Beyond Austen and the Brontës: Classic Literature for Women’s History Month

Beyond Austen and the Brontës: Classic Literature for Women’s History Month

Not many women have been permitted into the Western literary canon. As someone who majored in English literature, I do have a healthy distrust of the canon. While the most benevolent view of the literary canon is that these are the works who have endured the test of time, it cannot be denied that political power, literary and academic trends, racism, sexism, and colonialism that dictated what can survive, regardless of literary merit. When we think of women in literature prior to the 20th century, very few names come to mind. Usually it’s Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, and understandably so, but there are so many female authors from their time period who deserve more attention. 

Evelina by Fanny Burney: 

Fanny Burney was an author who influenced the work of Jane Austen. Like in many of Austen’s novels, the protagonist is a young woman just entering society. With no advantages of wealth or birth, Evelina must use her own good sense to preserve her own reputation in the public eye and to determine which young men are of good character. Like most novels of the late eighteenth century, Evelina is an epistolary novel, which is initially jarring for the modern reader. Once the reader adjusts to a narrative told through letters, Evelina is an entertaining read, full of social mishaps, youthful crushes, and misunderstandings. Evelina would be popular with Austen lovers, as it has a similar struggles, but Burney’s world is a bit grittier and dangerous to women than Austen’s. Even Mr. Wickham is an amateur next to some of the scoundrels that Evelina encounters.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

When Belinda comes of age, Mrs. Stanhope, her aunt who was meant to introduce her to society, grows ill and arranges for Belinda to go to London with the witty and fashionable Lady Delacour. Once in London, Belinda is pursued by questionable gentlemen, and she becomes acquainted with the numerous skeletons in the Delacour family closet. Belinda is a very rational and reasonable heroine, who always remains pristine, as the more emotional females of the story are constantly being led into folly. However, it is the passionate and emotional Lady Delacour who dominates the page and gets to deliver the wittiest lines in the book. If Belinda occasionally lacks sparkle, her love interest does not. Clarence Hervey is in many ways a traditional hero of that time period. He is gentlemanly and honorable. But in other ways, Clarence is quite ridiculous. If you were to dine with Clarence, he would know more about wine than anyone else at the table, all of his knowledge quite made up. At one point, he nearly drowns in the Serpentine because he bets a friend that he can beat him across, even though he doesn’t actually swim (though he read a jolly helpful essay that explained how to swim). While Belinda is occasionally didactic, it is overall a delight to read.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by by Baroness Orczy

I’m cheating slightly with this one, as this is the only one on the list not from the 18th and 19th centuries, but given that this was published before the first world war, it somehow seems far less modern than the novels of Virginia Woolf. The Scarlet Pimpernel is what you want to read when you want something both literary and escapist. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the greatest English spy of the French Revolution, who manages to rescue French aristocrats right before they are taken to the guillotine. All of London society is fascinated by the Scarlet Pimpernel, including Lady Blakeney, who has no idea that her dandyish husband, Sir Percy Blakeney, is the Pimpernel. When Lady Blakeney’s brother is taken by the villain, Chauvelin, both her brother and her husband are in danger. The Scarlet Pimpernel is both romantic and charming and guaranteed to be a hit among readers who like a hero with a secret identity.

And if we hop the pond, here is some literature from North America:

The Poetry of Phyllis Wheatley

When I first considered adding Phillis Wheatley to this list, it was because she was a pioneer. Not only was she one of the first women in American literature, she was the first Black woman to be widely read in the colonies. But when I began to read Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, I finally understood why I’ve only read about Wheatley in history books and not read her work in literature texts. From the preface of the book which declares that she had been “brought an uncultivated Barbarian from America” to one of her own poems, which includes the passage, “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” it is problematic. I’m not saying this in criticism of Wheatley. She was an enslaved Black woman living in a white man’s world. She might have been smarter than the men around her, but she was not in a position to safely criticize societal ills. So why did I include Phillis Wheatley? Simply because it is an uncomfortable read and because it shows the complex relationship America has with race, both then and now.

Amber Gods and Other Stories by Harriet Prescott Spofford

The American Gods and Other Stories is one book that is featured in the American Women Writers series, a collection of early American literature rescued from obscurity from the women’s studies scholars at Rutgers. This haunting collection of short stories can hold its own with Hawthorne, Melville, and other writers of American Romanticism. My favorite story of the collection is “Circumstance,” where a young pioneer woman is walking home from a neighbor’s house at night and a panther pounces on her. To keep the cat from mauling her, she has to sing the beast into calmness. So she sings every song she knows as the great cat relaxes, and the result is an otherworldly story that stays with you. If I’m honest, I’m not much for short story collections. I usually prefer novels, as I like to get attached to characters over the span of a few hundred pages, but this one is one of my favorite books as each of the stories is beautifully written and original. It’s a shame that this book became so obscure.

The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth

This is another selection from Rutgers American Women Writers series. The Hidden Hand is a ridiculous delight with a heroine, named Capitola, who rescues people in distress while riding her pony through the Virginia countryside and a villain named Black Donald who is constantly disguising himself to fool people. When the reader first meets Capitola, she is a young orphan, disguising herself as a boy to survive. When her eventual guardian, Major Ira Warfield, first encounters Capitola, she is in trouble for the “crime” of crossdressing. To keep her from being sent to a workhorse for her crime, the major offers to adopt her. The legal authorities seem to think the major wants to prey on her, but they consider that to be less morally questionable than Capitola donning trousers and let the old man take her away to his home, Hurricane Hall, in rural Virginia. Luckily for Capitola, the major’s concern was fatherly, and at Hurricane Hall, Capitola is able to become her true adventuresome self.  While the writing style of The Hidden Hand is more sensational than literary, Southworth does have an understanding of gender roles that seems advanced for the mid-nineteenth century, and the novel is just too much fun for the reader to care if it’s Deeply Important Art.