Literature has witnessed the portrayal of women differ drastically throughout the ages, however, the prominence of male authors in addition to the suppressive atmosphere that hung in society for many early centuries, have left portrayals undoubtedly biased. Women’s position in society has changed from the 19th century moving through to the current 21st, and although feminism is still fighting for some of the same equal rights to men, the astronomical change is well represented in the ability of female writers and their strong and quite often witty female protagonists. I will be looking at how female characters and authors have been presented in their literary works, observed in the study of three set works; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Am I Normal Yet? By Holly Bourne. Each has been chosen throughout different century’s from the 19th century to the 21st. ==================================================================In the 18th century, few educated women were allowed to pen their own novels, often for pleasure and passing time but the rise of Aphra Brenn (1640-89) – the first woman to make a living from her writing, opened the doors to the most famous female writers in literary history. Jane Austen, of course, being one of those that shaped 19th-century literature and further, Virgina Woolf who opened the way to modernism in the 20th century and the reinvention of the novel.
It is quite possible that without the work of these women so far back in our history that today, we would not have the pioneering female authors such as Holly Bourne who discusses feminism, women’s place and the stigma of women’s mental health in our society or J.K.Rowling, possibly one of the most famous authors of modern times. Jane Austen was born 16 December 1775 in Hampshire England and was the 7th child in her well-respected family. Her father was an Oxford-educated rector in a nearby parish and the children grew up with an educational environment that had a heavy emphasis on reading and creative thinking, being encouraged to read from a young age as well as writing and putting on plays. Over this time Jane became very close to her father. Jane and her sister were sent away to receive a formal education at boarding schools but both contracted Typhus and, with Jane nearly dying of the illness, Jane and her sister Cassandra were sent home to live with the family.
Since a young age encouraged to do so by her family, Jane wrote in small bound books and began to write her own novels in the 1790’s, one of the first being a parody of romance in the form of love letters that would later form her style of writing in her published novels. Jane spent most of her young life at home helping with the family, playing the piano, going to church and socializing with neighbours as well as becoming an accomplished dancer. Other evenings were spent reading to her family either books from her father’s collection or her own works as she continued to write and develop her style in bigger works than Love and Friendship – her romance novel. Jane also began her drafts of her major works around this time as well. In 1800, Jane, Cassandra and their parents moved to Bath where Jane’s father would die four years later. Jane was now in her 30’s and unmarried as she began to publish her books sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma under a false name. In 1816 at age 41, Jane was diagnosed with what is thought to be Addison’s disease and after many efforts to continue life as normal by editing and writing novels that would go on the be published after her death, she succumbed to the illness to the point she had to give up writing until in July 1817 she passed away in Winchester, England. It was not until after her death that her brother Henry revealed Jane’s true identity as the true author – she is now considered one of England’s greatest writers.
For women in the 18th century, there was very little opportunity to be an individual due to the dominance of males. Many jobs required hard manual labour so it was left to men, and housework was very time-consuming, therefore, most married women worked outside of the home due to the demand for cleaning, cooking and hosting. Middle-class women were placed in charge of the servants who completed these tasks so had little time either. Single women, however, may have had many jobs such as the job as a domestic servant, spinners, washerwomen or tailoresses, others may be midwives of milkmaids. For Jane Austen, her money was mainly gifted to her, rather than the small revenue from her books, as it was inappropriate as a single gentlewoman to work.
Well off women, much like the younger Austen, were talented, enjoying a range of musical instruments and reading as well as dancing with one another and at regular balls and enjoying theatre and dramas. Growing up, Jane had the perfect manner of a young, well-off woman in the 18th century, however, her desire to marry for love over a social position left her eventually much worse off. These struggles of Austen can be seen in her novel Pride and Prejudice as the young Miss Elizabeth Bennet struggles in her female-dominated family that seem obsessed with the wealth of potential bachelors. Liz Bennet, however, is seen to concern herself with only the wish for love and not to be married off for convenience.
