Ellen Moers' Literary Women (1976) points out how differently men and women, say, Austen and Wordsworth, experienced their relation to past and contemporary writers:

Male writers have always been able to study their craft in university or coffeehouse, group themselves into movements or coteries, search out predecessors for guidance or patronage, collaborate or fight with their contemporaries. But women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned intravel, painfully restricted in friendship. The personal give-and-take of the literary life. was closed to them Without it, they studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex, and developed a sense of easy, almost rude familiarity with the women who wrote them. . . . Take Jane Austen on the one hand, and her contemporaries Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey on the other. Wordsworth went to Bristol to meet Coleridge; both were Cambridge men, and they had university friends in common. At Bristol, Wordsworth found Coleridge rooming with an Oxford undergraduate named Southey: they were planning to emigrate to America. Instead Wordworth and Coleridge drew close to together, settled near each other in the lake district, and collaborated on a volume which made history, called Lyrical Ballads . Meanwhile Jane Austen, almost exactly the same age and from a similar social milieu (had she been a man, she would probably have gone to university), stayed home with mother at Steventon, Bath, and Chawton. She visited a brother's family now and then, wrote letters to sisters and nieces, and read Sarah Harriet Burney, Mrs. Jane West, Anna Maria Porter, Mrs. Anne Grant, Elisabeth Hamilton, Laetitia Matilda Hawkins, Helen Maria Williams, and the rest of the women writers of her day" (43-44).

(What problems, and what possibilities, does such a literary heritage have for a survey course, such as this one?)

Moers also points out that Austen wrote at a time when both men and women found themselves in "a Feminist Controversy": "As a massive force for change in literature, heroinism was born, like so much else that was revolutionary, in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth. We still have an imperfect idea of the numbers and quality of the women writers at work in that period, one which resembles our own in the sense that what Gina Luria calls 'The Feminist Controversy" was present in the consciousness of every writer, whatever his or her sexual politics" (125).

What do Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar imply was a major contribution of Austen (and other woman writers) to the novelistic tradition:

"Refusing to appreciate such angelic paragons as [Richardson's] Clarissa or Pamela, Austen criticizes the morally pernicious equation of female virtue with passivity, or masculinity with aggression. . . . She rejects stories in which women simply defend their virtue against male sexual advances. . . . Because she realizes that writers like Richardson and Byron* have truthfully represented the power struggle between the sexes, however, she does seek a way of telling their story without perpetuating it. In each of her novels, a seduced-and-abandoned plot is embedded in the form of an interpolated tale told to the heroine as a monitory image of her own problematic story" [The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), 119]

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000