As a 21st century reader, it is fairly impossible gain the same impression of Victorian women authors as their contemporary readers held of them. For all the research and analysis put into Victorian novels and journalism, for all the insights that we gain into the relationship between the writers and readers in these genres, we in the 21st century nevertheless know that Marian Evans’ and George Eliot’s works were penned by the same hand, or some of Harriet Martineau’s articles are written anonymously and that Elizabeth Gaskell likewise utilized a male persona for journalism.
We must certainly admire each of these women for persevering through whatever means available to enter the Victorian literary world. While Harriet Martineau, “the first and greatest of women journalists”, began her career writing anonymously for a Unitarian periodical, her career grew and her name became associated with championing the issues we now know her for: abolitionism, women’s rights, and sociology. Such a path would not be easy, and she was often criticized as being “too masculine.” In her autobiography she writes that “what I dread is being silenced, and the mortification and loss of the manner of it” and in her journalism and other writings we certainly see a woman resisting being silenced, making a clear connection between her own name and her own principles (Crawford). In Crawford’s examination of the Dickens- Martineau debate, he observes that, while also exposing herself to being interpreted as vituperative, Martineau “demonstrated her willingness to engage fully in the rough-and-tumble of Victorian journalism” (Crawford). While perhaps taken aback by some of Martineau’s bluntness, we must certainly also admire her insistence on forging a career as a female journalist and writer without shirking at the criticism she received because she was a woman.
For Elizabeth Gaskell, while she certainly faced challenges and mixed criticism of her novels because she is a woman, she also found space for her voice early on in the reformist periodicals of the 1840s. As Alexis Easley explains, these periodicals “explicitly identified women writers as key players in the dissemination of diverse forms of knowledge that spanned both public and private spheres” (Easley). Though while writing for these periodicals, “Gaskell was unwilling…to identify herself as a woman writer”, the reform press displays the value of women’s voices on major issues, perhaps emboldening her to (eventually) write her social problem novels under her own name.
Meanwhile, the George Eliot remains the least publicly known author, because there is nothing to know about George Eliot beside the works accredited to her name. As Dillane observes, “public appreciate of George Eliot was in many ways determined by a distinct lack of biographical detail and visual audience of the writer” (Dillane). Even today, while Martineau’s, Gaskell’s, and the Bronte sisters’ works are credited to their own names, Marian Evans’ novels remain published as the mythical Eliot’s works, and general readers do not realize (without research) that in reading an Eliot novel they are also reading the work of Marian Evans, highly regarded in Victorian journalism.
Each of these women writers had to balance multiple personalities throughout their careers – sometimes for desire to escape public attention, sometimes in an effort to avoid the criticism typically thrown at Victorian female authors. On one hand I must admire the skill and effort it took to uphold such personas – to write with a more “masculine voice”, to not receive due credit for your works, to then plunge bravely into daring to say the things you want to say under your own, female name. On the other hand, I am saddened that their contemporary audiences were never able to know these authors as unified beings, to see their works as belong to their whole, unique selves. While understanding these authors in their original context is important to understanding their works, we also hold the distinct pleasure of fulfilling these women’s ideal, or reading their works as their works, freed from their contemporary social stigmas.
Crawford, Iain. “Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and the Rise of the Victorian Woman of Letters.” 2014
Dillane, Fionnula. “After Marian Evans: The importance of being ‘George Eliot’. Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical Press. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Easley, Alexis. “Elizabeth Gaskell, Urban Investigation and the ‘Abused Woman Writer'”. 2004