How British women’s literature changed the world

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How British women’s literature changed the world

Rokaya Chaarani reviews Elaine Showalter’s groundbreaking feminist work 'A Literature of their Own'

Elaine Showalter has casted vital light on the first rays of feminist consciousness in British women’s literature through her scrupulous analysis of the female sensation novel, the feminist novel and the impact of the suffrage movement on women’s literature in the sixth, seventh and eighth chapters of her prominent work A Literature of their own (1977). Accordingly, Showalter shifts attention, through her feminist study in the sixth chapter, towards the efflorescence of women’s sensation fiction during the Victorian era, and how this new literary genre galvanized women writers into destabilizing the canonical literary meanings and depictions of femininity, meanings and depictions that have long saturated men’s fiction and that were even reinforced in women’s especially during what Showalter dubs the phase of the feminine novel. Showalter canvasses thereafter in the seventh chapter the literary audacity that distinguished British feminist writers from 1880 onwards, for during the phase of the feminist novel, women’s novels have represented a manifesto that openly calls for women’s independence and freedom, a call that was foregrounded by haranguing male literary canons that have long crafted a falsified image of womanhood. As for the eighth chapter, Showalter highlights how the political intervention of the suffrage movement in England influenced women writers back then, meaning the reactions that feminist activism has begotten amongst women novelists, for they have wavered between crusaders and contrarians.

The echo of the Victorian sensation novel reached its peak in 1860 as it lured away the conventional perceptions of romance in fiction which was Romeo-Juliet-esque; the sensation novel combines shrewdly romance, realism and murder to give birth to a whole new dimension concerning how plots are constructed and presented. Following this line of thinking, Showalter’s aim in the sixth chapter of her book A Literature of their own is to substantiate the idea that women sensationalists have subverted the fashion romance and tragedy were enmeshed: the desperate, ladylike and demure girl who falls in love with the knight who is chivalrous and vigorous and whose love story can have either a happy or a tragic ending. This formula was extremely distorted by the sensation novel, for it has bewitched the angelic damsel in distress into a villainess who appropriates domestic violence, who commits murder and, most importantly, who conceals deadly secrets. The latter is believed to be the marrow of sensationalism, and as far as Victorian women are concerned, the stifling sex roles that society has confined them in galvanized them into harnessing their dark secrets as a way of escapism and of expressing frustration; they are secrets that women sensationalists employed in their novels to introduce audiences to a new perception of heroines. It is worthwhile mentioning that the most monumental sensation novels were written by female writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon & Mrs. Henry Wood, in addition to William Wilkie Collins who was a male novelist. For this very reason, a myriad of male writers and literary critics feared that this new eccentric literary genre will render female writers’ monopoly mushroomed in the literary realm which was deemed a male territory. Regardless of the fact that sensation fiction was brought to life by women writers, male writers’ heightened jealousy aroused from the fact that sensation novels begot breakthrough commercial success as they were operating in a new literary business, an idea that was used as a pretext to claim that this market- based literary product will jeopardize high culture. Moreover, the eminent success of these best-selling novels, according to Showalter, has created a feeling of female solidarity between female writers and the female audience who was lust for consuming sensation novels primarily because “these women novelists made a powerful appeal to the female audience by subverting the traditions of feminine fiction to suit their own imaginative impulses, by expressing a wide range of suppressed female emotions, and by tapping and satisfying fantasies of protest and escape” (158 & 159).

Elaine Showalter
Elaine Showalter

One of the pioneering sensation writers is Mary Elizabeth Braddon whose successful novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) resonated with most Victorian female readers, that is because it has truly expressed their anger and has offered them a space that suited their wild imaginations. The novel’s heroine is Lady Audley, a blond enchanting woman who changes her identities, who commits the crime of bigamy and who was on the verge of being a murderer in the sake of reaching her personal goals. Showalter contends that, on the one hand, Braddon’s heroine subverts the roles that male writers and even feminine writers associate with delicate and princess-like Victorian women: they are usually portrayed as passive, innocent, dreamy and sexless. In this context, Showalter states that Braddon’s heroine is “particularly dangerous because she looks so innocent” (165). On the other hand, the secrets that Lady Audley conceals symbolize her rebellion against the suffocating situations the status quo has put her in merely by virtue of her sex. In other words, Lady Audley manipulates the story’s events to suit her suppressed desires and wishes, and she goes incognito not only to save herself from troubles that ensnare her but to slough off the feminine mold society wants to frame her in. Following these lines of argument, Showalter sheds light on an extremely salient notion which is women’s madness, for during the Victorian era; women’s madness was a pervasive phenomenon that was associated with ornery and non-obedient women. Having said that, Showalter explains how one would identify Lady Audley as a vulnerable woman who lapsed into madness, which is an erroneous idea. Alternatively, Audley’s secrets and behaviors must open one’s eyes on how women attempt to escape the feminine curse that mystifies them, how they deviate from the norms to feel free and how they venture out to unleash their silenced fantasies. Showalter deduces that Braddon’s aim is to elucidate through her heroine’s character how the Victorian society deems women who appropriate unfeminine assertiveness, and who seek freedom and agency insane and mentally disordered.

