Book Lover’s Day: Eighteenth-Century Women Writers

For Book Lover’s Day (August 9), the AHC’s Toppan Rare Books Library offers you a historical vignette of prominent women authors and poets of the eighteenth century. While women did not particularly write more novels over the course of the century, they were at least matching men or out-writing them in “certain subgenres, such as the epistolary novel” and the “courtship novel” by the end of the period. As modern-day author and researcher Jane Spencer states, the work of these female authors “deserves investigation.”

To understand the writers of the eighteenth-century, readers are advised first to look further back in time at the writings of Aphra Behn (1640-1689). She was a “major pioneer” of the novel. A prolific producer of poems, novellas, plays, and books, she was one of the first Englishwomen to earn a living as a writer. Her Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister is a novel preoccupied with real events of the era. It is based on the scandalous love-affair between Lord Forde Grey of Werke, or the “nobleman,” and his wife’s sister, his sister-in-law through marriage, Lady Henrietta Berkeley.

Title page of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn, 1708. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

From a literary perspective, Behn’s book is considered an epistolary novel, in which part of the narrative is told through the construct of letters exchanged between the characters. Behn’s use of the epistolary structure certainly provided inspiration for future generations of authors.

Like Aphra Behn, Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) was both a poet and a novelist. Smith left her husband and an unhappy marriage in 1787 and published her work in order to support herself. Smith, who also wrote the novels Emmeline (1788) and Etheline (1789), published Celestina in 1791. Celestinas storyline follows the title character from humble beginnings as an orphan, through to adulthood via a series of plot twists. Celestina, the character, ultimately marries for love, having rebuffed several other suitors. Celestina, the novel, is a classic example of a “courtship novel,” in that the storyline revolves around the concept that a young Englishwoman could choose among suitors to find love. “Courtship novels” followed a trend in the period between 1740 and 1820 of female authors exploring the idea of personal agency in their heroine-centered novels. All of Charlotte Smith’s novels are said to have influenced the work of Jane Austen (1775-1817). Celestina was published as a four-volume series, and volume 1 of 4, pictured below, is available to view at the American Heritage Center. 

Title page of Celestina by Charlotte Smith, 1791. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. 

Frances Burney (1752-1840), like Charlotte Smith, published books titled by the name of her main female characters. And like Aphra Behn, Burney used the epistolary structure in her 1778 novel Evelina. As you can see from the title page below, Burney is identified as the author of both Evelina and Cecilia (1782). Burney’s Camilla (1796), however, has its own claim to fame, as Jane Austen’s name is both referenced in Camilla‘s subscription list, and Austen references Camilla specifically in her own book Northanger Abbey.

Title page of Camilla by Frances Burney, 1796. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. 

Burney’s Camilla follows the matrimonial concerns of seventeen-year-old Camilla Tyrold and her sisters and cousin, thus making it yet another “courtship novel.” Camilla falls in love but faces many misadventures and hardships before the novel ends and she is able to marry her beau, Edgar Mandlebert. All five volumes of Camilla are available to view at the American Heritage Center. In Camilla, Burney embraced a number of Gothic elements, as influenced by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823). Radcliffe was famous for giving Gothic fiction, with its scenes of mystery and terror, an aura of respectability in the late eighteenth century. Radcliffe’s female heroines were strong characters in their own right, often overtaking the powerful male villains and heroes they were matched against.

A fuller understanding of the female authors of the eighteenth century is possible by examining some of the poetry of the period. Of note is Mary Chandler’s (1687-1745) A Description of Bath. A Poem. Humbly Inscribed to Her Royal Highness the Princess Amelia. With Several Other Poems (1755). The work was wildly popular, so much so that seven editions were published. The title poem of the collection, “A Description of Bath,” has been described as a letter to a friend. It focuses on the town of Bath, England, and its “historical, social and moral topography.” Chandler was in a unique position to draw on her own experiences in memorializing the town – in addition to being a poet, she had a hat-making shop in Bath. Chandler’s poetry has been compared with the poems of Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a contemporary who is said to have “approved” of her work. Other poems in the volume include “To Mrs. Moor, A Poem on Friendship,” which exemplifies a distinctly female genre. Such a poem, categorized as a “friendship poem,” was a type of poetry that Paula Backscheider, an expert in eighteenth-century literature, states “is the only significant form of poetry that eighteenth-century women inherited from other women.” Mary Chandler’s poetry anthology is available to view at the American Heritage Center. 

Title page of A Description of Bath by Mary Chandler, 1755. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Several other examples of poetry and poetic collections are available to view at the American Heritage Center. Poems on Several Occasions (1786) by Ann Yearsley, Poems (1816) by Hannah More – which contains poems like Florio: A Tale for Fine Gentleman and Ladies – as well as The Spleen (1709) by Anne Finch are but a few illustrations of the type of poetry that existed in the eighteenth century. 

Title page of The Spleen. Together with A Prospect of Death by Anne Finch, 1709. Toppan Rare Books Library, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming. 

The female authors and poets of the eighteenth-century highlighted in this article often influenced one another and it is through their work that we get a glimpse into the attitudes and mores of the era. Women were influenced by the existing, often male, literary culture, but also forming their own.

All of the books featured here are part of the collections of the Toppan Rare Books Library at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.

This article was written by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington and based on a Virmuze virtual exhibit curated by University of Wyoming English Department Graduate Student Lydia Stuver in conjunction with the American Heritage Center.


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