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Thursday, 13 September 2018

What do you know about the great four novelists of the 19th century from Virginia Woolf's essay "Women and Fiction"?

19th century is a landmark in the history of literature as women, after a long lull in this arena, because of innumerable slight changes in law and customs began to write. The century observed the rise of  great  four Female novelists--- Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot.These great four novelists by virtue of their great talents and artistic genius not only enriched the store of literature with unforgettable masterpieces but paved the way for establishing women's position in literature.
great four female novelist

"Law and custom were of course largely. responsible for these strange intermissions of silence and speech." Woolf makes an historical analysis of the position of women writers of the past. She traces the tremendous inception of writings by women in the 19th century inherently in the society. Thus the extraordinary outburst of fiction was heralded by innumerable slight changes in law and customs and manners. Because women of the 19th century had leisure; because they had education and more importantly because they enjoyed some extent of liberty, they started producing works of art. Thus the essayist writes: "Thus it is clear that the extraordinary outburst of fiction in the beginning of the nineteenth century in England was heralded by innumerable slight changes in law and customs and manners.And women of the nineteenth century had some leisure; they had some education. It was no longer the exception for women of the middle and upper classes to choose their own husbands.And it is significant that of the four great women novelists- Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot-not one had a child, and two were unmarried." 

19th century is an age of women novelists. In this century 'innurnerable slight changes in law and custorms' brought about radical change in the total scenario of the society. Women were no more persecuted as they were before; women of the 19th century had some leisure; they were given education and they even practised the liberty of choosing their own husbands. Because women of the 19th century had some money, leisure and education they started to write. Even it is significant to note that of the four novelists--- Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte,and George Eliot-all were childless and two remained ever spinsters. As they were not burdened with family, they had time to write.

It is remarkable to note that all these great female writers of the 19th century produced novels only and never concentrated on other forms of art.Woolf also answers this questions why they only created novels, not poetry or play.To Woolf, fiction is the least concentrated form of art.Thus fiction requires least attention form a writer than poetry or drama does.A novel can be taken up or put down more easily than a play or a poem.The great four women novelists that Woolf mentions in the essay were frequently interrupted by other tasks during the time they sat to write.The writer writes: "Fiction was, as fiction still is, the easiest thing for a woman to write. Nor is it difficult to find the reason. A novel is the least concentrated form of art. A novel can be taken up or put down more easily than a play or a poem. George Eliot left her work to nurse her father. Charlotte Bronte put down her pen to pick the eyes out of the potatoes. And living as she did in the common sitting- room, surrounded by people, a woman was trained to use her mind in observation and upon the analysis of character. She was trained to be a novelist and not to be a poet".

Even in the 19th century women had to live within the household territory.They had not the fortune to view with their owm eyes the outward world.This limited range of their experience greatly influenced their writings.The writer observes in this regard - "And those nineteenth-century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience."


The great four novelists had no outdoor activities. Because they belonged to the weaker sex and lived in a male dominated society they had not the fortune to gather diversified experiences as Conrad or Tolstoy did. In this respect, these four great novelists of the 19th century stand under the same platform ---  "And those nineteenth- century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience." Even their emotional life was also regulated by law and custom, which had worst possible effect on their writings.

Woolf in the essay also points out how the position of the women writers and the way they were maltreated had negative impact on their writings.There writings were definitely affected by the narrow range of their experience.But what is more interesting to note is that their resentment against the injustice done to women also affected the works they produced.They were always lured to the propensity of making a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent

or grievance. Woolf says that this has distorted their works made them flawed. She assesses these novels in the following words: "But the novels of women were not affected only by the necessarily narrow range of the writer's experience. They showed, at least in the nineteenth century, another characteristic which may be traced to the writer's sex. In Middlemarch and in Jane Eyre we are conscious not merely of the writers character, as we are conscious of the character of Charles Dickens, but we are conscious of a woman's presence - of someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights... It introduces a distortion and is frequently the cause of weakness. The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader's attention is directed were suddenly two-fold instead of single." 

Thus the bitterness and oppression that the women underwent during their lifetime in the 19th century made them bitter in their attitude in their writings. They were often lured to present the oppression and injustice that they suffered in a male dominated society. It was only because of their surroundings and the way they were treated made them novelists. It would a mistake to say that they all were alike in all respects; in fact, they had tremendous diversity among themselves. What Woolf points out in the essay is that despite their diversity and creative genius they concentrated or, to be more precise, they had the opportunity to concentrate on fiction only. In this regard Woolf's comment is remarkable -"No four women can have been more unlike in genius and character than these four. Jane Austen can have had nothing in common with George Eliot; George Eliot was the direct opposite of Emily Bronte. Yet all were trained for the same profession; all, when they wrote, wrote novels."


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