Feminist long fiction features female characters whose quest for self-agency leads to conflict with a traditionally masculinist and patriarchal society. These novels have been harshly criticized and dismissed—and even ridiculed—for their nontraditional female characters.
Feminist ideology in the Western world traces its roots to the late eighteenth century. One particular work considered foundational to feminism is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), by English writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Not until the twentieth century, more than one hundred years later, would women begin to reap some of the benefits of a long campaign for basic human rights. Feminism led to radical changes for women in politics, the public sphere, the workplace, the home, and the cultural realm, including the arts and literature. Popular literature, especially, began to reflect women’s previously silenced voices.
As early as the end of the seventeenth century, however, women were publishing works of literature. Aphra Behn (1640-1689), likely the first Englishwoman to support herself through writing, published the highly popular Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), a prose romance. This novel was the first in English to express sympathy for the plight of slaves.
The Eighteenth Century
Fiction, a genre that did not fully develop until the eighteenth century, provided a perfect vehicle for women who sought a voice through writing. The first long fiction in England consisted of what may generally be termed “romances.” Men traditionally received credit for developing long fiction and, eventually, the novel form. Touted examples include Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel, Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740- 1741), and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). However, earlier novels were written by women, a fact not widely acknowledged until the twentieth century. Mary de la Rivière Manley (c. 1670- 1724) published The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zaraziansin the early eighteenth century (1705). The novel is a version of the roman à clef. This type of fiction featured real-life personalities thinly disguised as its characters. Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), a highly political figure, also wrote romances, including The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753). She is now frequently mentioned as an important figure in the development of the novel.
The Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century became a golden age of writing for women. Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote seven novels, often called novels of manners, that parody the ludicrous activities of genteel society and criticize inequitable social rules. Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Persuasion (1818), and Sanditon (1925) uncover the oppressive lives of women, including confining environments, a shameful lack of education, and pitiful dependence upon male relatives for survival. Austen’s Northanger Abby (1818) satirizes as sentimental its heroine’s love for the gothic genre, fiction that offers readers mysterious castles or mansions with secret passages, dark shadowy beings, a damsel threatened by death, a hero with an obscure past, and visions and ghosts.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) would rejuvenate the public’s appreciation for the gothic in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. Rather than emphasize the traditional elements of the gothic, Shelley produced a complex psychological study of her characters, imbuing her horror and science-fiction story with disturbing imagery of aborted creations and multiple deaths. Feminist critics link these elements to Shelley’s real-life experiences.
By midcentury, Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) and Emily Brontë (1818-1848) were producing novels featuring a new hero based on the Romantic ideals of the English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Named for the poet and the heroes of his poetry, the Byronic hero most generally had a brooding, dark, independent, and sometimes abusive personality. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) includes a Byronic hero in the form of Edward Rochester. More important, however, the novel introduces a never-before-seen heroine in the shape of a plain, small governess, whose values for truth and justice lead to her rejection of the romantic attentions of Rochester, her master. The character of Jane undercuts the popular female stereotypes of fiction: the angel of the house, the “invalid,” or the whore.
Although Charlotte Brontë’s novel was well received by her contemporaries, Emily Brontë’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, also published in 1847, was not. With its metaphysical suggestions that bordered on the gruesome and with an abusive, vengeful Byronic hero, its messages proved too strong for its time (especially so because they came from a woman). By the next century, however, this novel took its rightful place in the canon not only of feminist long fiction but also long fiction in general.
The Twentieth Century
Feminist fiction writer Kate Chopin (1851-1904) published The Awakening in 1899, a novel that many libraries refused to shelve, despite Chopin’s earlier popularity as a writer of “traditional” fiction. Her book shocked readers with its heroine who took pleasure in sexual relations and its suggestion of the connections between the imagination, the artist, and sex. The hostile criticism it received centered on its heroine’s rejection of the traditional oppressive role of wife and mother, causing even Chopin’s hometown library in St. Louis, Missouri, to ban the book.
In 1920, the year women won the vote in the United States, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) published The Age of Innocence. She became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the novel in 1921, even though the work focuses on society’s inequitable treatment of women.
As Wharton’s career flourished in the United States, the English feminist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who was also an essayist and editor, also enjoyed popularity. She began her publishing career in 1915 with the novel The Voyage Out, which required seven years of work. In early adulthood, Woolf studied Greek, an unusual subject for a young woman of her time; taught at a college for working women; performed menial chores for the suffrage movement; and wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, a prestigious publication. All these experiences influenced her feminism.