In addition to Mary Braddon, there are other female sensation novelists who have channeled the desperation and frustrations of their sisters in their influential sensation novels. For instance, Showalter suggests how authors like Mrs Henry Wood, Helen Mathers & Margaret Oliphant galvanized their heroines into murdering their husbands as an act of liberation and rebellion. In effect, their works deliberately render the reader startled because their goal is to challenge the feminine codes women writers of the feminine phase did not dare to debunk. Moreover, these novelists’ female protagonists appear as active agents who exert power over their fates in order to distort the image of the helpless woman who succumbs to her ordeals. Consequently, the first feminine writers who used to write under male pseudonyms, such as George Eliot and Mary Ann Evans, envied the literary audacity of women sensationalists that was reflected in their novels, novels that incorporate themes that weave around female rage and tedium. Notwithstanding, Showalter asserts that the tide of feminist ideology which blossomed around 1880 has faded the bond of female writers and female readers to the background, a bond of women who shared the same plights and used sensation fiction as an outlet to muse on the crisis that tarnished their womanhood. In this vain, Showalter proclaims that sensationalism represents the last chapter of the feminine phase that dates from about 1840- 1880; sensation women writers have attempted then to unearth how Victorian women were living in a male culture. Yet, their employment of thriller and crime stories did not confront blatantly the male literary canon as feminist writers did, for the emergence of the feminist movement rendered women writers more confrontational, which clearly appears in their works that transcend women sensationalists’ esoteric metaphors, wicked villainesses, vengeful events and lamentable endings.

In the seventh chapter of her work A Literature of their own, Showalter introduces the reader to the ramifications of feminist activism concerning British women’s literature. She explains thoroughly how the concept of female influence that feminine writers once held has become the mantra of feminism as a political statement. The feminist movement’s echo heightened in 1880 and 1890, in fact; this new movement’s aspirations clustered around creating a new meaning of womanhood that juxtaposes the Victorian feminine ideal, voicing publicly and directly the needs of the female subculture as well as practicing leadership. Following this line of thinking, Showalter mentions a very focal historical event that leveraged feminists’ angry protests and feminist writers’ pessimism which is the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1864, Acts that battled against venereal diseases such as syphilis by having women undergo medical examinations in order to end prostitution. Back then, feminists launched an extensive campaign that lambasted those Acts for their discrimination; they demanded then as a reaction either abolishing these sexist Acts or having men undergo the same examinations because, according to feminist activists, men’s bestiality and vice are the reasons behind these diseases but not prostitutes. Showalter believes that this suffused phenomenon has generated female paranoia among British women who became sexually frustrated, the fact that was highly mirrored in the novels of most feminist writers. Accordingly, feminist fiction employed Utopia as both a literary theme and feminist aesthetic in order to drive away the Victorian sexual attitudes that weighed down women’s perception of sexuality. To narrow this idea down, the Victorian society romanticized the sexless or asexual woman whose main concern is maternity when it comes to marriage. In effect, British women identified with this glorification as they viewed sexual intercourse nauseating, which is an upshot of the fear venereal diseases had ingrained in their minds. Following these lines of argument, Showalter detects the vestiges of Utopia in several feminist novels such as The Story of an African Farm (1883) & From Man to Man (1926) by the South African author Olive Shreiner, and The Heavenly Twins (1893) by the Irish feminist writer Sarah Grand.

