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  • The 17th century
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Early 19th-century literature

The 19th century

After the American Revolution , and increasingly after the War of 1812 , American writers were exhorted to produce a literature that was truly native. As if in response, four authors of very respectable stature appeared. William Cullen Bryant , Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe initiated a great half century of literary development.

Bryant, a New Englander by birth, attracted attention in his 23rd year when the first version of his poem “Thanatopsis” (1817) appeared. This, as well as some later poems, was written under the influence of English 18th-century poets. Still later, however, under the influence of Wordsworth and other Romantics , he wrote nature lyrics that vividly represented the New England scene. Turning to journalism, he had a long career as a fighting liberal editor of The Evening Post . He himself was overshadowed, in renown at least, by a native-born New Yorker, Washington Irving .

Washington Irving

Irving, the youngest member of a prosperous merchant family, joined with ebullient young men of the town in producing the Salmagundi papers (1807–08), which satirized the foibles of Manhattan’s citizenry. This was followed by A History of New York (1809), by “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” a burlesque history that mocked pedantic scholarship and sniped at the old Dutch families. Irving’s models in these works were obviously Neoclassical English satirists, from whom he had learned to write in a polished, bright style. Later, having met Sir Walter Scott and having become acquainted with imaginative German literature , he introduced a new Romantic note in The Sketch Book (1819–20), Bracebridge Hall (1822), and other works. He was the first American writer to win the ungrudging (if somewhat surprised) respect of British critics.

James Fenimore Cooper won even wider fame. Following the pattern of Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels, he did his best work in the “Leatherstocking” tales (1823–41), a five-volume series celebrating the career of a great frontiersman named Natty Bumppo . His skill in weaving history into inventive plots and in characterizing his compatriots brought him acclaim not only in America and England but on the continent of Europe as well.

Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass

Edgar Allan Poe , reared in the South, lived and worked as an author and editor in Baltimore, Philadelphia , Richmond, and New York City . His work was shaped largely by analytical skill that showed clearly in his role as an editor: time after time he gauged the taste of readers so accurately that circulation figures of magazines under his direction soared impressively. It showed itself in his critical essays, wherein he lucidly explained and logically applied his criteria . His gothic tales of terror were written in accordance with his findings when he studied the most popular magazines of the day. His masterpieces of terror—“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), and others—were written according to a carefully worked out psychological method. So were his detective stories , such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), which historians credited as the first of the genre . As a poet, he achieved fame with “The Raven” (1845). His work, especially his critical writings and carefully crafted poems, had perhaps a greater influence in France, where they were translated by Charles Baudelaire , than in his own country.

Two Southern novelists were also outstanding in the earlier part of the century: John Pendleton Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms . In Swallow Barn (1832), Kennedy wrote delightfully of life on the plantations. Simms’s forte was the writing of historical novels like those of Scott and Cooper, which treated the history of the frontier and his native South Carolina . The Yemassee (1835) and Revolutionary romances show him at his best.


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19th Century British Literature

The nineteenth century, like no other single century before or since, was for the inhabitants of the British Isles an era of change. The general population would nearly triple while some twenty million Britons--driven by desire and, in many cases, desperation--emigrated to destinations across the globe.  A vast internal migration at the same time turned villages and towns into large cities and made London the world’s most populous urban center. And while various scientific enterprises disclosed the need to gauge the earth’s history by factors of tens of millions of years, the rise of electrified, steam-powered systems for transport and communication were said to annihilate barriers of space and time. The size of the planet, many observed, seemed to shrink even as astronomers and physicists began to imagine an expanding universe of infinite scope. 

These transformations were only the backdrop for further social change born in class conflict and various demands for equality before the law. As industrialization in general accelerated forms of material production, writers expressed their creativity in experimental, innovative literary forms. Narratives of self-invention achieved prominence while tradition was mined in an effort to adjust to the disorienting advent of modernity.  Popular genres—notably the domestic novel and a new colloquial poetry of everyday life—would gain influence and prestige. But democratic and demotic literary manifestations would also be echoed and betrayed by authoritarian and hieratic notions of cultural authority.

In our teaching and research in Romanticism, we consider how the national epic and the romance tradition (as part of an alternative “classicism” as well as an interest in pre-modern England) are revised, and revived, often with proto-psychoanalytic and politically hegemonic undercurrents. In studies of the novel, as the century progresses, we are interested in the widening of readership and reading communities within an expanding public for the consumption of print media of all kinds.  Other areas of emphasis include novel theory, Victorian material culture, book history (Who reads what and why? Who prevents whom from reading what and why?), the literary consequences of growing religious liberty, and the increasing dialogue between assertions of aesthetic value and notions of national or personal vitality.

Faculty Experts

Guinn Batten

William McKelvy


19th-Century Russian Literature

At the beginning of the 19th century much of Western Europe viewed Russia as hopelessly backward–even Medieval. It was considered more a part of Asia than an outpost of European thought. During the first half of the century, indeed, peasants (called “serfs”) were still treated as the property of their feudal masters and could be bought and sold, though they had a few more rights than slaves. Russian serfs gained their freedom only in 1861, two years before the American Emancipation Proclamation.

However, the nobility of Russia had looked to the West for ideals and fashions since the early 18th Century, when Peter the Great had instituted a series of reforms aimed at modernizing the country. Russian aristocrats traveled extensively in Western Europe and adopted French as the language of polite discourse. They read French and English literature and philosophy, followed Western fashions, and generally considered themselves a part of modern Europe.

St. Petersburg was created the new capital of Russia in 1721, and remained the most Westernized of Russian cities. Indeed, Dostoyevsky was to consider it an alien presence in the land, spiritually vacuous compared to the old Russian capital of Moscow.

The German-born czarina Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, corresponded with Voltaire and fancied herself an Enlightenment monarch; but her plans for liberal reforms came to nothing, and she became better known as vainglorious autocrat.

Despite the general backwardness of Russian society, its openness to the West (briefly interrupted by Napoleon’s 1812 invasion) had profound influences on its literature throughout the 19th Century. The first great national author of Russia, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)–despite his celebration of Russian history and folklore–was profoundly influenced by such English writers as Shakespeare, Byron and Scott. Although he plays a role in Russian literature comparable to that of Goethe in Germany or even Shakespeare in England, his works were little known abroad during his lifetime.

It was Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)–who lived and wrote for many years in Europe and was profoundly Western in his outlook–that first brought Russian literature to the attention of European readers, but at the cost of often being considered an alien in his own land.

It was the twin giants Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose work exploded out of Russia in the 1870s to overwhelm Europeans with their imaginative and emotional power. To many readers it must have seemed as if this distant, obscure country had suddenly leaped to the forefront of contemporary letters. Both were profoundly influenced both by European Romanticism and Realism, but their fiction offered characters more complex and impassioned than those Europeans were used to.

Tolstoy is known chiefly for his two masterpieces, War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877). These works which wrestle with life’s most profound questions earned Tolstoy the reputation of perhaps the world’s greatest novelist. The first is a vast portrait of Russia during the period of the Napoleonic wars, and the second the story of a tormented adulterous woman treated far more seriously than Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Like the English Victorian novelists, Tolstoy sought to do more than entertain or even move his readers, taking the writing of fiction seriously as a moral enterprise. In the end Tolstoy became a Christian utopian, abandoning fiction altogether.

Dostoyevsky is famous for his complex analyses of the human mind. Unlike Turgenev or Tolstoy, he pays little attention to details of setting or the personal appearance of his characters, instead concentrating on their thoughts and emotions. His work and that of Tolstoy revealed to Europeans that modern fiction could serve ends far more sophisticated than it had in the hands of Zola or even Flaubert.

Dostoyevsky had a sensational life which is variously reflected in his fiction. He believed his father to have been murdered by his own serfs, a belief which led him to be obsessed with murder as a subject in many of his greatest works, such as Crime and Punishment (1866)and The Brothers Karamazov (1881). After being arrested for his involvement in a radical group (the model for The Possessed ) he was abruptly notified that he was about to be shot, but was spared at the last minute and sent to Siberia for ten years. He often described the traumatic effect which this mock-execution had on him in his fiction, and devoted another novel ( The House of the Dead ) to the story of his time in prison.

While there, he developed epilepsy, and later made epileptic seizures one of the chief characteristics of the Christ-figure Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. He also analyzed his addiction to gambling in The Gambler. The fervent Christianity and anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment attitudes of his later years color much of his writing, and underlie the influential long story “Notes from Underground.”

Some Western readers, notably the very restrained American novelist Henry James, found Dostoyevsky’s fiction exaggerated. The combination of traditional Russian effusiveness with Dostoyevsky’s truly sensational life made for sensational writing. But it is important to note that though his characters always seem to be undergoing some sort of torment, he creates the extreme situations and emotions in his novels not out of mere sensationalism, but to plumb the depths of human experience.

Of the other Russian writers of the 19th Century, the only other one to make much of an impression abroad was Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), whose short stories and plays used Realism in a much more understated way. His four great plays written just before and after the turn of the century– The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, along with the Realist masterworks of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen–helped to rescue the theater from the dismal state into which it had plunged after the time of the German Romantics. The theatrical genius of the 19th century seems to have gone into opera rather than stage plays; few of the plays written between Schiller and Chekhov are remembered or performed today, but his works are seldom absent from the stage for long.

Chekhov’s works are often seen as the last echo of a fading tradition before Stalinism made “socialist realism” into a suffocating orthodoxy. Under Communism, Tolstoy was regarded a great national writer despite his mystical leanings because of his sympathies with the peasants and utopian idealism; but Dostoyevsky was out of favor during much of the Stalinist period because he was an outspoken foe of socialism and fervent Christian. Yet abroad, his reputation continued to grow. He was seen as a prophet of the evils which followed in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, as a psychologist who anticipated many of the most striking discoveries of Sigmund Freud, and as a welcome challenger to the pervasive celebration of modernity so characteristic of the period 1850-1960. Despite his anti-modernism, Dostoyevsky still speaks directly to many readers in ways that most of his contemporaries do not. In post-Communist Russia he is again celebrated as a national treasure, just as he is revered as a classic abroad.

More Study Guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Created by Paul Brians March 22, 1998.

45 Novels Written In the 19th Century That Deserve a Place on the Modern Bookshelf

When discussing novels to read, there’s always a focus on the new and the upcoming. New is always exciting, the idea that you’re going to encounter something you’ve never seen before. But if you haven’t read older books, they’re new to you, which is more or less the same thing—and when it comes to novels, new is certainly not always better. The fifty books on this list were all published more than a hundred years ago, and yet remain fresh and exhilarating reads. There’s a temptation, of course, to mutter the names Dickens, Tolstoy, and Twain and assume you’ve covered the 19th century—but a deeper dive proves the novel was alive and well in the 1800s.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $6.95

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Mark Twain , Robert G. OMeally

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , by Mark Twain You really can’t discuss 19th-century American literature without discussion of Twain and his two most enduring works. Still controversial more than a century after publication, both novels remain hilarious examples of Americana while carrying potent social commentary, especially concerning race in America—commentary that is still, sadly, applicable. Twain’s skill in couching serious criticisms of the world he lived in within an entertaining and engrossing adventure remains unparalleled in American literature.

The Last of the Mohicans (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Last of the Mohicans (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $9.95

James Fenimore Cooper , Stephen Railton

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The Last of the Mohicans , by James Fenimore Cooper Considering how much Twain disliked Cooper’s writing (devoting an entire essay to the subject of Cooper’s “offenses”), it’s fitting to follow Twain on this list with The Last of the Mohicans , chronologically a sequel to Cooper’s  The Deerslayer . Often cited as the first truly successful American novel, set during the French and Indian War, it continues the story of Natty Bumppo’s adventures and is often seen as an allegory for the rise of America itself, as both a country and a symbol.

Little Women (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Little Women (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $7.99 $8.95

Louisa May Alcott , Camille Cauti

Little Women , by Louisa May Alcott It seems strange today, but the concept of “childhood” as a separate and distinct period of life is pretty recent. Of course, the odds of surviving childhood have greatly improved fairly recently, too, so it’s not entirely surprising. Alcott’s Little Women is one of the earliest books to have all the features of young adult fiction: a focus on youthful characters and their struggles, a story that presents an idyllic starting point that becomes complicated by adult concerns, and a realistic approach to the concerns of youth. It’s easy to see the seeds of the genre in this wonderful book.

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

Paperback $14.00

Frank Norris , Kevin Starr

McTeague , by Frank Norris It’s usually Norris’s later novel The Octopus that people are familiar with, but his debut is the more satisfying read. It’s a grim story of a romance soured by financial pressures and dreams deferred, descending rather alarmingly into insanity and murder. It’s an evergreen story; anyone who has ever bickered over money with a loved one will see themselves in it.

The Scarlet Letter (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Scarlet Letter (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Nathaniel Hawthorne , Nancy Stade

The Scarlet Letter , by Nathaniel Hawthorne One of the most complex novels ever written, dealing subtly with issues of sin, justice, shame, and religion, this is one of those novels that many people encounter first in school. The tragic and thoughtful story of a 17th-century New England woman named Hester Prynne who is sentenced to wear a red letter “A” after being convicted of adultery, it uses its seemingly obvious symbolism to incredible effect, exploring life in America in ways that applied to both the 19th century when it was published as well as today.

The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Short Fiction (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Short Fiction (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $7.95

Stephen Crane , Richard Fusco

The Red Badge of Courage , by Stephen Crane Many books have explored the true terror and dread of combat, but one of the first and most powerful to subvert the cliché of glorious warfare is Crane’s 1895 masterwork. What makes it so interesting is it explores the subject without succumbing to the temptation to become an anti-war screed, presenting the protagonist, Henry, as a young man who dreamed of glory but finds his first experience in combat to be terrifying. After fleeing the battlefield, he returns to his regiment seeking the “Red Badge of Courage”—that is, a wound—and behaves more bravely, only to discover his whole unit is considered expendable. Crane manages to make Henry’s inner struggle a noble one without undercutting the inhumanity of warfare.

Pride and Prejudice (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Pride and Prejudice (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Jane Austen , Carol Howard

Pride and Prejudice , by Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice remains so powerful a template for romance fiction that it’s still used as the inspiration for new novels, films, and more to this day. The tale of vivacious Elizabeth Bennet and her unwitting ensnaring of proud, rich Mr. Darcy has launched a million first-date conversations, and contains multiple speeches and lines of dialogue worth memorizing. You could (and people have) rewrite this book today with modern slang and language and sell millions of copies.

The Portrait of a Lady (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Portrait of a Lady (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $11.95

Henry James , Gabriel Brownstein

The Portrait of a Lady , by Henry James The essential irony of a young woman who revels in her independence losing that freedom because she inherits great wealth drives this classic novel. That Isabel Archer faces the consequences of her decisions even though they take her further and further away from her desires makes her one of the most interesting characters in American literature.

Moby-Dick (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Moby-Dick (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Herman Melville , Carl F. Hovde

Moby-Dick , by Herman Melville Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

Paperback $8.00

Henry James , David Bromwich

The Turn of the Screw , by Henry James More than a century after its initial publication, no one totally agrees on what actually happens in this brilliant short novel. A young governess is hired to care for two children on an isolated estate, ordered by their uncle not to bother him in any way. She comes to have great affection for the children, especially young Miles, who has been mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. She begins to see two mysterious figures, a man and a woman, and learns that her predecessor and another employee were lovers and are both now dead; she becomes disturbed because no one else seems to notice the pair. Here we are a hundred years later and no one is entirely certain whether this is a ghost story, the story of a woman going insane—or both.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Lewis Carroll , Tan Lin , John Tenniel

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , by Lewis Carroll Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical story of a young girl falling down a rabbit hole and entering the strange, perilous world of Wonderland is so influential, so commonly referenced, reimagined, and reinterpreted, it transcends time. It might have been written yesterday as easily as 1865, and its clever wordplay and Carroll’s loose view of the rules of logic and language guarantee it will remain a fixture on bookstore shelves for a very long time to come.

Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous

Paperback $4.99

Rudyard Kipling

Captains Courageous , by Rudyard Kipling Kipling’s 1897 novel is the story of a spoiled rich American teenager named Harvey who is washed overboard in a storm and rescued by a fishing boat. The crew doesn’t believe his stories of wealth, but the Captain takes him on as a crew member. Harvey slowly accepts his fate and becomes a valuable member of the crew until they finally put into port and he contacts his parents. Celebrated as a testimonial to the American spirit, the book remains thrilling to anyone who has ever sat in a boring lecture or meeting and wished fate would intervene with a dose of adventure.

David Copperfield (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

David Copperfield (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $13.95

Charles Dickens , Radhika Jones

David Copperfield , by Charles Dickens Speaking of Dickens and his dominance of the 19th century book-writing business, David Copperfield may well be his most beloved novel (it’s certainly one of his most adapted). Originally serialized, the story of the titular character’s life is largely autobiographical. Not many writers get the chance to fictionalize their own lives in such grand style, and no other Dickens novel exemplifies his wordy, fluid style like this one.

Dracula (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Dracula (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Bram Stoker , Brooke Allen

Dracula , by Bram Stoker Stoker’s classic novel has been filmed so many times, it’s possible some don’t realize there’s a source novel. Stoker’s genius is using a series of diary entries and letters (plus a few newspaper clippings filling in background material) to limit the awareness of his characters, ratcheting up tension as the reader realizes they know more than the people they’re reading about. The result is an air of claustrophobic, gothic horror that has kept us reading for centuries.

Jane Austen: Seven Novels (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions)

Jane Austen: Seven Novels (Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions)

Hardcover $20.00

Jane Austen

Emma , by Jane Austen Featuring one of literature’s great characters in the self-satisfied, well-intentioned, misguided Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s 1815 novel continues to be repurposed in the modern age (it was the basis for the film Clueless , after all) owing to its timeless themes of class, romance, and self-awareness. These evergreen concepts converge on the story of a wealthy young woman who fancies she is an expert matchmaker based on little more than her own high opinion of herself. The hilarious mess she makes as she pursues her newfound avocation is as entertaining and perceptive today as it was back then; we all know at least one Emma.

Far From the Madding Crowd (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Far From the Madding Crowd (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Thomas Hardy , Jonathan A. Cook

Far from the Madding Crowd , by Thomas Hardy Hardy’s best-known novel tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba when he is well-off, but she rejects his proposal because she values her independence. As their fortunes wax and wane, Gabriel and Bathsheba remain in each other’s lives, dealing with tragedies and mysteries, more or less until Bathsheba has been through enough turmoil to realize that Gabriel is her only true love. Along the way you get to enjoy some of the finest writing the English language has ever produced.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Paperback $5.95

Edwin A. Abbott , Lori M. Campbell

Flatland , by Edwin Abbott Somehow, impossibly, combining social commentary with serious mathematics, Flatland is one of the least-read books everyone should read. It’s set in a two-dimensional world where every character is a geometric shape and the main character is a square (named, yes, A Square) who has a vision of a one-dimensional world inhabited by points on a line, and who then is visited by A Sphere, a visitor from three-dimensional space. It’s a lot of fun, and manages to be very sneaky as it educates you about dimensions and social structures.

Great Expectations (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Great Expectations (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $8.95

Great Expectations , by Charles Dickens The story of the orphan Pip as he makes his way through his life, from a childhood being brought up “by hand” by his harsh sister and gentle, loving brother-in-law, through his callow young adulthood, covers every aspect of our existence, dealing in universal themes including misplaced gratitude, unrequited love, and regret. It doesn’t hurt that it contains some of Dickens’ best-known characters, including the tragic Miss Havisham, who perpetually wears her rotting wedding dress after being jilted at the altar.

Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Joseph Conrad , A. Michael Matin

Heart of Darkness , by Joseph Conrad Conrad’s exploration of what it means to be “civilized” unfolds as one of literature’s most iconic plots, the search for the enigmatic and ultimately insane Captain Kurtz in the Free State of Congo (adapted in nightmarish fashion in the film Apocalypse Now ). Examining how supposedly civilized Western forces turned the Congo into a nightmare, Conrad’s story remains horrifying and compelling to the modern reader, and continues to be recycled and to inspire new works that seek to illuminate similar themes.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau

H. G. Wells , Peter Straub

The Island of Doctor Moreau , by H.G. Wells More than a century after its publication, Wells’ classic novel retains its power to horrify—a power that only increases as medicine advances. The question of whether or not we should do some of the things medical science is now capable of—or will shortly be capable of—will never be an easy one to answer. While Moreau’s insane experiments on animal/human hybrids may be a bit far-fetched no matter how far genetic science advances, the story demonstrates in horrific fashion just how much suffering awaits us if we ever decide that things like ethics and morals are holding back our ability to control the most fundamental aspects of biology.

Ivanhoe (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Ivanhoe (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Sir Walter Scott , Gillen D'Arcy Wood , Gillen DArcy Wood

Ivanhoe , by Walter Scott One of the first true examples of a historical novel,  Ivanhoe is set in the 12th century and focuses on one of the few Saxon noble families still intact after the Norman Conquest. Wilfred of Ivanhoe supports King Richard and is disinherited for his trouble, joining the king on the crusades. The story includes jousts, kidnappings, and plain old-fashioned adventure, and was thrillingly unlike anything that had come before it.

Jane Eyre (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Jane Eyre (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Charlotte Bronte , Susan Ostrov Weisser

Jane Eyre , by Charlotte Brontë This revolutionary novel is in part responsible for our modern concept of storytelling, as it was the first to delve directly into the inner life of its protagonist. The story is told firmly from Jane’s point of view, embellished, dramatized, and rendered slightly unreal by virtue of her perception, memory, and prejudices. While telling a love story about a complex proto-feminist character, the novel finds time to offer thoughtful critiques of what was then modern life—critiques that still ring true today.

Lorna Doone

Lorna Doone

Paperback $18.00

R. D. Blackmore , R. D. Madison , Michelle Allen , R. D. Madison , Michelle Allen

Lorna Doone , by R.D. Blackmoore If you’re thinking of the cookies, you’ve missed out on a great book. This classic story set in 17th-century England tells the story of the Doones, a formerly aristocratic family that has devolved into a gang of impoverished criminals. John, a farmer whose father was murdered by the Doones, falls in love with a beautiful girl named Lorna only to discover she is the granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone. Remarkably, Blackmore perfectly captures the lilt and rhythm of a regional dialect without it becoming distracting or comedic, giving this book a feeling of verisimilitude rarely matched.

Barry Lyndon: The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.

Barry Lyndon: The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.

William Makepeace Thackeray , Andrew Sanders

The Luck of Barry Lyndon , by William Makepeace Thackery The source material for Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon , this novel follows the entertainingly incompetent attempts of Redmond Barry, born into an aristocratic but poor Irish family, as he seeks both a fortune and an English title. Redmond thinks a lot of himself, and is a very unreliable narrator always seeking to make himself look good, but Thackery skillfully reveals his failings as both a person and a social climber, making this a book that can be read several times, each reread revealing something new.

Oliver Twist (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Oliver Twist (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Charles Dickens , Jill Muller

Oliver Twist , by Charles Dickens Dickens’ story borders on being an exposé of how orphans were treated in the 19th century, as Oliver Twist’s horrible childhood, sale into indentured servitude as an apprentice, and absorption into a criminal gang (led by the iconic Fagin and including the equally iconic Artful Dodger) was all too possible at the time. Dickens combined a bracingly realistic look at criminal life with a satisfyingly happy ending in a book everyone should read at least once in their lives.

