I have never really been the biggest Jane Austen fan. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t describe myself as a hater but I can’t say that she inspires me greatly. And let me tell you something, being a bookish person who doesn’t automatically adore Austen is tough. I don’t judge anyone for liking her but there’s a certain amount of blind faith in her that means you can’t go against her without getting some backlash. My issue is that Austen has been turned into some sort of literary heroine. Somewhere along the way, female writers in history appear to have been erased from the public consciousness and Austen has taken the crown for most important female writer ever. This is nonsense. It’s like the fucking Beatles all over again. Jane Austen did not invent female writing. She has great insights into human nature and is quite funny. But it’s like romantic-comedy. It’s safe because everyone knows where it’s going. The reason that Jane Austen survived wasn’t that she was doing anything incredibly revolutionary or different. She survived because she’s readable. That’s not a bad thing. Obviously readable is good but it’s not necessarily exciting. Austen’s novels never did anything daring enough to have people decry them. They just stayed in the middle of the road. And as for Austen being a feminist? Yes, she writes about strong female characters but Austen was not influenced by the burgeoning feminist narrative going on at the time. It’s very much domestic feminism and it’s very much confined to its little bubble. The main reason that Jane Austen is often given the position of the greatest female writer is that you’re not encouraged to read the others. For whatever reason, they’ve been removed from the conversation. So, here are some of my favourite female writers who, in my opinion, are better than Jane Austen. I’ve not included every single one but there are definitely some women here that I think everyone should read.
I promise the rest of the choices won’t be quite so well-known. Of course, everyone knows Mary Wollstonecraft. She crafted one of the most important pieces of feminist writing that has ever been written. Vindication on the Rights of Women is not an important text but it’s really well written. She evokes the tropes of gothic fiction for her political purposes and it’s fabulous. Why am I bringing her up if everyone knows who she is? Because it’s less well-known that she also wrote two novels. Two amazing and super feminist novels, Mary: A Fiction and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman. Both of these novels critique the institute of marriage and the impact that it has on women. Maria was never finished but is one of the best gothic tales I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read Wollstonecraft’s novels then do so. And you might as well check out her Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It made William Godwin fall in love with her. It made me fall in love with her. It’s great.
Charlotte Turner Smith
Charlotte Smith lived through some shit. Seriously. If you’re looking for a new hero then look no further. She was forced to marry at an early age because of her father’s financial problems. It was a horrible marriage and something Smith later said turned her into a “legal prostitute”. Her husband was violent, unfaithful, and terrible with his money. The pair had 12 children and Smith ended up having to bankroll the family with her writing. Something that she was continually mocked for by her husband and his family. However, Smith was a hugely influential writer and poet. For one thing, she was behind a revival of the English sonnet. For another, she was hugely influential in establishing gothic conventions. And, most importantly, she was hugely political. Her later novels definitely supported the ideas that came out of the French Revolution. Unfortunately, she died poor and ill. Adding insult to injury, she was largely forgotten during the 19th century. Justice for Charlotte.
You have almost definitely heard of Ann Radcliffe. She’s a major name in terms fo gothic fiction but also for Jane Austen fans. Thanks to Catherine Morland’s reading habits, Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho has never left the bookish consciousness. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they started reading Udolpho after reading Northanger Abbey. This is great because she’s a fantastic writer worth reading. But it’s also a bad thing. Udolpho is quite a novel. Quite a novel. She takes her luscious description to an even more intense level. God, she loves describing the scenery in that book. So, it’s a tough one to get through first. It’s like someone trying to get in Murakami and choosing 1Q84 as their starting point. Abort abort abort! Radcliffe wrote plenty of great novels that are way more accessible. I offer a few examples in my gothic fiction post if you want to give her a try. And you should. Radcliffe was doing great things in this era. She was huge. She was an inspiration to so many writers.
Maria Edgeworth was an important figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe and was one of the first realist children’s writers. She has written plenty of great works of fiction but, these days, she is perhaps best known for Belinda. A novel that was very controversial for its depiction of an interracial marriage between an African servant and an English girl. This was removed in later additions but big props to Maria for her daring. During her own time, Edgworth was the most successful and popular living English novelist. She was also not afraid to make a political or social point within her novels. She spent a lot of her life in Ireland and it definitely influenced her. Many of her works include references to her thoughts on Irish culture, religion, class, and gender. She often expressed her controversial opinions in her work. Earlier, I read something that said Jane Austen was a feminist because she was a female who wrote novels. Maria Edgeworth makes Austen look like a wimp.
If you don’t know anything about Mary Robinson then I suggest you do. She was a fascinating figure in history. Robinson was outspoken about how great women were and lead something of a scandalous life. She was, in a word, fabulous. Mary found fame as an actress and became a pretty big celebrity in her day. In her later life, she attempted to reinvent herself as a writer and a poet. Though her novels never found critical or popular acclaim, she was celebrated for her poetry. During her life, she wrote 8 novels, 3 plays, feminist treatises, and an incomplete autobiography. And she did it all whilst supporting feminist thought and spreading her liberalism. Unlike Jane Austen, she was a massive fan of Mary Wollstonecraft and was all about publically celebrating women. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge called her “a woman on undoubted genius”. Talk about a top endorsement.
Helen Maria Williams
Helen Maria Williams is another female writer of this period who has been forgotten despite being celebrated in her own day. I mean Wordsworth wrote a poem about her in 1787. Although, as time went on she became more of a controversial figure. But, then again, she was imprisoned in Pairs during the Reign of Terror. Helen Maria Williams was a woman who wasn’t afraid to showcase her political views in her works. She was majorly known for her poetry, which included many of her thoughts about key political and social topics. She was critical of religion, was a feminist, opposed war, and was an abolitionist. You name it, she had an opinion on it. Her novel Julia showcased her support for the revolutionaries in France. Something that caused her to travel alone to revolutionary France. Alone. To revolutionary France. Can you see Jane Austen doing something that daring? Her Letters From France is a weird mix of genres but showcases who she is as a writer and a thinker. It was, in part, a critique of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Her contemporaries didn’t always follow her stance but Williams is a writer worth reading.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was one of the most important female poets of this period. Her early work inspired the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She is an accomplished and powerful writer. Over the years, she was erased from the literary canon and ignored. Why? Many reasons. For one thing, Wordsworth and Coleridge later changed their opinion on her and, once you lost those literary titans it was difficult to come back. She was also put out of fashion as opinions changed. Thankfully, she has slowly started to come back into the literary world and literary criticism is again seeing the worth in her works. Barbauld was not as overtly feminist as many writers at the time but she is still pushing feminine discourse in a traditionally masculine format. She also challenged a few big male writers, like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. And it’s not as if she wasn’t political. There is plenty in there about religion, slavery, and the Napoleonic Wars. Barbauld is an exciting and complicated writer and it’s a shame that she was pushed so far out of the spotlight.