18 October 2016

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees

Summary from Goodreads:
Jane Austen and the Brontës endure as British literature’s leading ladies (and for good reason)—but were these reclusive parsons’ daughters really the only writing women of their day? A feminist history of literary Britain, this witty, fascinating nonfiction debut explores the extraordinary lives and work of seven long-forgotten authoresses, and asks: Why did their considerable fame and influence, and a vibrant culture of female creativity, fade away? And what are we missing because of it?

You’ve likely read at least one Jane Austen novel (or at least seen a film one). Chances are you’ve also read Jane Eyre; if you were an exceptionally moody teenager, you might have even read Wuthering Heights. English majors might add George Eliot or Virginia Woolf to this list…but then the trail ends. Were there truly so few women writing anything of note during late 18th and 19th century Britain?

In Not Just Jane, Shelley DeWees weaves history, biography, and critical analysis into a rip-roaring narrative of the nation’s fabulous, yet mostly forgotten, female literary heritage. As the country, and women’s roles within it, evolved, so did the publishing industry, driving legions of ladies to pick up their pens and hit the parchment. Focusing on the creative contributions and personal stories of seven astonishing women, among them pioneers of detective fiction and the modern fantasy novel, DeWees assembles a riveting, intimate, and ruthlessly unromanticized portrait of female life—and the literary landscape—during this era. In doing so, she comes closer to understanding how a society could forget so many of these women, who all enjoyed success, critical acclaim, and a fair amount of notoriety during their time, and realizes why, now more than ever, it’s vital that we remember.

Rediscover Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Let me tell you how nice the HarperPerennial team is - I spied a bright, pink spine with the words "Not Just Jane" written on it in an Instagram photo of their fall sales conference, asked about it, and they offered to send me a copy.  What sweethearts.  Or they just didn't want me to hold their interns hostage or whatever.  Hahaha.

But seriously.

One day Shelley DeWees surveyed her bookshelves and wondered why Jane Austen and the Brontës,  were the only women writers from nineteenth-century England anyone seems to know about (you can throw George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) and Virginia Woolf in there as part of the literature "canon" of undergraduate education).  She started poking around and found a host of women writers - some of them best-selling - who took advantage of changing culture and economics to support themselves with writing careers.  After doing her research, DeWees narrowed her focus to just seven women writing between 1800 and 1900: Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  These seven women came from middle-class backgrounds, had reasonably good educations (for what could be expected at the time), and most turned to writing to support themselves and their families in an era when women began to claim jobs and legal status.  Not Just Jane is the resulting book.

Now, if your eyeballs roll at the very idea of "literary biography" let me assure you that Not Just Jane is very interesting and very readable.  DeWees goes out of her way to present contemporary criticism about these seven women, ranging from critical thoughts on their work to knee-jerk reactionism about lady scribblers. [These reactions boil down to "Omg, the ladeez they are writing THINGS and people are READING THEM because IMPROVED ACCESS and won't someone think of the children!" Victorians can hand-wring with the best of them.  Isn't it frustrating amusing how history repeats itself?]  Changes in the publishing industry - like the repeals of taxes on knowledge that decreased the costs of printing and increased circulation and access - allowed these women and many others like them to become prolific and popular authors.  We need to revisit these women and bring them back into view.  Even though I am well-read in Regency and Victorian literature, I had really only heard of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, probably the best known of the seven, although I haven't yet read her (most popular work: Lady Audley's Secret).

I do wish that Not Just Jane had been longer. I would have read a book three times as long to cover more years and more writers (DeWees's reasons for setting her boundaries leave out eighteenth-century writers who influenced Jane Austen like Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliff).  However, I am not the average book buyer and I understand the decisions made in making this as accessible a book as possible.  (I made it one of my handsells at the store so I can try and make everyone buy it.)  But Shelley, if you write that longer book, call me - I will read it!

Not Just Jane is out October 25, 2016 from HarperPerennial - which is next Tuesday, so tell your bookseller you want a copy.

If you want a chuckle, search #notjustjane on Instagram and you'll see a few 'grams (or if you're a Litten, I posted some there, too) with my annotations/notes (in which I try to be amusing).  I'm @balletbookworm both places.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC from the publisher waaaay back in April (thanks for the ARC, Olive!).

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