Tom Brown's School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford

Tom Brown's School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford

NOOK Book $1.99

Thomas Hughes

Tom Brown’s School Days , by Thomas Hughes The semi-autobiographical story of Tom Brown’s experiences at school offers universal themes of childhood and the intimidating, exciting moment when you take those first steps toward independence and adulthood. These themes still resonate, as do the episodes of impish pranks and adventures (including the occasional dorm room explosion).

The Time Machine and The Invisible Man (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Time Machine and The Invisible Man (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

H. G. Wells , Alfred Mac Adam

The Time Machine , by H.G. Wells Wells’ classic sci-fi story remains so modern in execution it’s easy to forget it was written more than a century ago, especially since sci-fi to this day continues to explore the narrative possibilities of time travel. The ending of the story remains among of the most chilling sequences in literature—you will be depressed, disturbed, and, finally, haunted by the traveler’s ultimate mysterious fate.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $10.95

Thomas Hardy , David Galef

Tess of the d’Urbervilles , by Thomas Hardy Hardy’s deeply considered rumination on morality, man’s relationship with both nature and modern technology, and sex is perhaps his greatest work. Tess, a good young woman from a poor family, is raped, her sickly son dies weeks after birth, and her marriage with a stalwart young farmer is ruined by the stain to her reputation—and things only get worse from there. Yet the story is animated by a deep level of empathy and contemplation that renders it not entirely bleak.

A Tale of Two Cities (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

A Tale of Two Cities (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Charles Dickens , Gillen D'Arcy Wood , Gillen DArcy Wood

A Tale of Two Cities , by Charles Dickens The nearly infinite opening passage of this novel, beginning with the famous “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” signals the wide range of themes the book intends to cover; Dickens wanted nothing less than an examination of the human condition and all of history in the confines of a story. Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, Dickens captures the frenetic spirit of the times in the unsteady adventures of his characters, resulting in one the most sprawling epic novels of all time.

Vanity Fair (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Vanity Fair (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

William Makepeace Thackeray , Nicholas Dames , William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair , by William Makepeace Thackeray The story of fierce social climber Becky Sharp and her ascent—and rapid descent—in life as she schemes, steals, and seduces those who can assist her until an almost-too-late epiphany, is extremely well-done on the surface, entertaining and well-written. But then comes the moment when the narrator reveals that he’s heard her story through gossip and has no actual knowledge of the events, and the book suddenly twists itself into a brilliant puzzle. Trying to figure out what’s true and what matters in the story has been keeping people up past their bedtime ever since.

The Woman in White

The Woman in White

Paperback $11.00

Wilkie Collins , Matthew Sweet

The Woman in White , by Wilkie Collins There’s little argument that Collins’s novel about a mentally deranged woman, amateur sleuths, and a plot to steal a fortune is one of literature’s first true detective tales. Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright are genuine amateurs, employing nothing more than their good sense and keen eye to slowly unravel a mystery involving switched identities and an enormous amount of money. The novel is also notable for Collins’ somewhat progressive take on women’s rights, as the mystery centers on the lack of legal standing a wife had at the time when it came to her own money, and is written in a lively tone that makes it seem more modern than it actually is.

Wuthering Heights (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Wuthering Heights (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Emily Brontë , Daphne Merkin

Wuthering Heights , by Emily Brontë Bursting with passion, Emily Brontë’s only novel is concerned with the destructive power of that unbridled emotion, demonstrating how feeling unchecked by reason can distort life and ultimately destroy it. Part romance, part ghost story, Wuthering Heights offers one of the best characters ever created in Heathcliff, a shifting character of uncertain parentage and legacy who is ultimately undone by his mad love for foster sister Catherine and taste for vengeance following her death.

Venus in Furs

Venus in Furs

Paperback $16.00

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch , Larry Wolff , Joachim Neugroschel

Venus in Furs , by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch A fascinating novel that refutes any claim that the 19th century was prudish, this story of a man who volunteers to be a woman’s slave, encouraging her to treat him in increasingly awful ways so he can attain what he calls “suprasensuality,” is unsettling, and ends on an unexpected note. The woman is initially put off by the man’s request, and eventually meets another man she wishes to be dominated by, souring the original relationship. It’s basically Fifty Shades in 1870.

Flowers in the Mirror

Flowers in the Mirror

Paperback $25.95

Ju-chen Li , Tai-Yi Lin , Shirley Zhao

Flowers in the Mirror , by Ju-chen Li A brazenly feminist novel written in 1827 in China? Why wouldn’t you read this classic fantasy? A lighthearted story that begins when a power-mad empress orders all the flowers of the world to bloom the next day; when the flower spirits, fearing her, comply, the gods punish them by reincarnating them into the mortal bodies of young girls, whose adventures make up the rest of the surprisingly modern story.

The Count of Monte Cristo (abridged) (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Count of Monte Cristo (abridged) (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Alexandre Dumas , Luc Sante

The Count of Monte Cristo , by Alexandre Dumas Dumas’ classic revenge story is also the ultimate adventure story, centered on a man who is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, makes a fortune, and seeks to get back at his enemies. All of this is set against the backdrop of one of the most politically and militarily unsettled periods of European history—a moment when it seemed literally anything might happen, lending the story an urgency that still jumps off the page today.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Jules Verne , Victoria Blake

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , by Jules Verne Sea monsters and what is essentially the first steampunk submarine: it doesn’t get more adventurous than this. Verne’s classic work of adventure and sci-fi isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous—at one point Captain Nemo exits his submarine and strolls about on the floor of the ocean without difficulty—but its spirit of discovery as the captain and his companions travel to various incredible places (including the lost city of Atlantis) is unparalleled.

Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Paperback $12.95

Leo Tolstoy , Amy Mandelker , Constance Garnett

Anna Karenina , by Leo Tolstoy In some ways Russian literature has been an unending reaction to the nearly endless social change that has swept and re-swept the country for the last two centuries. After an era of rigidity in the social structure, Russia began what could be seen as a still-ongoing struggle with its past and its future, unsettling everybody. Tolstoy’s vivid story of three complicated romantic relationships—particularly that of its titular character, who leaves her husband and the safety of societal approval in order to pursue a great love affair—is also a study of how Russian society adjusts, or doesn’t, to its ongoing social friction.

Crime and Punishment (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Crime and Punishment (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Fyodor Dostoevsky , Priscilla Meyer , Constance Garnett , Nicholas Rice , Juliya Salkovskaya

Crime and Punishment , by Fyodor Dostoevsky Dostoevsky explores what some see as the inherent nihilism and violence of Russian society in this novel, in which a man named Raskolnikov plots and commits a murder partially out of a belief that he is predestined to do so. Raskolnikov’s torment and struggle with his burgeoning conscience eventually result in his confession and a clear implication that he can be saved despite his brutal actions, and in some ways the novel still encapsulates the Russian view of morality, justice, and human nature.

War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky Translation)

War and Peace (Pevear/Volokhonsky Translation)

Paperback $19.99 $22.00

Leo Tolstoy , Richard Pevear , Larissa Volokhonsky

War and Peace , by Leo Tolstoy In some ways, any consideration of Russian literature starts here—in fact, any consideration of the novel as an art form could start here, or at least nearby. The epic story of Russia during and immediately after the invasion by Napoleon, the novel combines fiction, philosophy, history, and a clear-eyed study of 19th-century Russian society and culture. If you read just one Russian novel, this would be the right choice.

Cousin Bette: Poor Relations, part one

Cousin Bette: Poor Relations, part one

Honore de Balzac , Marion Ayton Crawford

Cousin Bette , by Honore de Balzac With subtle homoerotic themes, Balzac’s greatest novel is a dark and delightful story of a woman purposefully working to destroy her own family. Cousin Bette, middle-aged, spinsterish, and bitter, works with the beautiful and greedy Valérie Marneffe to seduce and destroy the men of the Hulot family until Bette’s burning resentment literally kills her. She’s one of the greatest characters in literary history, and you should read this book immediately.

To Have and To Hold

To Have and To Hold

Paperback $12.99

Mary Johnston

To Have and to Hold , by Mary Johnston It’s an old-school melodrama, but one of the most popular books of 1899 is a well-done one. In 16th-century Jamestown, an English soldier named Ralph buys a wife, a woman named Jocelyn who initially loathes him. Unknown to Ralph, Jocelyn is actually a ward of the king, and already betrothed to an aristocrat. Adventures ensue in a surprisingly convoluted plot that’s got plenty of action, making this a nearly forgotten gem.

King Solomon's Mines (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

King Solomon's Mines (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

H. Rider Haggard , Benjamin Ivry

King Solomon’s Mines , by H. Rider Haggard Written in a time when Africa seemed infinite and largely unexplored, at least from a Western point of view, Haggard’s classic adventure novel created the template still followed today—the Indiana Jones films, for one, owe a huge debt to Haggard. Adventurer Allan Quatermain agrees to locate a man who went missing searching for the titular mines in exchange for a share of any treasure found, and encounters hidden kingdoms and terrible dangers on the way.

Fathers and Sons (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Fathers and Sons (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Ivan Turgenev , David Goldfarb , Constance Garnett

Fathers and Sons , by Ivan Turgenev If you’ve ever heard or used the word nihilism , you can thank Turgenev’s novel, which popularized the term. A study of the growing generational divide in early 19th-century Russia, Fathers and Sons is sometimes regarded as Russia’s first modern novel. The changing times in the country background an intense study of the characters as they mature and change, leaving nihilism behind in favor of a more spiritual and traditionally Russian outlook on life.

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Leo Tolstoy , David Goldfarb

The Death of Ivan Ilych , by Leo Tolstoy This devastating short novel hits everyone right where they live, as its tale of an absolutely average man diligently advancing in his career, tolerating his unhappy marriage, and engaging in the sort of dull, meaningless existence most people know all too well is suddenly forced into an existential crisis as a seemingly minor injury inexorably turns fatal, leaving him to face the terror of death—and the worse terror of assessing how he has spent his time. Don’t read this if you’re feeling fragile, but do read it before it’s too late.

literature in the 19th century

A Reading List of the Best 19th Century Novels

This selection of influential works is categorized by writer.

The novels of the 19th century remain some of the most taught literary works of any period. They not only continue to influence the canon but also cinema and popular culture. Get better acquainted with these groundbreaking works with this reading list, categorized by author. The most popular authors from the era--Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne--appear on this list in alphabetical order.

Alcott, Louisa May

Austen, Jane

Blackmore, Richard Doddridge

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth

Bronte, Charlotte

Bronte, emily.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson

Butler, Samuel

Carlyle, thomas.

Carroll, Lewis

Collins, Wilkie

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Conrad, Joseph

Cooper, James Fenimore

Crane, Stephen

Dickens, Charles

Disraeli, Benjamin

Dostoevski, Fedor

Dreiser, Theodore

Dumas, Alexandre

Eliot, George

Flaubert, Gustave

Gaskell, Elizabeth

Gissing, George

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von

Gogol, Nikolai

Hardy, thomas.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel

Hugo, Victor

James, Henry

Le Fanu, Sheridan

MacDonald, George

Melville, herman, meredith, george.

Norris, Frank

Oliphant, margaret.

Scott, Sir Walter

Sewall, Anna

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Stevenson, Robert L

Stoker, Bram

Stowe, harriet beecher.

Thackeray, William M

Tolstoy, Leo

Trollope, Anthony

Turgenev, Ivan

Twain, Mark

Verne, Jules

Wilde, Oscar

Zola, Emile

literature in the 19th century

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Best Books of the 19th Century

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literature in the 19th century

literature in the 19th century

19th Century Literature

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19th-Century America in Art & Literature

In the United States, the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous growth and change. The new nation experienced a shift from a farming economy to an industrial one, major westward expansion, displacement of native peoples, rapid advances in technology and transportation, and a civil war. In these lessons, works of art from the nineteenth century are paired with written documents to be used as primary sources for students to reconstruct the influence of technology, geography, economics, and politics on daily life.

literature in the 19th century

Down on the Farm

Students will explore life on a nineteenth-century farm by analyzing a painting of Mahantango Valley farm and researching the Manual of Agriculture (1862). They will then write a journal entry of a day in the life of a young person on this farm.

literature in the 19th century

Toys Now & Then

Students will be introduced to a popular toy from the nineteenth century—the hobbyhorse—through a painting by Robert Peckham and a contemporary popular children’s verse. They will then complete research on other toys from this time period, selecting one to compare to its closest modern-day equivalent. Then, they will draw a portrait of themselves with a favorite toy or object.

literature in the 19th century

Little House in the Valley

Students will explore nineteenth-century life in the White Mountains of New Hampshire through a tale of a family who lived there by analyzing a painting by Thomas Cole and reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will then write a comparative essay and complete a mathematics worksheet to enhance their perception of American life in the nineteenth century.

literature in the 19th century

Rolling on the River

Students will explore how westward expansion increased the number of jobs available in the nineteenth-century, including being a flatboatman through a painting by George Caleb Bingham. Working in pairs, students will write a letter to their partner from the standpoint of a person moving westward. Then they will construct a poem in the guise of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” about a modern-day job.

literature in the 19th century

Head Chief of the Iowas

Students will learn the history of the Iowa tribe. Each student will then select a different tribe and complete research on the impact of the “Trail of Tears” on this tribe. Using Catlin’s portrait of White Cloud as their inspiration, they will create a self-portrait including symbols and emblems that represent who they are and what they care about.

literature in the 19th century

The Impact of Inventions

A promotional painting by George Inness will introduce students to a new invention from the nineteenth century: the locomotive. Then, they will research another invention from the nineteenth-century and the impact it had on the lives of the American people. Students will illustrate two advertisements: the first as a promotion of the positive impact of the invention and the second as a public service announcement warning about potentially harmful side effects.

literature in the 19th century

The First African American Regiment

Students will be introduced to the first African American Regiment that fought in the Civil War through a memorial sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. They will compare and contrast the experiences of these soldiers through their portrayal in letters, films (the motion picture, Glory, and a documentary film), and poetry, before writing their own poem using the sculpture as their inspiration.

“Mathematics Problem about the 1800s” worksheet

Create portraits and construct panoramic landscapes using naive paintings from the NGA with Faces & Places

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project

Register for evening and weekend teacher professional development workshops and apply to participate in the summer teacher institute


American Literature in Special Collections: 19th Century Literature

19th Century American Literature

Narrative-style writing, fiction, and the contemporary novel took grounding throughout the 19th century. Many scholars argue that the rise of the middle/working-class, “with its emphasis on social fluidity and individual self-determination,” led to increased literacy, reading, and thus production and consumption of novel-like texts (Lumen Learning). 19th century America welcomed a variety of literary genres, including novels, short stories, poetry, personal journals and letters, and writing addressing a myriad of topics like politics, science, religion, and philosophy. This page highlights a number of first editions and early editions from well-known 19th century writers: Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Maria Ward.

Louisa May Alcott

literature in the 19th century

Louisa May Alcott was a passionate, imaginative writer with a simple and elegant style. Born in Pennsylvania in 1832, she began writing at age eight and published her first book by age twenty two. Alcott studied under other writers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she was also inspired by the 19th century transcendentalist movement that both she and her parents were born into. Though Little Women is at times associated with a traditionalist outlook on womanhood, Alcott was actually progressive for her time, promoting women’s rights through her writing and becoming the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Connecticut.

Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Louisa May Alcott 

Call number:  children's 813.4 a355l, alcott, louisa may, and hilda van stockum. little women: or meg, jo, beth, and amy. world pub, 1946., alcott’s most well-known novel which follows the stories of four 19th-century new england sisters: jo, meg, beth, and amy. little women is a coming-of-age story in which each of the four sisters comes to reconcile with her own distinct personality and aspirations. this beloved piece has remained at the forefront of the literary canon of american classics, as it features themes of sisterhood, love,  maturation, and wisdom that surpass time and culture. this edition was published in 1946 and contains an inscription from a previous owner, reading: “marilyn pepperdine, december 25, 1948.” .

literature in the 19th century

Moods  by Louisa May Alcott 

Call Number:  Children's 813.41 m     

Alcott, Louisa May, et al. Moods . Loring, Publisher, 319 Washington Street, 1864.

Third edition novel by Louisa May Alcott that has often been proposed as the first. Moods was Alcott’s first novel and features the challenges of womanhood through the interactions of a “little woman,” a spinster, and “fallen Cuban beauty” (Barnes and Noble).

Herman Melville

Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas  by Herman Melville

Call Number:  PS2384 .O45 1847


First edition novel by Herman Melville, 19th-century American writer best known for his novel Moby-Dick , published four years later. Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas was Herman Melville’s second book, serving as a sequel to the story of Typee , his first novel. Omoo illustrates the influence of foreigners on Polynesian life. As Melville stated, “[-]t embraces adventures in the South Seas (of a totally different character from ‘Typee’) and includes an eventful cruise in an English Colonial Whaleman (a Sydney Ship) and a comical residence on the island of Tahiti” (qtd. Northwestern University Press).

Though Herman Melville is primarily known for his “novels of the sea” (Poetry Foundation), he was also a successful short story writer and poet. Melville undertook a variety of trades throughout his early life, including bank clerking, teaching, farming, and eventually seafaring, the experience which greatly inspired much of his writing.


Born with the name “Samuel Clemens,” Mark Twain was a 19th-century American writer to whom several literary classics are attributed, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Throughout his lifetime, Twain’s financial status fluctuated, as he created his own publishing company (The Charles L. Webster Company) and just a few years later suffered  bankruptcy following several unsuccessful investments. During these challenging times, Twain turned to lecturing to regain financial stability, addressing dark and controversial topics in the process. Despite this adversity, Twain remains a central figure in the canon of American literature for his distinct regional style, humor, and profound thematic writing, and he is considered by writer William Faulkner to be the “Father of American Literature.”

literature in the 19th century

The Innocents Abroad  by Mark Twain

Call Number:   PS1312 .A1 1879     

Twain, Mark, et al. The Innocents Abroad, or, the New Pilgrims' Progress : Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land : With Descriptions of Countries, Nations, Incidents, and Adventures As They Appeared to the Author : With Two Hundred and Thirty-Four Illustrations. American Publishing Company, 1879.

literature in the 19th century

Early edition travel book written by 19th-century author Mark Twain, listed here with a shortened version of the original title (as follows): The Innocents Abroad, or, the New Pilgrims’ Progress: Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City’s Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land: With Descriptions of Countries, Nations, Incidents, and Adventures As They Appeared to the Author: With Two Hundred and Thirty-Four Illustrations. In this book, Twain shares his stories traveling throughout Europe, effectively embedding humor through his exaggeration and satirizing of his fellow travelers. The Innocents Abroad was Twain’s best-selling book during his lifetime.

Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography; And, First Romance  by Mark Twain

Call Number:  PS1322 .M37 1871

Twain, Mark, et al. Mark Twain's (Burlesque) Autobiography : And, First Romance . Sheldon & Company, 677 Broadway, Under The Grand Central Hotel, 1871.

First edition book by Mark Twain, offering a comical and inaccurate “autobiography” featuring two main figures who are allegedly part of Twain’s lineage.

A Tramp Abroad  by Mark Twain

Call Number:  PS1321 .A1 1880 

Twain, Mark, et al. A Tramp Abroad . American Pub. Co, 1880.

Early edition novel by Mark Twain covering his travels abroad in Europe. A Tramp Abroad is often considered an “unofficial sequel” to The Innocents Abroad , through which he offers sharp-witted commentary on Old World culture and takes readers on excursions rafting down the Neckar river and climbing Mont Blanc.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Representative Men: Seven Lectures  by Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Call Number:   PS1600 .E83 1890

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Representative Men : Seven Lectures. Hurst, 1890.


A series of seven lectures written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century American writer known for his poetry, essays, lectures, and philosophical writings. According to Harvard University Press, Representative Men is “the most alien of Emerson’s books” and addresses the romantic concept of a single voice of truth realized through specific individuals. “It was an appreciation of genius as a quality distributed to the few for the benefit of many” (Harvard University Press). 

Much of Emerson’s work discusses nature and is philosophically-driven with Transcendental and rationalist thinking. Emerson is known for his unprecedented exploration of Asian and Middle Eastern literature and religion. Interestingly, it is in Representative Men (specifically the lecture “Plato; or, the Philosopher” found within this collection) that critics point out Emerson’s flaws and limited understanding of the East in his writings. His use of generalizations suggest his lack of concern in distinguishing between the diverse Asian and Eastern cultures.

Washington Irving


Compared to many of his contemporaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving embraced a rather hopeful, lighthearted tone. While this distinguished style brought him success in his selected genres, Edwin W. Bowen of The Sewanee Review argues that Irving’s appeal to “sensibilities” and “the heart” inhibited him from obtaining a broaderliteraryspan and impact: “There are notes he never sounded, depths and heights he ne v er reach ed. The trag edy of life, the profoundest problems of human existence, the realm of philosophical speculation— these were to Irving an unexplored country which his creative mind never entered” (181-182). Yet, it is undeniable that his language, content, and tone effectively capture the nature of “America,” establishing him as a notable force in American literature.

Life of Mahomet  by Washington Irving 

Call Number:   BP75 .I7 1850

Irving, Washington. Life of Mahomet. Henry G. Pohn, 1850.

First edition written by Washington Irving, early 19th-century American writer known especially for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Life of Mahomet “ covers the period of Muhammad’s birth in 571 to the Moorish invasion of Spain in 710 A.D.” (Pirages). Critics argue that the piece is flawed with biases familiar to Irving’s time regarding Islamic life and culture, and yet the interest of a 19th century American writer in Islam and his ability to spread information and awareness of this culture is significant. 


Call Number:  PS2069 .C4 1876

Irving, Washington, et al. Old Christmas : From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving. Macmillan, 1876.

First edition book celebrating old English Christmas traditions through a selection of thematic chapters: "Christmas," "The Stagecoach," "Christmas Eve," Christmas Day," and "The Christmas Dinner." This edition has several physical distinctions, including a green cloth case binding and a monochrome wood-engraved illustrated title page. 

Henry David Thoreau

Friendship, Love & Marriage  by David Henry Thoreau

literature in the 19th century

Call Number:  PS3051 .F7

Thoreau, Henry David. Friendship, Love & Marriage. Roycrofters, 1910.

Philosophical book written by poet, essayist, and philosopher David Henry Thoreau, author of the well-renowned Walden . Much of Thoeau’s work is transcendental and reflective in nature, partially the result of his studies under mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, a marked transcendentalist. 

literature in the 19th century

Thoreau was a student of the classics and was influenced by the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, in addition to his scientific contemporaries including Humboldt and Darwin. His works provide insight into an array of different studies including philosophy, existentialism, ontology, and politics.

Even as Thoreau grew in popularity and began producing more essays and lecturing, his main priority remained his connection with nature and the reflection of these observations in his writing, living according to his transcendentalist ideals.