Austen uses her novel to very much criticize the injustice of the gender expectations in late 19th century England and is a commentary on feminist social lives. The demonstrations that marriage for money prospers over marriage for love seems key throughout, much like it would have been at the time, however, Austen’s criticism of it works to reflect her distaste for the notion. It is clear that Austen perceives women to be just as witty and intelligent as men, as represented by each of the Bennet daughters, and therefore argues that the need for women to marry into money to maintain their position as they are unable to inherit, proves the system unjust. Austen may also be seen to be taking a jibe at the women of her tie through the quote; ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in need of a wife’. It is again a confirmation for the want and need to be married for financial security but also to exhibit that women have resulted in looking at all wealthy bachelors as a chance to maintain their lifestyle, it disguises the truth of the women being the ones desperate for marriage when they know it is their only chance to be recognized. ————————————————————————————————————————Virginia Woolf was a journalist and author born on January 25th, 1882 as Adeline Virginia Stephen to a privileged household in London, England to supportive and accomplished parents, historian and author Sir Leslie Stephen and Nurse, author and art model Julia Prinsep Jackson. Virginia and her sisters received education at home with the families extensive library while her brothers were sent to Oxford. As a young girl, Virginia was light-hearted and curious however after the sudden death of her mother from illness and her half-sister, who had become head of the household two years later lead to her first mental breakdown.
Woolf continued her studies at the Ladies department of King’s College London and her years of study introduced her to radical feminists. In 1904, her father died, leading to her being institutionalized for a brief period of her life. In 1905, she began writing professionally for the Times Literary Supplement. Virginia moved to Bloomsbury where she met several members of the Bloomsbury group including E.M.
Forster. The group became famous in 1920 for the Dreadnought Hoax and after the act, Virginia and Leonard Woolf fell in love and were married in August 1912. Several years before marriage, Virginia had been working on her first novel, The Voyage Out which was published in 1915. Two years later, the Woolfs bought a printing press they named Hogarth House and kept it in their home, publishing their own works as well as some of the works of Katherine Mansfield and T.S. Elliot. After the first world war, Virginia met Vita Sackville-West after moving to the village Rodmell – the friendship developed into a short romantic affair, however, the two remained friends for life. In 1925, she received rave reviews for Mrs Dalloway, her fourth novel and in 1929, Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, a feminist essay based on lectures she had given at women’s colleges, where she examined women’s role in literature.
Virginia had been working on her final work in her depression, observed by her husband who watched her descent into further mental health issues. The two had planned to commit suicide together if England was ever invaded by the Germans. In 1940, their home was destroyed in bombings and, filled with despair, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse on March 28, 1941.The first world war had broadened horizons for women. They had been working in factories and paid a wage, giving them a sense of independence and women over 30 had been given the vote in 1918. Woolf was able to join literary groups and wasn’t as confined to the house as Austen, allowed to fall in love (as Austen had dreamed) and marry who she wished as well as being able to print her own novels in her own home with the help of her husband when no one else would print her radical ideas. Women became more confident with shorter hair and dresses, smoking, l drinking and driving – recklessness was in the form of a ‘flapper’. For married women, life was very similar, especially for middle classes who kept maids.
Even still, Clarissa Dalloway’s case, she still has an unusual independence as a married women. She still runs a household with a maid but is adamant on venturing to town an the shops herself and fixing her own dress. This signifies a change in the lives of women after the first world war Both of Clarissa’s relationships with men (Peter and Richard) help to demonstrate how a women existed in society in comparison to men.
Both men viewed Clarissa as a stereotypical woman of the time, inferior and insignificant. Peter never bothered to understand Clarissa or get to know her and instead found his interests rooted deeply in affairs of the world: ‘It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul.’ In addition, there was the sarcastic and stereotyping comments that Clarissa would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase as if on display as a possession to appear pretty and display wealth. Clarissa felt such comments were hurtful and demeaning.
