13 Classic Female Authors You Should Meet
I shared recently on Pretty Literate Live a baker's dozen of classic female authors every pretty literate person should read - a quick rundown of lady authors from the past alongside THE ONE TITLE they wrote that is a good introduction to each of them.
Because inside The Classics Community, one of our newest members (Hey, Ashley!) had asked for book recs to read for Women's History Month and as the titles poured in from other members, what poured over me was the realization of how much I didn't know in this area.
I want to begin to remedy that deficiency today, so grab your favorite cup of caffeine and let me introduce you to the 13 Classic Female Authors You Should Meet.
George Eliot was the pseudonym that authoress Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) chose to use to conceal her gender. While other authoresses of her time wrote under their own name, Evans chose a masculine name so that there would be no preconceived notions of a light-hearted romance, a genre most commonly associated with female authors. Instead, Evans wrote realistically of rural English life.
In her late teens, Evans' mother passed away and she left school (where she had become fluent in both French and Italian) to run her father's household until his death 13 years later. She then traveled a bit before settling in London, where she became a freelance writer and eventually an editor. It was in the context of those literary circles that she met George H. Lewes, a journalist with whom she eventually lived as husband and wife. Because Lewes was already married, Evans' relationship with him caused her to be shunned by friends and family and the two lived together under this cloud of scandal until Lewes' death in 1878.
In her grief, Evans found consolation and companionship in a friend who was also grieving a loss at the same time. Reader, she married him (banker John W. Cross, who was 20 years her junior). She died at the age of 61 from a throat infection coupled with the kidney disease with which she had suffered for years.
The oldest of the Brontë sisters that survived into adulthood, Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) was raised primarily by her clergyman father and an aunt after her mother and two older sisters died in her childhood. Charlotte and her two older sisters briefly attended a school for the daughters of clergymen (until her sisters' deaths) and it is believed that the inexpensive, but harsh school was the inspiration behind Jane Eyre's Lowood Institution. After their time at school, the girls learned at home, frequently entertaining themselves with romantic tales and the invention of games they played either indoors or out on the moors. Eventually, Charlotte went away to school to train to be a teacher and performed that duty briefly, as well as the role of a governess, in order to help her family (especially her younger brother). Charlotte was proposed married by two clergymen and a third businessman, all of whom she declined as she sought to help her family financially. She was first published in a book of poetry alongside her two younger sisters (Emily and Anne) - all three choosing to publish (at their own expense) under pseudonyms - reportedly selling only two copies. But the door was opened and Charlotte walked through it. Though The Professor was her first attempt at getting published, it was declined. She submitted Jane Eyre and it was an immediate success - far greater than her younger sisters' works that were published the same year. (Did you notice the reference to it in George Eliot's section?)
Charlotte married her father's curate and sadly died a year later due to a difficult pregnancy. She was only 39 years old.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) is arguably the most known and widely read writer in English literature, which is one reason why I devoted an entire blog to her - 14 Fascinating Facts About Jane Austen & Her Novels - and I wholeheartedly encourage you to click over to read it when you are finished here.
English novelist and playwright Dame Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was the daughter of an actor (& matinee idol of his day!) and granddaughter of an artist/writer. The second of three daughters, Daphne's family did not have the financial struggles you usually associate with authors of the classics and when she was in her teens, her family even bought a vacation home in Cornwall, which became her favorite place as well as the setting for some of her writings. Her most famous novel is Rebecca and some say that if you want a good picture of who the author was as a person in real life, look to the two central characters - the daring, outdoorsy Rebecca, and the shyer, more uncertain second Mrs. de Winter.
Daphne married a military man (Frederick Browning) and together they raised three children. Their family was able to live a life of abundance due to Daphne's writing successes, including her own private "she-shack" with gorgeous water views, and a staff to run their home and help with their children while she wrote overlooking those views.
Daphne died from heart failure in her home in Cornwall. She was 81.