James Fenimore Cooper

The water-witch: or the skimmer of the seas, a tale  by james fenimore cooper , call number:  ps1418 .w3 1860 cooper, james fenimore. the water-witch : or, the skimmer of the seas, a tale. w.a. townsend, 1860., early edition novel by james fenimore cooper, first published in 1830. this edition’s preface (written after the author’s death) argues that this is cooper’s most imaginative novel, and yet its attempt to blend realism with idealism proved too complex a task to be done successfully with the selected context and setting. featuring a narrative romance, the story of the water-witch comes off as more light-hearted and less morally-superior in comparison to some of cooper’s other works., james fenimore cooper was an early 19th century american writer, well-known today for his historical, romantic novel the last of the mohicans . after being expelled from yale for behavioral misconduct, cooper joined the united states navy, serving as a sailor and a midshipman. his experiences at sea in addition to his european travel inspired a number of his works, and some argue that his writing became increasingly political as he progressed., nathaniel hawthorne, nathaniel hawthorne , well-acclaimed for his classics the scarlet letter and the house of the seven gables, nathaniel hawthorne was a 19th-century novelist and short story writer whose works remain potent in the american literary canon. born in salem, massachusetts, much of hawthorne’s works illustrate the new england, puritan experience, “explor[ing]problems of sin, guilt, and hypocrisy through allegory and emphasis on the supernatural,” (new world encyclopedia) in addition to other spiritual theories such as transcendentalism. hawthorne’s contemporaries include walt whitman and herman melville, the latter of which is known for similar themes and settings in his writings., the complete works of nathaniel hawthorne  by nathaniel hawthorne and george parsons lathrop , call number: ps1850 .e83  hawthorne, nathaniel, and george parsons lathrop. the complete works of nathaniel hawthorne. riverside ed., printed at the riverside press, 1883. , 12-volume collection of nathaniel’s hawthorne’s works, arranged by george parsons lathrop and published in 1883. only 250 copies of this edition have been printed. contents include the following: twice-told tales; mosses from an old manse; the house of the seven gables,;the snow image and other twice-told tales; a wonder-book: tanglewood tales and grandfather’s chair; the scarlet letter; the blithedale romance; the marble faun; our old home; english note-books; passages from the american note-books; passages from the french and italian notebooks; the dolliver romance; tales, sketches, and other papers., doctor grimshawe's secret  by nathaniel hawthorne , call number:  ps1856 .a1 1883a hawthorne, nathaniel. doctor grimshawe's secret. edited by julian hawthorne, printed at the university press, 1883., hawthorne wrote doctor grimshawe’s secret in 1861, but never actually completed or published the work during his lifetime. julian hawthorne, the 19th century writer’s son, published the work in 1883. literary critics and historians suggest that the novel is somewhat autobiographical in nature, contending that hawthorne reflects his own childhood guardian in the main character in addition to illustrating some of his own experiences of guilt and isolation., harriet beecher stowe, uncle tom's cabin, or, negro life in the slave states of america: with fifty splendid engravings  by harriet beecher stowe, call number:  ps2954 .u5 1852f, stowe, harriet beecher, and cairns collection of american women writers. uncle tom's cabin, or, negro life in the slave states of america : with fifty splendid engravings. the people's illustrated ed., clarke, 1852., uncle tom's cabin; or, life among the lowly  by harriet beecher stowe, call number:   ps2954 .u5 1853, stowe, harriet beecher, et al. uncle tom's cabin: or, life among the lowly. illustrated ed. ed., j.p. jewett, 1853., most females of the 19th century did not have the advantages or support to accomplish what harriet beecher stowe pursued as a young woman. with the opportunity to receive a formal, academic education and through her career as a writer, stowe had a unique capacity to use her voice, express her beliefs publicly, and provide income for her family. throughout her career, stowe published 30 books in addition to poetry, essays, and short stories. stowe is best known for her anti-slavery novel uncle tom’s cabin, which was first published as a series of installments in abolitionist newspaper the national era. stowe contended that the story “would ‘paint a word picture of slavery’” (qtd. harriet beecher stowe center). , stowe's exposure to slavery likely began as a young girl, as her home state of connecticut abolished slavery last of all the new england states. her husband and brother were involved with the underground railroad, and as an adult she had the opportunity to hear stories from former slaves directly regarding the cruelty and brokenness they experienced. stowe lost one of her children, samuel charles, when he was only 18 months old to a fight with cholera. grieving over the loss of her son reinforced the inhumanity of the mother-child separation inherent within the slave business. this adversity, in addition to the passing of the fugitive slave law and the growing racial tensions of the time, inspired stowe to write uncle tom’s cabin as a means of illustrating this unjust reality with the hope for change., the two copies of uncle tom’s cabin featured in special collections are both early editions, published in 1852 and 1853 respectively..


Walt Whitman

Walt whitman is considered one of america’s most renowned 19th-century poets and is known for his celebration of “democracy, nature, love, and friendship” (poetry foundation). his style and approach were progressive for his time, for he often strayed from traditional rhythmic and meter patterns and echoed much of the discourse and rhetoric of biblical verse. leaves of grass, the collection from which the following edition originated, is whitman’s most well-known circulating piece., the poems of walt whitman (selected)  by walt whitman, call number:  ps3203 .r45 mla: whitman, walt. the poems of walt whitman (selected). walter scott, 1886.  , collection of poems drawn from walt whitman’s leaves of grass, selected and arranged by ernest rhys and published by walter scott in 1886. countering the intended “literary elite” audience of the 1868 edition, rhys strove through the 1886 edition to market whitman’s work to a broader range of social and economic classes. in the book’s introduction, rhys suggests that whitman is a voice for all to hear and follow in his view of “ leaves of grass as a new poetry of love and comradeship at this time of social misgiving” (x). appealing to previously excluded audiences, rhys contends that the poet’s works “are touched with a wider spirit, and in their sweeping music take  in the whole scope of time and space open to the modern mind” (x). .

Complete Prose Works  by Walt Whitman

Call Number:    PS3202 1897 Whitman, Walt. Complete Prose Works. D. McKay, 1897.

Compilation of walt whitman’s prose writings through six distinct sections: “specimen days,” “collect,” november boughs,” “good bye, my fancy,” “soma laggards yet,” and “memoranda.” though celebrated chiefly for his poetry, whitman also produced beautiful and successful prose works addressing the 19th-century new york city experience, memories of the civil war,  and other settings relevant to his time., female life among the mormons: a narrative of many years' personal experience  by maria ward, call number:  bx8641 .w37 ward, maria, et al. female life among the mormons : a narrative of many years' personal experience. j.c. derby, 1855., a unique narrative selection written by maria ward, wife of an elder in the mormon church. ward addresses what she perceives to be the oppression and cruelty of the mormon church, presenting her initial claims in the novel’s introduction: “knowing, as i do know, the evils and horrors and abominations of the mormon system, the degradation it imposes on females, and the consequent vices which extend through ramifications of the society, a sense of duty to the world has induced me to prepare the following narrative, for the public eye” (ward v-iv). female life among the mormons is ward’s only known piece, but historical critics have questioned the true authorship of the work in more recent decades..

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Book Arts & Rare Book Collections: 19th Century American Literature

literature in the 19th century

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literature in the 19th century

19th Century Publishers' Bindings Database

Thanks to UW volunteers, almost ten thousand scans of publishers' bindings have been collected over the years. Accessible on internal, special collections computers, the database provides a visual and readable guide for a portion of publishers' bindings that belong to UW. Supported by a search function, items can be targeted and retrieved at the convenience of the user.

If you are interested in consulting this database, please email the curator. 

literature in the 19th century

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Sandra Kroupa

Book Arts and Rare Books Curator

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Phone: 2065441929 [Special Collections Main] 

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About the 19th Century American Literature Collection

The 19th Century American Literature Collection is a resource for the study of a wide range of authors, well-known and undiscovered. Americans during the 19th century were forging a unique artistic and literary identity during contentious socio-political conflicts. Special Collections’ vast selection of 19th century published literature and serials is an excellent source for examining the relationship between art, culture, and politics in the United States.  

This endowment supported Collection includes extensive holdings of published works of 19th century American authors, with an emphasis on women authors. All major literary figures of 19th century America are represented including H. W. Longfellow, H. Melville, N. Hawthorne, H. B. Stowe, H. D. Thoreau and R. W. Emerson along with scarce editions of popular writers of the time who are little known now. First editions, variant editions and illustrated books provide a research collection for textual studies. Some holdings of related photographic and visual materials and some limited manuscript materials. Letters of H. W. Longfellow are major manuscript holding.

Although the vast majority of the books in the Collection were published in the 19th century, books published in the 18th and 20th centuries are also represented.

English literature’s canon has long been dominated by white, cis-gendered men. At the University of Washington, we have taken special care to collect, when feasible, underrepresented communities, especially women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ writers within the Authors Collection and 19th Century American Literature Collection. Bear in mind, these materials are historic and consequently tethered to the cultural sentiments of their time and may not align with our current understanding of respect and social justice. We offer research support through our reading room and by appointment with the curator if you are embarking on research related to material that may cause harm or distress.

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Ink and colour picture showing the head and shoulders of an elderly Chinese woman with her hair tied back. She is wearing green earings and a blue jacket decorated with gold leaves around the neck.

An introduction to 19th-century China

Unidentified artist, Portrait of Lady Li (Lu Xifu's Wife). Ink and colour on paper, China, about 1876. Gift of Mr. Harp Ming Luk. With permission of ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), Toronto, Canada. © ROM. 

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By Jessica Harrison-Hall, Head of the China Section, Curator of the Sir Percival David Collection, Chinese Decorative Arts and Ceramics at the British Museum.

How did Chinese cultural creativity demonstrate resilience in the face of unprecedented levels of violence in the long 19th century?

Four years ago, the British Museum and London University embarked on a new project involving a network of over 100 scholars across 14 countries. The aim was to try and understand the experiences of individuals living through a period of tumultuous change that included a civil war in which at least 20 million people died, as well as the Opium Wars. There had never been a 19th-century Qing China exhibition before which went beyond paintings or photography so the team scoured the world for materials and uncovered some of the extraordinary stories from China’s long 19th century.

Colourful calligraphy on parchment.

In 1796, the Qing ruled over one-third of all humanity and was one of the most prosperous empires in world history. By 1912 it had collapsed, bringing an end to some 2,000 years of dynastic rule and giving way to a modern Chinese republic. The Manchu dynasty that ruled at that point was challenged by internal uprisings and foreign invasion. Despite this, the 19th century was an era of extraordinary cultural creativity and of political, social and technological innovation.

In the shadow of these events lie stories of remarkable individuals – at court, in armies, among artists, in booming cosmopolitan cities and on the global stage – which this exhibition brings to life. An impressive 300 objects and paintings from 30 lenders are arranged into five themes:

Red robe with butterfly pattern.

Six emperors ruled in succession between 1796 and 1912 – three adults were followed by three children, whose reigns were dominated by Empress Dowager Cixi as regent. Representations of people at court changed dramatically as styles were absorbed from photography, and as the Manchu imperial family increasingly adopted Han-Chinese culture. This auspicious red robe was a late addition to the show from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is embroidered with dozens of different butterflies representing happiness, golden characters which wish the wearer long life and plum blossom borders which refer to Spring.

Working with students from SOAS, the London School of Economics, London College of Fashion and the exhibition designers Nissen Richards, the show will bring a new character to life in each section through their portraits or clothes through movement and sound.

The military

Colourful depiction of battle scene.

Civil conflicts including the White Lotus Rebellion (1774–1805), Xinjiang wars (1820s and 1860s) and Taiping Civil War (1850–64) broke out across Qing China. International imperialism brought the Opium Wars (1840–42 and 1856–60), Sino-French War (1884–85), Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and Boxer War (1898–1900). Disaffection led to unrest among the educated classes and the poor. As a result of warfare in their home regions, people migrated to safer cities and to the borderlands in search of food and work. This created local tensions, ethnic alienation and conflict over resources. Further civil uprisings would end the imperial era in 1912. This print from SOAS shows the final Qing victory over the Taipings – a Christian group who built their capital at Nanjing and tried to overthrow the Qing.

We were able to visit Toronto, New York, Paris and many UK cities before the global pandemic. Museums, libraries and collectors showed us a vast range of 19th century materials. Additional items were chosen through online discussions with specialists around the world.  

Women looks out of window onto tree view.

Even as the Qing empire found itself under exceptional pressure from violence in the 1800s, landscape paintings, fans and albums demonstrate that artistic traditions were not in decline but sat alongside more ‘modern’ art. New Western techniques such as lithography were embraced by artists trained in traditional woodblock printing design, and by new magazines and newspapers in the coastal cities. An educated gentry class mediated between the state and the people from AD 650 to 1905. As the likelihood of attaining an official job dwindled, men sought alternative forms of financial and social support, establishing new artistic and literary groups.

Private collectors from all over the world have played a major role in the exhibition, sharing exquisite objects with the public for the first time. Chinese handscrolls and hanging scroll paintings can only be shown for a few months within a 10-year period as their colours are vulnerable to light exposure. This exhibition provides a rare glimpse of some of these extraordinary creations including this painting of his patron’s wife by the famous artist Ren Xiong.   

Blue headdress.

By the 1850s, China's population reached a staggering 450 million but average life expectancy was just 40 years old. Fleeing conflict and in search of work many people migrated to the cities – and cosmopolitan centres such as Shanghai emerged. While life for many people was extremely difficult, some enjoyed incredible wealth. 

Women were mostly hidden from the official records, unless made famous by the actions of their husbands or sons. Yet there is so much that survives that helps us to re-imagine these women and the worlds in which they lived. Paintings, prints, costumes, luxury furnishings and entertainment equipment add a richness to the textural records. This hairband is decorated with pearls, semi-precious stones and bright blue kingfisher feathers. 

Straw coat with matching hat and bag.

Representing the millions of people who were not wealthy is a challenge as so little survives. Rural fishermen and farmers had worn this type of waterproof raincoat and hat for centuries. In urban settings, poorer people including porters, street cleaners and labourers also wore such garments as protection from the elements. Regional variations existed, depending on which plants were available locally. In the far south palm leaves or coconut fibres were used instead of rice or millet. This coat was made by folding layers of straw or leaves, then stitching them to the layer above using rice-straw thread. From 1870 onwards the Royal Botanic Gardens (now Kew) transferred objects from across the world to the British Museum. Specialist organics conservators transformed its appearance over months from a rigid bundle of straw to the beautiful garment visitors will see in the show.

Global Qing

Open fan with flower design.

Until the 1840s, Guangzhou (Canton) was the only place in China where international trade was legal and foreigners could live. Merchants in Guangzhou interacted with Europe, the Americas, Japan, Russia, Parsi merchants in South Asia and diaspora communities in Southeast Asia.

Shiny silver punch set.

The signing of the unequal Treaty of Nanjing (1842) led to more ports being forcibly opened to foreign trade. Modern technology and transport revolutionised industry and changed people’s lives. Inventions such as electricity and the new postal system transformed the way people worked and communicated. Printed media and translations of foreign books provided a two-way window onto the world through travel, industry and education. 

An exhibition like this brings together a large group of scholars but it also relies on the skills of about 100 people with other specialisms including conservators, photographers, graphic and 3D designers, lighting experts, publishers, film and sound specialists and other technicians.   

Reformers and revolutionaries

After Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the loss of Korea as a vassal state, the Qing faced further carving-up of its territory by Western imperialist forces. In response, a new national identity was sought. Army and naval weapons, uniforms and organisation were modernised. The imperial court established a series of new ministries for foreign affairs, commerce, the police and education. Beyond China, there was a diplomatic search for alternative methods of governance. However, after a violent revolution emperor Puyi abdicated in February 1912, ending 2,000 years of imperial rule. 

Some people were incredibly brave throughout these changes and at the end of the exhibition we tell the story of the revolutionary, poet and feminist Qiu Jin who dedicated her life to encouraging women to take action to change society.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a kimono.

Come and see for yourself who we have chosen as the people to represent the court, military, artists, city dwellers, global communities, reformers and revolutionaries of 19th century China.

The Citi exhibition, China's hidden century opens 18 May 2023.

Book tickets now.

Pre-order your copy of the exhibition book.

Join as a Member to visit anytime.

Lead supporter Citi.

Additional supporter The Huo Family Foundation. 

This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [Grant Number AH/T001895/1]. 

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Women's Literature in the 19th Century: Overviews

Women's literature in the 19th century: overviews, elaine showalter (essay date 1977).

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Female Tradition." In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing, pp. 3-36. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1977. In the following excerpt, Showalter discusses the implications of identifying female sensibilities in the literary output of nineteenth-century female authors, identifying three distinct phases in the development of themes and gender battles as addressed in women's writing in the nineteenth century. The advent of female literature promises woman's view of life, woman's experience: in other words, a new element. Make what distinctions you please in the social world, it still remains true that men and women have different organizations, consequently different experiences.…Buthitherto … the literature of women has fallen short of its functions owing to a very natural and a very explicable weakness—it has been too much a literature of imitation. To write as men write is the aim and besetting sin of women; to write as women is the real task they have to perform. —G. H. Lewes, " The Lady Novelists, " 1852

English women writers have never suffered from the lack of a reading audience, nor have they wanted for attention from scholars and critics. Yet we have never been sure what unites them as women, or, indeed, whether they share a common heritage connected to their womanhood at all. Writing about female creativity in The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill argued that women would have a hard struggle to overcome the influence of male literary tradition, and to create an original, primary, and independent art. "If women lived in a different country from men," Mill thought, "and had never read any of their writings, they would have a literature of their own." Instead, he reasoned, they would always be imitators and never innovators. Paradoxically, Mill would never have raised this point had women not already claimed a very important literary place. To many of his contemporaries (and to many of ours), it seemed that the nineteenth century was the Age of the Female Novelist. With such stellar examples as Jane Austen , Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot , the question of women's aptitude for fiction, at any rate, had been answered. But a larger question was whether women, excluded by custom and education from achieving distinction in poetry, history, or drama, had, in defining their literary culture in the novel, simply appropriated another masculine genre. Both George Henry Lewes and Mill, spokesmen for women's rights and Victorian liberalism in general, felt that, like the Romans in the shadow of Greece, women were overshadowed by male cultural imperialism: "If women's literature is destined to have a different collective character from that of men," wrote Mill, "much longer time is necessary than has yet elapsed before it can emancipate itself from the influence of accepted models, and guide itself by its own impulses." 1

There is clearly a difference between books that happen to have been written by women, and a "female literature," as Lewes tried to define it, which purposefully and collectively concerns itself with the articulation of women's experience, and which guides itself "by its own impulses" to autonomous self-expression. As novelists, women have always been self-conscious, but only rarely self-defining. While they have been deeply and perennially aware of their individual identities and experiences, women writers have very infrequently considered whether these experiences might transcend the personal and local, assume a collective form in art, and reveal a history. During the intensely feminist period from 1880 to 1910, both British and American women writers explored the theme of an Amazon utopia, a country entirely populated by women and completely isolated from the male world. Yet even in these fantasies of autonomous female communities, there is no theory of female art. Feminist utopias were not visions of primary womanhood, free to define its own nature and culture, but flights from the male world to a culture defined in opposition to the male tradition. Typically the feminist utopias are pastoral sanctuaries, where a population of prelapsarian Eves cultivate their organic gardens, cure water pollution , and run exemplary child care centers, but do not write books.

In contradiction to Mill, and in the absence, until very recently, of any feminist literary manifestoes, many readers of the novel over the past two centuries have nonetheless had the indistinct but persistent impression of a unifying voice in women's literature. In The History of the English Novel, Ernest Baker devotes a separate chapter to the women novelists, commenting that "the woman of letters has peculiarities that mark her off from the other sex as distinctly as peculiarities of race or of ancestral traditions. Whatever variety of talent, outlook or personal disposition may be discernible among any dozen women writers taken at random, it will be matched and probably outweighed by resemblances distinctively feminine." 2 Baker wisely does not attempt to present a taxonomy of these feminine "peculiarities"; most critics who have attempted to do so have quickly found themselves expressing their own cultural biases rather than explicating sexual structures. In 1852, Lewes thought he could identify the feminine literary traits as Sentiment and Observation; in 1904, William L. Courtney found that "the female author is at once self-conscious and didactic"; in 1965, Bernard Bergonzi explained that "women novelists … like to keep their focus narrow." 3 Women reading each other's books have also had difficulties in explaining their potential for what George Eliot called a "precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience." Eliot herself tried to locate the female speciality in the maternal affections. 4

Statements about the personal and psychological qualities of the woman novelist have also flourished, and have been equally impressionistic and unreliable. The "lady novelist" is a composite of many stereotypes: to J. M. Ludlow, she is a creature with ink halfway up her fingers, dirty shawls, and frowsy hair; and to W. S. Gilbert, a "singular anomaly" who never would be missed. 5 To critics of the twentieth century, she is childless and, by implication, neurotic: "We remind ourselves," writes Carolyn Heilbrun, "that of the great women writers, most have been unmarried, and those who have written in the state of wedlock have done so in peaceful kingdoms guarded by devoted husbands. Few have had children." 6 Nancy Milford asks whether there were any women "who married in their youth and bore children and continued to write … think of the women who have written: the unmarried, the married and childless, the very few with a single child and that one observed as if it were a rock to be stubbed against." 7

There are many reasons why discussion of women writers has been so inaccurate, fragmented, and partisan. First, women's literary history has suffered from an extreme form of what John Gross calls "residual Great Traditionalism," 8 which has reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women novelists to a tiny band of the "great," and derived all theories from them. In practice, the concept of greatness for women novelists often turns out to mean four or five writers— Jane Austen , the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf—and even theoretical studies of "the woman novelist" turn out to be endless recyclings and recombinations of insights about "indispensable Jane and George." 9 Criticism of women novelists, while focusing on these happy few, has ignored those who are not "great," and left them out of anthologies, histories, textbooks, and theories. Having lost sight of the minor novelists, who were the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next, we have not had a very clear understanding of the continuities in women's writing, nor any reliable information about the relationships between the writers' lives and the changes in the legal, economic, and social status of women.

Second, it has been difficult for critics to consider women novelists and women's literature theoretically because of their tendency to project and expand their own culture-bound stereotypes of femininity, and to see in women's writing an eternal opposition of biological and aesthetic creativity. The Victorians expected women's novels to reflect the feminine values they exalted, although obviously the woman novelist herself had outgrown the constraining feminine role. "Come what will," Charlotte Brontë wrote to Lewes, "I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on these terms, or with such ideas, that I ever took pen in hand." 10 Even if we ignore the excesses of what Mary Ellmann calls "phallic criticism" and what Cynthia Ozick calls the "ovarian theory of literature," much contemporary criticism of women writers is still prescriptive and circumscribed. 11 Given the difficulties of steering a precarious course between the Scylla of insufficient information and the Charybdis of abundant prejudice, it is not surprising that formalist-structuralist critics have evaded the issue of sexual identity entirely, or dismissed it as irrelevant and subjective. Finding it difficult to think intelligently about women writers, academic criticism has often overcompensated by desexing them.

