Victorian women writers

Woman Reading, c. 1890, Flickr Commons, National Media Museum, Kodak Gallery Collection
"Woman Reading," Flickr Commons, National Media Museum, Kodak Gallery Collection. c. 1890.

Quick—name a famous 19th-century British romance fiction writer. Did you say Marie Corelli, Amy Levy, Augusta Webster, or Lucas Malet? While Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë come first to the minds of 21st-century readers, Corelli, Levy, Webster, and Malet would have been popular choices of their contemporaries.

These Victorian authors wrote best-selling novels, short stories, and poetry about romance and marriage, but have faded into obscurity today. The Victorian Women Writers Project website aims to change that, bringing hundreds of texts alive digitally. Themes surrounding love and romance are prominent, especially as they relate to women and women’s lives, and include discussions of social formation, contradictions in the social order, and selfhood and identity within Victorian society.

The project is categorizing all works by genre. Clicking on “Browse” by “Genre” from the homepage leads to a tag cloud with major genres (including fiction, essay, letters, poetry, and prose) and subgenres, such as utopian fiction, historical biography, and romance fiction. “Romance fiction” returns, for example, The History of Sir Richard Calmady: A Romance, by Lucas Malet (the pseudonym of Mary St. Leger Kingsley).

This sprawling work, a best-selling novel in 1901, tells the story of Richard Calmady, a man born with no lower legs. It chronicles his youth and coming of age as he pursues romances with a neighbor, explores a life of debauchery, has an affair with his cousin, and finally marries another cousin—all alongside a longstanding romance, of sorts, with his mother, who refuses to openly acknowledge his disability. These plotlines invite exploration of themes surrounding intimacy and disability, the Victorian family, and the history of the disabled body in popular fiction, especially in the era of eugenics.

Texts frequently center on marriage plots, although as was typical in this era, they do not necessarily offer “happily ever after” endings. A Search on the website returns a wealth of materials on “marriage,” “wedding,” “courtship,” and “flirtation.”

Among these are Mathilde Blind’s novel Tarantella: A Romance, Margaret Wynman’s novel My Flirtations, and Augusta Webster’s dramatic poem A Woman Sold, which explores the contrasting ideals of marriage for love and “mercenary marriage.” Webster portrays her protagonist’s marriage to an older, wealthy man instead of the young man whom she loves as simultaneously akin to prostitution and as a harsh consequence of women’s economic dependence.

These works offer a wealth of information on women’s lives in Victorian era Britain. Essays address marriage and women’s legal rights, including “The Modern Marriage Market” by Marie Corelli, Lady Jeune, Flora Annie Steel, and Susan, Countess of Malmesbury. “A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women. . . ” by Barbara Bodichon, provides insight into the possibilities and constraints women faced as they attempted to negotiate Victorian social worlds.

The website is expanding to include non-British authors and to add critical introductions, biographical sketches, and scholarly annotations. Explore these valuable resources and bookmark the site to watch the project grow.

For More Information:

Brown, Susan. “Determined Heroines: George Eliot, Augusta Webster, and Closet Drama by Victorian Women.” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 33, no. 1, Women Poets (1995), 89-109.

Hipsky, Martin. Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885-1925. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011.

O’Connell, Rachel. “Cripsploitation: Desire, the Gaze, and the Extraordinary Body in The History of Sir Richard Calmady.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4, no. 2 (2008).

Teo, Hsu-Ming Teo. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Kristin Lehner

Kristin Lehner is a Senior Research Associate at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is a doctoral candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University.

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