The literary development of women in England, coming later than in Italy and Germany, proceeded much more rapidly, as did the provisions for their education. Dr. Johnson, the intellectual monarch of the last century, compared the manifestation of intellect in women to the figure of a dog dancing on his hind legs’ he does not do it well, but we are surprised that he can do it at all. Yet our best insight into Dr. Johnson himself is attainable, not so much through Boswell, as through two of his female friends, and Madame D’Arblay (Fannie Burney). It was seven years after his death, moreover, that the first definite plan for the intellectual position of women made by Mary Wollstonecraft — afterwards the wife of William Godwin — in 1791. This was, in reference to its subject, an epoch-making book. Its author (1759-1793) had a remarkable career and produced a varied literature; her Historical View of the French Revolution gave her a place among the strong thinkers of the day and her Letters from Norway had a charm in their descriptions of nature, in which department they then found no equal in English literature. All these were written before her marriage with Godwin.
There appeared afterwards, in rapid succession, a remarkable series of English women of whom the most gifted are now seen to have been, in their respective departments, Jane Austen, Harriet Martineau, and Mary Somerville.
There is something remarkable in the steady and increasing recognition of fame in the case of Jane Austen (1775-1817), beside the obviously waning literary reputation of Miss Burney and Miss Edgeworth, both of whom outshone her in their day. Scott, it is true, always placed her above her rivals while she herself modestly undervalued the little piece of ivory, as she said, on which she worked so hard. Her fame, after all, illustrates the fact that the highest work of fiction is to create character rather than plot. A person like Jane Austen, who can introduce us, for instance, to a family of five sisters, not one of them very remarkable, but so perfectly individualized by her, that, on turning the page, we can recognize without being told which sister made a certain remark or did a certain act — such an author vindicates in the highest sense her claim to the title of artist and her work may truly be called creative. Tried by this sole test, Jane Austen unquestionably stands very near the head of the world’s literary workers and her fame rests on sure grounds.
The name of Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was identified with the great moral reforms and social development of her day; and Lord Brougham, who was regarded for a time as the leading intellect of England, designated her as the most intellectual woman of her period, and encouraged her to write pamphlets and stories illustrating the most important points of political economy. Her Eastern Life was, in its time, the best picture of Oriental travel, and her Life in the Sick Room was a heroic delineation of the power of self-control and patience. Her Letters on Man’s Nature and Development somewhat impaired her influence, as being written partly under the leadership of Mr. H.G. Atkinson, a man who did not, unless through her, greatly influence mankind; but she was to the end of her days a powerful reformer and also a good hater.
The career of Mary Somerville (1780-1872) is profoundly interesting, as read in her own recollections. She had in childhood no opportunity of scientific knowledge, but on being present at a card party in Scotland, found an illustrated magazine of fashions an algebraic problem which determined the whole course of her life; and thenceforth, under all obstacles, she followed up the subject. Her father only discouraged her and predicted that the study would drive her mad. She was married young to a husband who took no interest in science and had a contempt for the intellect of women. Her own family considered her eccentric and foolish, but her second husband was devotedly kind and generous and rejoiced in all the scientific honors she subsequently obtained. Her works, Connexion of the Physical Sciences, Mechanism of the Heavens, and Physical Geography, went through many editions.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) led a life very exceptional in various ways. Her mind was disciplined by an usual education and her character by prolonged illness, but she married most happily and the high water mark of her poetry is shown in love sonnets to her husband, the Sonnets from the Portuguese. Spending most of her married life in Italy, she devoted herself with enthusiasm to continental politics and, rather to the surprise of the most of her admirers, was in sympathy with the short-lived career of Louis Napoleon. Her longest poem, Aurora Leigh, was full of profound sympathy with the wrongs of her sex, and drew from the first of living English poets a praise like that which was bestowed on Sappho.
The high water mark of prose writing among English women was undoubtedly attained by Mrs. Cross, who wrote under the name of George Eliot (1819-1880). She was educated at home, except for a year’s residence as governess at Geneva, became an assistant editor of the Westminster Review and was first known as a writer of fiction by her Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). She afterwards wrote Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and other works of which Middlemarch was probably the best. Sharing with Miss Austen the power of creating individual characters, she reached far greater depths and one of her poems, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” would alone secure her a lasting fame.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.