Yet since the 1960s, and especially since the reemergence of a Women's Liberation Movement in England and in America around 1968, there has been renewed enthusiasm for the idea that "a special female self-awareness emerges through literature in every period." 12 The interest in establishing a more reliable critical vocabulary and a more accurate and systematic literary history for women writers is part of a larger interdisciplinary effort by psychologists, sociologists, social historians, and art historians to reconstruct the political, social, and cultural experience of women.

Scholarship generated by the contemporary feminist movement has increased our sensitivity to the problems of sexual bias or projection in literary history, and has also begun to provide us with the information we need to understand the evolution of a female literary tradition. One of the most significant contributions has been the unearthing and reinterpretation of "lost" works by women writers, and the documentation of their lives and careers.

In the past, investigations have been distorted by the emphasis on an elite group, not only because it has excluded from our attention great stretches of literary activity between, for example, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, but also because it has rendered invisible the daily lives, the physical experiences, the personal strategies and conflicts of ordinary women. If we want to define the ways in which "female self-awareness" has expressed itself in the English novel, we need to see the woman novelist against the backdrop of the women of her time, as well as in relation to other writers in history. Virginia Woolf recognized that need:

The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman's life—the number of her children, whether she had money of her own, if she had a room to herself, whether she had help in bringing up her family, if she had servants, whether part of the housework was her task—it is only when we can measure the way of life and the experience of life made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as writer. 13

As scholars have been persuaded that women's experience is important, they have begun to see it for the first time. With a new perceptual framework, material hitherto assumed to be nonexistent has suddenly leaped into focus. Interdisciplinary studies of Victorian women have opened up new areas of investigation in medicine, psychology, economics, political science , labor history, and art. 14 Questions of the "female imagination" have taken on intellectual weight in the contexts of theories of Karen Horney about feminine psychology, Erik Erikson about womanhood and the inner space, and R. D. Laing about the divided self. Investigation of female iconography and imagery has been stimulated by the work of art historians like Linda Nochlin, Lise Vogel, and Helene Roberts. 15

As the works of dozens of women writers have been rescued from what E. P. Thompson calls "the enormous condescension of posterity," 16 and considered in relation to each other, the lost continent of the female tradition has risen like Atlantis from the sea of English literature . It is now becoming clear that, contrary to Mill's theory, women have had a literature of their own all along. The woman novelist, according to Vineta Colby, was "really neither single nor anomalous," but she was also more than a "register and a spokesman for her age." 17 She was part of a tradition that had its origins before her age, and has carried on through our own.

Many literary historians have begun to reinterpret and revise the study of women writers. Ellen Moers sees women's literature as an international movement, "apart from, but hardly subordinate to the mainstream: an undercurrent, rapid and powerful. This 'movement' began in the late eighteenth century, was multinational, and produced some of the greatest literary works of two centuries, as well as most of the lucrative pot-boilers." 18 Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Female Imagination, finds that "for readily discernible historical reasons women have characteristically concerned themselves with matters more or less peripheral to male concerns, or at least slightly skewed from them. The differences between traditional female preoccupations and roles and male ones make a difference in female writing." 19 Many other critics are beginning to agree that when we look at women writers collectively we can see an imaginative continuum, the recurrence of certain patterns, themes, problems, and images from generation to generation.

This book is an effort to describe the female literary tradition in the English novel from the generation of the Brontës to the present day, and to show how the development of this tradition is similar to the development of any literary subculture. Women have generally been regarded as "sociological chameleons," taking on the class, lifestyle, and culture of their male relatives. It can, however, be argued that women themselves have constituted a subculture within the framework of a larger society, and have been unified by values, conventions, experiences, and behaviors impinging on each individual. It is important to see the female literary tradition in these broad terms, in relation to the wider evolution of women's self-awareness and to the ways in which any minority group finds its direction of self-expression relative to a dominant society, because we cannot show a pattern of deliberate progress and accumulation. It is true, as Ellen Moers writes, that "women studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex"; 20 in terms of influences, borrowings, and affinities, the tradition is strongly marked. But it is also full of holes and hiatuses, because of what Germaine Greer calls the "phenomenon of the transcience of female literary fame"; "almost uninterruptedly since the Interregnum, a small group of women have enjoyed dazzling literary prestige during their own lifetimes, only to vanish without trace from the records of posterity." 21 Thus each generation of women writers has found itself, in a sense, without a history, forced to rediscover the past anew, forging again and again the consciousness of their sex. Given this perpetual disruption, and also the self-hatred that has alienated women writers from a sense of collective identity, it does not seem possible to speak of a "movement."

I am also uncomfortable with the notion of a "female imagination." The theory of a female sensibility revealing itself in an imagery and form specific to women always runs dangerously close to reiterating the familiar stereotypes. It also suggests permanence, a deep, basic, and inevitable difference between male and female ways of perceiving the world. I think that, instead, the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society. Moreover, the "female imagination" cannot be treated by literary historians as a romantic or Freudian abstraction. It is the product of a delicate network of influences operating in time, and it must be analyzed as it expresses itself, in language and in a fixed arrangement of words on a page, a form that itself is subject to a network of influences and conventions, including the operations of the marketplace. In this investigation of the English novel, I am intentionally looking, not at an innate sexual attitude, but at the ways in which the self-awareness of the woman writer has translated itself into a literary form in a specific place and time-span, how this self-awareness has changed and developed, and where it might lead.

I am therefore concerned with the professional writer who wants pay and publication, not with the diarist or letter-writer. This emphasis has required careful consideration of the novelists, as well as the novels, chosen for discussion. When we turn from the overview of the literary tradition to look at the individuals who composed it, a different but interrelated set of motives, drives, and sources becomes prominent. I have needed to ask why women began to write for money and how they negotiated the activity of writing within their families. What was their professional self-image? How was their work received, and what effects did criticism have upon them? What were their experiences as women, and how were these reflected in their books? What was their understanding of womanhood? What were their relationships to other women, to men, and to their readers? How did changes in women's status affect their lives and careers? And how did the vocation of writing itself change the women who committed themselves to it? In looking at literary subcultures, such as black, Jewish, Canadian, Anglo-Indian, or even American, we can see that they all go through three major phases. First, there is a prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles. Second, there is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity. 22 An appropriate terminology for women writers is to call these stages Feminine, Feminist, and Female. These are obviously not rigid categories, distinctly separable in time, to which individual writers can be assigned with perfect assurance. The phases overlap; there are feminist elements in feminine writing, and vice versa. One might also find all three phases in the career of a single novelist. Nonetheless, it seems useful to point to periods of crisis when a shift of literary values occurred. In this book I identify the Feminine phase as the period from the appearance of the male pseudonym in the 1840s to the death of George Eliot in 1880; the Feminist phase as 1880 to 1920, or the winning of the vote; and the Female phase as 1920 to the present, but entering a new stage of self-awareness about 1960.

It is important to understand the female subculture not only as what Cynthia Ozick calls "custodial" 23 —a set of opinions, prejudices, tastes, and values prescribed for a subordinate group to perpetuate its subordination—but also as a thriving and positive entity. Most discussions of women as a subculture have come from historians describing Jacksonian America, but they apply equally well to the situation of early Victorian England. According to Nancy Cott, "we can view women's group consciousness as a subculture uniquely divided against itself by ties to the dominant culture. While the ties to the dominant culture are the informing and restricting ones, they provoke within the subculture certain strengths as well as weaknesses, enduring values as well as accommodations." 24 The middle-class ideology of the proper sphere of womanhood, which developed in post-industrial England and America, prescribed a woman who would be a Perfect Lady, an Angel in the House, contentedly submissive to men, but strong in her inner purity and religiosity, queen in her own realm of the Home. 25 Many observers have pointed out that the first professional activities of Victorian women, as social reformers, nurses, governesses, and novelists, either were based in the home or were extensions of the feminine role as teacher, helper, and mother of mankind. In describing the American situation, two historians have seen a subculture emerging from the doctrine of sexual spheres:

By "subculture" we mean simply "a habit of living"…ofaminority group which is self-consciously distinct from the dominant activities, expectations, and values of a society. Historians have seen female church groups, reform associations, and philanthropic activity as expressions of this subculture in actual behavior, while a large and rich body of writing by and for women articulated the subculture impulses on the ideational level. Both behavior and thought point to child-rearing, religious activity, education, home life, associationism, and female communality as components of women's subculture. Female friendships, strikingly intimate and deep in this period, formed the actual bonds. 26

For women in England, the female subculture came first through a shared and increasingly secretive and ritualized physical experience. Puberty, menstruation, sexual initiation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause—the entire female sexual life cycle—constituted a habit of living that had to be concealed. Although these episodes could not be openly discussed or acknowledged, they were accompanied by elaborate rituals and lore, by external codes of fashion and etiquette, and by intense feelings of female solidarity. 27 Women writers were united by their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers; by the internalized doctrines of evangelicalism, with its suspicion of the imagination and its emphasis on duty; and by legal and economic constraints on their mobility. Sometimes they were united in a more immediate way, around a political cause. On the whole these are the implied unities of culture, rather than the active unities of consciousness.

From the beginning, however, women novelists' awareness of each other and of their female audience showed a kind of covert solidarity that sometimes amounted to a genteel conspiracy. Advocating sisterhood, Sarah Ellis, one of the most conservative writers of the first Victorian generation, asked: "What should we think of a community of slaves, who betrayed each other's interests? of a little band of shipwrecked mariners upon a friendless shore who were false to each other? of the inhabitants of a defenceless nation, who would not unite together in earnestness and good faith against a common enemy?" 28 Mrs. Ellis felt the binding force of the minority experience for women strongly enough to hint, in the prefaces to her widely read treatises on English womanhood, that her female audience would both read the messages between her lines and refrain from betraying what they deciphered. As another conservative novelist, Dinah Mulock Craik, wrote, "The intricacies of female nature are incomprehensible except to a woman; and any biographer of real womanly feeling, if ever she discovered, would never dream of publishing them." 29 Few English women writers openly advocated the use of fiction as revenge against a patriarchal society (as did the American novelist Fanny Fern, for example), but many confessed to sentiments of "maternal feeling, sisterly affection, esprit de corps " 30 for their readers. Thus the clergyman's daughter, going to Mudie's for her three-decker novel by another clergyman's daughter, participated in a cultural exchange that had a special personal significance.

It is impossible to say when women began to write fiction. From about 1750 on, English women made steady inroads into the literary marketplace, mainly as novelists. As early as 1773, the Monthly Review noticed that "that branch of the literary trade" seemed "almost entirely engrossed by the ladies." J. M. S. Tompkins finds that most eighteenth-century epistolary novels were written by women; the Minerva Press published twice as many novels by women as by men; and Ian Watt simply says that the majority of all eighteenth-century novels came from the female pen. 31 At the same time, men were able to imitate, and even usurp, female experience. Oliver Goldsmith suspected that men were writing sentimental novels under female pseudonyms, and men did write books on childcare, midwifery, housekeeping, and cooking. 32

Early women writers' relationship to their professional role was uneasy. Eighteenth-century women novelists exploited a stereotype of helpless femininity to win chivalrous protection from male reviewers and to minimize their unwomanly self-assertion. In 1791 Elizabeth Inchbald prefaced A Simple Story with the lie that she was a poor invalid who had written a novel despite "the utmost detestation to the fatigue of inventing." 33 At the turn of the century, women evaded the issue of professional identity by publishing anonymously. In 1810 Mary Brunton explained in a letter to a friend why she preferred anonymity to taking credit for her novels:

I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy ) fame, however brilliant, to be pointed at,—to be noticed and commented upon—to be suspected of literary airs—to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred as literary women are, by the pretending of the other!—my dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer. 34

Here again we need to remember the distinction between the novel as a form, and the professional role of the novelist. Many of the most consistent themes and images of the feminine novel, from the mysterious interiors of Gothic romance to the balancing of duty and self-fulfillment in domestic fiction, can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. Certainly nineteenth-century women novelists had some familiarity with Burney, Edgeworth, Radcliffe, and Austen, as well as with scores of lesser writers such as Inchbald and Hofland. But almost no sense of communality and self-awareness is apparent among women writers before the 1840s, which Kathleen Tillotson sees as the decade in which the novel became the dominant form. Tillotson points out that, despite the respectful attention paid by mid-Victorian critics to Jane Austen (attention that had some negative impact on Victorian women novelists), there appears to have been relatively little direct influence by Austen on Mrs. Gaskell, Harriet Martineau , the Brontës, and several minor writers. 35 Even George Eliot's debt to Austen has been much exaggerated by the concept of the Great Tradition. 36 The works of Mary Wollstonecraft were not widely read by the Victorians due to the scandals surrounding her life.


Elizabeth cleghorn gaskell (1810-1865).

A figure of the "golden age" of nineteenth-century English literature , Gaskell is best known for her novels of social reform and psychological realism, notably Ruth (1853) and North and South (1854). Her treatment of issues ranging from prostitution to mother-daughter relations both captured the public imagination and generated controversy during Gaskell's own lifetime. Critics have emphasized the tensions—between the working and middle classes, between traditional authority and young women, and between the responsibilities of the public and the responsibilities of the individual—that animate Gaskell's novels and foreshadow major social reforms. Gaskell's refined and compassionate portrayals of her central characters—often young, unmarried women who suffer misfortune—and her skillful use of detail have established an enduring popularity for and interest in her work.

Born in London, Gaskell developed her life-long love of reading at an early age. She married William Gaskell, a young Unitarian clergyman, in 1832 and lived in Manchester. Of her six children, five survived infancy; it was in response to the death of her second child, William, from scarlet fever in 1845 that her husband suggested Gaskell begin writing as a form of distraction from mourning. The resulting novel, Mary Barton (1848), reflected Gaskell's interest in the plight of families, and particularly of women, affected by the industrialization of England. Gaskell was active in charitable endeavors, and developed friendships with a number of prominent persons of literary or charitable circles, including George Eliot, Mary Howitt, Charlotte Brontë, and Florence Nightingale . After the popular success of Mary Barton Gaskell produced a prolific number of short stories and novels over the remaining years of her life, many of which appeared in Household Words, a popular journal edited by Charles Dickens .

More important than the question of direct literary influence, however, is the difference between the social and professional worlds inhabited by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women. The early women writers refused to deal with a professional role, or had a negative orientation toward it. "What is my life?" lamented the poet Laetitia Landon. "One day of drudgery after another; difficulties incurred for others, which have ever pressed upon me beyond health, which every year, in one severe illness after another, is taxed beyond its strength; envy, malice, and all uncharitableness—these are the fruits of a successful literary career for a woman." 37 These women may have been less than sincere in their insistence that literary success brought them only suffering, but they were not able to see themselves as involved in a vocation that brought responsibilities as well as conflicts, and opportunities as well as burdens. Moreover, they did not see their writing as an aspect of their female experience, or as an expression of it.

Thus, in talking about the situation of the feminine novelists, I have begun with the women born after 1800, who began to publish fiction during the 1840s when the job of the novelist was becoming a recognizable profession. One of the many indications that this generation saw the will to write as a vocation in direct conflict with their status as women is the appearance of the male pseudonym. Like Eve's fig leaf, the male pseudonym signals the loss of innocence. In its radical understanding of the role-playing required by women's effort to participate in the mainstream of literary culture, the pseudonym is a strong marker of the historical shift.

There were three generations of nineteenth-century feminine novelists. The first, born between 1800 and 1820, included all the women who are identified with the Golden Age of the Victorian authoress: the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning , Harriet Martineau , and George Eliot. The members of this group, whose coevals were Florence Nightingale , Mary Carpenter, Angela Burdett, and other pioneer professionals, were what sociologists call "female role innovators"; they were breaking new ground and creating new possibilities. The second generation, born between 1820 and 1840, included Charlotte Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, Margaret Oliphant, and Elizabeth Lynn Linton; these women followed in the footsteps of the great, consolidating their gains, but were less dedicated and original. The third generation, born between 1840 and 1860, included sensation novelists and children's book writers. They seemed to cope effortlessly with the double roles of woman and professional, and to enjoy sexual fulfillment as well as literary success. Businesslike, unconventional, efficient, and productive, they moved into editorial and publishing positions as well as writing.

By the time the women of the first generation had entered upon their careers, there was already a sense of what the "feminine" novel meant in terms of genres. By the 1840s women writers had adopted a variety of popular genres, and were specializing in novels of fashionable life, education, religion, and community, which Vineta Colby subsumes under the heading "domestic realism." In all these novels, according to Inga-Stina Ewbank, "the central preoccupation … is with the woman as an influence on others within her domestic and social circle. It was in this preoccupation that the typical woman novelist of the 1840s found her proper sphere: in using the novel to demonstrate (by assumption rather than exploration of standards of womanliness) woman's proper sphere." 38 A double standard of literary criticism had also developed with a special set of terms and requirements for fiction by women.

There was a place for such fiction, but even the most conservative and devout women novelists, such as Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik, were aware that the "feminine" novel also stood for feebleness, ignorance, prudery, refinement, propriety, and sentimentality, while the feminine novelist was portrayed as vain, publicity-seeking, and self-assertive. At the same time that Victorian reviewers assumed that women readers and women writers were dictating the content of fiction, they deplored the pettiness and narrowness implied by a feminine value system. "Surely it is very questionable," wrote Fitzjames Stephen, "whether it is desirable that no novels should be written except those fit for young ladies to read." 39

Victorian feminine novelists thus found themselves in a double bind. They felt humiliated by the condescension of male critics and spoke intensely of their desire to avoid special treatment and achieve genuine excellence, but they were deeply anxious about the possibility of appearing unwomanly. Part of the conflict came from the fact that, rather than confronting the values of their society, these women novelists were competing for its rewards. For women, as for other subcultures, literature became a symbol of achievement.

In the face of this dilemma, women novelists developed several strategies, both personal and artistic. Among the personal reactions was a persistent self-deprecation of themselves as women, sometimes expressed as humility, sometimes as coy assurance-seeking, and sometimes as the purest self-hatred. In a letter to John Black-wood, Mrs. Oliphant expressed doubt about "whether in your most manly and masculine of magazines a womanish story-teller like myself may not become wearisome." 40 The novelists publicly proclaimed, and sincerely believed, their antifeminism. By working in the home, by preaching submission and self-sacrifice, and by denouncing female self-assertiveness, they worked to atone for their own will to write.

Vocation—the will to write—nonetheless required a genuine transcendence of female identity. Victorian women were not accustomed to choosing a vocation; womanhood was a vocation in itself. The evangelically inspired creed of work did affect women, even though it had not been primarily directed toward them. Like men, women were urged to "bear their part in the work of life." 41 Yet for men, the gospel of work satisfied both self-interest and the public interest. In pursing their ambitions, they fulfilled social expectations.

For women, however, work meant labor for others. Work, in the sense of self-development, was in direct conflict with the subordination and repression inherent in the feminine ideal. The self-centeredness implicit in the act of writing made this career an especially threatening one; it required an engagement with feeling and a cultivation of the ego rather than its negation. The widely circulated treatises of Hannah More and Sarah Ellis translated the abstractions of "women's mission" into concrete programs of activity, which made writing appear selfish, unwomanly, and unchristian. "'What shall I do to gratify myself—to be admired—or to vary the tenor of my existence?'" are not, according to Mrs. Ellis, "questions which a woman of right feelings asks on first awakening to the avocations of the day." Instead she recommends visiting the sick, fixing breakfast for anyone setting on a journey in order to spare the servant, or general "devotion to the good of the whole family." "Who can believe," she asks fervently, "that days, months, and years spent in a continual course of thought and action similar to this, will not produce a powerful effect upon the character?" 42 Of course it did; one notices first of all that feminine writers like Elizabeth Barrett, "Charlotte Elizabeth," Elizabeth M. Sewell, and Mrs. Ellis herself had to overcome deep-seated guilt about authorship. Many found it necessary to justify their work by recourse to some external stimulus or ideology. In their novels, the heroine's aspirations for a full, independent life are undermined, punished, or replaced by marriage.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 's Aurora Leigh (1857) is one of the few autobiographical discussions of feminine role conflict. Aurora's struggle to become an artist is complicated by the self-hatred in which she has been educated, by her internalized convictions of her weakness and narcissism, and by the gentle scorn of her suitor Romney. She defies him, however, and invokes divine authority to reject his proposal that she become his helpmeet:

Aurora succeeds as a poet. But she marries Romney in the end, having learned that as a woman she cannot cope with the guilt of self-centered ambition. It is significant that Romney has been blinded in an accident before she marries him, not only because he has thereby received firsthand knowledge of being handicapped and can empathize with her, but also because he then needs her help and can provide her with suitably feminine work. When Aurora tells Romney that "No perfect artist is developed here / From any imperfect woman" (Book >IX>, 648-649) she means more than the perfection of love and motherhood; she means also the perfection of self-sacrifice. This conflict remains a significant one for English novelists up to the present; it is a major theme for women novelists from Charlotte Brontë to Penelope Mortimer. Male novelists like Thackeray, who came from an elite class, also felt uncomfortable with the aggressive self-promotion of the novelist's career. As Donald Stone points out:

Thackeray's ambivalent feelings towards Becky Sharp indicate the degree to which he attempted to suppress or make light of his own literary talents. The energies which make her (for a time) a social success are akin to those which made him a creative artist. In the hands of a major woman novelist, like Jane Austen or George Eliot, the destructive moral and social implications of Becky's behavior would have been defined more clearly and more urgently. Jane Austen's dissection of Lydia Bennet, and George Eliot's demolition of Rosamond Vincy, for example, indicate both how and why the defense of the status quo—insofar as women of the nineteenth century were concerned—was most earnestly and elaborately performed by women writers. Their heroines are hardly concerned with self-fulfillment in the modern sense of the term, and if they have severely limited possibilities in life it is because their authors saw great danger in, plus a higher alternative to, the practice of self-assertiveness. 43

The dilemma is stated by George Eliot in Romola as the question of where "the duty of obedience ends and the duty of resistance begins." 44 Yet this was the question any Victorian woman with the will to write would have had to ask herself: what did God intend her to do with her life? Where did obedience to her father and husband end, and the responsibility of self-fulfillment become paramount? The problem of obedience and resistance that women had to solve in their own lives before they could begin to write crops up in their novels as the heroine's moral crisis. The forms that the crisis takes in feminine fiction are realistically mundane—should Margaret, in Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, lie to protect her brother? should Ethel May, in Charlotte Younge's Daisy Chain, give up studying Greek to nurse her father?—but the sources were profound, and were connected to the women novelists' sense of epic life. At the same time that they recognized the modesty of their own struggles, women writers recognized their heroism. "A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life," wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch, "any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know." 45

The training of Victorian girls in repression, concealment, and self-censorship was deeply inhibiting, especially for those who wanted to write. As one novelist commented in 1860, "Women are greater dissemblers than men when they wish to conceal their own emotions. By habit, moral training, and modern education, they are obliged to do so. The very first lessons of infancy teach them to repress their feelings, control their very thoughts." 46 The verbal range permitted to English gentlewomen amounted almost to a special language. The verbal inhibitions that were part of the upbringing of a lady were reinforced by the critics' vigilance. "It is an immense loss," lamented Alice James, "to have all robust and sustaining expletives refined away from one." 47 "Coarseness" was the term Victorian readers used to rebuke unconventional language in women's literature. It could refer to the "damns" in Jane Eyre, the dialect in Wuthering Heights, the slang of Rhoda Broughton's heroines, the colloquialisms in Aurora Leigh, or more generally to the moral tone of a work, such as the "vein of perilous voluptuousness" one alert critic detected in Adam Bede. 48 John Keble censored Charlotte Yonge's fiction, taking the greatest care "that no hint of 'coarseness' should sully the purity of Charlotte's writings. Thus he would not allow Theodora in Heartsease to say that 'really she had a heart, though some people thought it was only a machine for pumping blood.' He also transformed the 'circle' of the setting sun into an 'orb' and a 'coxcomb' into a 'jackanapes'." 49 While verbal force, wit, and originality in women was criticized, a bland and gelatinous prose won applause. "She writes as an English gentlewoman should write," the North British Review complimented Anne Marsh in 1849; "her pages are absolutely like green pastures." 50 Reduced to a pastoral flatness, deprived of a language in which to describe their bodies or the events of their bodies, denied the expression of pain as well as the expression of pleasure, women writers appeared deficient in passion.