In Night and Day (1919), Woolf shaped a heroine not unlike herself, who had experienced the trials of a young female writer. After Jacob’s Room (1922), Woolf produced a highly influential novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Departing from traditional novel structure, Woolf designed an analysis of post-World War I London society by moving, over a twenty-four-hour period, from her heroine’s point of view to that of Septimus Warren Smith, a kind of insane alter ego for Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), often studied by feminist critics, critiques the Victorian social mores that create an environment at once suffocating and stimulating for young women.
Woolf’s intimate relationship with writer Vita Sackville-West likely inspired her 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Orlando is written as a biography of a character who lives more than four hundred years, during which time her gender evolves from that of a man to that of a woman. The novel represents the history of the aristocratic Sackville-West family and also the development of English literature. In 1929, Woolf produced a long essay published as A Room of One’s Own, which focuses on the writing life of women; historians agree it represents the first major work of feminist criticism in English. Her most experimental novel, The Waves (1931), was labeled by Woolf herself a “poem-play.” Made up of a number of monologues, the novel presents six characters, all lamenting the death of a young man named Percival, supposedly fashioned on Woolf’s own brother, Thoby, who died many years before.
Additional works by Woolf include the nonfiction Three Guineas (1938), considered the most radical of her feminist writings in its examination of social oppression. Her final novel, Between the Acts, appeared in 1941, following Woolf’s suicide in the same year.
Woolf’s contemporary, English writer Rebecca West (1892-1983), was an actor, journalist, and suffragist. Born Cicily Isabel Fairfield, West adopted as her name that of a radical feminist character from Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm (pb. 1886; English translation, 1889). Although much of West’s work is in journalism and nonfiction, she published several important fictional works, despite some negative reactions to her writings and to her as an individual. Accounting for a portion of the hostility was her love affair with English novelist H. G.Wells, an affair that led to an illegitimate son. The two writers’ relationship challenged the conservative values of their society. After West gave birth to her son in 1914, she took a great interest in the situation of unwed mothers, leading her to write The Judge (1922). This novel featured the suffragist struggle with additional consideration of issues such as rape, illegitimacy, and motherhood.
In 1930, West produced more novels, expressing an enthusiasm for writings by Woolf. West’s The Harsh Voice (1935), a collection of novellas, concerned economic and financial matters and focused on the 1929 global economic crisis. Many reviewers of the book declared its subject too harsh and its tone too pessimistic for a female writer. Others, however, noted with interest that West shaped female characters who differed from those in her earlier works. These heroines were strong, taking an active part in the determination of their own fate, something women were not encouraged to do in real life. This same strength of character informed West’s most popular novel, The Thinking Reed (1936). Although some found the novel’s heroine, Isabelle, ruthless, the book garnered much critical acclaim. In the novel, West criticized French, English, and American societies in a manner that some found offensive but most declared accurate.
By the 1950’s, West departed from her feminist-socialist view to take up a conservative anticommunist stance. Her political reversal earned her the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire, a somewhat ironic circumstance for a writer who earlier had deeply criticized imperialism in print.
A Female Aesthetic
With the exodus of men fighting the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, American and English women entered the workforce in record numbers to occupy positions other than that of the traditional nurse, teacher, or secretary. As women’s roles in the world changed, so did the characterizations of women in novels. Female writers began to connect their work and their lives. They discovered a number of disparities between their own ambitions, ingenuity, and creativity on one hand and the limited, often secondary, roles assumed by the majority of traditional female fictional characters on the other hand. This reality was easily explained, as the majority of novelists were white men. By the mid-twentieth century, a plethora of long fiction by women began to appear, with realistic female characters. Women’s fiction transformed from products of imitation of a male aesthetic to protests against that aesthetic, eventually becoming self-defining works of literature.
The success of these new novelists was propelled by the work of feminist literary critics, especially scholars in academia. In the 1960’s, critics began questioning the characterizations of women as either angels or monsters. They also questioned the representation of women in popular literature written by men and, most important, refused to accept the exclusion of women from literary history. Their diligence in rediscovering female novelists from previous centuries and decades helped propel authors such as Woolf, George Sand (1804-1876), George Eliot (1819-1880), and West to their rightful place in the literary canon.
