In these days when Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ivanka Trump, and Kellyanne Conway can all share the same stage and media spotlight in America, it’s easy to forget the amount of time it took before women gained any form of political voice or identity whatsoever. Even easier to do is mistakenly believe that female participation in politics is a newfangled thing. Some minor googling will prove that women have indeed been participating in politics in the US for quite a while, even if history frequently chooses to overlook them. The burden is on us to actively dig up these women from the patriarchal annals of our time, and appreciate them not simply because they were women entering a male sphere, but because they served their communities in a time when most communities didn’t like the idea of a woman outside the kitchen.
The field of literature suffers from a similar problem. In this case we’re exploring British literature specifically. While the glass ceiling in the literary arena has arguably more cracks in it than the political sphere, the absence of women in the lists of canonical English literature is glaring. Hence, why Shelley DeWees’ new book, Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, is so timely and necessary. In it, DeWees does some thorough digging and emerges with portraits of seven women who sold thousands of books during their careers, but later sank into anonymity as time went by: Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. All of these women, based on DeWees’ criteria, wrote between 1760 and 1910; demonstrated a remarkable sense of self-worth and resilience; and currently enjoy almost zero attention from academics and critics (let alone the reading public).
A short introduction to each of them is in order. First we have Charlotte Turner Smith, who established herself as a writer of note and of success while enduring an abusive, adulterous, and profligate husband (and also while having a bevy of children). Her fans included the poet Robert Southey and Jane Austen.
Helen Maria Williams refused to let her gender stop her from becoming a war correspondent or a political commentator, even as the French Revolution heated up and threatened those who were too outspoken.
Around the same time, Mary Robinson started out as an actress of note; beguiled the philandering king of England, George III; and then became a popular author whose works went out of style once the straight-laced Victorian era came around.
Catherine Crowe was Charlotte Bronte’s contemporary, and proved a much more exciting dinner guest for William Thackeray. After receiving some inheritance money and then separating from her husband, Crowe found herself free to write the precursor to Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories with her book, The Adventures of Susan Hopley.
Meanwhile, Sara Coleridge found herself living under the gargantuan shadow of her father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while also trying to reconcile her spousal and maternal duties with her desire to write.
Dinah Mulock Craik confronted daddy issues of different kind when, at age 19, her mother died and her father abandoned the family. She turned to writing to support herself, and then (unlike most of the women in the book) actually had a happy marriage at the ripe old age of 39.
And finally, Mary Elizabeth Braddon became a seminal figure in the history of Victorian sensation novels, until the salacious themes that inhabited her books ultimately repeated themselves in her own life, leading to a scandalous public downfall.
These are the seven women who caused numerous kerfluffles in the literary scene, sold thousands of books, charmed critics and triggered the ire of the self-righteous.
As the title suggests, DeWees seems to be targeting a specific subset of readers with Not Just Jane. Anglophiles, Jane-ites, and lovers of Romantic and Victorian novels will probably appreciate the book the most, as will feminist historians, feminists bibliophiles, and open-minded readers of any persuasion with an interest in learning new things. DeWees writes with pizzazz and fluidity, and manages to neatly blend her lighthearted style with well-researched historical content. The result is a tone of sardonic humor that buoys the reader through infuriating examples of misogyny, double standards, and injustice. Without this tone, Not Just Jane might have begun to resemble a manifesto of sorts, so full are its pages with testimonies to sexism. DeWees steers away from confrontation and pokes fun at the more ridiculous accounts of prejudice:
The Right Reverend Francis Paget was so utterly paralyzed with spitting hatred for sensation fiction, the whole shameful lot of it, that he resorted to what has been called ‘a series of orthographic explosions’ in his parody Lucretia; or, the Heroine of the Nineteenth Century. He fumes, he seethes — these female blasphemers were ruining England! On purpose! Their wicked talk of fraud and crime was permeating the gentle spirit of his countrymen, leaving in its place a mass of brutalized, overpassionate individuals. And the sex! Paget was stunned that descriptions of it should come from the mind of a female.
She goes on to quote the Right Reverend Paget’s laughable reaction to the “immoral” sensation novels that women had begun writing and publishing to great success in the latter half of the 19th century.
DeWees’ wryly effervescent tone occasionally leads to declarations that seem excessively effusive or sensational. Of Helen Maria Williams, for example, she writes: “…most of London was head over heels for this poetess” and then a page later: “…the roiling political landscape in France was about to bubble over into revolt and test her skills as never before.” A less hyperbolistic approach would have allowed the womens’ accomplishments to shine without the extra hype, but even still, DeWees writes beautifully.
Perhaps most importantly, however, she knows how to contextualize the time period, so that the magnitude of these womens’ literary feats can be properly appreciated. Early on in Charlotte Turner Smith’s chapter, DeWees acknowledges a fact that encapsulates the reality for all women, writers or not, who lived at the time: “In every practical sense, a life of freedom (of travel, of danger, of enterprise, of naughtiness and moral ambiguity) was entirely unknown to women, for theirs was a world of infinitely tighter boundaries than that of their brothers, husbands, or fathers.” The extent to which we have progressed from this reality today should remind readers of the effort it must have taken to overcome those boundaries, and should not obscure the boundaries that still remain.
Which leaves us with the question: what to do with a book like Not Just Jane? What do we do with the knowledge that a cadre of accomplished writers needed to transform British literature just to merit a feature in a scholar’s book 160 years later? One can’t help but entertain the notion that had they been men, these authors would have enjoyed much more visibility throughout the years, that their works would have known more longevity and fame even if they hadn’t succeeded at transforming the literary scene.
But the what-ifs help no one. The fact is that these women cultivated fan bases and engaged top critics, and yet no one thought to record their doings or remember their names for posterity. Is it a victory for Charlotte Turner Smith that Jane Austen was a fan of her work? Does this seal of approval validate Smith’s credentials, and legitimize her status as one of Britain’s great writers, worthy of contemporary study and attention? Or does it highlight the shameful fact that one of Britain’s great writers went unnoticed for so long? DeWees does not address this question, but she does leave readers with an impassioned exhortation: “Fall in love with these women, just as I did. Embrace the fullest spectrum of female literary accomplishment you can.” For those interested in doing so, Not Just Jane is a good way to begin.