It is easy to understand why many readers took the absence of expression for the absence of feeling. In "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," W. R. Greg argued that woman's sexual innocence would prevent her ever writing a great novel:

Many of the saddest and deepest truths in the strange science of sexual affection are to her mysteriously and mercifully veiled and can only be purchased at such a fearful cost that we cannot wish it otherwise. The inevitable consequence however is that in treating of that science she labours under all the disadvantages of partial study and superficial insight. She is describing a country of which she knows only the more frequented and the safer roads, with a few of the sweeter scenes and the prettier by-paths and more picturesque detours which be not far from the broad and beaten thoroughfares; while the rockier and loftier mountains, and more rugged tracts, the more sombre valleys, and the darker and more dangerous chasms, are never trodden by her feet, and scarcely ever dreamed of by her fancy. 51

The results of restrictive education and intensive conditioning were taken as innate evidence of natural preference. In an ironic twist, many reviewers who had paternally barred the way to the sombre valleys, the darker chasms, and the more rugged tracts also blamed women for the emasculation of male prose, finding, like the Prospective Review, that the "writing of men is in danger of being marked" by "the delicacy and even fastidiousness of expression which is natural to educated women" [my italics]. 52 When G. H. Lewes complained in 1852 that the literature of women was "too much a literature of imitation" and demanded that women should express "what they have really known, felt and suffered," 53 he was asking for something that Victorian society had made impossible. Feminine novelists had been deprived of the language and the consciousness for such an enterprise, and obviously their deprivation extended beyond Victoria's reign and into the twentieth century. The delicacy and verbal fastidiousness of Virginia Woolf is an extension of this feminized language.

Florence Nightingale thought the effort of repression itself drained off women's creative energy. "Give us back our suffering," she demanded in Cassandra (1852), "for out of nothing comes nothing. But out of suffering may come the cure. Better have pain than paralysis." 54 It does sometimes seem as if feminine writers are metaphorically paralyzed, as Alice James was literally paralyzed, by refinement and restraint, but the repression in which the feminine novel was situated also forced women to find innovative and covert ways to dramatize the inner life, and led to a fiction that was intense, compact, symbolic, and profound. There is Charlotte Brontë's extraordinary subversion of the Gothic in Jane Eyre, in which the mad wife locked in the attic symbolizes the passionate and sexual side of Jane's personality, an alter ego that her upbringing, her religion, and her society have commanded her to incarcerate. There is the crippled artist heroine of Dinah Craik's Olive (1850), who identifies with Byron, and whose deformity represents her very womanhood. There are the murderous little wives of Mary Braddon's sensation novels, golden-haired killers whose actions are a sardonic commentary on the real feelings of the Angel in the House.

Many of the fantasies of feminine novels are related to money, mobility, and power. Although feminine novelists punished assertive heroines, they dealt with personal ambition by projecting the ideology of success onto male characters, whose initiative, thrift, industry, and perseverance came straight from the woman author's experience. The "woman's man," discussed in Chapter iv, was often a more effective outlet for the "deviant" aspects of the author's personality than were her heroines, and thus male role-playing extended beyond the pseudonym to imaginative content.

Protest fiction represented another projection of female experience onto another group; it translated the felt pain and oppression of women into the championship of mill-workers, child laborers, prostitutes, and slaves. Women were aware that protest fiction converted anger and frustration into an acceptable form of feminine and Christian expression. In the social novels of the 1840s and 1850s, and the problem novels of the 1860s and 1870s, women writers were pushing back the boundaries of their sphere, and presenting their profession as one that required not only freedom of language and thought, but also mobility and activity in the world. The sensation novelists of the 1870s, including Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, and Florence Marryat, used this new freedom in a transitional literature that explored genuinely radical female protest against marriage and women's economic oppression, although still in the framework of feminine conventions that demanded the erring heroine's destruction.

From Jane Austen to George Eliot, the woman's novel had moved, despite its restrictions, in the direction of an all-inclusive female realism, a broad, socially informed exploration of the daily lives and values of women within the family and the community. By 1880, the three-decker had become flexible enough to accommodate many of the formerly unprintable aspects of female experience. Yet with the death of George Eliot and the appearance of a new generation of writers, the woman's novel moved into a Feminist phase, a confrontation with male society that elevated Victorian sexual stereotypes into a cult. The feminists challenged many of the restrictions on women's self-expression, denounced the gospel of self-sacrifice, attacked patriarchal religion, and constructed a theoretical model of female oppression, but their anger with society and their need for self-justification often led them away from realism into oversimplification, emotionalism, and fantasy. Making their fiction the vehicle for a dramatization of wronged womanhood, they demanded changes in the social and political systems that would grant women male privileges and require chastity and fidelity from men. The profound sense of injustice that the feminine novelists had represented as class struggle in their novels of factory life becomes an all-out war of the sexes in the novels of the feminists. Even their pseudonyms show their sense of feminist pride and of matriarchal mission to their sisters; one representative feminist called herself "Sarah Grand." In its extreme form, feminist literature advocated the sexual separatism of Amazon utopias and suffragette sisterhoods.

In the lives of the feminists, the bonds of the female subculture were particularly strong. The feminists were intensely devoted to each other and needed the support of close, emotional friendships with other women as well as the loving adulation of a female audience. In this generation, which mainly comprises women born between 1860 and 1880, one finds sympathetically attuned women writing in teams; Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were even said to have continued the collaboration beyond the grave. 55 Although they preached individualism, their need for association led to a staggering number of clubs, activities, and causes, culminating in the militant groups and the almost terrifying collectivity of the suffrage movement. They glorified and idealized the womanly values of chastity and maternal love, and believed that those values must be forced upon a degenerate male society.

In their lives and in their books, most feminist writers expressed both an awareness of, and a revulsion from, sexuality. Like the feminine novelists, they projected many of their own experiences onto male characters, creating, for example, the Scarlet Pimpernels, "effeminate" fops by day and fearless heroes by night, semi-androgynous symbols of a generation in uneasy transition. To some degree these tactics were typical of the period in which they wrote; male novelists were creating "masculine" independent women who, as Donald Stone puts it, "could be used as a cover for those men who, for one reason or another, were anxious to proclaim their own standards and follow their own instincts." 56

As the feminists themselves often seem neurotic and divided in their roles, less productive than earlier generations, and subject to paralyzing psychosomatic illnesses, so their fiction seems to break down in its form. In the 1890s the three-decker novel abruptly disappeared due to changes in its marketability, and women turned to short stories and fragments, which they called "dreams," "keynotes," and "fantasias." At the turn of the century came the purest examples of feminist literature, the novels, poems, and plays written as suffragette propaganda and distributed by the efficient and well-financed suffrage presses.

The feminist writers were not important artists. Yet in their insistence on exploring and defining womanhood, in their rejection of self-sacrifice, and even in their outspoken hostility to men, the feminist writers represented an important stage, a declaration of independence, in the female tradition. They did produce some interesting and original work, and they opened new subjects for other novelists. Sarah Grand's powerful studies of female psychology, George Egerton's bitter short stories, and Olive Schreiner 's existential socialism were all best-sellers in their own day and still hold attention. Through political campaigns for prostitutes and working women, and in the suffrage crusades, the feminists insisted on their right to use the male sexual vocabulary, and to use it forcefully and openly. The feminists also challenged the monopoly of male publishers and rebelled against the dictatorship of the male establishment. Men— John Chapman , John Blackwood, Henry Blackett, George Smith—had published the works of feminine novelists and had exerted direct and enormous power over their contents. Sarah Grand parodied the masculine critical hegemony by describing a literary journal she called the Patriarch, and feminist journalists, writing in their own magazines, argued against the judgments of the men of letters. In the 1860s the sensation novelists had begun to retain their copyrights, work with printers on a commission basis, and edit their own magazines. The feminists continued to expand this economic control of publishing outlets. Virginia Woolf, printing her own novels at the Hogarth Press, owed much of her independence to the feminists' insistence on the need for women writers to be free of patriarchal commercialism.

… Feminine, feminist, or female, the woman's novel has always had to struggle against the cultural and historical forces that relegated women's experience to the second rank. In trying to outline the female tradition, I have looked beyond the famous novelists who have been found worthy, to the lives and works of many women who have long been excluded from literary history. I have tried to discover how they felt about themselves and their books, what choices and sacrifices they made, and how their relationship to their profession and their tradition evolved. "What is commonly called literary history," writes Louise Bernikow, "is actually a record of choices. Which writers have survived their time and which have not depends upon who noticed them and chose to record the notice. 57 If some of the writers I notice seem to us to be Teresas and Antigones, struggling with their overwhelming sense of vocation and repression, many more will seem only Dorotheas, prim, mistaken, irreparably minor. And yet it is only by considering them all—Millicent Grogan as well as Virginia Woolf—that we can begin to record new choices in a new literary history, and to understand why, despite prejudice, despite guilt, despite inhibition, women began to write.

Works Cited

Books on women and the novel, victorian women, the women's movement, individual novelists..

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel. 10 vols. London: Witherby, 1924-1939.

Basch, Françoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and The Novel. London: Allen Lane, 1974.

Brightfield, Myron. Victorian England in its Novels. 4 vols. Los Angeles : U.C.L.A., 1968.

Coghill, Mrs. Harry, ed. Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant. London: Blackwood, 1899.

Colby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York U. Press, 1970.

——. Yesterday's Women: Domestic Realism in the English Novel. Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1974.

Cott, Nancy F. Root of Bitterness. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972.

Courtney, William L. The Feminine Note in Fiction. London: Chapman & Hall, 1904.

Davidoff, Leonore. The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season. London: Croom Helm, 1973.

Edel, Leon, ed. The Diary of Alice James. London: Hart-Davis, 1965.

Ellmann, Mary. Thinking About Women. London: Virago, 1979.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Novelists. London: Edward Arnold, 1966.

Gornick, Vivian and Barbara K. Moran, eds. Woman in Sexist Society. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Hartman, Mary S. and Lois Banner, eds. Clio's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Ireland, Mrs. Alex, ed. Letters of Geraldine Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle. London: Longmans, Green, 1892.

Mill, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill. Essays on Sex Equality. Ed. Alice S. Rossi. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1970.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: The Women's Press, 1978.

Moore, Doris Langley. E. Nesbit: A Biography. London: Benn, 1967.

Pinney, Thomas, ed. Essays of George Eliot. London: Rout-ledge, 1963.

Rogers, Katherine M. The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature. Seattle and London: U. of Washington Press, 1966.

Rowbotham, Sheila. Hidden From History. London: Pluto Press, 1973.

Shorter, Clement. The Brontës: Life and Letters. 2 vols. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. London: Allen and Unwin, 1976.

Stone, Donald. Novelists in a Changing World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1972.

Strachey, Ray. The Cause. London: Virago, 1978.

Thomson, Patricia. The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal. London: Oxford U. Press, 1956.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. London: Oxford U. Press, 1954.

Tompkins, J. M. S. The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800. London: Methuen, 1932.

Vicinus, Martha, ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. London: Methuen University Paperbacks, 1980.

Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. London: Oxford U. Press, 1971.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays. >II>. Ed. Leonard Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Articles in nineteenth-century periodicals, listed chronologically.

[Lorimer, James]. "Noteworthy Novels," North British Review, >XI> (1849), 255-265.

"Puseyite Novels," Prospective Review, >VI> (1850), 512-534.

[Lewes, G. H.]. "The Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, n.s. >II> (1852), 129-141.

[Greg, W. R.]. "The False Morality of Lady Novelists," National Review, >VII> (1859), 144-167.

"Romola," British Quarterly Review, >XXXVIII> (1863), 448-465.

"George Eliot," British Quarterly Review, >XLV> (1867), 141-178.

Wood, Ann Douglas. "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote," American Quarterly, >XXIII> (Spring 1971), 1-24.


SOURCE: Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. "Introduction: Literature and Society." In Femininity to Feminism: Women and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 1-15. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992. In the following essay, Gorsky describes women's dominating role in development of the realistic novel in the nineteenth century, arguing that a century filled with profound change was heavily influenced by female authors and readers. Toward the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write. —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own 1

Exploring the role of women during the nineteenth century means considering the evolution of feminism, a loaded word that implies a variety of ideas and arouses conflicting reactions. Feminism suggests a practical determination to alter unjust laws, whether about divorce, property, or voting rights. But it also implies a philosophical questioning of traditional values and ideas, from women's intellectual and emotional capacities to male-female relationships to the ways women and men think, act, and feel. A lot happened to women's roles and the women's movement during this period of ferment. The greatest visible changes occurred in family life, education, and jobs, areas that affect all aspects of human existence.

England and America share a heritage of culture, assumptions, laws, and beliefs. American law has its origins in British common law , American literature has often imitated England's and America's dominant religions came over with the pilgrims. Until the nineteenth century, philosophical and artistic movements tended to cross the Atlantic from east to west. In the 1800s, however, America found that unique political, economic, and social realities in the New World required new attitudes, laws, and literature. Through war and economic expansion, the American territory spread from sea to sea and beyond. Westward pioneers pursued dreams of land, freedom, and wealth, and the creation of canals and roads suggested that the vast land could become one nation. Sectional differences threatened the fragile alliance, painfully reasserted through the Civil War . An earlier war separated the American colonies from England, but by the nineteenth century the British Empire stretched from Africa to Asia, from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean. It included more than fifty colonies—areas as diverse as today's New Zealand , Sierra Leone , India, and Jamaica.

The nineteenth century is often seen as a time of relative stability, when people shared the values of family, progress, patriotism, and God; but it was truly an era of change. Cities and industries erupted in the countryside. Social reform , new educational opportunities and jobs, and writings like Darwin's Origin of Species challenged the established order of the universe and the position of humankind. Romanticism legitimized individuality, imaginative expression, and freedom, fostering an atmosphere in which to explore feminist ideas. In this era of search, change, and retreat, familiar patterns seemed sometimes a comforting sanctuary, sometimes a trap to destroy. Accepted values and behaviors sanctified by lip service could mask a reality quite different from the myth. The impact of change is especially obvious in women's lives.

Women's position at the end of the eighteenth century was little changed from the Middle Ages . According to British common law and thus American law, women were essentially men's property: before marriage, a woman's life was determined by her father; after marriage, by her husband; the unmarried woman was considered somehow unnatural. A woman's social status and economic well-being depended on the man in her life, and, to a very large degree, her happiness depended on his goodwill. She had almost no opportunity for education, no chance to develop special interests or choose a career other than wife and mother.

In establishing its constitution, the United States made it clear that neither slaves nor women deserved the full rights of citizenship. A few years after emancipation, male former slaves were granted the right to vote, but it took another half century for women of any color, born slave or not, to earn the same right in the United States and in England. Symbolically and actually, women were seen as less than fully human.

The roots of this attitude lie deep in Western culture. Laws codified attitudes dating back at least to the Old Testament , reinforced by Christian writings. The Book of Genesis states that the first woman was created from man, thus establishing a hierarchy that persists in church doctrine and practice to this day. Anne Bradstreet underscores the positions of God, man, and woman in her poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband" (1678): "Thy love is such I can no way repay / The heavens reward thee manifold I pray."

The Bible defines woman as saint and sinner, mother of the human race, source of suffering and source of salvation. Eve, tempted by the devil, in turn tempts Adam to sin, and thus sorrow and death enter the world. Mary, untouched by sexuality, gives birth to the son of God and thereby offers a path out of sin and suffering. The Old Testament God is a patriarch; the New Testament offers God the Father and God the Son. The most significant women in the Judeo-Christian tradition appear only in relationship to male figures, as wife or mother. So women were defined for centuries.

Women who maintain socially acceptable relationships with men are "good" women; those who defy the norms are "bad." The archetypal good woman starts as a virtuous, obedient daughter and ends as a submissive wife and nurturing mother. If, through fate or accident, she remains unmarried, she can become a saint, devoting her life to religion, good works, her parents, or perhaps her orphaned nieces and nephews. The archetypal bad woman undercuts the role and power of men: if married, she becomes a shrew or nag; if unmarried, she might be seductive, perhaps bearing a child out of wedlock, or mannish, perhaps seeking an education or career. Even her unintentional defiance of the norm disturbs society's equanimity.

In time the social norm, inherently destructive of women's individuality and rights, had to change. Recognizing the opportunity provided by the new nation's birth, Abigail Adams warned her husband: "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." 2 While John Adams responded, "I cannot but laugh," women—and some men—soon took such ideas quite seriously.

The early feminist movement, from late in the eighteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, addressed both practical and theoretical issues. Feminists sought to change marriage laws, control their own property, and obtain jobs and education. They wanted political power, the "voice or representation" to make laws themselves. But they also attempted to change their second-class status in another sense, desiring recognition as independent people defined by their actions and valued in and for themselves. These philosophical issues lay beneath the surface of pragmatic actions and goals. By the early twentieth century, feminists made many practical gains, but women's position did not yet equal men's. The nineteenth-century feminists left a legacy of change, but also a legacy of work yet to be done: they sought—as today's feminists still seek—true equality.

Literature in a Time of Change

Literature both influences and reflects the times in which it is written, sometimes prefiguring events in society and sometimes supporting an earlier reality by suggesting that it still exists. In the nineteenth century, poetry tended to be stylized, formal, and often dissociated from social reality; an exception is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem about child labor , "Cry of the Children" (1844). In part because of Victorian censorship, the theater largely degenerated into imitations and revivals of eighteenth-century comedies, presentations of Shakespeare's plays suitably purged to fit new sensibilities, and banal or melodramatic contemporary works: Mark Twain's "Royal Nonesuch" parody is more apt and less exaggerated than many modern readers of Huckleberry Finn (1844) realize.

Fiction dominated the literary scene. The chosen vehicle for many great writers, the novel reached the widest and most varied audience and most directly revealed social change. Because it was women who most often read and wrote novels, changing attitudes toward women's roles are most reflected in and perhaps influenced by fiction. Finally, as Virginia Woolf suggests in the words heading this chapter, many women wrote about and for themselves. Thus, the best literary source for considering women's changing roles is fiction, especially the realistic novel.

But how real is the realistic novel? Some historians use fiction as a source, arguing that since history tends to ignore women, novels provide more useful information about their lives; theorists may even challenge the objectivity of history itself, suggesting that it, too, is fiction. Further complicating matters, some literary critics argue that the author is also a kind of fiction. Yet clearly literature has an author, a human being influenced by the beliefs and events of the time and whose writings are likewise colored; clearly, regardless of bias, historians use facts differently from novelists.

Novels use details of external reality to establish a character, describe a setting, or suggest a theme. They use social data not necessarily to provide an accurate picture of society at a given time and place but to enhance some element of fiction. Given that purpose, they distort fact, whether consciously or unconsciously. To expect fiction to serve as a literal source of history is to ignore what makes it art. Yet, while not social documents, novels are closer to reality than most other genres.

The fictional use of realistic detail derives from and affirms an aesthetic theory and philosophical stance with these premises: the world "out there" is objectively definable; it is separate from the perceiver; it is "real" and significant in itself, not just in relation to the perceiver. When these ideas lost their widespread acceptance around 1900, the nature of the novel began to change.

Nineteenth-century fiction presents a fairly consistent picture of daily life: Husband and wife live comfortably with one or two children and at least one servant in a fairly large private house. Each day except Sunday, the man goes to work in one of the professions or in business. The woman spends her days close to home, visiting neighbors, performing charitable acts, sewing, reading, or subtly forwarding her daughters' chances of marriage. The boys attend school and perhaps college, while the girls receive little education but acquire a few graceful arts. Marriages almost never end in divorce, men are nearly always faithful, and women virtually never work outside the home. But social reality did not always match this picture, for a variety of reasons.

Because even the most realistic novel is still art, it reflects literary convention as much as social reality. Understanding how writers define women's changing roles and the evolution of feminist thought requires recognizing the interrelationship between literature and reality and knowing something about literary heritage.

The Realistic Novel

Early in the eighteenth century, the novel developed both the parameters that loosely demarcate the genre and the constant bending of those parameters that gives the genre its characteristic flexibility. Defoe explored the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; Richardson tried various modes of narration; Fielding struggled tongue-in-cheek to connect the new genre to the old ones, suggesting that Joseph Andrews (1774) might be either a biography or a "comic epic-poem in prose" (7). As early as 1767, Laurence Sterne could challenge the barely established conventions with the outrageous, great, and experimental Tristram Shandy. The genre's versatility appears not only in the work of these masters but also in a proliferation of variants. Sterne's exploration of psychological theory and human nature found followers; Walpole, Radcliffe, and others introduced the Gothic novel; Fanny Burney 's Evelina (1778) prefigured Jane Austen's more important novels of manners, and all of these authors had uncounted imitators.

By the early nineteenth century, the novel was established as the genre that most directly represented real life. True, Sir Walter Scott 's historical romance, designed to reflect the imagination of the author more than the reality of ordinary life, had many followers who met the universal need to escape from the ordinary and to savor the enchantment of other worlds. Romanticism dominated America's extraordinary midcentury literary flowering, but even Melville and Hawthorne adhered to the fundamental rule of allowing their audience to identify with their characters and situations. England's "penny dreadfuls" and America's " dime novels " spawned a plethora of adventure tales with contemporary references, bloodshed, and violence; Dickens adapted this popular genre to his purposes. Gothic fiction also remained, to find major exponents such as Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, to sneak into the works of Scott and the Brontës, and to be satirized in Austen's Northanger Abbey (1803). But every variant of the novel has some realistic portrayal of human nature if not of ordinary human life; literature would hold little interest if it lacked connection with its readers' real concerns.