Showalter makes it clear that feminist writers such as Olive Shreiner and Sarah Grand were not as productive and prolific as feminine writers used to be, in fact, they were armchair writers who did not see writing as business but rather as the muse of the unconscious. Their personal plights highly influenced their stories, for they came from silenced cultures and their womanly itineraries were full of disappointments and losses. Shreiner and Grand basically articulate their Utopian visions of life and of the world in their novels; they voice through their characters how the female psychology of their generation is exacerbated due to dearth of female freedom, a freedom that waned in the penitentiary society confined them in. As a consequence, the repulsive and stifling life that they have gone through as women rendered their femaleness claustrophobic to the extent that, as Showalter asserts, these women wished away womanhood to daydream about how idyllic their lives could be if they were men. In Olive Shreiner’s novel The Story of an African Farm, she recounts the story of Lyndall, a motherless girl who falls in love with her cousin Waldo with whom she spent her childhood in the family’s farm. Upon a series of unexpected events, Lyndall, which is believed to be one of the first feminist heroines in fiction, starts to discern the restrictions that were placed upon her as a girl in the closed area of the farm. Eventually, she makes use of her intelligence, wits, and her free spirit to liberate both her mind and body. Although the end of her journey was not as successful as she wished to be because of her sudden death, as Showalter states, her suffering journey lead her to a unique rebellion, a sort of rebellion that was the upshot of the meaninglessness of existence and the representation of a Utopian hope for change. Concerning Shreiner’s novel From Man to Man, Showalter desires to elucidate how its title represents the antithesis of the message the author insinuates. The author tells, accordingly, the story of two different sisters: the intellectual free-spirited Rebekah who feels tedious by virtue of the marriage institution she was trapped in and of the racism she witnesses in her colonized land, and Baby Bertie, the little sister who forsakes home to become a prostitute. Showalter draws the reader’s attention towards the analogy Shreiner builds between the two sisters, for Shreiner centers her musing on how marriage is tantamount to prostitution because marriage is, undoubtedly, a legal form of prostitution. Following this line of thinking, Shreiner attempts to project through the character of Rebekah her impressionistic feminist philosophy that she dived into, a surrealist but claustrophobic philosophy: Rebekah is, in fact, Shreiner’s alter ego, for Rebekah creates a small space in her children room where she writes about, reads about, muses on and daydreams about alternative worlds where she can be free, for according to the heroine, therein exists her real femaleness and therein her melancholia is bewitched into a piece of art. Showalter calls this claustrophobic space a womb with a view, for it is hitherto captured by society; yet, it can be a refuge that can remind women of the power of their concealed femaleness.

As far as Sarah Grand’s novel The Heavenly Twins is concerned, it is a feminist novel that rings out loud the problematic of gender discrimination. The latter is embodied through the story of a sister named Angelica and a brother called Diavolo; these two siblings’ names extremely symbolize the aforementioned sexual attitudes of the British society in the 19th century, which Showalter explains as “the false division of sex roles into ‘angelic’ female and ‘devilish’ male”(205). It is worthwhile mentioning that British suffragettes identified vehemently back then with the character of Angelica as it represented a figure of female independence, for Grand made her observe how her sex gauges the roles she is expected to enact: Despite her openness and sense of responsibility, her family expected her brother to be the successful and educated sibling, the fact that galvanized her into opting for her desired path on her own. The other half of Sarah Grand’s novel tracks down two young brides as they experience marriage differently: Edith is a traditional British woman who acquiesces in the gender roles religion, family and society want her to fulfill whereas Evadne is a highbrow woman who studied science and medicine and who questions her existence. Showalter highlights the theme of sexuality through the character of Evadne as it is of salient importance, and on a general level, she aims at ringing a bell about how most British feminists writers found sexual intercourse loathsome and how debates woven around sexuality irritated them. Hence, Grand expresses, through Evadne whose sexual needs are not compatible with those of her husband, the sexual frustration British women felt at the time. As noted earlier, the emergence of venereal diseases culminated in dividing women’s sexuality into what Freud dubs the Madonna and the Whore, namely the asexual frigid saint and the promiscuous harlot. Unsurprisingly, Grand and many other feminist writers fantasize in their novels about worlds where there are only women or about them becoming men. In this vain, Showalter contends that feminist writers have dared to articulate deep problems that weighed them down, and that feminine writers glossed over such problems like female’s psyche and sexuality. However, their heroines seem to always have claustrophobic and depressing endings because they do not find the exit door that can melt away their indecisiveness and fears, for they are stranded in a Utopian world that consolidates their deepest wishes.

