Today we’re going to look at 5 forgotten female authors you need to read. They were all successful in their own time. But, for one reason or another, they have been left out of the ‘great canon of English literature’. So, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering who came before Jane Austen, you’ve come to the right place. Each of the women on this list made important contributions to the development of writing. Here’s why they need to be on your TBR pile.
The eighteenth century is an ideal place to begin searching for female authors you need to read. History has not been kind to the majority of female authors but the eighteenth century is a gold-mine for rediscovery. During this period of time, literature of all kinds flourished and the novel was born. Importantly, the eighteenth century was also an age where female authorship came to the fore. Over a thousand women writers published their work and even outnumbered male authors, statistically. They wrote poetry, political satire, travel writing, literary criticism and generally fought their right to be heard in the public sphere, long before Jane Austen picked up her pen.
First off on this list of forgotten female authors is Delarivier Manley. Delarivier lived in eighteenth century England and after losing her respectable standing in life thanks to a bigamous marriage, made a living from her writing. As one of the first published female authors, she is more than deserving of our attention. But for a long time, she has languished in the shade of more famous, and often male, contemporaries thanks, in part, to her notorious reputation.
Much of what we know about Delarivier Manley comes from her own semi-autobiographical work ‘The Adventures of Rivella’. A novel/biography which was published as a defence of her ‘honest’ intentions when writing her notorious work ‘The New Atalantis’. This roman à clef, or novel based on real life, caused such a scandal when it was published, thanks to her thinly veiled satire of British politicians, that she was eventually arrested and sued for libel. Not to be deterred, however, she denied all similarity between her characters and real people, and successfully defended her case. The charges were eventually dropped. Partly thanks to the claimants’ reluctance to admit anything she had written was true!
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Today, Lady Mary is mainly remembered for her letters; early examples of travel writing. They document her journeys through the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) in the eighteenth century. Unlike other contemporary female authors, it was her sex that gave Lady Mary the opportunity to provide a unique perspective on life in the Ottoman Empire. She could visit the cloistered female baths, for example, a world almost entirely closed off to men. Her experiences in the Ottoman empire helped to change the existing perception of the country and offer an insight into a fascinating culture.
Her writing also challenges the prevailing social attitudes towards women and their intellectual and social growth. If you need any more proof that she’s one of the female authors your need to read, a book attributed to her is called ‘Women not Inferior to Men’. #girlpower
Recommended Reading: The Turkish Embassy Letters: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu buy here
Sarah Scott was an English novelist, translator and social reformer. As a member of the famous Bluestockings, a group of women who were dedicated to the pursuit of learning and writing, Sarah Scott was interested in the pursuit of intellectual growth. Her most famous novel ‘Millenium Hall’ was published in 1762 and was unique in its depiction of a world where women were free to pursue an education without constraint.
Although ‘Millenium Hall’ does not participate in the tradition of the novel, in general, it is still worth reading. Sarah Scott’s goal when writing her novel was not character development (like Samuel Richardson) or entertainment (like Aphra Behn). Instead, during a period of time when women were barred from higher education, ‘Millenium Hall’ provided a utopian alternative. It focuses on constructing a world where women are not constricted by prevailing attitudes to education. For this reason, Sarah Scott is one of the forgotten female authors you need to read.
Recommended Reading: Millennium Hall buy here
Mary Robinson (Perdita)
The literary after-life of Mary Robinson has mostly been overshadowed by her sensational personal life (she was the mistress of George IV). Despite huge success, she was largely forgotten in the Victorian era thanks to this and her outspoken opinions. However, renowned actress, turned best-selling author, Mary Robinson, more than deserves a place on your ‘female authors you need to read shelf’. Mary dipped her toe into almost every type of writing, drama, poetry, novels, political texts…you name it. She worked tirelessly to establish her literary credentials, despite being hindered by her scandalous reputation.
From the 1780s onwards she gained praise for her poetry. She was even called ‘The English Sappho’. However, it was her novels that brought her real success. In fact, the entire first edition of ‘Vancenza: or, The Dangers of Credulity’ sold out on the day of its publication in 1792. An additional two editions also sold out within the same month. This feat makes her one of the most successful female novelists ever, not just on this list. Like her more famous contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, she was also a champion of female rights. Her most famous example is the essay ‘A letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination’ (written under the pseudonym Anne Frances Randall).
‘If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?
Mary Astell earns the final place on this list of 5 forgotten female authors you need to read. In many ways she is the archetypal forgotten author; virtually nothing is known about her life beyond a few letters. As biographer, Ruth Perry explains: “She was born, she died; she owned a small house for some years; she kept a bank account”. However, behind these scant facts hides a woman who some have called ‘The first English feminist’.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Mary received no formal education. This was an injustice that would go one to inspire most of her work. Astell’s skill lies in her ground-breaking methods of negotiating the position of women in society by engaging in philosophical debate rather than looking for historical inspiration. A notable example of this is her book ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest’ (Catchy titles are not her forte). In this work, she became one of the first English females to advocate the idea that women were just as rational as men, and just as deserving of education. An idea which, at the time, was radical.
Recommended Reading: ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest’ read for free here