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An essay by Brander Matthews

Of Women's Novels

Title:     Of Women's Novels
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

The reader of Humphrey Clinker--if that robust and sturdy British story has any readers nowadays, when the art of fiction has become so much finer and more subtile--will remember that little Tim Cropdale "had made shift to live many years by writing novels at the rate of £5 a volume; but that branch of business is now engrossed by female authors," so Smollett goes on to tell us, "who publish merely for the propagation of virtue, with so much ease and spirit and delicacy and knowledge of the human heart, and all in the serene tranquillity of high life, that the reader is not only enchanted by their genius but reformed by their morality." Humphrey Clinker was first published in 1771, the year of its author's death; and the names of the women of England who were writing novels six-score years ago are now forgotten. How many of the insatiate devourers of fiction who feed voraciously on the paper-covered volumes of the news-stand have ever heard of the Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph for example? Yet Charles James Fox called this the best novel of his age; and Doctor Johnson found great interest in following the misadventures of Miss Biddulph, and declared to the authoress that he knew not if she had a right, on moral principles, to make her readers suffer so much. The authoress of the Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph was Frances Sheridan, now remembered only because she was the mother of the author of the School for Scandal.

Mrs. Sheridan was an estimable woman, and it was not to her that Smollett turned the edge of his irony. There were in his day not a few fashionable ladies who, in "the serene tranquillity of high life," told stories that neither enchanted by their genius nor reformed by their morality. In most of the novels written by women in the second half of the eighteenth century, the morality is but little more obvious than the genius. Like the fashionable English novels of the first half of this century, now as carefully forgotten as the tales of Smollett's fair contemporaries, the female fiction with which Little Tim Cropdale found himself unable to compete was a curious compound of bad morals, bad manners, and bad grammar. Although stories by female authors who "publish merely for the propagation of virtue" and for the gratification of their own vanity are still to be found in London by any one who will seek on Mr. Mudie's shelves, the standard of female fiction has been greatly elevated in England since Miss Austen put forth her first modest story.

Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot followed in due season; and it would not now be possible to draw up a list of the ten greatest British novelists without placing on it the names of two or three women, at the least. There are diligent readers of fiction who would insist that the name of Mrs. Oliphant should be inscribed among the chosen few, by reason of certain of her earlier tales of Scottish life; and there are others equally insistent that the strange romances of the English lady who calls herself a French expletive entitle the name of "Ouida" to be placed on the roll of the chosen few. Indeed, the admiration of those who do admire this lady's stories is so ardent and fervid that I sometimes wonder whether the twentieth century will not see a Ouida Society for the expounding of the inner spiritual meaning of Under Two Flags and Held in Bondage.

In America, since the day when Susanna Rowson wrote Charlotte Temple, and more especially since the day when Mrs. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, no list of American novelists could fairly be drawn up on which nearly half the names would not be those of women--even when one of these names might seem to be that of a man--like Charles Egbert Craddock's, for example. Colonel Higginson recently deplored the oblivion into which we have allowed the wholesomely realistic fiction of Miss Sedgwick to fall; and it has been remarked that the vigorous New England tales of Rose Terry Cooke never met with the full measure of success they deserved. But the authoress of Ramona, the authoress of That Lass o' Lowrie's, the authoress of Anne, the authoress of Faith Gartney's Girlhood, the authoress of Signor Monaldini's Niece, the authoress of John Ward, Preacher, the authoress of the Story of Margaret Kent, the authoress of Friend Olivia, and the authoresses of a dozen or of a score of other novels which have had their day of vogue, these ladies are able easily to prove that the field of fiction is being cultivated diligently by the women of America.

One of the cleverest novels recently published by any American woman is The Anglomaniacs, which came forth anonymously, but which Mrs. Burton Harrison has since acknowledged. It is a sketch only, a little picture of a corner of life, hardly more than an impression, but is brilliant in color and accurate in drawing. Limited as it is in scope and contracted as is its framework, it strikes me as the best reflection of certain phases of New York life since the author of the Potiphar Papers made fun of the Reverend Mr. Creamcheese. It echoes the talk of those who

"tread the weary mill
With jaded step and call it pleasure still."

And, better yet, it suggests the feelings which prompted the talk. At a recent meeting of the Nineteenth Century Club, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt called Mr. Ward McAllister's Society as I Found It an "exposure of the 400;" and certainly it is difficult to believe that even 100 people of fashion could be found anywhere in New York as dull as those Mr. McAllister saw around him, as narrow-minded and as thick-witted. Mrs. Burton Harrison knows what is called Society quite as well as Mr. McAllister; and as she is a clever woman, those she sees about her are often clever also. The company of Anglomaniacs to which she invites our attention are not dullards, nor are they cads, even though an ill-natured philosopher might be moved to call them snobs. A good-natured philosopher would probably find them amusing; and he would make shift to enjoy their companionship, dropping easily into acquaintance and laughing with them quite as often as he laughed at them.

In these days, when hosts of honest people throughout the United States are reading with delighted awe long accounts of the manners and customs of a strange tribe of human creatures, the female of which is known as a "Society Lady" and the male as a "Clubman," it is pleasant to find novels of New York life written by ladies who move within the charmed circle of what is called Society, and who can write about the doings of their fellows simply and without either snobbish wonder or caddish envy. The authoress of The Anglomaniacs and the authoress of Mademoiselle Réséda see Society as it is, and they are not so dazzled by the unexpected glare that they need to put on sea-side spectacles to enable them to observe what is going on about them. It is an old saying that to describe well we must not know too well, for long knowledge blunts the edge of appreciation. But those who, having knowledge, seek rather to reveal than to describe, often render a more valuable service than the more superficial observers who offer us their first impressions. Something of this revelation of Society we find in Mrs. Harrison's brilliant sketch and in the stories of "Julien Gordon."

Thackeray complained that no British novelist had dared to describe a young man's life since Fielding wrote Tom Jones; and Mr. Henry James, praising George Sand, notes the total absence of passion in English novels. If this reproach is ever taken away from our fiction, it will be by some woman. Women are more willing than men to suggest the animal nature that sheathes our immortal souls; they are bolder in the use of the stronger emotions; they are more willing to suggest the possibilities of passion lurking all unsuspected beneath the placidity of modern fine-lady existence. Perhaps they are sometimes even a little too willing: as Mr. Warner reminded us not long ago, "it may be generally said of novelists, that men know more than they tell, and that women tell more than they know."

It is by slow degrees that woman forges forward and takes her place alongside man in the mastery of the fine arts. The Muses were all women, once upon a time, but those whom they visited were all men. The first art in which the woman made herself manifestly the equal of the man was the art of vocal music--or was it that of dancing? The daughter of Herodias was mistress of both accomplishments. Then in time woman divided the stage with man; the histrionic art was possessed by both sexes with equal opportunity; and who shall say that Garrick or Kean surpassed in power Mrs. Siddons or Rachel? Now prose fiction is theirs quite as much as it is man's; and when the Critic recently elected by vote the twenty foremost American women of letters, many more than half were writers of novels. The readers of Humphrey Clinker did not foresee Jane Austen and George Eliot and George Sand any more than little Tim Cropdale could.


[The end]
Brander Matthews's essay: Of Women's Novels