Last but not least, Showalter follows in the eighth chapter of A Literature of their own the traces the suffrage movement left in the pages of women novelists’ works, for British women were en route to the right to vote. Showalter says that the echo of the new movement and its radical aura generated havoc and indecisiveness among British women, in fact, the popularity of Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes’ activism gave birth to a kind of feminist consciousness that women could not ignore. Consequently, women writers’ reactions swung between positive ones and negative ones. Writers such as Olive Shreiner, Sarah Grand, Beatrice Harraden and most importantly Elizabeth Robins were fierce advocators of the suffrage’s political intervention, the fact that was translated in their works which served as tools of propaganda. Showalter gives much focus in this chapter to Elizabeth Robins and her enormous contributions to the promotion of the suffragettes’ demands, for she has written a melodramatic play ‘Votes for Women’ (1909) that recounts the story of a suffragette to forecast the experiences suffragettes go through. Showalter believes that Robins treats through her play_ which was transformed into a novel afterwards_ the bullying and sexual harassment suffragettes faced back then, for history has recorded how women activists were daily molested by police officers and abused in prisons. Furthermore, Robins sheds light in the play on an extremely important upshot of the suffrage movement which is sex-antagonism, an antagonism that rendered men anxious about their relationships and encounters with their female counterparts. This line of thinking appears lucidly in the heroine and her lover’s confrontations in the play, confrontations that aroused from the feminist axioms her lover does not take seriously. On the flipside, there were women writers who saw the suffragettes’ radicalism and authoritarianism as a meaningless angry protest, these writers were called Antis as they were members of what was called the Anti-Suffrage League Antis. Showalter provides the example of Mrs. Hymphry Ward who was, like a myriad of anti-suffrage women writers, conservative and ladylike. Hymphry refused to identify with the suffragettes, for she lambasted their selfish individualism that seemed to her ineffective. Alternatively, Hymphry advocated vehemently altruistic sisterhood which is not based around solipsism. Concerning Leftist women writers, their socialist upbringing galvanized them into scorning the suffragettes because, for them, the suffragettes do not stand for a humanist philosophy that is directed to both men and women. Showalter mentions some women writers such as Virginia Woolf who believes in the class-conflict the suffrage movement has engendered, and in the frivolous violence and ruthlessness it has shown, violence and ruthlessness that reflect, according to Woolf, the suffragettes’ lack of self-assertiveness that they attempt to consolidate through hailing.

Finally, it may be concluded that, through her probing scrutiny of feminine writers’ sensationalism, feminist writers’ Utopia, and the suffrage movement’s ramifications that impacted women’s literature, Elaine Showalter has endeavored to trace how women’s fiction crystallized over time, and how it has made its remarkable stance in the literary scene even though its echoes were and are hitherto glossed over by the male literary canon. Showalter’s central aim is to commemorate decades of women’s writings, writings that were first produced under male pseudonyms during the feminine stage and even the feminist. Notwithstanding, the emergence of the sensation novel has allowed feminine writers to slightly diverge away from the axioms of the Victorian feminine ideal, a divergence that was completed through distorting femininity as well as rendering it monstrous and wicked. Accordingly, sensationalists’ mantra was generating controversy and shocking audiences via metaphorical allegories of the femme fatal to, on the one hand, insinuate the fact that women can no longer accept the suffocating and torturous conditions society imposes on them, and to meet the expectations of the rising literary market, on the other. The high tide of feminism as a political movement in 19th century Britain affected the fashion women writers treat themes in their novels, this fact is central to Showalter’s analysis, for she stresses the collective confusion this movement has suffused among women writers, writers whose works wavered between voicing the female psychology audaciously and finding solutions to end female depression. Apparently, feminist writers’ common solution weaved around imagining Utopian life situations and scenarios. Showalter proclaims that these feminist writers were highly influenced by the suffrage movement and its demands, which were reflected in their novels where they preach independence and freedom. Nonetheless, there were feminist writers who believed in equality and in women’s emancipation but wished away the rage and selfishness of the suffragettes. Alternatively, these women preferred altruistic female bonding to egoist individualism. Above all, Showalter continues her journey of tracking down women’s writings’ influence in the last chapters of A Literature of their Own, in these chapters, she moves forward to another stage which is the female phase, a phase that designates how women writers moved beyond ranting and rambling on about the unfairness of their societies to reconstruct a literary female tradition of their own that celebrates womanhood.



  • Sensation Fiction: A literary genre that was popular in 1860 and 1870 during the Victorian era especially among women writers. It is a literary genre that fuses romance, realism and thriller to provoke and shock audiences through the unearthing of taboo problems that mark a certain society.
  • Women’s Madness: In 19th century Britain, the phenomenon of women’s madness or hysteria was extremely popular. A myriad of feminist scholars such as Elaine Showalter has questioned psychiatry’s treatment of women, for it was proved later that rebellious and non-obedient women were perceived as mentally disordered. Hence, they were put in asylums.
  • Contagious Diseases Acts: it was passed in 1864 to administer the medical examinations of prostitutes in order to mitigate the spread of venereal diseases.
  • Utopia: the state of fantasizing about an idealistic world where everything is destitute of badness. Feminist writers in the 19th century used to muse on worlds where their femaleness is not tarnished by society’s restrictions.
  • Claustrophobic Femaleness: Most feminist writers in 19th century Britain viewed their womanhood as a small closed space where they can comfortably come as free female artists.
  • Sex-antagonism: Upon the emergence of feminism as a political movement in Britain, men and women indulged themselves in endless conflicts, conflicts that were dubbed the war of the sexes.

Antis: This is the term that was used for women writers who opposed the rise of the suffrage movement in 19th and 20th century Britain. They believed that the suffragettes’ angry activism is frivolous and useless, including their focus on the right to vote.


Rokaya is a poetess and a university student from Morocco. She is currently pursuing a MA degree in the field of Gender Studies.

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