Female Writers in History,and the World’s First Novel

Growing up in the western world, when I was at school, I was taught that the world’s first ‘true’ piece of writing lay in the epic poem Beowolf. The poem itself is a wonderful glance into the history and thoughts of ancient people, and in how they considered the world around them. Beowolf, the hero, must slay the monster, the monster’s mother, and finally, a dragon, before he is mortally wounded and dies after becoming King of the Geats. It’s a great story, and has created much debate over whether its origins lie in Danish or Anglo-Saxon oral traditions, complete with its memories of Danish paganism. But can it’s origins lead us to the world’s first novel?

The simple answer is no – and this is a fact I only learned recently! Which is why I’m sharing it. 🙂 The Tale of Genji is considered to be the world’s first true novel, a classic piece of Japanese literature written sometime in the 11th century. And an important factor of the novel is that it was written by a woman. Murasaki Shikibu was a noblewoman who lived around the peak of the Heian Period. A sad fact of this is that we in fact cannot be sure of her real name – Murasaki Shikibu is a nickname.

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, by Kanō Takanobu

Portrait of Murasaki Shikibu, by Kanō Takanobu

At the time Murasaki was born, women were excluded from writing Chinese, the official language of the government in Japan. However, Japan was at that time, also becoming more distinct in its own right, gaining its own cultural and national identity, and written Japanese was becoming a way for noblewomen to write in their own hand. Unusually for the time, Murasaki was raised in her father’s household, when most women would have been raised in their mother’s households – but her mother had died when she was young. Murasaki also came from a long line of poets, on her father’s side. In The Diary of Lady Murasaki, she wrote, “When my brother … was a young boy learning the Chinese classics, I was in the habit of listening to him and I became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to understand and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: ‘Just my luck,’ he would say, ‘What a pity she was not born a man!'”

The Tale of Genji follows the story of a son of an emperor, Genji, who is politically moved from the line of succession. He has something of a difficult start in life, with his mother dying when he is young, and the story follows the course of his romantic ventures, ultimately ending in a somewhat miserable ending. (Look it up, there are some beautiful illustrations to go with it, and the story itself is a fascinating glimpse into the complex politics of Japan at that time).  There are, of course, many other factors in whether Murasaki was the only author of the novel, and whether she wrote it off-hand, or if it was commissioned. But it remains the world’s first novel, and it was written by a woman.

Yūgiri ("Evening Mist") from Chapter 39 of The Tale of Genji

Yūgiri (“Evening Mist”) from Chapter 39 of The Tale of Genji

This is an interesting point to take in, because it would be several centuries before a woman was again able to write a book that would be read by others, at least in the western world. As Christianity gained a foothold in Europe, women were increasingly deprived of rights and education. However, some literature remains from that period written by women, and it is from them that we know much about women in the middle ages. Women found a voice through religion, and a few published their prayers and reflections when they became nuns or abbesses, the most powerful career choice a woman could make at that time. These include ladies such as Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena. However, writing about more unorthodox religious experiences, such as visions, were less acceptable, although they still exist. There are even, if searched for, glimpses into courtly love and politics. The Alexiad was written by the Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexius I in 1148, and Marie de France and Christine de Pizan also contributed in this fashion.

Later in the 17th century, a woman even wrote an early example of what would come to be known as science-fiction – Margaret Cavendish, then Duchess of Newcastle, wrote The Blazing World, a fantastical adventure where a young woman travels to another realm that can only be accessed via the North Pole. Another book, La Princesse de Clèves, was anonymously published in France in 1678, but it is thought to have been the work of Madame de La Fayette, a minor noblewoman. It is an interesting novel, because it was the first ‘psychological’ novel, that entwined subplots with its characters, and provided a realistic outlook on life at that time, as opposed to the usual romantic damsel saved by the hero, ending in a happy marriage.

The title page from The Blazing World

The title page from The Blazing World

A portrait of Margaret Cavendish

Moving on to the Enlightenment and early 19th century, there are still many women to be found who added a large chunk to the literary world. The most famous of these, of course, is Jane Austen, whose works are known throughout the world. Her novels are regarded as having huge historical significance for their social commentary – but also, at a time when women were not encouraged to be clever or to have opinions, her wit and dry realism offers a viewpoint that at least some women at this time were not regarded in this way.

