When you read a lot you know the nineteenth century classics and their authors (although quite often you haven’t read them). Women authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot/Mary Ann Evens and Elizabeth Gaskell are known to all fans of classic literature. In Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees the author introduces us to seven much less well known women writers of the time.
I confess that I had heard of only one of these women before reading this book and had heard of one of the books by another. I hadn’t read any of the work of these authors. Had I lived in the nineteenth century it is likely that I would have known most of their work well because these women between them sold a lot of books and contributed to a lot of popular periodicals. That they are little known today possibly has to do with the fact that most of them were commercial writers who favoured volume in order to bring in money and possibly also because the books they wrote don’t resonate with the modern reader.
The book doesn’t examine the work in depth. This is actually a history of the women as writers and so it examines their family situation, why they wrote and what happened when they did. Because the book covers seven stories each section is not particularly long but there is plenty of time to give enough detail to understand what drove these women to write and how their writing career affected the rest of their lives. The motivation for each was actually very different although the majority wrote to earn money when they were abandoned by a fleckless husband or when they were still together but had no money. One wrote mainly to preserve her father’s legacy. Some were lauded for their work and became rich and highly regarded and others found their writing affected by flaws that society found in their personal lives.
I enjoyed reading this book. I was not aware of just how many women wrote at this time and made it a career. Their subject matter was very varied too. There was a lot of poetry and essays. These women wrote about the things that were close to their hearts so there was political writing and stories which drew attention to the social inequality of women. Other pioneered novel styles that were perfected later such as the crime novel, the gothic novel and fantasy.
I still don’t really want to read the books of these women but my knowledge of the time and what writings were available to the interested reader is definitely increased. I can now see the classics in more of a context. I also enjoyed reading about these women’s lives.