Some of these early novelists wrote for themselves or for a private audience, but a surprisingly large number turned out to have published their work for a wider readership, only to be forgotten. And the task of getting her back is mentioned in the title of Dale Spender’s book The Mothers of Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen (1986). Austen’s genius has been taken for granted, but so has the fact that many of his “good” predecessors have been sidelined by sexism. However, no other early works of fiction by women have yet been elevated from “good” to “great”. why?
Shouldn’t we have discovered more of Austen and Bronte – or even another writer as unique as Mary Shelley – among these pioneers yet? The cynic might answer that we didn’t want him because no one else does. For this way of thinking, three geniuses (or five, maybe six, if we include both Bronte and George Eliot) have survived because their authorial merit succeeded perfectly.
Five myths about Jane Austen
A more optimistic patient might answer that, even after all these years of feminist archaeology, we still haven’t looked hard enough. Finding female fiction writers absent from history for more than a century may require another century of collective recognition and rediscovery.
But perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the ways in which we search are part of the problem. When we go searching for new Austen or Brontes, we imagine we’ll find novels that remind us positively of theirs. We pretend that we are looking for something new, equally original, but in fact we are looking for literary echoes, and not a completely outstanding, talented performance.
It’s the same way of reading that often leads today’s audience of Austen-inspired movies and television to experience deep frustration. The widespread critical disdain that greeted the latest Netflix adaptation of ‘Persuasion’ Case in point, with many complaining that the film did a disservice to the heroine, rather than seeing it in its amended comic terms. The film disappointed Austen-conscious viewers because it was considered a bad version – a method of interpretation that is in no way limited to screen adaptations.
In fact, this turned out to be a very old problem. The dangers of imitating Austen, and reading with Austen in mind, date back to the early years after her death in 1817. It is a little-known fact, even among experts, that many other novelists began imitating her almost immediately. A reviewer complained in 1828, in an article in Atlas titled “Novels: The Plagiarism of Miss Austen,” that the novel of the day was full of unacknowledged plagiarism from “my admirable because of wise plagiarism.” Not that you had to be clever at the time to spot Austin transcribers. Suzanne Ferrer’s novel The Inheritance (1824) begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that no passion is so deeply rooted in human nature as that of pride.” (This gritty sample from “Pride and Prejudice”  Ferrer’s little-known novels, though, amount to goodness).
Books inspired by Jane Austen keep coming. Some work better than others.
Some of Austen’s transcribers were male. Another early imitator of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826) fame was American James Fenimore Cooper. His first novel, “The Hedge” (1820), combined Austen’s “Persuasion” (1818) with “Pride and Prejudice.” to craft the derivative story of the three daughters of a recumbent baronet and his wife, a prejudiced but well-intentioned matchmaker, who lacks the powers of reasoning. After the failure of Reserve, Cooper wrote a novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott, which proved to be a commercial success.
If these parallels are easy to see, it’s in part because we’re so used to looking Austin Ness or Bronte Ness. She was often asked if any of the other women writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that she read or studied were “as good as Jane Austen”. Reader, I am tired of this question. She doesn’t have good answers.
When I answered “no,” I was afraid of offending a writer who had already been wrongfully snubbed. Can this question Ever Is the answer in the affirmative? Certainly no author can better Austen Jane Austen, any more than a contemporary writer can, say, James Joyce. For far too long, we’ve used a few women who invented the canon as our only leads to search for lost or underrated votes. It’s time to try new ways and styles of reading.
A useful benchmark might be to look at the novelists who were imitated in their day. In other words, we must stop looking for the undiscovered Austen and start looking for the women who have shaped our literary present in their own way, even if their contributions have been forgotten or suppressed.
For example, Frances Burney’s bestseller Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entry into the World (1778) is a comic coming-of-age story, told in letters, about the character’s teenage humility and innocence. Under threat, thanks to its uncertain parentage. Some of his humor doesn’t hold up, including a cruel bet on a foot between old women. But much of it does, particularly its satirical responses to consumerism and society’s morality. She pushed out imitators who borrowed the names of her characters and reused the words of her title.
Read more from the book World
Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda” (1801) is also ripe for reappraisal, with its story of a young woman’s entry into the marriage market. It has exciting scenes and unusual drama, including the prospect of a female duel. At the time, the film generated controversy for its depiction of the marriage of a working-class black man and the daughter of a white farmer. Edgeworth, bowing to the criticism, edited the black character in subsequent editions. Today’s readers know that it’s hard to find earlier novels that share the sensibilities of the present, but that’s in part because some novelists at the time struggled to write stories of interest to resistant audiences. Edgeworth went on to become one of the highest-grossing fiction writers of her generation and to inspire imitators, especially her Irish ballads and moral tales.
Gothic thriller novelist Anne Radcliffe, whose 1890s suspense-packed bestseller launched The Supernatural Explained, in which everything that happens in the night is later debunked, is worth revisiting. We may get bogged down in her long descriptions of the natural world, but these sections once functioned like fictional travel writing, intended to stimulate the reader’s imagination. Her work was copied so often that she is said to have spawned the “Radcliffe School” of writers, a fantasy formula that may now sound fantastic but was once groundbreaking – and deserves to be recognized as such.
However, my students might vote to bring back the early novelist Eliza Haywood, whose tumultuous and groovy novels include “Phantomena” (1725), a novel about a young woman who disguises herself to seduce the same unsuspecting man over and over again, and “Love in Excess” (1719-1720), which is A bestseller on female desire and an enhanced revealer. Haywood’s work was widely reprinted and imitated, but she had no success with critics who thought her books seriously screwed up. Her novels, written at a time when the genre was more episodic and less psychological, deserve a fresh read on their own terms.
Jane Porter also deserves a long look. Her bestselling sentimentalist, Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803), describes the economic, romantic, and prejudiced hardships of a heroic refugee fleeing from war-torn Poland to England. Then “The Scottish Chiefs” (1810), the story of William Wallace, secured her place as a major author of international fame. Her books were widely recognized as having created a new kind of writing, until the credit for the invention of the modern historical novel was discarded and given to Sir Walter Scott. His best-selling Waverly (1814) became the first of its kind.
Scott never publicly credited Porter with his inspiration, even though they were childhood friends. Jane and her sister, Anna Maria Porter (also a historical novelist), waited 15 years to publicly call out Scott for failing to give proper credit. It did not go well for them, as strong supporters lined up behind Scott. Sometimes Porter’s prose is thick and her preaching sharp, but she deserves to be celebrated as the character who made Waverly. Possible, I argue in my new autobiography—the first book devoted to their lives and writings—”Sister Novelists: The Pioneering Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontes.” Porters actually made a path for a whole series of historical novelists, including the late Hilary Mantel.
Revisiting the highly imitated authors of centuries past will never discover every lost work or writer. However, it can bring us closer to a more comprehensive idea of what a “classical” category might be – or could be. What is clear is that the well-deserved literary triumphs of Austen and Bronte came at a price. Our enduring love for them and their work may have inadvertently prevented other worthy female novelists from focusing better. We must look no further than these long-recognized greats if we hope to count more of them as brilliant.
Devonie Loser, Professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author of “Made by Jane Austen” And the “Sister Novelists. “
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