Obviously, reading Jane Austen ticks the "women's history" box, but there are many other authors and titles to explore as well. Here are a few to get you started; readers are invited to share their suggestions in the comments!
Many of these authors were influential on Austen, especially in her Juvenilia, which is the topic for this year's Jane Austen Summer Program. Register today to come explore Austen's youthful writing at the Jane Austen Summer Program, June 15-18, on UNC-Chapel Hill's historic campus.
"Real solemn history":
It wasn't Catharine Morland's taste in reading, but maybe she didn't have these fascinating titles to choose from. . .
The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution by Catherine Macaulay (1763-1783). Macaulay was far more serious about her history than Austen was about her early effort, and less prone to bias (or quoting Shakespeare as a reliable historical source).
The History of Mary Prince, West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, Mary Prince (1831). An important document in the understanding of the experience of enslaved women, on the eve of abolition in Britain. Prince (1788-1833) was enslaved in the Caribbean, passed from family to family like many of the enslaved. Married to a free Black man in Antigua (yes, that Antigua, Sir Thomas), Prince traveled to England with her enslaver in 1828. She wanted to by her freedom, but her enslaver refused to let her do so. With the help of British abolitionists, she sued for her manumission. She was freed, but on such terms that she could not return to Antigua without danger of re-enslavement. After a series of court trials, it is thought she passed the rest of her life in Britain, separated from her family. Her story is among those in UNC's Documenting the American South web-resource. You might want to check out Jane Austen & Co.'s lecture by Dr. Patricia Matthew for more information about this time period.
The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England, by Amanda Vickery (1998). When Elizabeth Bennet stands up to Lady Catherine DeBurgh and claims her equality to Darcy ("He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal") what exactly did she mean? Based on details from the account books and correspondence of family networks primarily in Yorkshire and Lancashire, Vickery recreates for the reader what the life of a gentleman's daughter might have looked like. Her careful account pushes back against many assumptions about the limitations on women in the time period.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1999). Georgiana Cavendish's life was an early instance of celebrity, for better and for worse. She was painted twice each by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, placing her literally in the public eye. She campaigned for political causes though she could not vote, she gambled away fortunes, and she loved passionately. Foreman's book includes excerpts from letters that give a "behind the scenes" peek at the historical figures she's presenting. (The film The Duchess is based loosely on this biography, with Kiera Knightly playing Georgiana).
Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Isobel Grundy (1999). Lady Mary lived from 1689 to 1762, and this magisterial biography is careful to pay attention to both her aristocratic birth and upbringing and her later advocacy for medical advancements. Lady Mary lost her brother and her own beauty to small pox, and was instrumental in popularizing vaccination in Britain, making her a surprisingly timely figure. Lady Mary moved in the first circles both socially and literarily, long aspired to be a writer (like Austen, she wrote Juvenilia practicing for future endeavors), engaged in venomous poetic feuds, and commented insightfully on cultural constructions of beauty and gender during her travels in Turkey.
Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, Vincent Carretta (2014). Phillis Wheatley was abducted from her home on the west coast of Africa when she was approximately seven years old. Purchased by a family in Boston, she showed tremendous intellectual aptitude, and was taught to read and write in both English and some Latin. By the time she was twelve, her poetry was being published in local periodicals. While much of her poetry is occasional, responding to events around her, she returns to questions of faith, imagination, and the liberating power of art. Carretta, the foremost Wheatley scholar of the current period, brings together the literary and biographical in this study. You can also learn more about Wheatley courtesy of Jane Austen & Co.
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Charlotte Gordon (2016). Tragically, though mother and daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley never new one another; Wollstonecraft was present to Shelley only through her writings. This dual biography weaves together both lives through alternating chapters that foreground their groundbreaking writing (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Frankenstein, respectively) as a way to explore each woman's navigation of the social conventions of her day.
Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833, Daniel Livesay (2018). Tracing the travels of elite mixed-race children of wealthy white planters, Livesay fills in a gap in our understanding of European and American high society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Race and class intersect in powerful ways for these individuals, and jealous reactions to their wealth contributed to the evolution of racial policies.
Charlotte Lennox: An Independent Mind, Susan Carlile (2018). Charlotte Lennox was a prolific author across a variety of genres, with a life story worthy the heroine of one of her novels: born in Gibraltar, she lived in London and Albany, New York, when young, tried the stage as a young woman, helped make Shakespeare a household name, and was celebrated by no less a luminary than Samuel Johnson. Carlile's biography is the first to take into account Lennox's correspondence (released in the early 1970s), and makes a compelling case for the importance of this remarkable woman. Lennox's 1752 novel The Female Quixote remains a diverting read, not least for the influence it may have had on Northanger Abbey.
