fervour and insistence on self-improvement, but many now find its priggishness comical. …

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