Her husband Richard with his strong political views and masculine similarities to Peter also views Clarissa as a ‘hostess’ and a typical 1920’s wife. Despite this, even through Clarissa’s want for love, her need for independence overshadowed this, as shown in her obsession with her virginity and her mental preservation. We see Clarissa’s real sexual deviation as the kiss with Sally Seton appears to be her most arousing and awakening moment; ‘Sally it was who made her feel, for the first time … she knew nothing of sex – nothing about social problems’.
Additionally, the dissipation of any carefree sexual desires from her youth now she is married and with a daughter. We gather the impression that Clarissa feels a virgin again now that she sleeps alone in the attic room – this also works to highlight the disfunctuality of her married relationship and the complete segregation Clarissa’s need for independence has brought upon what should have been a conventional marriage. The marriage is also seen to take away from her identity; ‘she has the oddest sense of being herself invisible … not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway’ (1.
18) Virginia Woolf insisted on the importance of women’s friendship against these patriarchal structures as shown in Clarissa’s love for Salley Saton who is portrayed as an anti-patriarchal woman, often speaking her mind openly with no regard for the social order or correctness of her actions. Sally became Clarissa’s inspiration to think beyond the confines of womanhood leading to the taboo relationship with Sally that worked to contrast the relationships with Peter and Richard. This kind of relationship could be read as a reaction against patriarchy and therefore a rebellion against the tight constraints placed against them as females. Both women were separated and were forced to ignore their wants because the only accepted female identity was the one that was shaped by the patriarchy, not one of any equal right or acceptance.
————————————————————————————————————————Holly Bourne is a Young Adult author and a blogger about feminist issues, especially on topics such as the stigma of mental health and women’s rights. The manifesto on How to be Interesting has been critically acclaimed and translated into six languages and the first book in her ‘Normal’ series – Am I Normal Yet? has inspired the formations of ‘spinsters clubs’ around the country, encouraging groups to meet to discuss topical issues and campaign for what readers believe in. Bourne has also complied discussion points for her fans meetings, often prompting partakers to questions themselves and the representation of women in literature and film and online. Bourne uses all of her books to call out sexism and before becoming a full-time author, Holly was editor of TheSite.org – a charity-run advice and information website for young people.
21st-century women still have many responsibilities and duties however they are their own. They are no longer housewives and have a much better way of life being able to vote at any age over 18, the same as men as well as having a place in politics. They now also have career choices, being able to leave the house and pursue careers, and are more independent – not needing a marriage unless they want one and hold a choice of whether or not to have children and still having independence after these, not being controlled by a husband or tied down to looking after children.
They also have access to education, opening their horizons even further than previous female authors would have been able to. “The Spinster Club” – working towards gender equalityEvie, Amber and Lottie start a “Spinster Club”, and in the club’s meetings the three of them discuss a variety of things related to gender equality. Their conversations are very insightful, perhaps exceptionally insightful given their age. Their thoughts and experiences about boys’ expectations of girls and how girls should behave are shrewd and to a large extent recognisable, but the novel’s view of teenage boys is perhaps too narrow, as many boys are much more capable of respecting their partner’s’ feelings and wishes than the boys in the novel. Also, the novel has a very heterosexual take on relationships and gender equality, Nonetheless, Evie and her friends’ discussions on gender and relationships are very perceptive and thought provoking, which makes the novel a fresh deviation from books about simple teenage romantic drama, and the novel’s insightfulness and wit make it suitable for both teens and adults. Bourne’s ideology of girls and young people realising societies issues when it comes to equality are addressed clearly in her novel Am I Normal Yet?.
The three teenage girls are very perceptive and aware of the world around them – especially on the subject of how messed up the perception of women and girls still is in the 21st century. Addressing the way then boys in modern society view women and their expectations clearly highlights the serious deep rooted issues that still exist, although not as bad, even after all these years.