Some of these early novelists wrote for themselves or for private audiences, but a surprising number appeared to have published their work for a wider audience, only to forget about it. The task of retrieving them is telegraphed in the title of Dale Spender’s “Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen” (1986). Austen’s brilliance remained a given, but the reality that many “good” predecessors had been sidelined by sexism was exposed. Nevertheless, there are no other early works of women’s fiction that have gone from “good” to “great.” Why?
Shouldn’t we have discovered Austens and Brontës among these hundreds of pioneers – or even another writer as idiosyncratic as Mary Shelley? A cynic might reply that we don’t because there are no others. In this way of thinking, three female geniuses (or five, maybe six, if we count each Brontë and George Eliot) survived because a meritocracy of authorship worked perfectly.
Five myths about Jane Austen
A more optimistically patient person might reply that, even after all these years of feminist archaeology, we still haven’t searched hard enough. It may be that finding female fiction writers who have been absent from history for more than a century may require another century of collective recognition and rediscovery.
But maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the ways we’ve been looking are part of the problem. When we look for new Austens or Brontës, we imagine that we will find novels that positively remind us of theirs. We claim that we are looking for something new, and equally original, but in fact we are looking for literary echoes, not completely different virtuosic performances.
It’s the same reading that often leads contemporary audiences of Austen-inspired film and television adaptations to deep frustration. The widespread critical scorn that greeted the recent Netflix adaptation “Persuasion.” is a prime example, with many complaining that the film misunderstood the heroine, rather than looking at it on its own revised comedic terms. The film disappointed Austen-conscious viewers because it was considered a poor copy – a mode of interpretation that was by no means limited to screen adaptations.
In fact, this turns out to be a very old problem. The dangers of copying Austen, and reading with Austen in mind, date back to the early years after her death in 1817. It is a little-known fact, even among experts, that many other novelists began imitating her almost immediately. A reviewer complained in 1828 in an essay in the Atlas entitled “Novels: Plagiarisms From Miss Austen”, that fiction of the day was rife with unacknowledged theft of her “admirable mine for careful plagiarism”. Not that you had to be so clever back then to recognize Austen copyists. Susan Ferrier’s novel “The Inheritance” (1824) begins with: “It is a universally recognized truth that there is no passion so deeply rooted in human nature as that of pride.” (This bold sample card from “Pride and Prejudice”  notwithstanding, Ferrier’s little-known novels rise to the level of good.)
Jane Austen inspired books keep coming out. Some work better than others.
Some of Austen’s copyists were male. Another early impersonator was American James Fenimore Cooper, known for “The Last of the Mohicans” (1826). His first novel, “Precaution” (1820), combined Austen’s “Persuasion” (1818) with “Pride and Prejudice” to come up with the derivative story of the three daughters of an austerity baron and his prejudiced but well-meaning matchmaker, who has no powers of reason. After “Precaution” failed, Cooper wrote a novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott, which turned out to be a commercial success.
However, if it’s easy to see these parallels, it’s partly because we’re so used to looking for Austen-ness or Brontë-ness. I’ve often been asked if any of the other 18th- and 19th-century female writers I’ve read or taught were “as good as Jane Austen.” Reader, I have grown so tired of this question. It has no good answers.
Every time I answered “No,” I worried that I had wronged a woman writer who had already been unfairly ignored. Can this question ever be answered in the affirmative? No author could surpass Austen Jane Austen, any more than a modern writer, say, Joyce could surpass James Joyce. For too long we’ve used the few women who made it into canon as our only guide to finding lost or underappreciated voices. It’s time to try new methods and ways of reading.
A useful yardstick might be to look at the novelists who were imitated in their own time. In other words, we need to stop looking for undiscovered Austens and start looking for the women who shaped our literary present in their own way, even if their contributions have been forgotten or suppressed.
Frances Burney’s bestseller “Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance to the World” (1778), for example, is a comedic coming-of-age story, told in letters, of the title character’s modesty and innocence of the teenager. endangered, due to its uncertain origins. Some of the humor doesn’t hold up, including a cruel bet on a running race between older women. But much of it does, especially the satirical expressions of consumerism and social manners. It led to imitators borrowing her characters’ names and reusing her title words.
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Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Belinda’ (1801) is also ripe for reappraisal, with its story of a young woman’s entry into the marriage market. It contains gripping scenes and unusual drama, including the prospect of a female duel. At the time, it caused controversy because it depicted the marriage of a working-class black man and a white farmer’s daughter. Edgeworth gave in to the criticism and removed the Black character in subsequent editions. Readers today know it’s challenging to find novels from the past that share current sensibilities, but that’s partly because some novelists at the time struggled to write stories that mattered to a resistant audience. Edgeworth became one of the highest paid fiction writers of her generation, inspiring copycats, especially of her Irish tales and moral tales.
Gothic thriller writer Ann Radcliffe, whose suspense-filled bestsellers of the 1790s launched the “declared supernatural,” in which everything that comes along in the night is later debunked, deserves reconsideration. We can get bogged down in her lengthy descriptions of the natural world, but these sections once functioned as fictionalized travelogues designed to lull the reader into reverie. Her work was so often copied that she is said to have spawned a “Radcliffe School” of writers, pioneering a fictional formula that may seem commonplace now, but was once groundbreaking – and deserves to be recognized as such.
However, my students might vote to bring back the early novelist Eliza Haywood, whose raucous, compelling romantic fictions include “Fantomina” (1725), a novella about a young woman who disguises herself to repeatedly seduce the same unsuspecting man, and ‘Love in Excess’ (1719-20), a bestseller about female desire and a reformed rake. Haywood’s work was widely reprinted and imitated, but she fared poorly with critics who believed her books were dangerously corrupting. Her novels, written at a time when the genre was more episodic and less psychological, deserve a new reading on their own terms.
Jane Porter also deserves a long look. Her bestselling sensation, “Thaddeus of Warsaw” (1803), chronicles the economic and romantic hardship and bigotry with which a refugee hero flees war-torn Poland for England. Then “The Scottish Chiefs” (1810), a story by William Wallace, secured her place as a major author of world renown. It was once widely acknowledged that her books had created a new form of writing, until credit for inventing the modern historical novel was snatched away and given to Sir Walter Scott. His bestseller “Waverley” (1814) was called the first of its kind.
Scott never publicly credited Porter for inspiring him, although they were childhood friends. Jane and her sister, Anna Maria Porter (also a historical novelist), waited 15 years to publicly rebuke Scott for not giving credit where it was due. Things were not going well for them, with powerful supporters standing behind Scott. Porter’s prose is dense at times and her moralizing sharp, but she deserves to be celebrated as the figure who made “Waverley.” possibly, as I argue in my new biography – the first book devoted to their lives and writings – “Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës.” In fact, the Porters paved the way for a slew of historical novelists, up to and including the late Hilary Mantel.
Revisiting heavily imitated authors of centuries past definitely won’t catch every meritorious lost work or writer. However, it could bring us closer to a more comprehensive idea of what the “classic” category could be – or still could be. What is clear is that the deserved literary triumphs of Austen and the Brontës have come at a price. Our abiding love for them and their works may have inadvertently prevented other worthy female novelists from coming into the spotlight. We need to look beyond these long-recognized greats if we ever hope to see more of them as brilliant.
Devoney Looser, professor of English at Arizona State University, is the author of “The Genesis of Jane Austen” and “Sister Novelists.”
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