In the movie “Becoming Jane”, starring Anne Hathaway as Victorian authoress Jane Austen, there are some scenes showing Jane Austen publicly reading to others from her novels. It is a nice image, but actually scenes like these would never have taken place. Jane Austen did not have a room of her own to write and had to write in the family living room. Luckily for her, the hallway door squeaked when someone entered which gave her enough time to hide her writing.
This is how most Victorian female writers behaved. In the 19th century, the literary market went through a lot of changes, such as a huge rise in the number of public libraries, the possibility to distribute books to the provinces by train, or the rising interest in the person of the author. Yet, women were still restricted to a private sphere of domesticity. The engagement in a literary life was often even brought in connection with the trope of the “fallen woman”: a woman who cheats on her husband, who walks the streets alone and freely without protection, or a prostitute.
In her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell (author of North and South and Mary Barton) writes:
“[…] henceforth Charlotte Brontë‘s existence became divided into two parallel currents – her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each character – not opposite each other; not impossible but difficult to be reconciled. When a man becomes an author, it is probably merely a change of employment to him […] a woman‘s principal work in life is hardly left to her own choice; nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed.”
Although the three Brontë sisters decided to write under gender-neutral pseudonyms, they couldn’t help being entangled in a public literary life, when they were called to London to identify themselves as the authors of their works.
In a letter to Robert Southey from 1837, Charlotte Brontë writes:
“I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. Following my father’s advice – who from my childhood has counseled me, just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter – I have endeavored not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself, and my father’s approbation amply rewarded me for the privation.”
And here’s another example, which shows how dangerous a literary activity was to the reputation of a woman. This is from Mary Brunton’s preface to her novel Emmeline:
“I would rather, as you well know, glide though the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant, to be pointed at, – to be noticed and commented upon – to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred as literary women are, by the pretending of the other! – my dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer.”
These struggles between the woman and the writer, and between duty and art (luckily) appear very unfamiliar to us, who we are used to live in a world in which not only women have more liberty, but in which reading and writing are considered highly prestigious and esteemed activities.
These Victorian women, who had to obscure their literary engagements and their interest in books, are a stark contrast to one of the most sparkling literary personas of the 19th century: Charles Dickens. Dickens is frequently called one of the first “literary celebrities” or “international media stars”: he went on reading tours and the people waited for hours only to hear him read from Oliver Twist, he travelled to America to promote his books, he acted in the theatre, he visited charity balls to promote himself as figure of public interest, and he had his face painted on matchboxes or other objects of daily life. Dickens was seen everywhere, while the Victorian female writers were nowhere to be found. It is interesting to note that Dickens also worked as a publisher and collaborated with Elizabeth Gaskell on the publication of her novel North and South, which appeared in small installments in Dickens’s magazine Household Words. A letter by Charles Dickens shows how his frustration with her not keeping the deadlines links his authority as a publisher with her husband’s domestic authority over her:
“If I were Mr G oh! Heavens, how I would beat her!”