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Victorian women novelists – racier than you might think

It’s a persuasive and persistent myth that in Victorian times it was difficult for women to get novels published.  It doesn’t help that some of the best known women novelists of the period, notably George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, used pseudonyms that were male, or at least in the case of the Brontës, gender neutral.  From there it’s a small jump to conclude that it was only by pretending to be male that they could get published.

NPG 1405; George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross (nÈe Evans)) replica by FranÁois D'Albert Durade
George Eliot from a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in the mid-Victorian period.   I use as evidence the Tauchnitz Collection of British Authors, which is as near as you can get to a representative coverage of English Literature at the time.   For the 25 year period from roughly 1864 to 1889 the collection included more volumes by female authors than male authors.   It’s true that in the early Victorian period, female authors were much less common (and undoubtedly subject to some prejudice as well), and after 1890 the balance also swung back some way towards the men.  But overall the evidence is clear – there were large numbers of Victorian women novelists – and they did get published.

But there’s another myth that needs puncturing – the myth of Victorian Values.  It’s easy to think that Victorian women novelists were a straight-laced bunch, upholding in their lives as well as their writing, a strict moral code, that certainly involved no sex outside marriage.   In practice many women writers were writing ‘sensation novels’, in which it seemed almost every character had a guilty secret.   The dramatic tension came from the contrast between the values that society seemed to expect and the rather messier lives led under the surface.

The Countess of Blessington, from a portrait by Thomas Lawrence

And the authors certainly had messy lives themselves. I’ve written before about the Countess of Blessington, the first female author to be published by Tauchnitz in 1843.  She was in an abusive marriage, then lived as the mistress of the Earl of Blessington, before eventually marrying him.   It was later strongly rumoured that she was in a relationship with the Count d’Orsay, who married her step-daughter.

Caroline Norton from a portrait by Frank Stone in the National Portrait Gallery

Or take Caroline Norton, another of the early Tauchnitz authors (and the daughter of another women novelist).  She had left her husband in 1836 and was involved in a close friendship with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  After attempting unsuccessfully to blackmail Melbourne, Caroline’s husband sued the Prime Minister for ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife.  This was rejected by the court, but the scandal nearly brought down the Government.  Caroline is then said to have had a five year affair with a Conservative politician, Sidney Herbert.  She was, perhaps pointedly, referred to on the title pages of her Tauchnitz novels, as The Honourable Caroline Norton.

NPG x21214; Florence Marryat by Unknown photographer
From the National Portrait Gallery

Florence Marryat, one of the most prolific Victorian authors, also left her husband to live with another man.  Her husband eventually sued for divorce, citing his wife’s adultery, and Florence re-married.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon, even more prolific with over 100 volumes to her name in the Tauchnitz series, lived for many years with John Maxwell who was already married to someone else.  And of course George Eliot famously lived with another married man (and another Tauchnitz author), George Henry Lewes.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth von Arnim

One of the more prominent women authors towards the end of the Victorian era, Elizabeth von Arnim, writing as Countess Russell, was for several years the mistress of H.G. Wells.  And it wasn’t just the British.  Léonie d’Aunet, possibly the only French woman author whose work appeared in the Tauchnitz series (her work ‘Un mariage en province’ was translated / adapted by Lady Georgiana Fullerton), had a seven year affair with Victor Hugo, for which she was arrested and spent time in prison and in a convent.

Tauchnitz 1769 Leonie D'Aunet
Portrait of Léonie d’Aunet by her husband François-Auguste Biard

There are no doubt many other examples.  I don’t of course want to imply that the men were any better.  Amongst others, Dickens left his wife for an 18 year old actress and the unmarried Wilkie Collins seems to have split his affections between two women simultaneously.   My point is just that Victorian women writers were not only numerous, but racier than you might think.  Victorian Values were just another myth.

The scandalous Lady Blessington – a feminist pioneer?

Marguerite, Lady Blessington (1789 – 1849) certainly seems to have lived an interesting life.  Born plain Margaret Power in Tipperary, she was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of 15, left her husband to return to her family and then went to live ‘under the protection’ of a certain Captain Jenkins, whatever that means.   Through him she met the Earl of Blessington, a widower, who established her as his mistress, and then married her after the death of her husband in a prison accident.

In her new position as the Countess of Blessington, she seems to have developed extravagant tastes, become a noted London hostess and travelled widely.   She became friends with Byron and recorded details of many of their conversations in one of her early books.  She also developed a long friendship with the Count d’Orsay, who eventually married her step-daughter, although rumours persisted that his real relationship was with Lady Blessington herself.


Painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1822, now held in the Wallace Collection

To judge by her Wikipedia entry, the fame of Lady Blessington today is more the result of gossip about these various relationships than to do with her writing, but she was nevertheless a significant and popular novelist of her day, and has at least one major role in the history of publishing to her credit.

The series of books launched by Tauchnitz in 1841 was called the Collection of British Authors, but a more accurate description for the first 50 volumes would have been the Collection of White Male Authors.   The first volume by a non-British Author was ‘The spy’ by J. Fenimore Cooper as volume 5, but it was not until volume 52 that the first novel by a female author appeared, and as for non-white authors, the wait was to be far, far longer.

The publication of ‘Meredith’ by Lady Blessington as that volume 52, in September 1843, coincided with the implementation of voluntary agreements that Tauchnitz had negotiated with authors in advance of copyright legislation.   The first 50 volumes had been pirate editions, but from volume 51 onwards publications were sanctioned by the author in return for an agreed payment.   Tauchnitz had received letters of introduction to authors including Lady Blessington and proposed an agreement to them.   Lady Blessington wrote to him on August 11, 1843 – ‘I trust that long ere this you have received the agreement with my signature …  Short as our acquaintance has been, it has inspired me with such confidence in your integrity and justice that I do not hesitate to fulfil my agreement being convinced that I shall have no reason to repent it.’

‘Meredith’ had only shortly before been published in the UK, and by October, the author was working on a new novel.  She wrote again to Tauchnitz on October 21, 1843 – ‘ … I am now engaged in a novel … It will be entitled Strathern and shall be sent to you weekly.’   In the UK it was published in weekly serial parts, and the Tauchnitz Edition of ‘Strathern’, published in October 1844 as volumes 69 and 70 was the worldwide first edition in book form.  It did not appear as a book in the UK until 1845.

Tauchnitz 69 Strathern half-title   Tauchnitz 69 Strathern title page

By this time, she had already made her views known on equal pay for women. ‘ I hope you will not think me unreasonable in expecting the same remuneration for my works, that my friend Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton is to receive’, she wrote on April 15, 1844.  Considering that Bulwer Lytton was perhaps the most popular novelist of his day, before the emergence of Dickens, and already had a string of bestselling novels to his name at this point, this might have been a bit presumptuous, but as the request is recorded in the Tauchnitz 50th anniversary history, I suspect it was granted.

Three other novels by Lady Blessington were published in the Tauchnitz series –  ‘Memoirs of a femme de chambre’ as volume 104 in 1846, ‘Marmaduke Herbert’ as volumes 123 and 124 in 1847 and ‘Country quarters’ as volumes 183 and 184, posthumously in 1850, another novel that had been originally issued in weekly serial parts (in ‘The Lady’s Newspaper’).   Her position as the first woman to be published by Tauchnitz was secure, but by the time of her death in 1849, she had been joined in the list by other female authors, starting with Lady Georgiana Fullerton in 1846, Mrs. Gore in 1847 and then most notably by Charlotte Bronte with ‘Jane Eyre’ in 1848.  Within 20 years, women authors would be in the majority in the Tauchnitz list, but that’s another story.