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The strange phenomenon of eminent lady novelists

When it comes to the writing of novels, women have from the outset been able to go toe to toe with their male counterparts, producing from their ranks genuine literary heavyweights whose work is deservedly held in the highest regard. At least, this is true of those writing in English — my own knowledge does not extend much beyond that.

Some will no doubt be bristling already over what on the face of it is an extremely patronising assertion. Why, after all, should it be considered remarkable that women, no less than men, have recorded significant achievements in the novelistic field? My response would be that, like it or not, the record shows that the feminine ability in novel writing would not seem to be reflected in other mainstream fields of artistic creativity. This really begs the question why the novel-writing field should be an exception at all.

Unlike poetry, which has been around for millennia, novels — that is, fictional prose narratives — are a comparatively recent phenomenon, with the first important English works essentially only beginning to appear from the early 18th century onwards. The first female giant, Jane Austin, began writing towards the end of that century, although her first published works only appeared a decade or so later. How Austin’s stock has risen since her death is a remarkable story in itself. Certainly, she was already well-respected and reasonably popular in her own day, but since her death her reputation has increased exponentially to the point that she is regarded as being amongst the very foremost of English language novelists. (As a devoted Janeite, how much I would enjoy being able to go back in time and tell her this — relative fame came so late to her, and premature death so cruelly early).

Following Jane Austin came a slew of formidable women prose writers. There were the Bronte sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne. All three were major talents who in lives cut even shorter than Austin managed to produce such enduring masterpieces as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So far as Wuthering Heights goes, it is little less than a literary miracle that the spinster daughter of a mid-Victorian clergyman should have produced a work of such haunting power and unparalleled originality.

George Eliot — the famous pen-name of Mary Anne Evans — lived longer, and left as considerable a legacy. Her Middlemarch in particular is regarded by many as the single greatest English novel, and I may well share that view. The sheer sweep of Eliot’s vision of society, the depths of her insight into the human psyche and the power of her intellectual observations in this work are quite breathtaking.

Nineteenth century giants like Dickens, Hardy, Conrad and Thackeray have their feminine counterparts in Austen, the Brontes, Eliot and Gaskell. In the 20th century, Dorothy Parker, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch are hardly eclipsed even by such formidable talents as F Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Graeme Greene.

I could go on purple prosing the big names, but there would be no point in this since it is hardly contested territory. No-one will deny that there have been and still are many great woman novelists. What really intrigues me is why this should be the case at all, since generally speaking the ranks of the really great creative artists are overwhelmingly male dominated.

Looking through lists of those generally considered to be amongst the “best ever” in the fields of painting, sculpture, playwriting and perhaps especially musical composition (you will not, for example, find a single female composer amongst any standard “top fifty” roll of significant composers) reveals strikingly few female exponents. Women have fared a little better in the poetry field, but even there their presence is decidedly thin. You will search high and low to find the feminine equivalents of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart, Rembrandt or Dante and come up empty handed. Why this is so is another discussion altogether. It is the evident exception of the field of novel writing, where women have triumphantly succeeded in holding their own, that I have often pondered over.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.