The dominant form in the nineteenth century had a far more direct connection with the real world: through variations such as the novel of manners, the problem novel, and the psychological novel, the genre consistently attempts to portray reality in fiction—to use ordinary language to show ordinary people doing ordinary things. Regional fiction, such as the short-story collections A New England Nun (1891) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) by Sarah Orne Jewett , set its characters' situations in the context of a specific culture—thus revealing social history, especially women's daily lives. Among these local colorists were other poets and novelists of the American south and west: Kate Chopin, Mary Murfree, Grace Elizabeth King, and Constance Fenimore Woolson, sometimes described as the first realistic writer. The romantic love story of Jackson's Ramona (1884) depends upon the actual struggle for land and power among Indians, Mexicans, and whites in California. So, too, propagandistic fiction like Stowe's Uncle Tom 's Cabin (1852) or historical romances like Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1859) let us ask what the Victorians considered "the question of supreme interest in art, the question upon which depends our whole interest in art": namely, "what are its relations to life?" 3

Mimesis—the notion that art imitates the world outside itself—is an ancient aesthetic theory. Devoted to truthful representation, realistic novels are designed to reflect the authors' understanding of the world immediately around them, a world whose attributes can be determined through direct experience, and in which the consequences of actions can be discerned. Authors deal not with absolute truths but with relative ones, not an ideal sought through transcendence but a reality found in experience. Such a theory of art pretty much demands a representational mode: thus, realists strive to present a world very much like the one they perceive, and they struggle to make their perception widely accepted rather than esoteric.

Most practitioners of the realistic novel tend to see themselves partly as teachers or moral guides. Realistic novels display an unusual degree of social consciousness, attempting to address the conscience and redress the ignorance of their readers. The most trivial plot may work toward this end. Decrying the sentimentality and escapism they see in romantic fiction, and usually avoiding overt moralizing, realists present a picture of ordinary life designed to inculcate in the reader an understanding of some truth, to enhance a sense of morality or reveal essential human bonds. Moralizing or propagandizing novels necessarily assert a fairly direct relationship between art and life: if art did not imitate life, it could not hope to influence it. Early-nineteenth-century novelists, more comfortable with the assumptions of their age, tend to speak for them, whereas later writers tend, however subtly, to criticize their society, as is obvious when they deal with the transformation of women's roles.

Concerned with presenting an immediately significant world with which their readers can sympathize, realists focus on character, the external and psychological effects of action, the outcome of moral decisions or ethical positions, and, above all, the everyday details of normal life in ordinary middle-class society. Because of the realistic novel's social setting and educational or moral purpose, its plot often revolves around a social problem. The heroic adventures and misadventures of the romance and the distancing effect of the historical novel give way to the mundane events and issues relevant to men and women supposedly very much like the men and women reading about them. The point is verisimilitude, though not simply for its own sake. The small truths should lead to greater ones.

Victorian novelists and critics questioned how imagination affects writing and how a novel relates to the world it reflects. Defending Oliver Twist (1841) as realistic, Dickens, in his preface, claimed to present degraded figures "as they really are," without the "allurements and fascinations" used by less realistic writers, because truthfulness is artistically and morally justified (ix). Many authors insist on the veracity of the most romantic tales: Hawthorne may call The Scarlet Letter a "romance," distinguishing it from a "novel"; yet even in the pretense of finding tantalizing historical records in the "Custom House" introduction, he symbolically reminds us of what Thackeray, in the "Preface" to Pendennis (1850) calls "the advantage of a certain truth and honesty." Charlotte Brontë argues that a book in which "Nature and Truth" are the sole guides would probably lack an audience and would wrongly ignore that "strong, restless faculty," the imagination. 4 Bored by popular realistic fiction, one critic proclaimed, "We may hope that the next fashion in fiction will take us to something more exciting and poetical than the domestic sorrows of brewers' wives." 5 Some argue against restrictions of topic or language, others say realism limits the place of ideas in fiction. George Eliot is not alone in objecting that those writers who claim to be most realistic are often the least, for they base their characters on convention rather than life. Literature is not life: literature selects, organizes, unifies, and transforms what exists outside it. Still, the predominant form of prose fiction, most popular at midcentury but flourishing to the end, had at least a pretense of realism, for both literary and philosophical reasons.

The forms and devices of eighteenth-century fiction, like the values and beliefs of the Enlightenment, lingered only briefly into the new century. Novels with tighter structures replaced the episodic picaresque. David Copperfield (1850), Ruth (1853), Adam Bede (1859), and even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , though literary descendants of Tom Jones (1749) and Moll Flanders (1722), bring the adventures nearer to home and present characters with more ordinary lives, interests, and problems. Character and realism take center stage. While Dickens and Twain may echo the "comic epic-poem" in their hyperbole and symbolic stock figures, they more honestly merit Joseph Andrews 's name of "biography" than does the original.

Dickens and Twain use aspects of melodrama and low comedy; Eliot, Gaskell, and Hawthorne, psychological fiction and symbolism; Alcott, sentimentality; the Brontës, Gothic romance. Yet all of their novels are more or less faithful to the society they describe, more or less designed to call attention to human nature as revealed through social interaction. Prison reform, slavery, sexual double standards, the poor laws, contemporary religious practice, jobs for women, education, or class distinctions—the most popular novels confront such issues directly and with thematic purpose.

The realistic novel may or may not be propagandistic or well formed; it may or may not make use of symbolism, melodrama, mythic patterns, or traditional plots. This variety makes it more difficult to determine whether a realistic novel accurately reflects society or skews its analysis of a given social issue, either intentionally or unintentionally. To complicate matters, society underwent fundamental redefinition on both sides of the Atlantic during these years.

The Society Reflected in Literature

Nineteenth-century life in England and America was extremely diverse. To identify the "typical" reader or character, one must consider a variety of issues, including place, time, and social class.

As America grew from a strip of land along the Atlantic Ocean to a nation stretching beyond continental bounds, where one lived implied differences in citizenship (state or territory?), economics, and life-style (factory owner or mill-hand? plantation owner or slave?). While social distinctions outweighed regional ones in England, agriculture dominated the south, factories the midlands and the north. A London home could be a slum tenement, a fine urban residence, or a house in a garden suburb. Each variation profoundly affected daily life, from religion to education to attitudes about women.

The extent of change in social reality and in attitudes in the nineteenth century was so great that it is very difficult to determine when our typical person lived. The first years of the century were a time of optimism during which many people believed that science and technology could resolve all of society's problems. In contrast, by the end of the century, the overall picture was one of agricultural depression, labor unrest, and increasing political, economic, and ideologic tensions. Thus life in 1895 barely resembled life in 1855 or 1805.

Much of the new hope derived from technological and attitudinal changes. In 1825, the new Erie Canal symbolized America's growth, and in 1832 the First Reform Bill ushered in an era of English social reform. In these early decades, Manifest Destiny seemed natural, economic prosperity and expansion seemed assured. In 1851, American literature flourished, and England celebrated the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, better known as the Crystal Palace . From 1851 to 1881, Britain's gross national product doubled; Britain became the world's wealthiest country, London the greatest city. Cities and railroads multiplied, the middle class expanded and moved upward, and the working classes also reaped some financial rewards.

Yet the seeds of disillusion were always present: from the beginning of the period, reformers pointed to miserable conditions in slums and factories, even worse on plantations. By mid-century, events ranging from the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species to the Crimean War had rocked the Western world. The United States experienced a bloody, demoralizing Civil War ; the closing of the frontier by the 1890s further undercut the American dream. As the English argued over new laws like the Second Reform Bill (1857) which gave town workers the vote and suggested that political and social power might slip from traditional aristocratic leaders to the "masses," similar fears emerged in the postwar American South when freed black slaves sometimes outnumbered former masters. And in England, Prince Albert's death led Queen Victoria into a period of seclusion suggesting to many the end of the monarchy.

Still, the Queen's Jubilee in 1887 showed that Victoria was both alive and beloved, whatever the state of the monarchy. She outlived the period that bears her name, dying long after the halcyon era of progress and certainty gave way to the incipient doubts inherent in the transition to modernism. The derogatory sense of the term "Victorianism," used since the 1890s, aptly suggests a conservative tendency in manners and mores. Victorianism remains a complex and loaded term, increasing the difficulty of defining a "typically" Victorian time period.

Once we have identified when and where, we still need to decide who best represents nineteenth-century life. Despite stunning diversity in society and culture, two significant and related features are the rise of the middle class and the rise of the realistic novel, which was written largely about and for that middle class.

In Sybil (1845), Disraeli made popular the idea of England as "two nations … the rich and the poor … between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws" (74). Was it two nations, as Disraeli says (a sufficiently startling idea), or three—the traditional "upper," "middle," and "lower" (or "working") classes—or five, or ten, or more classes, each distinguishable by some economist or social historian? Important distinctions existed, based on objective factors such as income, housing, occupation, and education, and unquantifiable factors such as the status and power traditionally associated with a particular occupation or school, a set of manners or beliefs. Despite professions of egalitarianism, America shared some of England's emphasis on class.

Believing in the rightness of a preordained social hierarchy, the English also felt that worthy individuals could rise "above their station," an idea intrinsic to the American dream. Yet antagonism between classes and jockeying for position within a given class characterized both nations, and often appear as literary themes, with special relevance for women.

The once-stable British society became frankly pluralistic. Urban laborers differed from farm laborers; both opposed mill operators; all three differed from aristocrats, some of whom maintained a traditional feudal relationship with tenant farmers while others, discovering coal on their land, became great mine owners. In the United States, such distinctions were most obvious in the South , where white plantation owners outranked rural "poor whites," who maintained a sense of superiority by forming the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan to harass and terrorize former slaves. Slaves and American Indians stood outside the social stratification defined by property, education, religion, and background. Yet as a nation of immigrants, America more easily defined people through individual achievement rather than group identity.

In England, where birth normally establishes status, the hereditary nobility remained far more than a titled and leisured class. They were the nation's acknowledged leaders, whose attitudes and values had profound influence. While others struggled to acquire the attributes of gentility, birth and training gave the aristocrat style, grace, courage, and nobility of manners. When aristocrats bought up much of the "commons" (commonly used meadowlands) early in the century, they increased their tangible power along with their acreage. Feudal landlords on immense holdings, they might invite tenants to agricultural fairs or coming-of-age feasts or evict them from modest family homes; tenants were wooed for their votes—and the secret ballot was unknown until 1872.

Next came the gentry, the country families, younger sons of peers, the baronets, squires, and "gentlemen." Law and tradition gave them power in local government and society. Land conferred status, financial clout, and the right to play landlord, sportsman, or country host. The impact of both the gentry and the aristocracy spread as the middle class tried to emulate if not enter higher social circles.

The burgeoning middle class (or classes) came next, defined by jobs, living conditions, and attitudes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term middle class was first used as early as 1812. The Industrial Revolution added commercial men and manufacturers to the original shopkeepers and professionals. As they gained wealth, acumen, and polish, the new members increased their upward mobility. Each level imitated the manners and mores of the group immediately above, with tremendous impact on women.

The desire for gentility supported the traditional social hierarchy. The title of "gentleman" might accrue to a village shopkeeper, doctor, or small landowner. The size, location, stock, and clientele of a shop determined the status of the owner and his wife. Manufacturers and industrialists purchased land and sent their sons to the right schools in order to approximate membership in the gentry. Through his efforts, a man could become a gentleman; a woman could become a lady by marrying a gentleman.

Theoretically, anyone could obtain the moral ideal of respectability, honor, industry, courage, and self-control, and in that sense be genteel. Respectability, the most important of these qualities, reflected the power of absolutes derived more or less directly from the Bible, variously interpreted by different religious groups. The implication that individuals could redeem themselves through faith and good works supported the idea of labor as ennobling and the value of deferring immediate gratification in favor of higher but ultimately attainable goals. Yet this same theory led to restrictive codes of behavior, censorship, unwavering assertions of moral propriety, and the fervor to convert a whole populace, which in turn contributed to both hypocrisy and psychological confusion.

While opinions varied about the propriety of card-playing or dancing, respectability always connoted decorous dress and manners, honesty, chastity, a serious attitude toward family and work, cleanliness, tidiness, and an earnest avoidance of mere frivolity. Although interpretation of the rules might be more or less liberal or sanctimonious, it was always sufficiently strict to support the status quo. True, some people flaunted their rebellion by gambling, maintaining a mistress, or succumbing to a bohemian artist's life. Against such behavior, the middle class strove through example and preaching to make real an image half borrowed from the gentry and half derived from its own sense of moral and social propriety. From this, and against it, developed the realistic and social-problem novels. Though not always representative, the "respectable" were vocal, and they read realistic fiction.

In all social classes and almost without exception, women earned their status from their fathers and husbands. Middle-class men demonstrated financial success by giving wives and daughters lives of leisure, and genteel ladies did not work outside the home or for pay. These families had to ensure women an idle respectability in which feminine pursuits replaced useful activity unless related to charity or family life. The devaluation of women's jobs from pre-Industrial times to the middle of the century, a devaluation based largely on economics, was handily supported by the fundamental belief that women were men's physical, moral, and mental inferiors. In turn, the belief in women's innate inferiority fostered the view of women's work as socially undesirable. This vicious circle caused profound differences in education, expectations, responsibilities, and opportunities for girls and boys.

In contrast, lower-class men and women worked together in fields and factories, and women were exploited rather than sheltered. As the middle class became increasingly aware of the poor people crowded into mews and alleys just behind the fashionable city streets, reform movements grew. The objects of attention included farmers, semiskilled or unskilled workers, servants, slaves, craftsmen dispossessed by machines, and country laborers dispossessed as small farms merged into large ones. The urge for reform fit middle-class ideas of social and moral responsibility, but it also resulted from labor agitation and publicity exposing the workers' plight. Fearing that slums bred not just physical but moral disease, reformers looked first at the obvious misery of factory workers and slum dwellers. The smoke rising from new factories became symptom and symbol of the Industrial Revolution .

Artisans might aspire to rise in status by emulating middle-class virtues, but most laborers merely sought to survive the long hours and poor conditions of mines or factories, if they even found work. By 1900, reform efforts eradicated the worst conditions—five-year-olds working in mines, fifty-hour work weeks for nine-year-olds in the cotton industry, pregnant women (cheaper than horses) strapped to coal carts, mining towns without water, urban slums with one privy for half a dozen families.

Literature about slum life and industrialization became popular, especially during times of agitation for reform. Yet even that literature was directed at the middle class, who might do something to help. Throughout the century, the middle class formed both subject and audience of the most important literature.

The Novel and the Middle Class

The phenomenon of a mass reading public began in the nineteenth century. 6 Poems appeared in magazines and in slim books that might grace a parlor table. But the most popular reading material was fiction, whether published in one volume or three, serialized in newspapers or magazines, bought or borrowed from libraries. As inexpensive editions of popular works proliferated to meet the new literacy and interest of the middle and working classes, the ability to own books spread downward. Still, most middle-class readers subscribed to circulating libraries or patronized "free" libraries designed to give workers access to books.

Opening a package from the circulating library was a family occasion. Like advertising today, a subscription library such as Charles Edward Mudie's "Select Circulating Library" in England could determine a book's success through large orders and a seal of approval. Circulating libraries, assuming they knew the public's taste and morals, supported the prevalent censorship. Moral rather than literary merit often determined a book's availability and popularity.

For the upper classes, reading was not a new interest or skill. Although workers' literacy increased, reading for pleasure differs greatly from signing your name or deciphering a job application. Poor lighting, crowded living conditions, and exhaustion made theaters, parks, railway excursions, and other forms of cheap entertainment more popular than reading. Still, workers whiled away long train rides with books, sought advancement through tracts and moral tales from public reading rooms and libraries, or relaxed over a penny dreadful or dime novel, an easy-to-read adventure tale or sentimental story, a newspaper or tabloid, a broadside featuring grisly or sensational stories, or even a condensed Shakespeare play or Scott novel.

The middle class had more money, time, and literacy than the lower classes, and more interest in education and advancement than the upper classes. Even in recreation, they sought the useful and uplifting as well as the entertaining. They connected moral and social improvement, ideas fostered by the American Puritan heritage and the English Evangelicals and Utilitarians. If reading for fun might injure rising and righteous members of the middle class, wholesome literature with a moral purpose could benefit them. Reading became the dominant form of entertainment as well as a way to enforce morality and family unity: each evening, families would gather into the famous reading circle with the latest newspapers, magazines, or novels.

That image influenced publishers, libraries, and writers, and censorship was a fact of literary production. In 1818, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, containing oddly expurgated versions of the plays, changing words and altering scenes to protect the innocence of daughters in the reading circle. Bowdler gives his name as well as his practice to many "bowdlerized" books. With the innocent young girl as touch-stone, editors cut and altered words in contemporary and earlier works. First to go were unorthodox opinions and hints of sexuality—references to the body, passion, or pregnancy. The editors' purpose and defense lay overtly in the desire to uphold the contemporary moral ideal and covertly in the desire to avoid offending readers.

One observer, evaluating the books found in miners' houses, suggests laborers are "backward to attempt anything that requires steady thinking": miners "had rather read any popular work, such as The Christian Philosopher, the Pilgrim's Progress, or Walter Scott 's novels, choosing fiction, history, geography, and books about British warfare rather than logic, mathematics, economics, and grammar." 7 Modern readers hardly judge the selection as frivolous, but Victorians read sermons, biographies, essays, scientific texts, religious tracts, inspiring tales with overt morals, and self-help books. Weeklies and monthlies carrying serious literature, art criticism, debates on social, moral, and religious issues matched papers devoted to sports, humor, adventurous exploits, and household hints. And always there was a market for fiction.

Determining the popularity of a given book would require knowing both sales and library circulation figures. Even that information falls short, for a dozen people might hear a book in the family circle, and a whole neighborhood might share a single newspaper. Inflated advertisements and manipulated sales figures create further inaccuracies. Attempts to outline the story of nineteenth-century readership rely on such data plus trade rumors and comments in private diaries or letters.

We cannot know for sure which novels were most popular, or which best represent contemporary life. Given the sheer volume of literature produced and the fact that some is unavailable, we cannot read exactly what Victorians read. But we know that fiction was the most popular genre, and within that genre, the most popular was the realistic novel dealing with and read by the middle class. We also know that a fair representation must include novels that, though now unread, were once popular enough to leave a mark on literature and society. Remembering Woolf's words at the head of the chapter, we know that women were central, as both writers and readers. Women both influenced and were influenced by social change, and they both influenced and were influenced by literature. Novels written by, about, and for the middle class reveal a great deal about women's roles, people's reactions to those roles, and the evolution of feminism.


SOURCE: Harris, Susan K. "'But is it any good?' Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women's Fiction." In The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers, edited by Joyce W. Warren, pp. 263-79. Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. In the following essay, Harris attempts to define specific methodologies to help evaluate the literary merits of nineteenth-century women's fiction.

The revival of interest in nineteenth-century American women's literature is less than fifteen years old. 1 Since Nina Baym published Woman's Fiction in 1978, it has become academically respectable to acknowledge interest in works like Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World or Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, and they are slowly becoming features of the academic terrain. Mary Kelley's Private Woman, Public Stage, 2 Alfred Habegger's Gender, Fantasy, and Realism, 3 Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs, 4 the articles in Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing, and articles in Signs, American Quarterly, ESQ, and others are all signposts to the new territories. But with the notable exception of Tompkins, few scholars have ventured to construct appropriate evaluative criteria. Rather, there appears to be an unspoken agreement not to submit nineteenth-century American women's novels to extended analytical evaluation, largely, I think, because the evaluative modes most of us were taught devalue this literature a priori.

I propose that we initiate an ongoing dialogue that will enable us to talk fruitfully about pre-twentieth-century American women's literature in terms of "good" and "bad," that we begin creating methodologies that will ramify the implications of Tompkins's Sensational Designs. One avenue is to learn how to describe noncanonical American women's literature in terms of process —that is, to see it within the shifting currents of nineteenth-century American ideologies. Acknowledging that imaginative literature is both reactive and creative, we can examine the ways that it springs from, reacts against, or responds to the plots, themes, languages in the discoursive arena that engendered it at the same time that it creates new possibilities for that arena by reshaping old words into new ones. For Richard Rorty , this happens through the creation of new metaphors that evolve over time into new ideas; "truth," he claims, is neither "out there" nor "in here"; rather it is compounded of a set of linguistic contingencies. What we know, believe, is dependent on our ability to speak it, and our ability to speak it depends on the slow historical conjunction of ideas, images, and metaphors that evolve into the languages available to us. 5 For Hans Robert Jauss, literary works continuously interact with their readers to create, over time, new moral and aesthetic perceptions: "The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflections." 6

If we accept these fluid accounts of the relationship between language, consciousness, and social change as the bases for reshaping our ways of perceiving what imaginative literature is, what it does, and how it "works," we will have a tool that will help us create criteria for evaluating non-canonical literatures of the past and, equally important, for acknowledging our own motives for doing so and the implications of our own critical acts. Our first step is to acknowledge the ideological basis of our endeavor. What teleological shape the literature we are examining has is imposed on it by us, retrospectively; it is not inherent in the material itself. We are doing so, first, because we see ourselves positively, if not as end points then at least as significant markers; second, because we are drawn to nineteenth-century women's texts despite their apparently antithetical values and want to find some way of talking about them; and, third, because we are searching for antecedents to ourselves and the future we envision that we have not found in canonical texts and canonical ways of reading them.

I am not suggesting that we read these texts ahistorically. Rather, historical contextualization is a vital aspect of what I am calling process analysis. I am suggesting, however, that we clarify our own motives. Acknowledging why we are doing what we do will enable us, once we have understood the books' relationships with their own time, to reach back and see how they contribute to ours. If we look at them as both reactive and creative rather than asking them to self-consciously embody "timeless truths," we can understand their aesthetic, moral, and political values, both for their contemporaries and for us. While traditional criticism tends to examine literary works either historically, rhetorically, or ideologically, the method I am calling process analysis investigates all three axes in its contemplation of any given work. Consequently, although specific analytical tasks may look the same as they have always looked (pursuing metaphors, for instance), the final mosaic produced by process analysis looks very different because it has shifted the hermeneutic and evaluative projects into a far more complex socio-temporal scheme. And unlike traditional Anglo-American criticism, process analysis foregrounds the relationship of the literary-critical task to the critic's stance in her own time.

In order to show, within the scope of an essay, how this can work, I am going to focus on sentimental novels written by American women primarily between 1840 and 1870. We have begun to create a literary history for nineteenth-century American women's novels, a "remapping" of hitherto unknown terrain. 7 Within this history, enough research has been conducted among the novels that used to be classed as "literary sentimentality" to enable us to make some generalizations about the group, and this in turn should help us formulate critical questions about individual texts. For instance, critics have long noted—mostly with distaste—that the large majority of nineteenth-century American women's novels have "happy endings" in which their heroines marry and give up any idea of autonomy. 8 Recent critics, however, have pointed out that a closer view shows that the novels also question that inscription, even when their structures submit to it. 9 Despite following a fairly consistent pattern culminating in the protagonist's marriage to a dominating man, most sentimental novels also challenge the idea of female subordination, either through their plots, their narrators' addresses to the reader, or their patterns of rhetoric. In other words, their themes and structures tend to work at cross-purposes. Once dismissed as confused, such texts are now described as dialogic. This is not simply a cynical relabeling for young jargonists. Rather, it is evidence of a critical paradigm shift that gives us much more access to the novels than we ever had before. Attuned, on the one hand, to shifts in structural approaches to fiction, and, on the other, to reader-response criticism, we are now able to recognize that the dialogic patterning inherent in the novels' structures facilitates readers' participation in the novels' ideological debates. In other words, attention to structure is central to contextual placement. Prior to evaluating any given nineteenth-century sentimental novel, then, it is important to establish the terms of the debate(s) in which the text participates, the positions it takes, and how these positions are embodied in its textual structure.

