Filling the Literary Gaps: English Female Writers 1750 - 1915
Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature (2016) by Shelley DeWees is a delightful book that takes a historical and critical look at seven women writers. With a graduate degree in ethnomusicology, the anthropology of music, at first blush it isn't clear why DeWees is the academic to walk us through this feminist literary history. However, a quick background tale demonstrates that she has followed the familiar path that many readers of Jane Austen have: bouncing from the reserved settings in Austen's books to the moody texts by the Brontë sisters. And in fact, as DeWees says in her introduction:
"I had virtually no idea what existed between Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre; or, for that matter, between Jane Eyre and Middlemarch; or Middlemarch and Mrs. Dalloway (the latter two being the only other female British writers I really knew about)" (6).
In Not Just Jane, DeWees covers about a one-hundred-and-fifty-year span, choosing to focus on English women writers who had great publication success and also faced societal consequences due to their chosen lifestyle. Of course, familiar names crop up as DeWees dives into her research: mother of early English Gothic literature, Ann Radcliffe, is mentioned, as are the mother-daughter duo who never knew each other, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. And as the reader is introduced to each of the seven women DeWees investigates, it becomes clear that we should know the names and works of these women given the trails they blazed. From plays to genre-creating tales, political writings to popular fiction, these women lived by their pen:
Charlotte Turner Smith (1749 - 1806)
Helen Maria Williams (1759 - 1827)
Mary Robinson (1758 - 1800)
Catherine Crowe (c.1800 - 1876)
Sara Coleridge (1802 - 1852)
Dinah Mulock Craik (1826 - 1887)
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 - 1915)
What becomes abundantly clear in DeWees writing and research is the reality of the limitations of women's lives during this time period. It is no wonder that depression was rampant among women who had such limited means to support themselves, few outlets for creativity, and narrowly defined societal roles and rules to follow. These seven women faced backlash for their written works—some tried to make marriages work, others turned to drug use, most revelled in the rebellion. DeWees weaves together how these women bump up against one another throughout their lives, providing excellent continuity throughout the narrative.
"A reviewer could not, in this system, separate a work of literature from the gender of its creator, and this resulted in reviews not only of the work, but also the authoress's personal standing. Was she a 'good' lady? Did she uphold the values of femininity?"(80).
There are three great things about DeWees' research. First, in each chapter she includes a hypothesis as to why the women writer in that chapter has been forgotten. Often as you read the successes of these women it will be difficult to understand why their names have slipped from our collective memory. Secondly, DeWees includes passages from the works by these women—enough to whet the interest—and then provides footnotes and end notes to direct the reader to further reading. And lastly, DeWees presents her research in an accessible way. Although extensively researched, her prose is personal and entertaining. A perfect example of the kind of academic research that is made for a wider audience without jargon and hiding behind pay walls of journals.
"...it takes only a handful of adoring fans to revive an authoress and her work, to invite her to be read once again; to light the torch that will move from generation to generation; and to ensure that today, tomorrow, and beyond, we will continue to read and reread works" (279).
While this book is taking a look at a specific time period of English women writers, it is difficult not to ask the question: what about writers during this time who were women of colour? Subsequent research shows that Black authors were either male or American, both criteria falling outside the parameters of DeWees' research. However, given the 1808 anonymous publication of A Woman of Colour, there remains the possibility that there is research in this area yet to be brought to the forefront of scholarship.
With this in mind, it is still absolutely worth picking up a copy of Not Just Jane. Like DeWees, many of us reading enthusiasts have read (and reread) Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, enjoying the England and characters they present to us. It is high time we add to our bookshelves more female voices of the era.