Sister Novelists, Devoney Looser (2022) Dr. Looser, a repeat speaker in the Jane Austen & Co. series, provides an engaging and insightful account of sisters Jane and Anna Maria Porter, authors who paved the way for Austen. Contemporaries of Austen, friends of Wordsworth, they were literary celebrities with twenty-six novels to their join credit. Looser brings these neglected pioneers back to the publicity they deserve. Watch the recording of her talk here, and then check out the book for more details!
The Lady’s Magazine and the Making of Literary History, Jennie Batchelor (2022). Dr. Batchelor's book has just received The Robert and Vineta Colby Scholarly book prize awarded annually by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals! Readers may remember that she spoke about this material in her recent Jane Austen & Co. appearance. In the book, Batchelor explores the history of the influential Lady's Magazine from its creation, analyzing the content, contributors, competitors, and lasting legacy of this early magazine for women. The women who wrote for and read this periodical over its run from 1770 to 1832 did more than has been previously realized to shape our literary heritage. You can also see Dr. Batchelor talking about handicrafts in her Jane Austen & Co. presentation from the "Staying at Home with Jane Austen" series.
Austen's career owed no small debt to the many female authors who preceded her, to whom she pays tribute in Northanger Abbey and her correspondence.
Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi (1741?- 1821) was a charismatic woman with a glamorous, slightly scandalous life spanning multiple countries. The young Welsh woman married a wealthy British brewer, whose fortune enabled her to play hostess and patroness to some of the leading lights of English letters. After becoming a widow, she shocked friends by eloping with an Italian music master. She published Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) about her long friendship with the celebrated author, and her diaries are now a rich source of historical information about the age. A recent biography pays attention to her Welsh heritage as well as her role in British society.
Frances Burney (1752-1840). Author of Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) , and The Wanderer (1814) which, published the same year as Mansfield Park, also features amateur theatricals and a dependent young woman. Burney's novels were highly regarded during her lifetime, and she counted even Napoleon among her fans. Austen refers to her as a "sister author" in Northanger Abbey. She is one of the most common "if you've finished re-reading all of Austen's novels, try. . ." recommendation, for good reason!
Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), familiar to Austenites as the translator of Lover's Vows (1798) Inchbald worked as an actress, playwright, translator, and author. she was a political radical, and her novels - like A Simple Story (1791) - explore challenging questions about women's education, sexual double-standards, and more.
Phillis Wheatley (c 1753-1784) was featured in our Black History Month Titles for Austen Fans blog last month, but merits a reminder. The first formerly enslaved woman to publish a volume of poetry in the soon-to-be United States, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Though this volume was published before Austen was born, Wheatley was such a celebrity that it seems plausible that Austen would have heard of her work. Wheatley's poetry was translated into French and German. Learn more about her life and influences from Dr. Joseph Rezek at Jane Austen & Co.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), is still widely read as a political philosopher for her manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She also wrote travelogues, translations, educational material for young girls, and novels. She garnered harsh criticism both for her political views and her unconventional life (one daughter out of wedlock and one just barely in), but she was an unavoidable force in the intellectual landscape of her day. She was a prolific writer, often producing her texts at a fevered pace while fleeing creditors or the violence of the French Revolution. Her Original Stories from Real Life, intended to teach young girls morals, is available to read online.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), doyenne of the white-nightgown-clad damsel in distress, wrote six novels that Catherine Morland would have considered deliciously horrid. Inchbald would have stipulated that she was trying to inspire terror rather than horror. She was a genuine literary celebrity, able to put her name on the title page of her books and to command 500 pounds for the copyright to the Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 (compared to the average of 10 pounds netted by other authors). She demonstrated that women could support themselves as authors.
A Quick Look Back:
These titles were all covered in the Black History Month Titles for Austen Fans blog, but bear repeating here:
The Woman of Colour, Anonymous (1808). A mixed-race heiress, orphaned, travels from her father's plantation Jamaica to London (after you read the book, listen to Dr. Lyndon Dominique on Jane Austen & Co.)
The Book of Night Women, Marlon James (2010). A gripping account of rage and rebellion, but also family and love set among the Jamaican sugar plantations of the late eighteenth century.
Longbourn, Jo Baker (2014). Pride and Prejudice below stairs, and so much more. check out Jane Austen & Co.'s conversation with the author, Jo Baker)
The Age of Phillis, Honore Fannon Jeffers (2020). Jeffers did decades of research, uncovering new details about the life of Phillis Wheatley, here retold in lyric, often haunting, verse.
Island Queen, Vanessa Riley (2021). Fictionalized history of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas (1756-1846), freed woman of color in the Caribbean who amassed a fortune through her entrepreneurial efforts)