There are many ways of going about situating a text within a historical debate. As groundwork for evaluating sentimental novels by American women, however, it seems especially important to investigate the impact of public ideologies on market strategies because these directly influence the novels' structures. Nineteenth-century America was characterized by strident—although often contradictory— public pronouncements about what constituted the nature of the two sexes (any others were not mentioned). I stress public because it is clear that, privately, there was considerable agonizing over the subject, just as there was over the subject of different races and their intrinsic "natures" and "characteristics." The differences between what reviewers saw happening in the texts and what we see happening when we factor in the existence of more than one linguistic construct of gender is a fascinating illustration of ideologically based reading strategies. By and large, reviewers and publicists subscribed to an essentialist definition of female nature, while the texts attempt to persuade women that they can re-create themselves. Given the nature of the public discourse and the power it had in the marketplace, writers aiming for a popular audience had to observe, at least superficially, essentialist rules for inscribing female protagonists and for their narrators' attitudes toward their heroines' adventures.

The conflict between public and textual definitions of female possibilities may well be the primary cause of the tensions between structure and theme that the novels display. One of the areas opened up by the study of noncanonical literature has been the examination of "the marketplace" as a condition of production. (Perhaps no surer proof exists of the influence of the New Critics than the fact that this is a "discovery.") By "conditions of production" I mean less the biographical circumstances of the individual author—which is Mary Kelley's focus in Private Woman, Public Stage —than the demands of the booksellers, reviewers, and buyers for whom the book is intended and that women authors could not—at least if they wanted to publish—ignore. With Kelley's study, Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture, 10 Baym's Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, 11 and Cathy N. Davidson's Revolution and the Word 12 give us information about the values held by eighteenth and nineteenth-century arbiters of literary taste. For instance, Baym speculates:

Apart from the question whether novelists were or were not radical in the particularities of their social, sexual, or personal world views … lies the possibility that the form of the novel assumes discontent as the psychological ground from which it springs. The essence of plot … is that something is wrong; there is a disturbance that needs correcting. Because women and youths mostly read novels, it was thought, their discontents in particular would be ministered to and hence exacerbated. The conviction of many contemporary students of popular culture that popular forms sedate discontent was not held by this earlier group of critics. If, as many feminist critics have argued, the "better novel" appears regularly to be instinct with misogyny, this may not be an accident. Novels putting women in their place may well have been selected by reviewers as better than—more true to nature than—novels that legitimated their discontents. 13

Of course what this meant for authors was that any challenges to the public definition of "women's place" had to be covert if they wanted to sell. The contradictions between structure and theme provide one way of doing that: the emotional and cognitive discrepancies aroused by the texts permit readers alternative modes of processing them. One mode, written to conform to "public" values, privileges female subordination through structural closure; the other, appealing to "private" values, privileges female independence through structural open-endedness. Processing these novels, then, depends on the reader's choice of interpretive modes. Challenges to the public definition of women's place are embedded in texts' structures and accessible only to readers who are predisposed to grasp them.

Evidence suggests that nineteenth-century readers were quite capable of reading texts in more than one mode. One of the most illuminating examples that I have discovered of this multileveled reading process was recorded in 1848 by the author Lydia Maria Child in a letter to a close friend:

I had read Jane Eyre before you had the kindness to send a copy. I was perfectly carried away with it. I sat up all night long to finish it. I do not at all agree with the critics who pronounce Rochester unloveable. I could have loved him with my whole heart. His very imperfections brought him more within the range of warm human sympathies. Ought Jane to have left him at that dreadful crisis? She was all alone in the world, and could do no harm to mother, sister, child, or friend, by taking her freedom. The tyrannical law, which bound him to a mad and wicked wife, seems such a mere figment! I wanted much, however, to make one change in the story. I liked Rochester all the better for the impetuous feeling and passion which carried him away; but I wanted conscience to come in and check him, like a fiery horse reined in at full gallop. At the last moment, when they were ready to go to church to be married, I wish he had thrown himself on her generosity. I wish he had said, "Jane, I cannot deceive you!" and so told her the painful story he afterward revealed. There might have been the same struggle, and the same result; and it would have saved the nobleness of Rochester's love for Jane, which has only this one blot of deception. I am glad the book represents Jane as refusing to trust him; for in the present disorderly state of the world, it would not be well for public morality to represent it otherwise. But my private opinion is, that a real living Jane Eyre, placed in similar circumstances, would have obeyed an inward law, higher and better than outward conventional scruples. 14

Here Child demonstrates both awareness and approval of social constraints—the sense that public morality was fragmenting and that literature's function was to teach readers moral conduct—and applauds the text's resulting definition of female nature (Jane flees from the horror of bigamy because in order to be a heroine she has to be instinctively virtuous). At the same time, however, Child reveals her private reading, which recognizes that a character as independent as Jane would have pursued her own desires rather than complying with social fictions. The sexual and social tensions inherent in the text itself stimulate the modes in which it will be processed. In Child's "public" reading, social mandates are foremost. In her "private" reading, autonomy and sexual desire are privileged over social mandates. The possibilities for autonomy inherent in each "reading" of female nature are embodied in the radically different episodes of the novel. Child processes both, in full consciousness of what she is doing.

Child's enthusiastic response to Jane Eyre was typical; Charlotte Brontë was one of the most powerful direct influences on American women writers, and their novels reflect the energy with which she inscribed Victorian conflicts about gender and autonomy. Moreover, in the American texts the energy produced fuels new possibilities for female self-creation. The contradictory structures of sentimental American texts highlight rather than obscure these possibilities. If a heroine creates an autonomous self and succeeds in impressing it on her society and her reader for six hundred pages, she has left convincing evidence that it can be done. The fact that she gives it all up upon marriage in the last twenty-five pages should have less of an impact on readers—especially readers themselves entertaining dreams of autonomy—than the fact that she succeeded. (Or less long-term impact. My personal theory is that the renunciation of autonomy in the face of the marriage proposal has its strongest impact when these books are first read—probably because it involves sex 15 —but that over time readers tend to remember protagonists' extended quests for autonomy rather than their sudden, and fairly formulaic, renunciations.) The standardized conclusions may even have annoyed nineteenth-century readers as much as they do twentieth, thus undermining their "message."

Moreover, the "middles" of sentimental novels—the long narratives of the heroine's self-creation and social success—may well explain why such very different texts emerged later in the century. There is a fairly sharp ideological dissimilarity between the apparently conservative sentimental women's novels of the 1840s-1860s and the fairly radical ones of the 1870s-1890s. Examining the earlier novels as process enables us to see that rather than springing forth unheralded, the later novels evolve from the quests for autonomy explored in their predecessors and articulated so frequently that, despite their failures, the "traces" they left came to be "real." For Herman Melville , referring to his own work, such traces were accessible to the "eagle-eyed reader," who grasped truths "covertly, and by snatches." Melville contrasts this perceptive reader to the "superficial skimmer of pages," 16 the same reader whose reading behavior Augusta Evans Wilson (author of St. Elmo ) castigates as the "hasty, careless, novelistic glance." 17 Both writers acknowledge the subversive capacities of written texts, the fact that some, at least, were deliberately written to pass muster with a careless or conservative readership and to appeal to discerning readers. In regard to mid-century women's novels, perceptive readers would recognize that these texts argued against essentialist definitions of the feminine. In Jauss's terms, these early texts articulate new possibilities for female aspiration and behavior that are later realized both in subsequent fiction and in the social and political realms. 18

To understand thoroughly what the readers as well as the reviewers saw in these texts we would have to do an exhaustive reader-response search, a project I have attempted and found exceedingly difficult, largely because, then as now, few ordinary readers recorded their responses to books they read. Those who did seemed to share our predilection for dividing their reading into high and low cultures; they recorded responses to "serious" literature (biographies, essays, sermons) far more often than for "light" novels. But this division is also part of the social construction of literary values, 19 an aspect of the linguistic revolution with which we are concerned. What may be more important than diary and letter records of actual reading is the fact that the same writers also indicated in other contexts a variety of concerns that the novels address. For example, many expressed a wish to improve their educations—their classical, not their domestic, educations—to learn Greek, Latin, and the higher mathematics. As Gerald Graff has recently reminded us, these were the cornerstones of the most esteemed educational apparatus, enabling those who mastered them to enter the ministry and law. 20 Despite the disaster most classical educations may have been in fact, in theory men so educated had mastered society's highest wisdom. Women's desire to achieve similar educational levels suggests that they, too, sought wisdom—in a culture that publicly and medically denied women the ability to think beyond their ovaries.

When, then, a woman protagonist in a novel masters abstruse languages, philosophy, world history, and mythology (as does the heroine of St. Elmo ), she presents a model of female achievement for readers already predisposed to valorize educated women. What Wilson presents is a quest for autonomy and power that succeeds before she forces it to fail; not only does the protagonist become a scholar, she also becomes famous, powerful, and fully conscious of her own imperatives, a heroine who cries out that "I love my work! Ah, I want to live long enough to finish something grand and noble … something that will follow me across and beyond the dark, silent valley … something that will echo in eternity!" 21 By the time she gives it up to marry her overbearing minister-lover, the text has proved that women can become very powerful intellectuals.

In terms of its plot, St. Elmo manages to juggle sexual attraction, intellectual zeal, and public success, all before it surrenders to the requirement that it end by merging its heroine with the male figure who embodies everything she had sought for herself. In terms of its structure, it creates a heroine whose relationship with her self and her public mirrors the relationship Wilson implies exists between her text and its readers. Seen within the process framework I am proposing, St. Elmo is an excellent novel because it not only textually embodies the heroine's quest but also self-consciously places that quest within the cultural struggle over gender possibilities and then critiques its own project.

In preparing to reevaluate these novels, then, one set of questions we can ask is functional and historical: what needs did they serve for their intended audience? Did they, as imaginative literature, somehow present the "spiritual truth" of women's aspirations as essays and other more forthright genres could not? Did they give hope to readers, let them know that there were other questing souls out there? (In Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Story of Avis, Avis discovers her life's goal to be an artist while reading Aurora Leigh. ) What effect does the text's structure have on its theme or themes? What kinds of cognitive or emotional discrepancies exist, and how might contemporary readers have responded to them? What is the power of fascination the texts hold? Is it the same power that holds us (those of us who read them) today? If so, can we describe it? Is it sexual?—moral?—aesthetic?—affective?

Because we have admitted that our endeavor is ideological, we can evaluate the novels in terms of their contribution to the expansion of women's possibilities (i.e., politically), as well as for the degree of power with which they present their subjects. For the novels to be published and favorably reviewed, they had to conform to the strictures articulated above; for them to achieve their "subversive" objects, they had to find a form that would embody these dual, and often contradictory, ideas. There are a number of ways this can be done: as in St. Elmo, the plot can outweigh the narrator's interpretive gestures or the dense "flowery" rhetoric can hide heretical phrases and clauses; as in Ruth Hall, the narrator can play more than one role (in which case the text risks being labeled "confused"). However this task is accomplished, there must be a point on which the antithetical impulses balance. Another set of evaluative criteria, then, lies in determining how well the texts strike the balance between socially and textually created ideological imperatives.

Creating a methodology for evaluating textual structures and assessing readers' access to subversive propositions is one side of the task. The other is to create one for evaluating the language(s) that constitute the texts' building blocks. Process analysis lets us see how the discoursive modes of nineteenth-century texts both reflect and engage their society's ideological diversity. In a culture shifting from the conception of truth residing "out there," in the objective world, or "in here," in the subjective world, to a conception of truth as linguistically determined (i.e., contingent, in Rorty's use of the term 22 ), women were latecomers. The novels that have been labeled "sentimental" embody women's entry into the fray. These display the battle of languages with particular intensity because they focus on the ways that language creates gender and the possibilities for autonomous selfhood. One of the objections often raised about these novels is that their protagonists do not have strongly defined, individual characters—that they are not female American Adams, creating a New Woman for a New World. Here, as Baym did in "Melodramas of Beset Manhood," 23 we can approach women's texts by looking at criteria used to evaluate American male texts, criteria that tend to thematize the struggle between an autonomous self associated, in some way, with timeless truth, and a corrupt, temporal society (Huck's struggle with his conscience). In these canonical male texts, the traditional critical story informs us, heroes flee from social coercion (mostly defined as female). One of their strategies is to get rid of the women, to exist, as critics from Leslie Fiedler on have suggested, in an essentially and happily single-sexed universe. These are American Romances; their models are Christian texts, and their premise is that truth and selfhood are "real," that they reside within the individual and can and should be discovered. Canonical American male novels value the individual over his society.

In contemporary women's texts, on the other hand, the basic thematic is less self against society than self against self; that is, the women's internal conflicts represent conflicting definitions of womanhood. The characters battle themselves far more often, and with greater intensity, than they engage an openly corrupt society. One of the selves is most usefully seen as Nietzschean, willing itself into power and existence (which is what differentiates it from Huck, whose integral self is discoverable by readers, but not willed into being by the character); the other is the self that is socially determined. Both selves are presented metaphorically: in Richard Rorty 's terms, these texts embody a battle for definition that pits two linguistically contingent worldviews against one another. Neither the self struggling to come into being nor the one (usually spoken by the narrator) socially determined has any intrinsically objective reality; rather, the validity of each rests on the reader's capacity for processing it. If the male texts are quintessentially Christian/Romantic quests, demonstrating the value of the True Soul against a corrupting society, the female ones are self-consciously contingent: they concern protagonists willing themselves into existence in an effort to create their own society. Never going so far into fantasy as to assume the possibility—or desirability—of living without other people, the women's novels anticipate the real problem of the twentieth century: how to nurture and protect a self that has only just become aware of its own possibility and that is trying to work out the parameters of its obligations to others.

Meanwhile, other voices continue to insist that women are Platonic essences, that the individual is only a historical accident, and that what really matters is her conformity to the eternal feminine. The clashing of these antithetical constructs provides the aesthetic and moral energy of the texts; moreover, the slow swells, the burgeoning of figures recording protagonists' struggles to create themselves, constitute the linguistic "traces" that enable us, in retrospect, to track the evolution of what would eventually become the figure of the New Woman. When Hagar Churchill, of E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Deserted Wife, insists that " I have a will! and tastes, and habits, and propensities! and loves and hates! yes, and conscience! that all go to make up the sum total of a separate individuality—a distinct life! for which I alone am accountable, and only to God!" 24 and then proceeds to create a successful life for herself and her children without male help, she has inscribed a dynamic predecessor to later novels that celebrate independent women. Similarly, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard's The Morgesons foregrounds the word "possession" in reference to its iconoclastic protagonist; the figure shifts from its demonic to its self-creating (as in "self-possession") associations as the heroine increasingly understands her own powers. With our consideration of how well the text juggles its thematic and structural obligations, then, we can determine how effectively it embodies the discoursive battles that engender it.

This involves a more thorough investigation into the nature of sentimental language and its values than most twentieth-century academic readers have cared to conduct. In fact, sentimental language is probably the aspect of pre-twentieth-century American women's literature that modern readers resist most. It is often difficult to process because it is so baroque, and it often seems vacantly redundant. But these are precisely the aspects of it that can and should be directly engaged. Certainly one function of sentimental language was to create a sacred space dedicated to women, analogous to the private sphere in which they moved. As Jane Tompkins demonstrates, sentimental language is intertextually related to religious language, both functionally and aesthetically. 25 Religious language functions as part of a ritual intended to draw participants' attention away from their temporal lives and make them focus on their spiritual relationship to the divine. Auditors are encouraged to conceive of their experiences metaphorically, placing them in a universal context, to reenvision themselves as part of a set of universal patterns. Similarly, sentimental language functions ritualistically, having set patterns of imagery and rhythm that strive to reenvision women, to continually project them in terms of universal patterns. Ultimately, what is created is a Platonic image of the feminine that is intensely intertextual. Shot through with allusions to nature, the Bible, classical mythologies, and medieval literature, sentimental language is constantly referring to texts beyond the boundaries of that in which it appears. Sometimes these are empty, mindless. Often, they project an image of ideal womanhood whose implications for the individual are painfully repressive. Just as often, however, they serve to place the female protagonists within a world/historical context of female endeavor and, obliquely, female oppression. In fact, the intertextual portions of the individual novels, taken out of the contexts of the works and brought into conjunction with each other, create a dialogue of their own about the nature and status of women that is simultaneously historicized and universalized. It is the locus of the ideological battle about women.

Our devaluation of the language with which this battle has been conducted has prevented us from recognizing it. Once we do so, we also can evaluate its occurrence in individual texts. How effectively does it engage the issues? What is the author's position? How astutely does she analyze her subject? What are the energy exchanges between the way she inscribes women in general and the way she describes her heroine? What, exactly, does her figurative language do ?

Any analysis and/or evaluation of sentimental discourse must determine how deliberately its figures are employed. The prevailing critical assumption has been that in these novels the baroque metaphors are all rather mindlessly borrowed. Borrowed they are, but very self-consciously; they are used to serve a variety of functions, and, over time, they are revitalized, feminized into figures pregnant with possibility. At least one writer uses them offensively: to attack as well as to explore definitions of female nature. In Ruth Hall Fanny Fern alternates between sentimental and acerbic language, all in the interest of defending women's right to be economically independent. The girl whom we meet on her bridal eve meditating on her future and wondering "would love flee affrighted from [her] bent form, and silver locks, and faltering footsteps" 26 finds that love has nothing to do with survival; after her husband's death Ruth painfully learns that the patriarchal society that valorizes clinging, dependent women will also shut its doors if they ask for cash. Before the book ends Ruth has not only become a successful writer, she has also learned to hold her maternal ("sentimental") affections in abeyance while she negotiates long-term publishing contracts. This time meditating not on love but on her choice between immediate money, available by selling her copyright, or a percentage, which would delay her reunion with one child and incur continued privation for the other, Ruth muses that the copyright money is "a temptation; but supposing her book should prove a hit? and bring double, treble, fourfold that sum, to go into her publisher's pockets instead of hers? how provoking!" and she decides, "No, I will not sell my copyright; I will rather deny myself a while longer, and accept the percentage" ( RH [ Ruth Hall ], 153). Juxtaposed to the figurative language with which Ruth was introduced, this sharp language of commerce challenges the original inscription's premise that true women have to depend on love for survival.

Another way sentimental language is used to change consciousness is as a political tool, as when Frances Harper, in Iola Leroy, images her black, enslaved heroine as a fair damsel imprisoned in a dark castle: the narrator refers to "the beautiful but intractable girl who was held in durance vile" and images her rescue as being "taken as a trembling dove from the gory vulture's nest and given a place of security." 27 Here, the language is directed to those who identify with the values of the white community; its figures strenuously attempt to make readers accept Iola as a white ("dove") heroine because that is the only way these readers will identify with her as a "real" woman/human. In other words, the language itself acknowledges white Americans' inability to empathize with black Americans. Harper's language here has a double function: first to project her black protagonist within the parameters of white sympathy, i.e., as white, then to lift her female protagonist to heroic status as a damsel from the heroic ages. Only after having captured the white-oriented reader's sympathy through this idealized image does the text then project its other heroine, the heroine's heroine, Lucille Delany: a physically black woman who Iola claims "is my ideal woman. She is grand, brave, intellectual, and religious" ( IL [ Iola Leroy ], 242). In other words, the fair damsel the text valorizes has her own agenda; she does not speak in white figures herself, and she looks to black women for role models. Thus the inter-textually "white" or "European" references serve both to obscure and to point toward the text's alternative values. Seen retrospectively, the trace record left by Iola's own values makes the novel a precursor to twentieth-century black American women's texts that self-consciously valorize dark-skinned black women.

The oneiric nature of sentimental language also merits examination, for it often signals the existence of a radically feminist shadow text. Stowe's The Minister's Wooing, for instance, constantly places its protagonist, Mary Scudder, within a cosmic dream, associating her with shells, nests, and the ocean. With repeated references to the Virgin Mary , with Mary Scudder's friendship with an unhappily married woman named Virginie who insists that her private self, the self capable of happiness, is unmarried; and with the example of independent "spinsters" who arrange life to suit themselves, these references create a countertext within the novel that argues against marriage—the story's plot—and for a state of empowering "virginity." As with the medieval allusiveness of Harper's figures, the oneirism of Stowe's portrayal serves at once to obscure—it can be read as part of Stowe's portrayal of Mary's adolescent sensibility—and to highlight this countertheme. If dreams express our repressed desires, texts that dream (as opposed to texts that feature dreams) have to be evaluated for the contexts, and contents, of their dreams.

Structure and language, then, are the dual focuses of process analysis. Each demands three levels of study: the first, contextual, places the text within its own time; the second, rhetorical, examines narrator/narratee contracts and the ways in which the text may play with cultural significances; the third, retrospective, searches for traces of changing consciousness, building blocks for an ideologically self-conscious literary history. Together, they offer a paradigm that produces evaluative as well as investigative questions.

Some of these questions have arisen in the course of this essay. While continued dialogue will change it, a tentative list might look something like this:

This is of course only a sketchy overview of some of the ways nineteenth-century American women's novels work and some of the questions we can ask about them. As we continue to study them and the culture that produced them, we will be continuously finding new areas to explore. Meanwhile, it is time for us to begin assessing the territories already discovered.


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Department of English Language and Literature, The University of Chicago

19th Century

American literatures and cultures.

The faculty and graduate students in the program in American literatures and cultures address a variety of literary traditions and cultural practices (such as the visual arts, religion, politics, and law) from national and transnational perspectives. We have strength in all historical periods. Our methodological approaches range from formal analysis of poetic, narrative, and generic structures, through comparatist approaches, to the historical analysis of gendered and racial subject formations in local and global contexts. Theoretical orientations include Marxism and Frankfurt School critical theory, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, materialist phenomenology, and aesthetic theory. Such orientations and approaches do not necessarily exclude one another; indeed, their principled convergence often enables especially productive analysis.

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18th/19th Century Literature

literature in the 19th century

Conceived as including the Restoration, Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian Periods, this concentration is intended for students interested in understanding British cultural history between the English Civil War and the First World War. It is especially intended for students who want to learn about literary history and wish not to limit themselves to a single genre. The incredible richness of this period means that students choosing this Concentration will read authors imaginatively confronting vast social change, including Behn and Dryden; Penn and Franklin; Swift and Pope; Fielding and Burney; Brockden Brown and Radcliffe; Dickens and Eliot; Austen and Hardy; Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and the Shelleys; Hawthorne, Fuller, Melville, and Stowe; Marx, Darwin, and Freud. They will read about a range of economic, political, and aesthetic changes that took place in these years — from agrarian to industrial economies, abolition to imperialism, oligarchy to universal suffrage, from “literature” as a common medium for political discussion to literature as commodity and art object. In doing so, students will read across genres and national cultures, and will read literary history alongside economic and political history.

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Indian English Literature In 19th Century

Indian English Literature in the 19th century, The Indian culture and language were impacted by various events like the colonial intervention by the British, the establishment of the printing press, and the introduction of a new education system in the country. People slowly become aware of the imperial tyranny and started to voice their words on paper and thus a new sort of nationalistic feeling became prominent and many writers influenced the thought of the nascent nation.

