Shelley DeWees declaims herself (and convincingly so) an avid devotee of Jane Austen and her select female compatriots whose writing brought lasting fame. After years comfortably ensconced in the works of this illustrious but suspiciously short list of authors, DeWees felt a nagging, an itch to discover more voices. Surely these were not the only women whose works gained purchase in Victorian Great Britain.
“Jane, Charlotte and Emily (and Anne) Bronte, George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), and Virginia Woolf are all wonderfully talented writers, and their often quite socially subversive work undoubtedly transformed the British literary tradition — that’s not up for debate, and diminishing their gifts and achievements is not what this book is about. Yet…I knew that they, along with the few select others who pop up on syllabi or have their writing adapted for a Masterpiece miniseries, formed only the tip of the iceberg. There had to have been other British women writing and publishing alongside them, and I decided to find out who they were, what they wrote about, and why their work was missing from my bookcase and from our cultural curricula.”
Shelley DeWees may well be a kindred spirit. Her thoroughly researched and captivatingly narrated work seeks to elevate the voices of women writers, much as this blog’s focus on one year of only reading women has. DeWees, however, gets much more granular, diving deep into the writings, history, and culture of women writing between 1760 and 1910 in England. In the end, DeWees selects seven authors – Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – who enjoyed great success and renown during their lifetimes, only to eventually fall into obscurity.
“What follows is not a book of literary criticism. It is a story, a collective biography, a narrative of anthropology and history. Each chapter is spent with the author as she writes, rather than looking back after the fact to judge what she created.”
DeWees’ book is a true delight, both for its honorable mission and for its eloquent execution. Through thorough research and total immersion, she breathes life into seven strong-minded, full-throated women; “[l]adies who refused to shrink calmly into the woodwork of the parlor to contemplate their bellybuttons, who spoke even when they were told not to, who claimed their right to an opinion and to have a life outside the home, as a man would”.
Her writing reanimates these women and their lost bodies of work, begging the reader to expand her repertoire and to save these, and likely innumerable others, from obscurity.
“However limited their careers, however much they were impeded, these seven women embraced the reality of their time, and in doing so they transformed Britain’s literary tradition. They all broke major barriers through their work, from shaping new genres…; to recognizing opportunities in a burgeoning periodical market that changed the way people read; to weaving plotlines and narrative structures that ploughed through class divides, revealed the true nature of women’s plight, or highlighted the unfairness of the status quo.”
“Not Just Jane” was a fun- and fact-filled exploration, an academic work with a populist delivery. Shelley DeWees’ work itself is critically important, reminding all of us to expand our boundaries, to open up our arms and our minds to more and more voices. Hers is a call I gratefully heed and a mission that resonates perfectly with my own. Such a bibliophilic treat!
Many thanks to HarperPerennial for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
“Not Just Jane” will be published in the US on October 25, 2016.