Happy International Women’s Day! I’ve seen quite a few articles today that – quite rightly – highlight the achievements and struggles of contemporary women, but I thought I’d mark the day by putting together a list of some of my favourite literary women from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. So here, in no particular order, are ten women who you should make time to read; why not celebrate International Women’s Day by picking up one of the suggested texts below?
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Shelley was a pioneer of science fiction, writing Frankenstein (1818) while she was still a teenager. Shelley went on to write numerous novels, short stories, travelogues, letters, journals, and biographies in her lifetime, demonstrating extraordinary range. Her fiction explores the Gothic, the historical, the fantastic, and the futuristic, experimenting with narrative voice and frequently examining gender issues.
Where to start: Frankenstein; The Last Man; Mathilda
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
An advocate of women’s rights, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she argued that women aren’t naturally inferior to men, stressing that their ‘appearance of weakness’ is caused by their lack of education and suggesting that women should ‘share the advantages of education and government with man’.
Where to start: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Mary: A Fiction; Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark
Felicia Hemans was the most widely-read female poet in the English-speaking world during the nineteenth century. A writer of letters and prose as well as poetry, Hemans’s work is hugely patriotic, and frequently explores the position of women in the world.
Where to start: ‘The Image in Lava’; England and Spain; ‘The Grave of a Poetess’
Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)
In her poem 'Why Dorothy Wordsworth is not as Famous as her Brother', Lynn Peters playfully depicts a frustrated Dorothy attempting to compose poetry while being constantly distracted by William’s questions about his laundry and meals. While Dorothy did not become a great poet, her journals present a vivid description of her day-to-day life, and even helped to inspire her brother: William’s famous ‘Daffodils’ is clearly influenced by Dorothy’s diary entry for 15 April 1802 in which she records how she’s seen daffodils that ‘tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing’.
Where to start: The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals
|Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was considered one of the great writers of her time, producing poems, essays, and children’s literature. A middle-class Protestant dissenter, Barbauld’s work addressed issues such as religious liberty, gender equality, and the slave trade.
Where to start: ‘Washing Day’; ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade’; ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a Poem’
Mary Hays (1759-1843)
Mary Hays was very much influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft, and corresponded with a number of radicals and non-conformists during her lifetime. Drawing on her own experiences, Hays used her novels to consider female desire and class hierarchies. Although Hays’s work was widely criticised at the time for being too radical and unfeminine, she’s now receiving increased critical attention.
Where to start: Memoirs of Emma Courtney; The Victim of Prejudice
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)
Mrs Radcliffe was a pioneer of the Gothic novel in the 1790s, using the ‘explained supernatural’ to ultimately attribute earthly causes to seemingly ghostly occurrences. Often interspersing her prose with poetry, Radcliffe’s descriptions of nature engage with the sublime and have a distinctly pictorial quality.
Where to start: The Mysteries of Udolpho; The Italian; The Romance of the Forest
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
One of the most widely-read writers in English, Jane Austen is still beloved by scholars, the casual reading public, and dedicated ‘Janeites’ alike. A bold experimenter with free indirect speech, Austen produced works loaded with social commentary that interrogates the position of women in society. Recent feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial approaches to Austen’s work have opened up the novels in new ways, and her work continues to be adapted frequently for film and television.
Where to start: Pride and Prejudice; Emma; Persuasion
Elizabeth Hands (1746-1815)
Elizabeth Hands was a labouring-class poet in the eighteenth century. Little is known about her life, but it’s believed that she worked as a domestic servant. Her work is intelligent and satirical, addressing ideas of social status, literature, and domesticity.
Where to start: ‘A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper’; ‘A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read’; ‘Written, Originally Extempore, on Seeing a Mad Heifer’
Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
Charlotte Smith was a key Romantic writer, helping to shape the concerns and conventions of the period. A reviver of the sonnet, Smith experimented with form in her poetry and explored both the Gothic and sentimentality in her novels. She was also the author of four children’s books. Recent scholarship has shown that Smith particularly influenced William Wordsworth.
Where to start: Elegiac Sonnets; ‘Beachy Head’