Debut author DeWees brings back to life seven Victorian women writers with the hope of proving them worthy of shelf space alongside Austen and the Brontës.
The British women of this book lived from the mid-1700s to the late 1800s, a time when society expected them to find husbands and not do much else. But these were no ordinary women; all had "broad disregard for convention…an unabashed sense of self-worth.” Some wrote because their situations forced them to, after bad marriages left them unsupported (Charlotte Turner Smith). Others did it because they were compelled by their beliefs, whether political or personal, in protest against the negative connotations of "spinsterhood.” Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote in search of a successful career and, despite the rage of critics, made a fortune. Catherine Crowe penned one of the first detective novels complete with a “resourceful, industrious, lionhearted” female lead. Sara Coleridge wrote Phantasmion, considered by some as the first fairy-tale novel in English. What DeWees does best is reveal the interesting lives and strong characters of these oft-forgotten writers, proving to readers that there were many more successful Victorian women writers than the handful that populate syllabi. The most memorable chapters belong to Mary Robinson, who left a loveless marriage to become a commanding actress and mistress to the Prince of Wales, using her fame to become a definitive cultural voice of her time, and to Coleridge, whose gripping story reveals a constant struggle against the binding duties of motherhood and marriage. Virginia Woolf summed up Coleridge’s tragedy well: “She meant to write her life. But she was interrupted.” While some chapters blend together and the accomplishments become indistinguishable, this book succeeds at making readers aware of the gaps in our knowledge of British literature. Read this not as serious literary criticism but as an appreciation of writers who deserve to be remembered.
If DeWees’ goal is to encourage “a bookshelf full of new titles,” she succeeds in planting the seed that there are many treasures out there waiting for a second chance.