When Covid started and my in-person book clubs and groups started canceling, I went looking for something inspiring. What I found was the Chawton House Reading Group. For the uninitiated, Chawton House is the home of not only Jane Austen’s brother and in the same village as Jane Austen’s House Museum, but it is also the home of a special collection of early women’s writing, a collection that started with some of the books owned by the Austen family and read by Jane herself!
Chawton House used to host monthly book group meetings in person, but because of Covid, they moved to Zoom and invited anyone who was interested to attend, so I signed up. The group reads titles written by women from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. It has been a fabulous experience for many reasons. I have read a bunch of books I might not otherwise have read, and isn’t that the reason we like book clubs?
One theme that has recurred over the course of our discussions is how many of the female writers and their characters are “outliers” or who don’t behave as many people assume they would, given the time period. For a variety of reasons having to do with what gets saved, how the canon is assembled, what kinds of texts are privileged, these women writers and their characters have largely been forgotten, except by a few academics. Reading these books, and studying history a little more deeply, has opened my eyes to some problems with the historical accuracy debate among historical fiction writers and readers. Readers sometimes claim that a woman would never have acted in a certain way. But whose data are they relying on to make that assertion? The stories of real women are full of examples of women who bucked the system or tried to, and early women’s novels are full of aspirational characters who do things that women dreamed of doing, or who got caught and suffered the consequences of a male dominated world, while the author gives some side eye to her readers.
Clifford Siskin has written of the “Great Forgetting” and he is correct that when writing became professionalized, as with so many other occupations, it became gendered as male and largely unavailable to women. However, there were ways, and many women found them.
This is not a license to give 17th Century women the sensibilities of 21st Century women, but it is a call to reconsider what we mean when we say historically accurate. Historically accurate according to whom? The male writers of history who left women out? The men who sent their wives to insane asylums because they weren’t submissive enough? The literati with a vested interest in keeping themselves as the center of the academic world and for whom any competition, especially from women, could not be tolerated?
I encourage you to read about a few of these women and make up your own mind about what a woman would have done in year XXXX. Yes, they are outliers, mostly because we know their stories—somehow, they survived the Great Forgetting. But aren’t most books, history books included, about outliers? They wouldn’t be half as interesting otherwise…
Here are some of my favorites from last year’s reading list:
Isabelle de Charriere (trans. Caroline Warman), The Nobleman (1762)
Sarah Burney, Tales of Fancy (1816)
Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess (1719-20)
Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies (1795)
Hester Piozzi, Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789)
Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Stratagem (1780)
Moderata Fonte (trans. Virginia Cox), The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men (1600)
May I also recommend this title based on the life of a real woman from Georgian times who was basically kept prisoner by her vile husband. It was through the help of her maids and other household staff, that she was able to escape. I would love to see a novel based on the maids’ stories. They were especially brave, given they had less protection under the law, due to their class.
Wendy Moore, Wedlock: The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore.