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‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Novels? Gendered Fictions and the Reading Public, 1770–1832

Abstract and Keywords

The fiction from 1770 to 1830 shows the strains of a society that increasingly identified cultural consumption with gender. Whereas the sentimental novels of the 1770s used epistolary narrators to relate stories of love and feeling from the perspective of both men and women, by the 1790s the new, Gothic novels were centred on women besieged by tyranny from without and uncertainty from within. This genre fiction contributed to the derogation of the novel and its association with an undiscriminating female audience. Throughout the period, women were held up as the quintessential novel-readers because more women were visibly writing and reading novels than ever before, and because the popular marriage plot, female hero, thematic focus on etiquette, and emphasis on delicacy and refinement all seemed to speak to feminine concerns. In fact, most novel-writers and novel-readers were men because men wrote and read more than women.

Keywords: Jane Austen, audience, gender, Gothic, Ann Radcliffe, reading, sentimental, Walter Scott


The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’1 So asserts Henry Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s spoof of Regency fiction. Tilney is asserting a sensible medium between the two extremes that were crudely correlated with gender by the end of the eighteenth century. Men, according to popular discourse, never read novels: ‘Oh! Lord! Not I: I never read novels; I have something else to do,’ blusters Austen’s boorish John Thorpe, striking a masculine posture. He is exhibiting the male ideal defined by vigorous sportsmanship and disgust for feminine fictions with their minute details of conduct, morality, and love. Women, on the other extreme, were believed to read little else. Mocking this cliché, Austen depicts the naive heroine Catherine Morland, who is addicted to Gothic novels, confessing that she can barely endure poetry, plays, and travels, and hates history because ‘the men are so good for nothing, and [there are] hardly any women at all’ (109–10).

How real was this distinction between what men and women read? A minute later, Thorpe continues:

Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except the Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the (p. 356) others, they are the stupidest things in creation [except] Mrs. Radcliff’s; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them. (43)

Austen’s joke is that Thorpe—and by extension men in general—actually do read novels, and not only those with roguish male heroes, like Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), or lurid scenes of rape and corruption, exemplified by Lewis’s The Monk (1796). As Thorpe confesses, men even read Gothic mysteries centred on persecuted women, like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1796). His attitude sketches out the battle-lines in the gendering of literary culture: whereas women read fantasy, ‘stuff and nonsense’, so ran the common claim, men read ‘fun and nature’, tales about violence, adventure, and real life.

In fact, John Thorpe and Catherine admire precisely the same books: Gothic romances set in the dark past, depicting sensitive heroines mystified by traces of bloodshed and ghostly noises, and besieged by tyrannical murderers in remote castles. These novels exemplified cheap fiction for the audience at the turn of the nineteenth century and were publicly identified as women’s novels because of their feminine heroines and plots, and because of the places and ways they were read. However, Gothic novels were only one subgenre of fiction during the period from 1770 to 1820. They came to exemplify flawed, female fiction because they grew to be highly popular in the years following the French Revolution in 1789, when England was reeling with horror at the French violations of law, social convention, and gender roles. England’s defensiveness, indeed panic, during the period centred on who read, how and why they read, and especially what they read, and women seemed to be not only the targeted audience, but feminine ways of using the novel seemed to exemplify social decay. This prejudice was mainly based on fictions about fiction, and reflects not the reality of the reading public but a gendered discourse that centred on the novel. Fiction became the flashpoint for these gender anxieties because the novel was the central, prominent signal and symptom of a changing society, because the new kinds of novels focused on sexualized sensibility, and because of the rising female cultural presence.

The novel’s feminization in public culture had a reputable heritage. From the early eighteenth century, novels suffered a tradition of evoking elite sneers. These neophyte novels are mainly adventure tales. Some star hyper-masculine heroes engaged in warfare, hazardous travel, and rambunctious behaviour; others describe women beleaguered by hunger, desertion, greedy relatives, and lustful men. Smollett’s rollicking tale of picaresque urban adventures and wartime exploits, The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), for example, was so popular that it ran through eighteen English editions by 1800, not to mention the many foreign ones. At the same time, translations of novels rooted in seventeenth-century Continental romances were becoming increasingly widely read, despite—or because—they had long been associated with female depravity, particularly self-love and sexual profligacy. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, female novelists attempted to dissociate themselves from such works. Notably, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) satirizes the novel-addicted Arabella for believing herself a princess in a romance and loading her sensible lover with mad expectations of chivalry. Similarly, in Roderick Random, Miss Williams blames her descent (p. 357) into prostitution on an addiction to romantic fiction and poetry that leads her to identify with novelistic heroines. Novels became a byword for insane or dangerous female rebellion because they were seen to encourage sexual passion: even as early as 1761, in George Colman’s satirical play Polly Honeycombe, A Dramatic Novel, the heroine contradicts her parents, rejects housework, and resolves gleefully to dominate her future husband since, addicted to novels, she has ‘conquer’d Fear—And almost conquer’d Shame’ like all ‘Girls of Reading, and superior notions, | Who from the fountain-head drink love’s sweet potions’.2 Although the well-read Polly is female, the novels she reads are written by both men and women, as the play’s catalogue of novels from a circulating library shows.

Sentimental and Epistolary Novels

Although Lennox, Colman, and Smollett were deploying a literary cliché by lambasting learned ladies for violating their appropriate roles, during the 1770s with the surge of sentimentalism, novels broached new ground. These novels made emotion central to character and plot by deploying the new sentimental philosophy that held that human instincts were naturally benevolent, and that sympathy for fellow creatures demonstrated moral virtue. Such novels came by the end of the eighteenth century to be identified as ‘female’ partly because they followed the format set by the most influential innovator of epistolary fiction: Samuel Richardson. Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) partly constitutes the letters of an innocent and exemplary young woman to her parents, as she is besieged by her amorous guardian Mr. B., but also includes a large number of her journal-entries, supposedly written entirely for herself and thus artlessly unselfconscious. It became enormously popular, spawning sequels, imitations, and translations, and it stamped the mode of private and epistolary writing as the means for the unveiled revelation of the female self—an association confirmed by Richardson’s subsequent epistolary novel about a young lady’s rape, madness, and death, Clarissa (1748).

However, sentimental private writing could certainly express male sensibility: Laurence Sterne composes his immensely popular, nine-volume sentimental fiction The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759–68) as the first-person narrative of his troubled protagonist, Tristram, writing to intimate readers conjured in his mind. Opening with the instant of the interrupted orgasm that gave Tristram life, Tristram’s spiralling, stream-of-consciousness narrative enacts the novel’s very plot by recording Tristram’s sexual and emotional dysfunctionality, manifested by the circling writing itself. The unconventionality of this structure and the sexually explicit topic made Sterne notorious in a way only a man could live down, or live with: both in form and (p. 358) topic, women had perforce to be more conventional in order to preserve their authority as authors. Sterne, however, did provide the model for Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), in which an unidentified narrator records for his own benefit his observations of Harley, the titular sentimental hero—a youth whose sensibilities are so acute that he expires of a suppressed love that he is too shy to declare and that hence mutates into physical disease, and although the protagonist is a man, the novel became a byword for the sort of sexually titillating fiction that women, especially young women, purportedly adored.

By the 1770s, indeed, many male protagonists were manifesting sentimental delicacy. Smollett’s most successful, final novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), for example, constitutes the correspondences between a group of characters, both men and women, but centres on the ruminative accounts of the prickly Matthew Bramble. Like Sterne, Smollett chooses a male narrator with quirky sensibilities, using his epistolary form to recreate the privacy of intimate and unedited communication. Nonetheless, perhaps partly because of Smollett’s gender and the rambunctious, masculine protagonists of his earlier work, reviewers perceived the book as broader and more significant than a fiction of feeling. They aver that its dramatization of regional manners gave it a geographical reach unattempted by most women novelists. In the anonymous review in the London Magazine of Humphry Clinker, which appeared the year of its publication, for example, Smollett is commended for providing fact rather than fancy: instead of ‘much of the dreadful dangers, the surprizing escapes, the deep distresses and the romantic passions which characterize our modern novel-writers’, the reviewer remarks, Smollett’s book provides ‘something greatly preferable to a novel: it is a pleasing, yet an important lesson on life; and that part of it which describes the Scotch nation, is at once calculated to entertain the most gay, and to give the most serious a very useful fund of information’. Other reviewers commend an epistolary breadth that permits a variety of perspectives in place of the stifling atmosphere of Richardsonian letters.3

Sentimental epistolarity suggested a style and structure that would reflect the unedited and spontaneous feelings and reflections of private writing: journals and letters. Epistolarity became increasingly identified with women because since, traditionally, women were less well educated than men and largely ignorant of the classical writers, they were perceived as writing in an informal manner that was simpler, less allusive, and more spontaneous than men’s. Henry Tilney observes ironically: ‘it is [their] delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.’ When Catherine doubts whether ladies write letters better than men, he asserts that their only faults are: ‘A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar’ (19–20). Although artlessness was becoming fashionable for Romantic poetry, women’s weak education exposed them to charges of bad writing. While ‘incorrectness’ or grammatical (p. 359) and usage errors were rare in published works, the accusations of ignorance, simplistic characterizations, borrowed and stale plots, and stylistic ugliness remained, especially as women were perceived as preferring the derogated, formulaic Gothic and romantic novels of circulating libraries. Susan E. Ferrier, for example, sidesteps this prejudice in Marriage (1818) by a preface citing Cato’s apology for writing with ‘imperfect knowledge’ of the language.4

Following Richardson’s model in Pamela and the tragic Clarissa, epistolarity especially smacked not merely of female identity, but of sexualized female interiority. Although men obviously wrote letters, they were women’s most common form of writing since women were discouraged from writing in the public sphere, at least openly. As a consequence, letters bore the stamp of secrecy, illegitimacy, and the expression of forbidden love: the famous twelfth-century love letters between the priest Abelard and his pupil, popularized by Alexander Pope’s heroic poem Eloisa to Abelard (1717), stood as the archetype of the genre. Many sentimental novels of the period use the epistolary form to reproduce the spontaneity and privacy of sentimental feeling: Frances Brooke translated Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s Letters of Juliet Catesby, To Her Friend Lady Henrietta Camply (1760), which garnered a large audience, before writing the epistolary novels, The History of Lady Julia Mandeville (1764), and The History of Emily Montague (1769). Mackenzie’s highly sentimental Julia de Roubigné, a tale. In a series of letters (1777) interweaves letters from a range of sympathetic characters to centre on romantic love even when the correspondents are describing their feelings to a friend, rather than to the beloved. The epistolary form itself embodies the intimate relations between two people, which was increasingly regarded as a female concern.

By the late 1770s, sentimental novels also increasingly featured women heroines and themes of female feeling. This translated in fiction into characters whose emotional responses to any acts of kindness or cruelty or violence and to scenes of beauty testified to their heroism. Indeed, sentimentalism promoted literature as an avenue for virtuous education through feeling and sympathetic identification. Such characterizations seemed to fit women, who were screened from the violence and machinations of war, politics, and public life, better than men, who were conventionally lauded for military heroism and public success. Nonetheless, if men and women both wrote sentimentally, the treatment of sex itself still became a main dividing line between genres and between audiences. The more explicit the treatment, the less women were involved—as authors or, presumably, audiences. Some texts were supposedly forbidden to women, which does not mean that they did not read them. For example, the Duchess of Devonshire read Choderlos de Laclos’s scandalous account of seduction Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), notorious in England for its immorality, albeit her husband edited it for her.5 At the same time, sentimental heroes gradually changed gender: such titles as Henry Brooke’s The Fool of (p. 360) Quality (1766) and The Man of Feeling receded before a gush of those like Sophia Briscoe’s Fine Lady (1772) and Frances Burney’s Evelina, or a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778). Eight Julias and at least four Emmas had appeared by 1816.6

Gothic and Conduct Novels

Sentimental and epistolary fiction may have drawn readers’ tears, but the subgenre that followed them, the Gothic novel, won different responses. Gothic novels solicited gasps of fear and shock—not merely reactions to the horrible events portrayed in the novel, but outraged responses to the horrible techniques of novels themselves. Gothic novels, with their exaggeratedly villainous and virtuous characters, improbable and tangled plots, themes of violence and violation, and sensationalistic techniques, obviously defied the realistic conventions governing earlier fiction. Critics’ disparagements, however, also resulted from the added weight novels bore as vehicles of emotional training for young readers. This emphasis on the instructiveness of fiction, itself a dramatic shift in literary aesthetics and philosophy, was largely caused by contemporary events. Novels in the 1790s were perched uneasily at the crux of a storm of ideas about politics, education, gender roles, and social practices as England, following the French Revolution, experienced a fierce, moralistic backlash that segregated and solidified gender roles. Novels came especially under attack because women’s education sprang into the forefront of cultural concerns with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): the manifesto for a new philosophy that stressed the need for women’s intellectual self-determination and moral training in place of the outdated accomplishments of music, painting, dancing, and embroidery. Indeed, so anxious was the novelist Maria Edgeworth to prove the morality of her fiction that she prefaced her novel Belinda (1801) by denying that it actually was a novel:

Every author has a right to give what appellation he may think proper to his works. The public have also a right to accept or refuse the classification that is presented. The following work is offered to the public as a Moral Tale—the author not wishing to acknowledge a Novel … so much folly, errour, and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wish to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are laudable, and not fastidious.7

Echoing contemporary comments, Edgeworth opposes morality to the very genre of the novel itself.

(p. 361) Edgeworth here voices the new role claimed for the novel. In opposition to the deliberately emotive, non-rational emphasis of sentimental fiction, and the excitingly improbable plots of the Gothic novel, the new didactic fiction features exemplary heroines who model perfect behaviour: they display—or learn to display—perfect manners and unwavering self-discipline, suffering misrepresentation, misuse, and mistrust without complaint, to be rewarded with noble husbands and fat fortunes. They experience this as all the while they disdain novels in favour of poetry, morality, and history, for as Austen points out in Northanger Abbey: ‘there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist’ (31). In 1802, Lady Pennington, urging her daughters to read, declares: ‘Novels and Romances, very few of them are worth the trouble of reading; some of them may … contain good morals, but they are not worth the finding where so much rubbish is intermixed … [They lead] to errors of judgment and [I]‌ therefore advise you scarce ever to meddle with any of them.’8

Yet the arguments that, first, only women read novels at all, and yet, secondly, that only bad women read novels whereas good women read good works—particularly sermons and conduct manuals—were manifestly untrue. By defining her novel as a ‘Moral Tale’, Edgeworth herself collapses the distinction between fictional tale-telling and morality, and reflects the fact that, since so many women read novels, neither all the women nor all the novels could be bad. Moreover, new novels had been a central topic of fashionable conversation for half a century, and novel-reading women were becoming increasingly visible as cultural consumers. Gender nonetheless remained a vital element in the construction, reception, and analysis of the form, and the issues it raises illuminate the development of the genre.

‘By a Lady’: The Gender of Authors and Aesthetics

What genders a novel? Is a ‘female’ novel so defined because it is written ‘By a Lady’, for ladies, or about ladies? Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), albeit written by a man, is certainly presented by a female narrator, and it is about a woman, but its tale of promiscuity and theft appealed as much to men as women. So did his cautionary tale purportedly for women, Roxana (1724), which chronicled its protagonist’s descent into whoredom, murder, and madness. By the late eighteenth century, however, more women than ever before were writing novels, and recent research has shown that they produced about a third of those published.9 From 1770 to 1800, novels identified as female on their title pages crested, but so, indeed, did all novels, rising to 100 new (p. 362) fictions a year in 1800.10 Still, the prominence of the attribution ‘By a Lady’ indicates a shift in the relationship of gender to literature, particularly fiction: it signals that gender was becoming an aesthetic or formal aspect of fiction-writing—a matter not of the author’s sex but of the book’s.11 Books that centred on women’s lives were not necessarily woman-authored, but they were perceived as probably so: on reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Annabella Milbanke (who became Lady Byron) speculated that it might have been written by Charlotte Smith, author of the popular Emmeline (1789), commenting to her mother: ‘I wish much to know who is the author or ess I am told.’12

Fiction ‘By a Lady’ constituted only a part of the novels on offer in part because many authors of both genders remained anonymous, at least in their first efforts: of the 1,421 novels published between 1770 and 1799, the vast majority lacked any authorial attribution—no less than 71.3 per cent—since, as William St Clair has pointed out, anonymity both intensified the reader’s curiosity and protected authors and publishers from legal redress demanded by offended high-society figures who believed themselves satirized. Moreover, anonymity permitted publishers to issue novels of uneven quality in a format that suggested they were all equally rewarding to read, a development exemplified by the formulaic fiction published for circulating libraries by the Minerva Press. Critical reviews also paid specific attention to whether novels were suitable female fare, and in effect doomed any deemed too racy for the ladies.13 However, reviews of women’s fiction eventually helped to elevate the status of women authors as writers equal to men, and in her important theorization of the novel, The Progress of Romance (1778), Clara Reeve defends the genre itself against masculine contempt: her spokeswoman declares that ‘The learned men of our own country have in general affected a contempt for this kind of writing … and looked upon Romances, as proper furniture only for a Lady’s Library’, but in fact they are equivalent to ‘Epic poems’.14

Women authors were still a relatively new phenomenon in the later eighteenth century. While women since the seventeenth century had, of course, published poetry, drama, and fiction—notably the Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, whose novel-cum-travelogue Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) remained famous throughout the period—female publication was strongly associated with public females, that is prostitutes. Such a stigma prohibited many women from confessing their authorship, and doubtless dissuaded others from writing at all. Moreover, Behn was (p. 363) herself notorious for sexual liaisons, and since Defoe’s Moll Flanders, novels recounting female experience supposedly from a woman’s pen seemed guaranteed to supply sexual anecdotes—particularly since female narratives by definition related the experience of femininity, that is sexual or at least romantic experience.

The term ‘Lady’, however, carries not only gender but also class associations that helped to soften the sexual innuendo of female authorship into a rather mistier sentimentalism. Jane Austen uses this designation, and contemporary readers, as she gleefully noted, verified her class signature by pointing out the writer’s intimate knowledge of genteel social manners. Her first published fiction, Sense and Sensibility, was advertised in The Star (31 October 1811) and the Morning Chronicle (7, 9, and 28 November 1811) as written by ‘A Lady’, ‘Lady —’, and ‘Lady A—’.15 In contrast, Moll Flanders is no lady, nor is John Cleland’s joyously promiscuous Fanny Hill, the narrator of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749). The term ‘Lady’, rather than ‘woman’, hints that the author knows scandalous stories about high life, but has concealed her name in order to write more candidly—that is, more about the misdeeds of the mighty. This implication dates at least from Delarivier Manley’s notorious and thinly veiled roman à clef satirizing sexual corruption in the Whiggish nobility, The New Atalantis (1709), but it was probably Eliza Haywood’s erotic tales of female desire, particularly Love in Excess (1719), that solidified the association of novels and female sexual experience. Indeed, the very notion of an autobiographical tale by a ‘lady’ implies sexual scandal since no lady worthy of the name would have any tale to tell: her story ought to be ‘A blank, my lord,’ as the virtuous Viola declares to her Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Furthermore, since many of the Romantic novels ascribed to ‘a Lady’ use an epistolary format, they imply that they have an autobiographical basis, and thus intensify the identification of female-authored fiction with stories of women’s sexual feelings. Promising both sentimental titillation and the heady aroma of high class, the designation of ‘By a Lady’ promised readers fashionable and exciting feeling.

Women also were understood to have a different sensibility from men. More protected and delicately built, they were attributed with trembling sensibilities centred on domesticity and romance. With greater private time and fewer distractions than men, women were also thought to brood upon the nuances of emotion and behaviour. Whereas early sentimental novelists saw this as a virtue, later writers found it dangerous because it could cause either self-destructive despair, or sexual excess. Jane Austen’s pensive and faded heroine in Persuasion (1818) maintains that, although men can act heroically while they ‘have an object’ in view, women suffer longer: ‘All the privilege I claim for my own sex … is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’16 By the end of the eighteenth century, several novels contrasted the two plots of feminine feeling: hazardous passion and virtuous self-restraint. In Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story (1791), the impulsive Miss Milner wins the love (p. 364) of her tyrannical guardian and weds him, only to succumb to adultery and die in poverty, rejected and despised by her madly jealous husband. In the novel’s second half, her self-denying, dutiful daughter Matilda wins true love and the inheritance. In case readers miss the point, Inchbald explains at the end that the novel advocates ‘A PROPER EDUCATION’ for women.17 Similarly, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) contrasts the responses of the two heroines when rejected by their suitors: Elinor Dashwood’s silently suffering but disciplined ‘sense’ allows her dignity whereas her younger sister Marianne’s passionate, indulged ‘sensibility’ almost kills her. Indeed, the dangers of women’s sentimental susceptibility prompt a flow of didactic novels featuring heroines who either model an admirable restraint of their natural passions, like Burney’s Evelina, or pay the price for failing to do so, like Burney’s Camilla Tyrold, who, in Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), suffers five volumes of frustrations, culminating in a bout of madness, before winning her suitor. Works such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Mary (1788) and Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) illustrate the need for women to use their minds to control their hearts, and later novels by Hannah More, Jane West, Ferrier, and Edgeworth advocate a rational balance of love and thought.18

Their confined experience also appeared to allow women unique access to psychological depth. This psychological approach particularly flourished in the subgenre of the female Gothic, which emphasized the uncertainties of perception that heroines suffer in an obscure, dangerous, patriarchal world. Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels exemplify the genre by portraying heroines fleeing male violence or confined by tyrants, and entangled in murky plots featuring nefarious outlaws, madness, and murder. The suspense arises less from the dramatic action than from the technique of representing the scenes entirely through the protagonist’s consciousness. For example, when in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) Emily St. Aubert’s guardian, the ferocious Montoni, compels her to leave her aunt’s house and accompany him to an obscure location, Radcliffe records not the causes but Emily’s speculations on them. After a terrified night fearing Montoni means to murder her:

It appeared, upon calmer consideration, that Montoni was removing her to his secluded castle, because he could there, with more probability of success, attempt to terrify her into obedience; or, that, should its gloomy and sequestered scenes fail of this effect, her forced marriage with the Count could there be solemnized with the secrecy, which was necessary to the honour of Montoni.19

Radcliffe’s plot unravels through the fears, confusions, and superstitions of her heroine, so that readers can never clearly see where the truth lies.

(p. 365) However, the very narrowness of women’s experience was also credited with giving them an insight into social dynamics that translated into social realism. Especially as, after the publication of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, women were tutored in the skills and duties of self-regulation, moral judgement, child-rearing, and maintaining the household, they were seen as attuned to the nuances of social interaction. Austen’s narrator in Northanger Abbey opposes male and female reading primarily on the basis of relevance: novels are fresh mirrors of contemporary life whereas conventional male reading creaks with stale portraits of bygone manners and dead topics. Scott himself admired less his own, sweepingly historical style than the delicate precision of Jane Austen’s aesthetic: in his Journal on 14 March 1826, he noted:

Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow wow strain I can do myself like any now going but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early.20

Despite his praise, Scott in the second decade of the nineteenth century identifies here another consequence of the widening gap between novels identified as female and those seen as male. Remarking that ‘the women do this better’, he implies that historical sweep is male territory, details of ordinary life, female.21 Indeed, the replication of genre fiction correlated with female topics and a feminine aesthetic may have contributed to the sinking of the novel’s status after the mid-eighteenth-century praise for the fictions of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett. Even Jane Austen’s works were considered by some contemporary reviewers ‘far too good to have been written by a woman’. Not until the surge of enthusiasm and praise for Scott’s works and the peaking of Romanticism, with its emphasis on authorial individuality and genius at the start of the nineteenth century did the novel climb back into critical favour. Even when the critical establishment gave women authors serious reviews in the early nineteenth century, these tended to evaluate their work as the result of ‘rote learning and obsessive scrutiny of their limited surroundings’ rather than as evidence of the ‘sustained attention and inborn genius’ of male novelists.22 Frequently, female authors apologize for their impertinence in writing at all: Jane Austen derogated herself as ‘the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress’ in a letter to the Prince Regent’s Librarian, James Stanier Clarke.23 This cliché, however, already over a century old, also works to advertise the text’s readability, and assures readers that it is written with etiquette, as well as about it.

(p. 366) ‘I Never Read Novels’: The Gender of Readers and Reading

Among the fictions about fiction that stoked the fires of moral panic in the early Romantic period was the visibility of women reading novels. In fact, most novel-readers were male, as most readers always had been. By the mid-eighteenth century, only about 60 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women could read at all, and, while works of religion, history, geography, and travel outstripped novels in most libraries, provincial novel-readers and library-borrowers were primarily male.24 In fact, men and women read largely the same books: the Prince Regent and his court admired Jane Austen’s novels, for example; she herself read purportedly immoral fictions by Fielding and Sterne, whom she parodies in her juvenilia; and Tristram himself reveals that he expects women to read his narrative by adjuring his reader on one famous occasion as ‘Madam!’. The poet and fiction reviewer Anna Laetitia Barbauld, wife of a minister, even commended the delicacy of Sterne’s sentimental touches.25

Several factors fed this delusion that women constituted the market for fiction and that this was dangerous. Women who read were seen as derogating their household duties, and fiction appeared less educational than other genres.26 Certainly men, given their education, had generally read more kinds of works than women: in Jane Austen’s Emma, the respectable, rising yeoman farmer Robert Martin reads Vicesimus Knox’s compendium of lauded literature Elegant Extracts (1790) aloud to his family after his day’s labour has ended, but forgets to bring his beloved, if dim-witted, Harriet Smith the novels she asked for from the library, and she sulks about the omission. If novels require less formal education and very little, if any, classical training to enjoy, they do take a long time to read, and women, at least middle- and upper-class women freed from housework, had the leisure. Moreover, since far more women were reading (and writing) than ever before, and far more novels were tumbling off the press, women and novels seemed sisters-in-crime. In 1773, the Monthly Review sneered that women always have entertained a ‘keen relish for novels, as they have for green apples … or unwholesome food’: as daughters of Eve, women plucking the forbidden fruit searching for sexual knowledge. Since novels were by definition ‘new’, they were fashion items, ephemeral and thus trivial: hence the Monthly Review’s remark, ‘Novels generally usher in the Winter as Snow-drops do the Spring, and like them, have little beauty to recommend them, besides an early appearance.’27 Novelty (p. 367) and transience were qualities associated with women. The proliferation of circulating fiction was seen to parallel the proliferation of female readers, and, indeed, publishers like the Minerva Press deliberately targeted women as their audience. The change in the sexual and social composition of the audience was a cultural shock. Women readers in great numbers, especially middle-class women, were a new audience, and as such, like servants, shook the status quo by which literacy had demarcated the elite. By reading, women penetrated the public sphere as they never had before.

Much of the anxiety concerning women reading resulted from where they read: places that seemed sequestered, improper, private, and fed a solitariness and secrecy that seemed to breed illegitimate fantasies. In adjuring his youthful, female audience towards self-improvement, the Rev. Henry Kett nervously declares: ‘Reading may be made a social, as well as a solitary occupation.’28 In fact, as book prices began abruptly to climb in the final quarter of the century, reaching 10s. 6d. for a typical three-volume novel, sharing reading matter became more common.29 Both circulating and private libraries were places of entertainment and display, with billiard tables, spinets, important paintings, card tables, and spaces for private and public reading. However, the circulating library most visibly stood as the emblem of unmonitored, excessive consumption of the ephemeral fiction demanded by female readers: if they chose the books publicly, they consumed them privately, and obsessively.30 There were other venues for reading—coffee houses, shops, and private libraries—but some 75 per cent of the run of a popular novel landed in a circulating library at some point.31 In fact, these institutions provided a huge range of texts to lenders from the city and countryside, but their signature stamp in the public consciousness was the three-decker novel. Despite the fact that most patrons were male, circulating libraries thus became identified with women’s appetite for titillating reading.

How people read also caused anxiety. Most important to Romantic critics was the fear that by reading about heroines who defied convention to follow their hearts, female readers would rush into the arms of the nearest half-pay officer. This worry had to do with the notion that reading was an exercise in uncritical identification: that readers learned by imitation, just as they ought to learn Christian virtues by reading the Bible. In The Progress of Romance, Reeve’s spokeswoman commends Richardson’s Pamela for literary beauties that ‘find a short way to the heart, which it engages by its best and noblest feelings … There need no other proof of a bad and corrupted heart, than its being insensible to the distresses, and incapable to the rewards of virtue.—I should want no other criterion of a good or bad heart, than the manner in which a young person was affected by reading Pamela’ (1: 135). Even Barbauld, in her fifty-volume edition of The British (p. 368) Novelists (1810), needs to refute the charge that novels lead women astray by admitting that although love forms the focus of most fiction, few readers believe it anything but fiction: life, by contrast, is an indecipherable work-in-progress.

While the model of moral reading remained devotional—the medieval study of a few texts, the daily conning of the Bible, the memorization and contemplation of selected, venerable works—the rush to read the newest novel required readers to speed through hundreds of pages. They seemed to read for the plot rather than the moral, for the sentimental vignette rather than the intellectual conception, for the quick fix of feeling instead of the lesson for life. There were so many books that they thus seemed to demand extensive rather than intensive reading: Kett, for example, attempts to counter this tendency by instructing young women to read attentively rather than gobbling up texts the way they do novels: ‘Give your mind to your author,’ he exhorts, for ‘If you read too hastily you will learn nothing, and the ideas of an author will glide before your mind like the visions of a dream’ (222). Moreover, while men clearly also identified with heroes (and, indeed, heroines), they were trained in scepticism, judgement, and restraint whereas it was thought that women read corporeally, and thus experienced the physical effects of sympathy like blushing and fainting. Fiction thus seemed to feed their anti-intellectual instincts. The novel appeared to embody a new and gendered way of consuming literary culture itself.

Conclusion: The Gender of Novels

Novels from 1770 to 1830 change style, theme, and mode. In the 1770s, sentimental epistolary fiction dominates; the 1780s see the beginning of conduct novels that last well into the Victorian period; the 1790s witness a thunderclap of Gothic; and by the 1810s, Romantic fiction was becoming the latest subgenre. Yet to readers from 1770 to 1830, individual novels also appear to have, or at least to hint at, a gender themselves. This identification of a text with a sex was manufactured from the combination of the gender of their heroes, their plots and settings, their aesthetic techniques, and a moral tone that solicited either male or female readers. As many women novelists at the beginning of the nineteenth century transformed conduct literature into a fictional form, proving lessons in social etiquette and self-discipline woven into love stories, Romantic fiction, spurred on by Scott, made extreme characters and epic scope the novel’s province. ‘Interesting’ stories—that is, stories with a love interest—and stories of familial relations, female roles, and women’s behaviour were considered ‘female’.32 Conduct fiction that placed the sentimental heroine not in situations of deadly danger in faraway lands, but plumb in the middle of upper-echelon English society similarly seemed instructions for women alone, whereas Romantic fiction that placed her—or more often, him—on the margins challenged social conventions in a fashion that undermined social mores. Thus, according to (p. 369) Reeve, didactic texts which advance virtue and morality were coded as ‘female’, whereas texts like Fielding’s or Scott’s with roistering heroes, adventurous plots, and promiscuous heroes, previously considered fare for both genders, were considered male.

The supposed division between a male and a female book is particularly clear in the contrast between Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Scott’s Waverley; or ’Tis Sixty Years Since, both published in 1814. Scott’s novel, set in the previous century, relates the military, political, and romantic adventures of Edward, the heir to the baronet, Sir Everard Waverley, after he leaves his family to join a regiment of dragoons bent on fighting the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. Mansfield Park concerns the sufferings of a penniless heroine immured as a poor relation in the mansion of a grand family. In both novels, the heroes are distracted by inappropriate suitors but find true love, and in both a quarrel in the family—between brothers, in Scott’s case, and sisters in Austen’s—stimulate the complications of the plot. In the man’s novel, however, the male hero leaves home and, despite misadventures, regains his honour and wins a pardon through military action; in the woman’s, the heroine earns status and reward by moral self-discipline and passive resistance.

In both manner and matter, Scott’s novels go where women’s fiction generally feared to tread. Whereas most women avoided stylistic crudity for fear of ‘incorrectness’, Scott gave his characters a Scottish dialect. Even Edgeworth’s illiterate narrator, the servant Thady, who speaks in an Irish brogue in Castle Rackrent (1800), functions to satirize Irish regionalism and the very antiquarian solemnity that Scott embraced, not as a Romantic model. Most significantly, Scott’s fictions sketched a historical past in accurate detail. The first reviewer emphasized Waverley’s historical accuracy, declaring that: ‘We are unwilling to consider this publication in the light of a common novel whose fate is to be devoured with rapidity for the day, and afterwards forgotten forever; but as a vehicle of curious accurate information upon a subject which must at all times demand our attention—the history and manners of a very, very large and renowned portion of the inhabitants of these islands.’33 Albeit contentious, Scott’s use of history also worked to gender his novels since women’s interest in history was perceived as slight, given, as Catherine Morland points out, that it features so few women.

A novel’s subgenre also implies its gender. Scott himself contrasts his real history with the stale female fantasy version, and his originality with the formulaic fare of circulating libraries. In the preface to Waverley, he declares:

Had I, for example, announced in my frontispiece, ‘Waverley, a Tale of other Days,’ must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing has been long uninhabited, and the keys either lost or consigned to the care of some aged butler, or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts? … Would not the owl have shrieked and the cricket cried in my very title-page? … Or if I had rather chosen to call my work a ‘Sentimental Tale,’ would it not have been a sufficient presage of a heroine with (p. 370) a profusion of auburn hair, and a harp, the soft solace of her solitary hours, which she fortunately finds always the means of transporting from castle to cottage … Or again, if my Waverley had been entitled ‘A Tale of the Times,’ wouldst thou not, gentle reader have demanded from me a dashing sketch of the fashionable world, a few anecdotes of private scandal thinly veiled, and if lusciously painted so much the better; a heroine from Grosvenor Square, and a hero from the barouche Club or the Four-in-Hand … the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.34

As the Romantic regard for literary originality and genius rose, genre fiction became stamped as conventional female entertainment.

Nonetheless, ‘male’ and ‘female’ novels of the period share themes and plot lines. Foremost are the themes of the discovery of identity and recovery of inheritance. In Smollett’s Humphry Clinker, the servant Humphry is discovered miraculously to be the natural son of his irascible but tender-hearted master, Matthew Bramble, while, among many other examples, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian (1797), not to mention Eleanor Sleath’s Minerva Press novel Orphan of the Rhine (1798), all concern the heroine’s recovery of her identity and fortune. By the nineteenth century, in fact, reading and readers of novels began to escape gender-identification as the genre became a respected part of British literary heritage, legitimate—even laudable—reading-matter for both genders. Significantly, Barbauld’s British Novelists, itself an emblem of the rise of the novel’s prestige in the Romantic period, does not differentiate authors by gender or novels by subgenre: Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Ann Radcliffe conclude the series, but her list includes French and German titles, satirical and historical fictions, even a Chinese novel, as well as the by-then canonical productions of Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, and a host of works now forgotten. In fact, Barbauld uses the new prominence of women writers to prove the genre’s probity, declaring that: ‘A very great proportion of [good writers] are ladies: and surely it will not be said that either taste or moral have been losers by their taking the pen.’35 By the end of the Regency, as Romanticism began gradually to shift into what would become a Victorian moral aesthetic, it was still Scott’s Waverley that grew so madly popular with both genders that it sold out its 1,000 copies in five weeks, and appeared in six editions by the end of the year.36 The novel had become a genderless literary genre.

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                                (1) Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. Barbara M. Benedict and Deidre Le Faye (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), 107.

                                (2) George Colman, Polly Honeycombe, A Dramatic Novel of One Act (Edinburgh, 1741), Epilogue, ll. 3–4, 12, 30.

                                (3) Quoted in Lionel Kelly (ed.), Tobias Smollett: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 208, 23.

                                (4) [Susan E. Ferrier], Marriage, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1818), Preface (n.p.). Ferrier quotes the cleric Jeremy Taylor’s translation of the extract.

                                (5) Jacqueline Pearson, Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750–1835: A Dangerous Recreation (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), 3.

                                (6) Barbara M. Benedict, ‘Sensibility by the Numbers: Austen’s Work as Regency Popular Fiction’, in Deidre Lynch (ed.), Janeites (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 72.

                                (7) Maria Edgeworth, ‘Advertisement’, Belinda, 3 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1801), 5–6. Edgeworth makes exceptions for the works of Madame de Crousz, author of Caroline of Lichfelt [sic], Elizabeth Inchbald, Frances Burney, and Dr. Moore.

                                (8) Lady [Sarah] Pennington, An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to her Absent Daughters, in a Letter to Miss Pennington (London, 1802), 61–3.

                                (9) Jan Fergus, Provincial Readers in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: OUP, 2006), 12.

                                (10) James Raven, ‘Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age’, in Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (eds.), The English Novel 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, vol. 1: 1770–1799 (Oxford: OUP, 2000), 27.

                                (11) William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 174.

                                (12) Quoted in B. C. Southam (ed.), Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul and Barnes & Noble, 1968), 8.

                                (13) Raven, ‘Historical Introduction’, in Garside et al. (eds.), English Novel 1770–1829, 1: 27; St Clair, Reading Nation, 174–5, 220.

                                (14) Laura Runge, ‘Momentary Fame: Female Novelists in Eighteenth-Century Book Reviews’, in Paula R. Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia (eds.), A Companion to the Eighteenth-Century English Novel and Culture (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 295; Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners, 2 vols. (Dublin, 1785), 1: 5.

                                (15) David Gilson, ‘Introduction to Sense and Sensibility’, in Jane Austen: Collected Articles and Introductions (Wiltshire: privately printed, 1998), 2.

                                (16) Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), 256.

                                (17) Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story, 4 vols. (London, 1791), 4: 157.

                                (18) Alan Richardson, Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780–1832 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 188–9.

                                (19) Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonomy Dobrée (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1970), 224.

                                (23) Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deidre Le Faye (new edn., Oxford: OUP, 1995), 306.

                                (24) Fergus, Provincial Readers in Eighteenth-Century England, 12–13, 36; Paul Kauffman, ‘In Defense of Fair Readers’, Review of English Literature 8/1 (1967), 69, 70.

                                (25) Alan B. Howes, ‘Introduction’, in Howes (ed.), Laurence Sterne: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul and Barnes & Noble, 1971), 15–16.

                                (27) Quoted in Devendra P. Varma, The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge (Washington, DC: Consortium Press, 1972), 106–7; John Feather, A History of British Publishing (London, New York, and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988), 97.

                                (28) Rev. Henry Kett, Emily, A Moral Tale, including Letters from a father to his Daughter upon the Most Important Subjects, 2 vols. (2nd edn., London, 1809), 1: 218–19.

                                (29) John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 178.

                                (30) Peter De Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Subject (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 253–4.

                                (32) Jane Spencer, ‘Women Writers and the Eighteenth-Century Novel’, in John Richetti (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 233.

                                (33) British Critic (August 1814), quoted in John O. Hayden (ed.), Scott: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 68.

                                (34) [Walter Scott], Waverley; or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1814), chapter 1: ‘Introductory’, 5–8.

                                (35) Barbauld, The British Novelists; with An Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical (London, 1810), 415.