Literary Mystery: Why No 19th Century Blockbuster American Women?


Young Girl Ironing - Boston Museum Fine Arts
Young Girl Ironing - Boston Museum Fine Arts

From the Guardian:

“Did housework really prevent a George Eliot or Emily Brontë emerging in 19th-century America?”


A very interesting question. Where were the great American women novelists in the 19th century? They can’t say they were busy ironing because Charlotte Bronte ironed AND dashed off Jane Eyre –  


“Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of the Brontës. In 1839 Charlotte wrote wearily to an old schoolfriend, “I manage the ironing, and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking, and attends to the kitchen.” True, there was an elderly female servant, Tabby Ackroyd, who had been at the parsonage for years, but her increasing frailty made her more of a hindrance than a help.”

I think American women were more devoted to writing poetry. Much of the published poetry was of the Helen Hunt Jackson variety :






What freeman knoweth freedom? Never he 

Whose father’s father through long lives have reigned 

O’er kingdoms which mere heritage attained. 

Though from his youth to age he roam as free 

As winds, he dreams not freedom’s ecstacy. 

But he whose birth was in a nation chained 

For centuries; where every breath was drained 

From breasts of slaves which knew not there could be 

Such thing as freedom,–he beholds the light 

Burst, dazzling; though the glory blind his sight 

He knows the joy. Fools laugh because he reels 

And weilds confusedly his infant will; 

The wise man watching with a heart that feels 

Says: “Cure for freedom’s harms is freedom still.” 


(HMMMMMMM….well – not my cup of tea)



Helen also wrote books – so American women were writing, just not writing the 19th century equivalent of the blockbuster. Helen wrote “Ramona” a book about Native American rights – pretty ground breaking, but not nearly as famous as the Brontes or Eliot or Helen’s contemporary – Emily Dickinson who like Helen, came from Amherst, Massachusetts. She was, however, well received during her time by the likes of Thomas Wentworth Higgins who chose to publish her poetry in The Atlantic over Emily’s. At the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Helen the greatest American woman poet. 


I suppose Ramona just doesn’t have the staying power of the Brontes or Middlemarch. It is free on line, try it and see what you think…

4 thoughts on “Literary Mystery: Why No 19th Century Blockbuster American Women?

  1. Hi Dorothy Jane, Daddy from JOM visiting again.

    Interesting topic. I have come across what I consider the opposite situation when considering Japanese Literature. The Japanese written language came across about 600 AD from China via I think Korea. Anyhow, The Japanese adapt it, but for the next 400 years basically use it to do official kinds of Government records stuff. Apparently it was considered unfitting or grossly inappropriate for males to engage in writing Literature that was not of that serious slant. Thus, according to Will and Ariel Durant, in their great first volume (Our Oriental Heritage), they explain how the greatest writer of Japanese literature wound up being a Kyoto Courtside Lady who was not subject to such role-required writing restraints. She churned out over 4,000 pages of The Tale Of Gengi to a literate, educated Kyoto audience that went nuts over the stuff. She started it in the 1,000’s, and this first Novel in Japanese and possibly world history swept the country and became their first really popular loved literature in Japan. According to Durant and a quick Wiki search, she is still the pinnacle to which Japanese writers aspire. The second most popular author in Japan is also an authoress, a second Kyoto Court Lady, near enough in time to have known the Lady Murasaki, the Genji author. I believe Durant considered her book, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, as the number 2. As for when boys finally started trying their hand at the popular genre in Japan I do not know, but I thought you might enjoy knowing it was girls that were the Shakespeare’s and Jane Austin’s dragging the Samurai’s of Medieval Japan into popular literature.
    I do have to admit though that I’ve never read any of The Tale of Genji. I enjoy stopping by. Congrats to your daughter at graduation.

    1. What a nice comment. I really did not know anything about the Japanese Authoress and I appreciate you telling me about her. I do have a vague interest in Japan. My great grandfather traveled to Japan in the early part of the 20th century to bring back oriental artifacts to the Chicago League Club, he worked there in purchasing, I think. Anyway, I have some lovely kimonos and vases and a beautiful set of Japanese dolls asa result of his trip. I have also read the book ‘The Great Wave” by Christopher Benfey, which tells the story about the opening of Japan to the west. Very fascinating.

      I am about the embark on the Beagle Letters – thanks for the tip.

  2. Good luck Dorothy Jane, Really hope you do enjoy The Beagle Letter’s. If it gets tedious, just do the ones between himself and his sisters. Don’t know if you know much about the Beagle Voyage, but if you don’t, allow me to suggest (as a very easy but enjoyable intro, with wonderful pictures), Alan Morehead’s “Darwin and the Beagle.” It’s a very enjoyable retelling of the voyage, highlighting the high points, and doing a fine job painting the personalities on board ship that are referred to in many of the letters. Just a suggestion so that you don’t hit the letters unprepared. And last but always not least. Please feel no pressure whatever to read The Letter’s on my account. I hate being recommended a book and feeling pressured to have to read it…so if that was a burden, consider it lifted from your shoulders. I like to think Jane Austen would admire me for stating that civility:)

    PS Arrived here today not via JOM, but via clicking on a comment by Jane on a post I think discussing CNN’s ratings collapse. Nice to see you around the web.

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