Back in May, politician Jacob Rees-Mogg published a history book entitled The Victorians, which pays homage to influential figures of the Victorian period. Yet, Rees-Mogg chose to only feature only one woman: Queen Victoria herself. This apparent display of male dominance and entitlement massively overlooks the prevalence of females within Victorian society, which was increasingly apparent, particularly in the world of literature. I wish to shed light on some of the prominent female writers of the time, all of whom are worthy of the recognition of which Rees-Mogg deprives them.
A personal favourite, Elizabeth Gaskell was an important writer of the period, who sought to present the working class in a sympathetic and honest manner. Known for her novels such as Mary Barton and Cranford, Gaskell became the face of the struggles of the working class, exploring the conditions in both rural and urban areas. Her main literary success came with the publication of North and South in 1854, which discusses the north-south divide in England. Gaskell was daring, and her controversial works feature Victorian taboos such as seduction and illegitimacy. This led to greater representation and acceptance of less commonly discussed aspects of Victorian society.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë
Perhaps the most well-known names to feature in this list, the Brontës were popular figures of the nineteenth century, and their works are still heavily prevalent in modern day culture. Originally writing under male pseudonyms, the Brontë sisters widely had to conform to the patriarchal condition of society. Yet, their gender did not prevent their success, and Charlotte, Emily and Anne all went on to write critically acclaimed novels, the most notable being Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively. The genders of the authors were frequently questioned, and Charlotte went on to reveal her true identity in 1848.
Mary Ann Evans is best known by her pen name George Eliot, and was a prolific writer of the Victorian era. Her most famous works include the novels Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch, with the latter receiving wide literary acclaim. Eliot’s male pen name enabled her to distance herself from the genre of stereotypical female romances, and instead allowed her to pave the way for a new generation of female writers. Realism and psychological insight are both features of her work, with the fictional town of Middlemarch being heavily based on Coventry. Nowadays, Eliot is remembered for her novels and free-thinking intellectualism.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Born in County Durham, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prominent poet, who – rather impressively – is rumoured to have started writing at the age of six. Eventual wife of the writer Robert Browning, she is not, however, to be overshadowed by her husband, as her work went on to be widely recognised and even influenced other notable poets. However, her success was not limited to the literary sphere, and she also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, in addition to influencing movements for reform. She was most active during the 1840s, and her poetry is widely studied in schools and universities today.
Born in Ireland, Sarah Grand spent most of her life in England, where she wrote feminist fiction and promoted female suffrage. Establisher of the phrase ‘new woman’, her work heavily features this ideal and explores the position and expectations of females within society. Grand wrote in the late nineteenth century, and is perhaps most well known for her novel The Heavenly Twins. Her works concern social problems, and she openly criticises the patriarchal state of society. Whilst some have labelled her as only a ‘moderate feminist’, it is evident that she contributed significantly to the women’s suffrage movement.
Photograph: Annie Spratt via Unspalsh