On Lady Novelists


(to mark International Women’s Day)

I use this phrase as it is one I heard throughout my youth. It has a condescending air, in that it suggests that only somewhat genteel, well brought-up, probably wealthy or privileged women could afford to ‘dabble’ in literary pursuits. I suppose the people in the book world who persisted in using this phrase well beyond its sell-by date were those people who considered Jane Austen the patron saint of the lady novelists. Many of them were merely being polite, in that they would refer to all women as ladies; as in, ‘Ladies first’, when letting women of all descriptions on the bus ahead of them. Of this type were male authors such as E. M. Forster, who, in his lectures on the novel, used the pronoun ‘he, his, him’ exclusively when discussing his hypothetical readers or writers, as if women readers and writers did not exist in the literary world – or even in the world. And yet he discusses Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and George Eliot with as much respect for their art as for any of the male authors he refers to. He was simply using the conventions of his age; and the ‘lady novelists’ who read his book knew that ‘he, his, him’ included them too.

But perhaps this sex apartheid in the literary world sharpened the minds and the pens of the lady novelists writing during that era of male domination – because there are so many, and they were so good. Many of the best of them are not household names so I would like to offer a list of Lady Novelists who should be better known. Edith Wharton, who is well-known, probably thanks to movie adaptations, heads my list. Her prose is so pure, so human, that readers of Ethan Frome cannot tell whether the first-person narrator is male or female: the tale the narrator tells is the important thing.

This list is far from complete – many great writers are missing from it, so it looks short; but that is because it ignores all those women writers who are celebrated today and whose names come up in all the lists, as well as all those you will probably come across during your studies. Today women equal – possibly even surpass – male writers in their number and prominence in the literary world. The names below are some of the greatest writers in the English language, whose careers and reputations no doubt suffered from their having written during that era when they would have been lumped together under the slightly dismissive label of Lady Novelist.

And yet, ironically, it was George Eliot herself who, in her 1856 essay, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, first set up the phrase as a pejorative. And its influence, and her influence, perhaps spurred future lady novelists to show their true worth. Any serious writers among them would have felt the stern eye of George Eliot looking over their shoulders, challenging them to write better; warning them against writing ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’. See this link for her essay:

Antonia White
Barbara Pym
Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Jane Howard
Willa Cather
Bessie Head
Olivia Manning
Penelope Lively
Penelope Fitzgerald
Muriel Spark
Nadine Gordimer
Edna O’Brien
Elizabeth Bowen
Caroline Blackwood
George Egerton

Posted by Margaret Leclere