Table of Contents

Introduction: indian english literature, introduction of the printing press, the situation of the language, prose and journalism, indian english literature till 1857, the birth of the novel, the birth of the poetry, the birth of the drama, indian english literature read more.

We have already seen that the only way to read Indian literature is to go through the ideas and philosophical movements which influenced various languages across the Indian subcontinent. We have also realized the fact that the various languages of India were not alien to each other, rather they were in continuous communication with each other. So the best way to read Indian literature is to look at the common historical moment and the influence that it had on the various Indian languages and their literature on each other. This does not at all means that we are trying to ignore the differences here and our justifiably famed plurality, rather what we are trying to concentrate on is the unity and the factor which makes us feel that it is one expression and emotion which is being expressed in so many different languages. It would be interesting to note that during the time of the 19th century many of the Indian languages established themselves in their respective territory and along with that they also developed this idea of modern Indian which helped in the creation of political consciousness. The reason this happened is that during the colonial time, all the territory and their respective language gradually became aware of the tyrannical colonial power and held together, in a way, to oppose it in order to fight against it in the Indian struggle for independence. Therefore in order to look at modern Indian literary history, it becomes customary for us to start with the time in history when the colonization of India really began.

Printing Press started in India with the increasing of British missionaries, which indeed standardized our languages, and also helped in the development of supple prose and entirely changed how the text here in India was transmitted and circulated. This also, in a way, signaled that this is the end of the era of the written manuscript. It is important for us to remember that the first printing press which was established in India was not by the British, but by the Portuguese in the 16th century. And by the end 18th century we had several printing Presses in various parts of South India, of course, the most famous out of those was Tranquebar Press, which was established in 1713. But not until 1800, when in Bengal, the Serampore printing press was established the printing came on its own, as now the publication of Indian languages was also possible. And it was William Carey who set up the printing press along with a paper-making factory. And within the next fifty years after that most places in India from Assam to Gujarat saw a sort of revolution in terms of the printing press. There is no doubt that these printing presses were established to publish Bible, and church prayers in the local languages so as to make Christianity popular among the natives, but in course to this they also aimed to standardize the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling of all these languages. The rise of the printing press gave rise to the newspapers and the rise of newspapers gave to modern prose. There is no doubt that newspapers were as easy to publish and circulate then as are today and they made a great impact on the Indians, both socially and politically. Though the impact was immense and great at the same time the circulation of newspapers also created a gulf between the elite and the common masses and the reason was simply that earlier all kinds of literature were circulated by the means of oral communication but now the elite and literary class can easily differentiate them from the illiterate masses who could not read. Another radical thing that also happened in these fifty years was the introduction of English as the medium of education and also the three major universities were established in the same year of the first Indian war of independence. And these universities were Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay, which are now called Chennai University, Kolkata University, and Mumbai University. Thus, we can see now that the 19th century was pretty important in regards to the changes in the nation, some of them were quite radical and indeed these changes helped in the shaping of the country as it grew in the coming century.

The introduction of English as the language of education made the two languages Persian and Arabic, which were the two popular languages of the preceding century, completely go away. It must be noticed that Persian was even the court language of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the famous Sikh Ruler. Though the role of Sanskrit as the language of prestige was not challenged the 19th century actually was the language of modern Indian languages. We already know that Tamil already had a rich and long literary tradition, but languages like Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Oriya, Telugu, and Sindhi also established their literary culture by the beginning of the 19th century. There are no two views that Urdu as a language was considered the crowning jewel of India. Many of the languages started their literary tradition and there were many languages that had strong oral literary traditions. Let us what Sisir Kumar Das has to say on this. He says, “the situation was very complex indeed, and yet in terms of hierarchy between the languages among different groups there was a stable pattern…” And it was this hierarchy that manifested itself in terms of the prestige of the languages. Both Sanskrit and Persian acted as link languages among the people of the elite class. Both of these languages were held in very high esteem and conferred prestige on writers and other languages. There were other languages too which were popular and dominant locally though, it was considered for a bilingual writer to write in such a literary language no matter what other languages he would write in. It was the time when Hindi became popular and came into the reach of the common people and was later strengthened by its association with the Indian struggle for independence. But it was kind of sure that very soon the position of the language of power, prestige, and aspiration is going to be enjoyed by none other than English. Now if we say that the situation at the beginning of the 19th century in India was kind of similar to the situation that we had during the beginning of the 21st century then it would not be an exaggeration. English was considered during both times as the language which can help people to gain material affluence. In Kolkata, there were lots of shops that would claim to impart the knowledge of English, and this could be taken as a reference to show how eager people were to learn this language. It must be noted that at first British government did not pass on any sort of regulation for the locals to learn English but for the administrators to learn the local language. It was not that the people of India were against the introduction of this new language, there were many Indians who demanded knowledge of English and the most prominent figure among them was Raja Rammohan Roy. While some like Roy demanded the language for the new knowledge system, others demanded it for simple commercial purposes. Among the British, the debate over the language policy went on for too long and also was a kind of heated debate, but finally, Lord T.B. Macaulay won the day for English with his justly famous Minute on Education in 1835. It is interesting to note that even before 1835, many schools were established which would teach English. In the second decade of the 19th century the famous Presidency college, then Hindu college, of Kolkata was established which famously produced the first English. poet of India in the name of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. The emergence of English completely made the Persian language disappear and became the most important language of the country, and not only this it also became the lingua franca and started to gain literary expression by various Indian writers. One must realize that the break away from the literary power of Sanskrit and Persian and the influence of English over the languages of India made the various Indian kinds of literature come on their own in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Impact of prose and Journalism in Indian English Literature: Many Indian scholars have pointed out that the prose tradition of India was already there before the colonial invasion but there is no doubt that prose tradition came into its own and became popular only after the establishment of the printing press. The prose started to be used in an abundant manner for both literary and non-literary purposes in the 19th century. British East India Company established many colleges like the College of Fort William at Kolkata, and the College of Fort St. George at Chennai in order to produce grammar and readers in Indian languages so that it can serve the interests of British civil servants.

So how exactly do these colleges help in the production of grammar and readers in the various Indian languages? These colleges employed various scholars both British and Indians, to research and compile tales and other prose which can be used as a reference and source materials for language teaching. They also conducted research on the structures of various languages and also wrote grammar and textbooks till the first three or four decades of the nineteenth century. It should be noted that such a work was not done for the first time, rather Christian missionaries had already embarked on such an activity in the sixteenth century and languages like Tamil and Malayalam had already their prose works, grammars, and dictionaries published by Portuguese, German, and Italian missionaries. But one cannot negate the kind of influence imparted by the British on the prose style of India.

The demand for textbooks across the country strengthened the roots of the prose as the prose became the chief instructive tool for language education and education in general. Another reason for the strength-ning of prose writings was to defend the native religions against the Christian argument as the prose was much easier to produce and circulate. The need for social reform also demanded prose writings. All these factors helped in the development of print journalism and the immense demand for prose so that everyday matters can be addressed effectively. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the nation saw a rapid growth of newspapers and journals. These became the platform for the experiments of the new forms of prose style. Many of the writers who wrote in journals and newspapers later became established writers. According to Sisir Kumar Das, many changes were introduced in the languages. during the time. He says: There was a sudden influx of loan words, direct from Sanskrit and Persian, borrowings from English, and neologism. This helped the growth of technical words as well, thus complementing the efforts of textbook writers… There were also many innovations in syntax, the most conspicuous of which is the increasing frequency of reported speech, a feature borrowed from English…

Thus one of the first steps which were taken as far as the modernization of Indian literature and language is concerned was the emergence and development of the prose style of writing. There is no doubt that this modernization was actually the result of the colonial intervention but at the same time, it also served the purpose of the idea of nationalism.

An interesting thing to note about the Indian English literature is that it was actually an outcome of the dominating influence of the English language and developed because of the aspiration of Indians to write and communicate in the language of power, but was filled with the expression of patriotism and new nationalism which was surfacing rapidly. Saying that the notion of independent India was actually born in this literature would be an exaggeration. Henry Derozio, the first Indian English poet along with the other poets who followed him, expressed the view and the idea about captive India and asserted the need for a national resurgence. There is no doubt that these poets also spoke about contemporary issues but the thing which marks their importance is their poems like Derozio’s sonnet on India or Kylas Chunder’s short story, “A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945”. These works speak of an uprising that was certainly against British tyranny. But the problem of captive India and the need for the national struggle which were the basic theme of the literature at that time yet to be completely absorbed by the Indian masses’ psyche and also yet to be expressed in the Indian literature of other languages. In the starting decades of the 19th century, most of the Indian literature was caught up in their own tradition. During this period the dominating poetry was Urdu poetry. Mirza Ghalib was the greatest of all Urdu poets of the era. Some of the other writers like Ibrahim, Momin, Anis, and Dabir were the exponent of their tradition. As the pull of Sanskrit can be witnessed in the poetry of other languages, the pull of Persian and Arabic can be sensed in the Urdu poetry of the age. It seems that the poetry of Indian languages of this period was caught in the time wrap as it would only talk about the other times, places, and movements. If the poetry of one language in India expressed the ferment that India’s polity and culturing all life was going through, it was Indian English poetry.

Birth of Novel in Indian English Literature: There is no doubt regarding the time by which the Indian literary culture saw the birth of Indian novels. Almost all the literary history confirms that the novel in India emerged during the middle half of the 19th century. The first notable novel of India was published during the first Indian war of independence in the year 1857. It was Peari Chand Mitra, who wrote the novel Alaler Gjarer Dulal under the pseudonym of Techand Thakur. Before its publication as a proper novel, it was serialized in a monthly magazine. The novel came into notice because of both the colloquial theme it had and also because it’s being vibrant prose. This novel had a great impact and its influence can be imagined from the fact that the language used in the novel was soon known as the ‘Alali language’. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who is popularly considered to be one of the first Indian novelists, was really impressed by the work of Mitra. The main thing about the work of Mitra which impressed Chatterjee was the colloquial Bengali and the subject matter which was very much Bengali at the core. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote his first novel Rajmohan’s Wife in 1864 which was soon, followed up by another work called Durgeshnandani in 1865. His second text was a great success, and also played a huge role in establishing him as a successful writer in Bengali. Bankim also played an important role in the shaping of history as it was imagined by the Indians of that time. He made an attempt to chart the history of masculine valor, by looking up to great Maratha and Rajput warriors and establishing them as Hindu heroes. Bankim really did not express his contempt for the British invaders and criticized their colonial expedition, but in his most famous work Anandamath he strongly expresses his hope that British rule would bring peace and order to the nation. He also went ahead and popularized historical romances, Walter Scott, who along with Lytton was a much-admired novelist of the era. The greatness of Bankim as a writer is unquestioned, still, the most famous and perhaps the greatest Bengali writer is Rabindra Nath Tagore (1861-1941). Tagore’s influence on novels was as his influence was on other genres of literature. To say, he not only influenced novels but almost all genres of Literature. Tagore just like Bankim, started with a historical novel, though his novels were very different from that of Bankim. Some of his early works are Bauthakuranir Hat and Rajarishi. The great thing about the writing of Tagore was that he moved into the inner realm of mind even in his historical novels. However, the greatest of Tagore’s novels came in the 20th century. After the first Indian war of independence, most of the languages of India accepted novels as a literary genre. And by the end of the 19th century, novels were well established literary genre in India. Just like the Bengali, the first novel in Marathi, Yamuna Paryatam written by Baba Padmanji, was published during the year 1857, the first battle of Indian independence. The novel spoke about the practices concerning the conversion to Christianity and attacked, quite severely, Hindu customers, especially in regards to the widows. It was R.B. Gunjikar who wrote the first historical novel in Marathi named Mochangad. Another writer Hari Narayan Apte began his career as a writer in the year 1885. He was a well-established writer by the time he published Ganpatrao, which gives us an insight into the problems of daughters-in-law in that era. His later novels give us a very true and accurate picture of the middle-class life of the age. In Gujarati, the title of the first novelist is taken by Nandashankar Mehta, who published Karan Ghelo in 1866, which was modelled on the writings of Scott and narrates the tale of the last Hindu King of Gujarat. Nazir Ahmed published the first Urdu Novel in 1869 named Miratul Urus. The novel talks about the life of a middle-class girl and the differences and partiality done to education and reform, which arose because of the advances of colonialism.

This novel was influenced by a little novel called. Sandford and Merton by an English novelist Thomas Day. Another famous novelist of the last quarter of the 19th century in India was Pandit Rattan Nath Sarshar. He was made famous by his very first work named Farsana-i-Azad, which was published in four volumes, and spoke about the Lucknowi culture of the Nawabi era. The most famous of the Urdu novels Umrao Jan Ada, written by Mohammad Hadi Ruswa was published in 1899, towards the end of the century. In the Telugu language, the first published novel was Ranga Raja Charitra, which was published in the year 1972 by Gopal Krishnamma Chetty. This novel aimed at the Telugu students to make them aware of the Telugu society and culture and the conventions which were part of Telugu culture. In this novel, Chetty takes a severe criticizing stance toward the caste system and other Hindu conventions. But many consider K.V. Pantulu’s Rajsekhara Chritra as the first genuine novel written in Telugu, which was published in 1880. Another great writer in Telugu was C.L. Narshimhan Pantulu, who started writing in the 1890s. One of his most famous works is Ramchandra Vijayam, published in 1896 and is considered to be a major realistic novel that talks about life and the problems of people living in the Konasima region. The story is about a young orphan boy who struggles against various obstacles in his life. A number of novels were published at the end of the century which spoke regarding the issues of the dowry system and other social evils. In the Tamil language, the first published novel was Pratapa Mudaliyar Charitam, published in 1879 by Samuel Vendanayakam Pillai. The novel is a first-person narrative that makes an attempt to educate the reader and at the same time also shows some sense of humor. The heroine of the novel is Gnanambal, who is chosen as a king by an elephant while she is dressed as a male. While the story goes on we see that she is an able ruler. The narrator similarly takes us into various other stories and anecdotes in this rambling novel. In the last decade of the 19th century, two major Tamil writers, B.R. Rajamlyer and Madhavaya made their debut. They published Kamalambal Charitam in 1893 and Padmavathi Charitam in 1898 respectively. Both novels talk about the life of common people. The former is a bit philosophical and the later is more into the true picture of the society as it shows us the impact of English education, the movement toward the city, and the plight of widows. During this time when the literary history of the country saw the first publication of a detective novel in Tamil written by T.M. Natesa Sastri. In Hindi, the first novel named Parikash Guru was published by Shrinivas Das in 1882. The novel draws a real nature of the middle-class trade community and the generation gap, which also was the subject of the novel. The first novel in Kannada was published in the year 1892.

It was a historical novel written by Lakshaman Rao Gadagkar. The first novel in Malayalam was Kudalata, which appeared in 1887 and was written by Appu Nedungadi. This novel was also influenced by Walter Scott. But usually, the credit for the first Malayalam novel goes to Indulekha, published in 1889 and written by Chandu Menon. The novel was a sharp critique of the evil customs of society. In Assamese, the first published novel was written by Padmanath Gohian Barua in 1890. The name of the novel was Bhanumati. After Bhanumati came Lahari in 1891. Both novels are set in the historical settings of the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. The credit for the first Oriya novel goes to Bibasini, written by Ramashankar Roy and published in 1891. This novel also was historical romance and adventure. It was Bhai Vir Singh who first wrote a Punjabi novel named Sundari, which was published in the year of 1897. The novel is historical as it talks about the Sikh’s resistance against the Mughals. The first Sindhi novel was written by Miraza Qalich Beg and came out in the year 1890. The name of the novel was Zinat, and it talks about the requirement of education for women. The novel almost depicts a true picture of the prevailing society. It is clear now that almost all the major languages of the country saw the rise of novels in the 19th century. And in many terms, the novel became an established genre by that time.

Birth of Poetry in Indian English Literature: Against the popular belief, that the first poetic reaction to the influence of the West came from the Bengali poets, one must look towards the Gujarati poets for the first reaction to the influence of western poetic tradition. It was Kavi Dalpatram Dahyabhai, who first took the subject of modernity and wrote about the new urban world, the printing press, the railways, fire brigades, education of women, tobacco, foreign travels, etc. Bapani Pipar, is his first poem and is still considered a milestone in Gujarati poetry and the first genuine modern poem. It is usually said that he wrote an English kind of poetry in Gujarati. One of the Dalpatram’s contemporary Narmadashankar Lalshankar Dave, who is also known as Narmad is known for his attempt to bring the tradition of nature poetry and love poetry to India, a sort of love that was not devotional at all. Another such attempt was made by Narshinrao Bholanat Divatia, a poet heavily influenced by English poetry. One of his famous works is a volume of poetry published in 1887 called Kusum Mala. Usually, it is believed that it was in Bengal where English poetry first reacted to the western approach to poetry. But what people generally miss here is that even in Bengali the tradition continued to rule the poetry. One of the first major English poets of Bengal is Michael Madhusudan Dutt. His contribution to the Bengali poetry tradition is immense. Though he started writing poetry in English later he continued writing in Bengali itself after publishing Tilottamasambhav Kavya. The publication of this work marked a new literary era in Bengali poetry. After this work, he went on to write his most famous epic, Meghnadbadh Kavya, which was published in 1861 and was followed by his love lyric Vrajanaganakavya. He also wrote some famous heroic epistles and sonnets. In six years of time, he introduced a whole range of styles in Bengali poetry. All the poets who after Dutt followed him were to some full extent influenced by English poetry. We had a poet like Akshaychandra Choudhary, whose poems echo the work of Thomas Parnell and Alexander Pope. One who is said to have written modern lyrics and did not know any of the English poetry and in fact wrote in reaction to the imitation of English poetry is Biharilal Chakrabarty. His works are completed within the Bengali tradition. The mysticism and romantic quality of his poems influenced the literary giant like Rabindra Nath Tagore, who in the next century changed the literary shape of the nation and also influenced writers across the country. Their first work of his was Sandhyasangit which was published in 1882. At the start of his career, he actually was a romantic poet but soon in 1890 after the publication of Manasi, his poetry came of the age and in the next decade, he was said to have written some of his best poetry which would express his thirst for God. Bholanath Das and Kamalakanta Bhattacharya are the two poets in the Assamese language who are seen as the poets of transition, and there is no doubt that they herald a new spirit in the language. Bholanath Das was the first poet to have introduced blank verses in Assamese poetry with his greatly successful work Sitaharan Kavya, published in 1884. On the other hand, his contemporary poet Bhattacharya was more into the writing of patriotic and social poetry. He was of the view that the poets must write social poetry rather than a religious one, a view which he said to have taken to some extent. In Hindi the writing of poetry was kind of difficult because of the displacement of Brajbhasha and the coming up of Khariboli as a literary language: It is interesting to know that Bharatendu Harishchandra, one poet who ushered in Hindi poetry advocated the use of Khariboli in Hindi literary culture but himself made use of Brajbhasha for writing his own poetry. The major theme of his poetry is the rising nationalism of the time. Not until the end of the century did the Hindi poets somehow manage to write in Khariboli. Some of the famous names in the history of Hindi poetry are Maithili Sharan Gupt, Ayodhya Simha Upadhyaya, and Ram Naresh Tripathi. But all of these poets started writing after 1895. The poetry they wrote was didactic in intention and was seen as a sort of message. In Marathi, the first modern poem was published by Keshavsut. The new spirit that Marathi poetry saw rising was again the result of the influence of the western education system and English. Keshavsut was greatly influenced by the Romantic poets especially those represented in The Golden Treasury. His poems expressed the ideas of social reform. In many of his poems, he spoke about untouchability, the condition of women, and all the social evils and customs practiced in society. In his poetry, he usually avoided embellishment rather he employed the rhythm of spoken Marathi in his poetry. There were other Marathi poets who felt the impact of the new times like Narayan Vaman Tilak. In Oriya, the first modern poetry was written by Radhanath Ray. Ray was not only the product of the modern education system but also an inspector. He later got employed in an important position in Orissa’s education system. His early works include – Kedaranagari in 1886, Chandrabhaga in 1886, and Nandikeswari in 1887. Kedaranagaris the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Chandrabhaga talks about the pursuit of Daphne by Apollo and Nandikeswari is a direct inspiration from Ovid and Byron. He also played his hand in writing an epic named Mahayatra, in 1896, which was the first Oriya poem written in Blank verse. He was greatly influenced by some of the western literary giants like Milton, Shakespeare, and Pope. Another Oriya writer Madhusudan Rao was initially a school teacher who later got a senior position in education service. Rao is responsible for the introduction of a mystical dimension to Oriya’s poetry. He also wrote lyrics and sonnets. In Malayalam, it was Rajaraja Verma who first experimented with new lyricism. But the major changes that were witnessed in Malayalam poetry took place in the first two decades of the 20th century, as was the case with the poetry of other languages,

Birth of Drama in Indian English Literature: With the introduction of Shakespeare and other English plays and the proscenium arch and auditorium in India, the Indian drama went through an interesting change. Shakespeare’s plays were translated in various different Indian languages but one must note that the changing situation in India led by early treatment of new social dynamics in drama. In 1857, Gunabhiram Barua wrote an Assamese play Ram-Navami, which talks about widow-remarriage and was a social tragedy. A number of plays that were light in mood and theme, along with farces were written soon after in Assamese. In 1861, a play name Kantyar Kirtan was published by Hemchandra Barua, which talks about the ill effect of opium. A play named Gaonbura came in 1897, which depicted the suffering of a village headman under British rule. The play was written by Padamnath Barua. In the last decade of the century, the mythological drama started to surface. An interesting fact to know is that the Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt was also a dramatist. Two of his farces are Ekeiki Bhale Sabyata and Buro Saliker Ghare Ro. Both of them were written in 1859 and talk about contemporary times and mores. Both the farces are influenced by the works of Moliere, the French playwright. He also has been credited for some of the more serious comedies, among which Mayakanan (1874) is considered to be the grimmest of his plays. Another playwright of the age Dinabandhu Mitra was as accomplished as Madhusudan Dutt, but still, he is famous for his play Nil Darpan, which came out in 1860. It was one of the first and most successful political protest play as it spoke about the exploitive indigo planters in Bengal. It was in Bengal, where the first public theater, the National Theater, was established in 1872. Soon the theater saw the act of various actresses and also the various plays attacking British rule and tyranny. In the early 1870s, patriotic plays of Jyotindranath Tagore and Upendranath Das were performed. This made the entry of other plays as well, which led to the promulgation of the Dramatic Performance act of 1875. After this, it was Girish Chandra Ghosh who dominated the Bengali Theater. Ghosh was an actor, manager, and playwright. Another theater that is worth mentioning is the Parsee theater, which emerged in the second half of the 19th century, But unfortunately, there is no play of significance that can be associated with it in the early times in spite of the fact that some of the well-known Gujarati writers like Dalpatram were associated with it. Gujarati writers like Dalpatram and Pandya continued to write plays of social awareness, but the Parsee theater became the source of entertaining plays and continued with it so status for a long time. The Parsee theater also gave rise to Urdu dramatic writing. This phase was ruled by playwrights like Aram. Parsee theater is also responsible for the emergence of dramatic writings in Hindi along with other languages like Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada.


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