Feminist critics also traced the historical connections of recurring images, themes, and plots in women’s writing that reflected their social and psychological experience in a culture dominated by men. One recurring image, for example, is that of the caged bird, which represents the suppression of female creativity or the physical and emotional imprisonment of women in general. Slowly, writings by women began to be accepted not only in the classroom but also the marketplace. Virago Press, which publishes the writings of women, reprinted, for instance, West’s novels in affordable editions. While her work in its own day was deemed “too intellectual,” feminist critics helped define a new study and a new appreciation of these works. In addition, the critical analyses of the aesthetic values that appeared in many of the novels that had long been considered classics led to a newly defined feminist novel.
Closely related to the formation of a feminist aesthetic was the development of a black women’s aesthetic. Novels by African American women from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), were reissued after decades of neglect. Hurston’s novel—which tells the story of a young black woman involved in three abusive marriages who eventually finds redemption through her own strength and beliefs and through the support of her female friend—gained an important place in the feminist canon. Hurston’s work prefigured that of Toni Morrison (born 1931), the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993). One of America’s foremost novelists, Morrison is celebrated for her acute analyses of the dynamics of race and gender. Often framing her fiction in the fantastic and the mystical, Morrison is known for The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), the Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008). Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015).
Like Morrison, Alice Walker (born 1944) explores the cultural inheritance of African Americans by examining universal moral issues and by celebrating supportive communities of women. In her critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker presents her story in epistolary form, emphasizing her characters’ struggles with articulating their feelings of identity from the perspective of African American experience. In her 1983 work of nonfiction, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker coined the term “womanist” to describe the particular perspectives of feminist women of color.
By the 1950’s, writers such as Iranian-born Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) were publishing works that feminists claimed as supportive of their cause. In Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), heroine Anna Wulf struggles with being a creative woman who fights solitude, has self-destructive impulses, and who practices selfcensorship to conform to society. These are themes repeated in many of Lessing’s novels. Lessing also is known for her vision of the writer as a morally responsible person, who criticizes capitalist inequities through a socialist philosophy.
Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. The Nobel Academy described her as “that epicist [writer of epics] of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”
Erica Jong (born 1942) wrote the widely popular Fear of Flying (1973). Even with its frank treatment of female sexuality, the novel sold more than five million copies by 1977 and prompted an avalanche of letters to Jong from women responding to the work as a revelation of emotions they had never encountered in fiction. The book caused a flurry of mixed critical response as well, partly in reaction to its provocative cover images and to its content, which some labeled pornographic. Expressing in no uncertain terms the anger and energy of the women’s rights movement, the novel also garnered praise for its frankness but also received criticism for what some called a banal tone and weak writing style.
The second half of the twentieth century saw feminist novels addressing race and ethnicity. This focus developed out of the work of feminists of color, who argued that race, gender, and class were inextricably linked. Maxine Hong Kingston (born 1940), born to Chinese immigrants, published The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), which combines autobiography and fiction in a tale of “a girl-hood among ghosts.” These ghosts emerge from Chinese myth to show how the definition of “feminine” is shaped in that culture. Frankly oppressive for women, ancient Chinese culture allows Kingston to investigate challenges to female physical and emotional survival. Louise Erdrich (born 1954), who is part American Indian, interrogates the social, economic, and emotional pressures suffered by dislocated women in her novel Love Medicine (1984). The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Novelist Julia Alvarez (born 1950), in her novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), tells the story of the historic Mirabal sisters and their resistance to Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Other feminist novelists who write from a multiethnic and multicultural perspective include Yvonne Vera (1964-2005). Her novel Butterfly Burning (2000) examines gender inequality in Zimbabwe. Monica Ali (born 1967), a British writer of Bangladeshi descent, tells the story of a woman in an arranged married in Brick Lane (2003). Chinese novelist Wang Anyi (born 1954) has had several of her short novels translated into English, including those examining women’s lives in contemporary China (Xiao cheng zhi lian, 1988; Love in a Small Town, 1988). Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh (born 1945) is the author of Misk al-ghazal (1988; Women of Sand and Myrrh, 1989), a novel that was banned in several countries in the Middle East for its harsh criticism of patriarchy; it was well-received in English translation. Many writers from India have immensely contributed to the growth of feminist fiction. Nayantara Sehgal, Kamala Das, Anita Nair, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Manju Kapur, Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee, Kamala Markandaya, Shobha De are a few of them.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was no longer remarkable that stories about women’s lives were indeed serious literature. However, much of the “seriousness” also has translated into increased sales and profits for publishers, especially because women surpassed men in terms of buying and reading novels. Books by women about women still are considered attractive primarily for female readers, whereas books by men about men are considered to have universal appeal.
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_______, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
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