Frankenstein, which is considered an early example of science fiction, was the brainchild of English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). Mary was the only child of her parents, her mother dying days after she gave birth to Mary. Unlike Charlotte Brontë's and Jane Austen's fathers (who were both members of the clergy), Mary Shelley's father was an philosophical atheist. Mary did not grow up an only child, but among five siblings of various parentages. Her father remarried after Mary's mother died and his new wife brought her own children into the family before giving birth to another as a result of their union.
Mary seemingly did not get along with her new stepmother and was eventually sent to live in Scotland for two years, a time during which her literary imagination grew. It was during this time (during a brief visit home) that Mary first met poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (along with his wife). Later, at the age of 16, upon returning home to England, Mary decided to elope in Italy with the still-married Shelley (which negated the legality of their union). Shelley's wife later died and the two married again, this time legally. They encouraged one another's writings and had several children, though only one child survived to adulthood.
After Shelley's death, Mary returned to England and wrote out of a perceived practical need to support her one child, who (at age 7) inherited his grandfather's baronetcy as the sole surviving male Shelley. She lived to see her son grown and married.
She died at the age of 53.
English writer Adeline Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) grew up in a blended family, the product of two second marriages (both of which included children from their first marriages) and quickly added to their numbers four more from the new union. As she grew, Virginia struggled to forge a congenial relationship with her older siblings. Maybe forge is too generous a word because at the age of 9, Virginia began a family newspaper whose stories often were told at the expense of her older siblings, a move that does not read like a peace-making olive branch. She continued writing this family newspaper until she was 13, the year her mother passed away.
Virginia's family lived in London, but had a second home in Cornwall where they spent their summers. Virginia's mother's death left the young teen understandably depressed for upwards of a year, but her father's death 9 years later sent Virginia into a nervous breakdown. That was the same year she first met Leonard Woolf, a man about to embark for Sri Lanka to serve as a colonial administrator. He resigned 7 years later, returned to London where he renewed his acquaintance with Virginia, and the two were married the following year.
All this time, Virginia began to experiment with her writing style, deviating from what was regarded as the norm for Victorian literature. She contributed anonymous weekly reviews to a local publication and hand published her own stories, all the while continuing to struggle with her mental health - something she did for the rest of her life, including one unsuccessful suicide attempt at the age of 31. Sadly, she succeeded in another in her late 50s, dying by her own hand.
A pioneer of Gothic literature, English author Ann Radcliffe's (1764-1823) novels combined both mystery and suspense with an element of romance.
Ann grew up in a family that was well off, the daughter of a businessman. We don't really know much else about her childhood.
At age 23, she married journalist William Radcliffe. To entertain herself, Ann began writing. She was a homebody and as William encouraged his wife's new literary pursuits. She wrote of places she had never visited in person with most of her writings being completed before she had ever traveled abroad (to Germany and the Netherlands). Ann wrote to induce a feeling of terror (not horror) at seemingly unnatural phenomena that she eventually revealed to be completely natural causes as her stories unfolded. (Think: Scooby Doo) Most of her writing centered on an innocent young woman who found herself in a creepy castle owned by rough, mysterious men. (As a Jane Eyre fanatic, this hooked me.)
Ann died from complications from pneumonia at the age of 59. She and her husband never had children.
A popular writer of novels during England's Victorian era, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) is credited with writing over 90 novels and 150 short stories as well as various articles and plays. Although Mary was born in London in 1835, she frequently lied about her age, stating she was born in 1837 to appear younger. She was the third child of her parents, who separated when she was four-years-old due to her father's unfaithfulness to her mother. Her mother sought to raise Mary as a single mother. When she was six, her godfather gave her a writing desk at which Mary wrote her first stories which were reimagined fairy tales.
At age 17, Mary became an actress. She wished to be able to financially support both herself and her mother which she was able to do on smaller stages outside of London. It was during her time as a stage actress that she met two men who eventually became her writing mentors. She began to write (averaging two novels per year) which enabled her to eventually buy a home. Her works were often published in serial form in magazines (similar to the Grossmith Brothers hilarious writings about Mr. Pooter).