Jane Austen, as drawn by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, as drawn by her sister Cassandra

Another less well-known author from this period is Anna Laetitia Barbauld, an English poet, children’s author, literary critic, and essayist. She had a successful writing career, but it ended abruptly in the early 19th century when she published Eighteen Hundred and Elevena criticism on Britain’s part in the Napoleonic Wars. She was also a teacher at Palgrave Academy in Suffolk, and was politically involved with the issues of the day. (Her own story is really interesting, and you should definitely click and find out how much this lady achieved in her lifetime). In 1818, another famous work of literature was published – Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheusby Mary Shelley. It was also one of the novels that contributed to the Gothic literature that was emerging at that time. She’s most well-known for this novel, but she in fact wrote many more books and articles, such as the historical novels Valperga (1823) and Perkin Warbeck (1830), the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837).

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

A portrait of Anna Laetitia Barbauld

A portrait of Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The Victorian period, for all its constraints upon women, still produced many novels and works of literature by women. Some of the most famous are the Brontë sisters. My favourite of these three female writers is Charlotte Brontë, mostly for her novel Jane Eyre. It was the first novel where the the female protagonist, Jane, was plain, somewhat serious, and spoke her mind, showing her intelligence and often sparring verbally with the male anti-hero, Mr Rochester. He himself was far older than her, not seen as particularly attractive, and was flawed from the outset. In short, it was a framework of what we would consider to be vital parts of modern novels; that characters should be flawed and realistic, and that real life often offered up a more thrilling story than glossed-over fiction. It is a reminder of her period, however, that when the novel was first published, it was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell. (The ‘Bell’ surname was also used by her sisters for their novels. An important note of the novel (as with many in the Victorian era) was that it promoted proto-feminism, and explored sexuality and religion – three things that the Victorians at the time used to explain that it couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

Other prominent female writers at this time included Christina Rossetti, best known for her narrative poem Goblin Market, which is often described as having many references of sexual imagery. Another poet at that time was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote from the tender age of four, and it’s largely thanks to her mother (who compiled these poems) that we still have them today. Aside from contributing largely to the world of literature, she was also a campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and her work helped influence reform in child labour legislation. There is also famously George Elliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, who was also an editor and critic as well as being a novelist. Wanting to have her work taken seriously, and also wanting to break away from the stereotype of female writers at the time writing romances, she made the decision to publish her work under a male pseudonym, much as the Brontë sisters did. The novel that sticks most in my mind from her works is Middlemarch, a novel that has eight intersecting though separate volumes that follow a cast of characters. The novel covers a range of themes, from the status of women and marriage, to education, religion and political reform. It also touches on several historical events, referring to them throughout. While reviews at the time were mixed about Middlemarch, it is now considered to be one of the greatest works of fiction in the English language.

'George Eliot' when she was 30, by François D'Albert Durade

‘George Eliot’ when she was 30, by François D’Albert Durade

Cover from Book 1 of Middlemarch

Cover from Book 1 of Middlemarch

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of female writers in history (and I haven’t even included the 20th century here, otherwise this would be a really big article!), but many of them have been forgotten or are less spoken of than their male counterparts. Women have been writers since ancient times, many writing even though education was withheld from them, was deemed ‘unfeminine’, or considered to be less than capable in taking part in politics and social life. I also think it’s a testament to each era that many of these women were openly supported and encouraged by men who were not afraid to speak out and seat women as equals by their side – usually men who were intelligent, educated men themselves, many also adding hugely to the great volume of literature we still have today, including the husbands of many of these women.

At the present, there’s a huge shift coming for equality, for both men and women, and it’s interesting to look back on history and see all the tiny chinks that have brought us up to this moment. There’s still a long way to go, but I reckon we’ll get there eventually. And it’s also wonderful to see that women contributed so much to literature, the vehicle of so much change. 🙂 What’s your thoughts on this? Who are your favourite female writers from history?

For a near-exhaustive list of female writers since ancient times, check out A Celebration of Women Writers, a great website that details many female writers and their works. 

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