At the age of 25, Mary met Publisher John Maxwell (who would publish her serialized sensation Lady Audley's Secret). A year later, the two were living together under the guise of man and wife (though John's first wife was still alive and secretly living in the house with them) with Mary taking on the position of stepmother to John's children. The two added six more children of their own over their years together. When John's first wife eventually died, the scandal of their unsanctioned union broke and the couple moved the family out of town while the rumor mill spent itself.
Mary began her two of her own magazines and it was at this time that she began editing. She also had several of her writings adapted for the stage. Her most popular work, Lady Audley's Secret, has, itself, been made into film four times over.
Mary died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 79.
English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was raised by her aunt following her mother's death when Elizabeth was just 13 months old. The village life depicted in her most famous novel, Cranford, is said to have been based on the village in which she was raised by this aunt. Elizabeth's novels are unique in that they embrace a mixed society, one involving characters from many stations in life from the very poor to the gentry of Victorian England.
At the age of 22, Elizabeth married William Gaskell, an assistant minister, and Elizabeth joined him in his ministry. The couple had three daughters before Elizabeth gave birth to their only son (named after his father). Sadly, William the younger died of scarlet fever before he reached his first birthday. It was during this time of grief that the assistant minister suggested his wife take up writing as a way to deal with her sorrow.
Elizabeth was a student of what was going on in her world and used the tensions she observed as the subject of her writing. One such writing (Mary Barton) caught the attention of Charles Dickens, who (like everyone else) became engrossed with the plight of the industrial workers in the North about which Elizabeth wrote. It was due to Dickens that many of Elizabeth's writings first became published and Elizabeth ended up writing many stories for the man (including her beloved Cranford). These writings had a distinctly different feel from the fiction that first got her noticed.
Interestingly, she was friends with both Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Brontë. It is said that she was chatty and well-liked which garnered her a large circle of friends.
Elizabeth died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 55. She was on the grounds of a house she was buying to surprise her husband to enjoy during their retirement.
The second of what would eventually grow into a family of 22 children, Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was English on her mother's side & Irish on her father's side. After her mother's death when Maria was just five years old, she moved from her native England to Ireland with her father (who went on to remarry 3 more times and produced heirs that rival the modern-day Duggars in number). She attended various schools until the age of 14 when she contracted a serious eye infection, one which almost cost her sight. From that time forward, Maria helped in the care of her many younger siblings, being tutored at home by her father in law, politics, economics, science...and literature. Maria enjoyed entertaining her younger siblings with stories, which she later published.
She assisted her father in managing his Irish estate - a place in which she would live and write for the rest of her life. With such a vast extended family, servants, and tenants, life was never dull. Maria was a lifelong learner, continuing to grow and learn alongside her father. She was a keen observer of daily living, especially of the Irish, and used those observations in her writing. Ann Radcliffe (see above) was a favorite contemporary author and Maria was gifted her novels by an aunt desiring to encourage her in her writing pursuits. She was also a contemporary of Sir Walter Scott (who was greatly influenced by her first novel, Castle Rackrent) and Jane Austen (who was a great admirer of her second novel, Belinda), both authors whom she initially out-earned in literary sales, investing her income in support of her younger siblings.
Maria also involved herself in the welfare and care of Irish peasants, writing about their living conditions and seeking to improve that where she could - beginning at home. She provided schools for the local children to attend. She increased educational opportunities for women. She sought to improve the agricultural yield of her fields through science (like the Crawleys on Downton Abbey).
Maria never married. After her father's death, her writing began to taper and she spent the last twenty years of her life caring for the estate and the people who depended upon it.
American author Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) became known on both sides of the pond for writing short stories for publication in magazines. Alongside James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, Catharine is credited as being one of the founders of American literature. In fact, she was the most successful American female writer in the first half of the 19th century.
With Catharine's father busy in new England as a politician, and her mother suffering from mental illness, she was closest with four of her brothers. It was those brothers that encouraged her writing, which eventually included children's fiction, six full-length novels, and several novellas, among other works. Her bond with her brothers grew stronger in adulthood, and as a woman, she divided her year living between the homes of her married brothers and their families.
Many of Catharine's writings focused on minority groups and featured independent women that didn't necessarily conform to the standards of her time. She portrayed the varying religious beliefs of her characters in a non-condemning way. While many of her leading ladies ended up marrying in her writing, Catharine remained single.
Nella Larsen (1891-1964) was the daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and black West Indian father who was absent for most of Nella's life. (It is unclear whether he left or died.) When Nella was 3, her mother married a fellow Danish immigrant (whose last name became her own) and the family moved to a predominantly white Scandinavian neighborhood, welcoming Nella's sister into the family. Because of Nella's skin color, the family experienced discrimination and eventually moved. In this highly segregated time following the Civil War, when an increasing number of blacks migrated to the north, Nella lived a sort of island existence - isolated between black and white worlds.
Because she could never be white like her family, and they could never be black like her, Nella was adrift. Her mother, desiring to give her daughter an educational advantage, sent Nella to a black university in Tennessee - her first experience inside the black community. Yet she still felt separate, as her life experiences proved a chasm between herself and her classmates, most of whom were descendants of former slaves. After being expelled for a dress code violation, Nella went to Denmark to continue her education, though three years later she still struggled to discover her place in the world. Upon returning to the United States, Nella attended nursing school in New York and eventually became a nurse, working in the Bronx during the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918.
The following year, she married an African-American man (the second to earn a PhD in Physics), and a year later (1920) the couple moved to Harlem. Her husband, a professor at the predominantly black university she attended in the south, eventually had an affair and the two divorced in 1933.
While she was married, Nella began to work nights and weekends as a volunteer librarian at the New York Public Library and shortly thereafter became the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL Librarian School. She was an advocate for the advancement of Negro Art (what grew into the Harlem Renaissance), eventually giving up her life as a librarian to focus on Harlem's interracial literacy and arts community, and writing two successful novels about mixed-race America - a subject with which she was intimately familiar.
The alimony Nella received was enough to support her writing career until her ex-husband's death in 1941, at which time she stopped writing and returned to nursing in Brooklyn. She continued nursing until her death at the age of 72.
If you're familiar with the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses," then you've already got a good starting point for getting to know Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton (1862-1937) - the first woman, by the way, to win the award. Born into the privilege that "old money" in America afforded, Edith's family of origin was the original Jones family - the one for which the saying was coined. Growing up as such, she had a depth of first-hand knowledge of life in the Gilded Age that few (if any?) could surpass and it was on that insider's knowledge that she traded as inspiration for her novels.
From childhood, Edith was a frequent traveler and lived extended periods of time in Europe where she received her education via private tutors and governesses as well as satisfying her own insatiable appetite by extensive reading. (Interestingly, her mother did not want her to read novels until after she married, and Edith complied with those wishes.)
From the young age of 5, Edith began improvising stories for her family followed by writing poetry and fictional short stories. By the time she was 11, Edith completed her first novel. By age 15, she was published (a translation of a German poem for which she was paid $50). Since her family did not consider writing a proper pastime for Edith, she published under various pseudonyms during her teen years - one novella and an assortment poems.
At the age of 23, Edith married a man of her same social class that shared her love of travel. Her husband (who was 12 years older than she), however, suffered from depression and the couple who once enjoyed extensive travel became homebound in Massachusetts as they sought a cure. During that time, Edith wrote, gardened, designed interiors, and eventually (after 28 years of marriage) divorced.
Edith began to travel again, making the trip across the pond over 60 times in her lifetime. She took up permanent residence in France. While others fled Paris during WW1, Edith lived there aiding France's war effort by helping women, refugees, and others displaced by the war.
Edith suffered a heart attack at the beginning of summer 1941 at her French country home and died two months later from a stroke.
I think it is worth mentioning that Edith did not publish her first novel until age 40 and is best known for a satirical look at the upper class during America's Gilded Age.
Which of these 13 Classic Female Authors You Should Meet have you read? Is there another name you'd add to the list? Please share your suggestions in the comments and help make this an ever-growing list of noteworthy ladies who've contributed to the foundation of the great literature we enjoy today.