Women Made Up 31% Of Top Novelists Ever In A Man Of Letters` 1898 List
November 13, 2013, 01:51 PM
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Mary Shelley, authoress of FRANKENSTEIN

At the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Caines reproduces a list drawn up in 1898 by a prominent man of letters named Clement K. Shorter of the 100 best novels of all time.

"He doesn`t explain what exactly makes a book one of the "best", only that he has deliberately limited himself to one novel per novelist. Living authors are excluded ..."

The list is biased toward the British Isles, tending to overlook American books (such as Moby-Dick and The Red Badge of Courage), but has a smattering of Continental novels. 

And of course women writers were totally ignored in 1898. Back then, women were kept illiterate and chained to the stove so no women could read novels, much less write them. And if they did, no male critic would praise them.

Oh, wait, that`s not true. 

At all. 

In fact, 31% of this Victorian gentleman`s choices of the 100 best novelists no longer living are female. Here`s Mr. Shorter`s list, with female novelists in pink:

1. Don Quixote - 1604 - Miguel de Cervantes
2. The Holy War - 1682 - John Bunyan
3. Gil Blas - 1715 - Alain René le Sage
4. Robinson Crusoe - 1719 - Daniel Defoe
5. Gulliver`s Travels - 1726 - Jonathan Swift
6. Roderick Random - 1748 - Tobias Smollett
7. Clarissa - 1749 - Samuel Richardson
8. Tom Jones - 1749 - Henry Fielding
9. Candide - 1756 - Françoise de Voltaire
10. Rasselas - 1759 - Samuel Johnson
11. The Castle of Otranto - 1764 - Horace Walpole
12. The Vicar of Wakefield - 1766 - Oliver Goldsmith
13. The Old English Baron - 1777 - Clara Reeve
14. Evelina - 1778 - Fanny Burney
15. Vathek - 1787 - William Beckford
16. The Mysteries of Udolpho - 1794 - Ann Radcliffe
17. Caleb Williams - 1794 - William Godwin
18. The Wild Irish Girl - 1806 - Lady Morgan
19. Corinne - 1810 - Madame de Stael
20. The Scottish Chiefs - 1810 - Jane Porter
21. The Absentee - 1812 - Maria Edgeworth
22. Pride and Prejudice - 1813 - Jane Austen

23. Headlong Hall - 1816 - Thomas Love Peacock
24. Frankenstein - 1818 - Mary Shelley
25. Marriage - 1818 - Susan Ferrier

26. The Ayrshire Legatees - 1820 - John Galt
27. Valerius - 1821 - John Gibson Lockhart
28. Wilhelm Meister - 1821 - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
29. Kenilworth - 1821 - Sir Walter Scott
30. Bracebridge Hall - 1822 - Washington Irving
31. The Epicurean - 1822 - Thomas Moore
32. The Adventures of Hajji Baba - 1824 - James Morier
33. The Betrothed - 1825 - Alessandro Manzoni
34. Lichtenstein - 1826 - Wilhelm Hauff
35. The Last of the Mohicans - 1826 - Fenimore Cooper
36. The Collegians - 1828 - Gerald Griffin
37. The Autobiography of Mansie Wauch - 1828 - David M. Moir
38. Richelieu - 1829 - G. P. R. James
39. Tom Cringle`s Log - 1833 - Michael Scott
40. Mr. Midshipman Easy - 1834 - Frederick Marryat
41. Le Père Goriot - 1835 - Honoré de Balzac
42. Rory O`More - 1836 - Samuel Lover
43. Jack Brag - 1837 - Theodore Hook
44. Fardorougha the Miser - 1839 - William Carleton
45. Valentine Vox - 1840 - Henry Cockton
46. Old St. Paul`s - 1841 - Harrison Ainsworth
47. Ten Thousand a Year - 1841 - Samuel Warren ("immensely successful")
48. Susan Hopley - 1841 - Catherine Crowe 
49. Charles O`Malley - 1841 - Charles Lever
50. The Last of the Barons - 1843 - Bulwer Lytton
51. Consuelo - 1844 - George Sand
52. Amy Herbert - 1844 - Elizabeth Sewell

53. Adventures of Mr. Ledbury - 1844 - Elizabeth Sewell [sic, actually by Albert Smith]
54. Sybil - 1845 - Lord Beaconsfield (a. k. a. Benjamin Disraeli)
55. The Three Musketeers - 1845 - Alexandre Dumas
56. The Wandering Jew - 1845 - Eugène Sue
57. Emilia Wyndham - 1846 - Anne Marsh
58. The Romance of War - 1846 - James Grant
59. Vanity Fair - 1847 - W. M. Thackeray
60. Jane Eyre - 1847 - Charlotte Brontë
61. Wuthering Heights - 1847 - Emily Brontë
62. The Vale of Cedars - 1848 - Grace Aguilar

63. David Copperfield - 1849 - Charles Dickens
64. The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell - 1850 - Anne Manning
65. The Scarlet Letter - 1850 - Nathaniel Hawthorne
66. Frank Fairleigh - 1850 - Francis Smedley
67. Uncle Tom`s Cabin - 1851 - H. B. Stowe
68. The Wide Wide World - 1851 - Susan Warner (Elizabeth Wetherell)
69. Nathalie - 1851 - Julia Kavanagh
70. Ruth - 1853 - Elizabeth Gaskell
71. The Lamplighter - 1854 - Maria Susanna Cummins

72. Dr. Antonio - 1855 - Giovanni Ruffini
73. Westward Ho! - 1855 - Charles Kingsley
74. Debit and Credit (Soll und Haben) - 1855 - Gustav Freytag
75. Tom Brown`s School-Days - 1856 - Thomas Hughes
76. Barchester Towers - 1857 - Anthony Trollope
77. John Halifax, Gentleman - 1857 - Dinah Mulock (a. k. a. Dinah Craik)
78. Ekkehard - 1857 - Viktor von Scheffel
79. Elsie Venner - 1859 - O. W. Holmes
80. The Woman in White - 1860 - Wilkie Collins
81. The Cloister and the Hearth - 1861 - Charles Reade
82. Ravenshoe - 1861 - Henry Kingsley
83. Fathers and Sons - 1861 - Ivan Turgenieff
84. Silas Marner - 1861 - George Eliot
85. Les Misérables - 1862 - Victor Hugo
86. Salammbô - 1862 - Gustave Flaubert
87. Salem Chapel - 1862 - Margaret Oliphant
88. The Channings - 1862 - Ellen Wood (a. k. a. Mrs Henry Wood)
89. Lost and Saved - 1863 - The Hon. Mrs. Norton
90. The Schönberg-Cotta Family - 1863 - Elizabeth Charles

91. Uncle Silas - 1864 - Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
92. Barbara`s History - 1864 - Amelia B. Edwards 
93. Sweet Anne Page - 1868 - Mortimer Collins
94. Crime and Punishment - 1868 - Feodor Dostoieffsky
95. Fromont Junior - 1874 - Alphonse Daudet
96. Marmorne - 1877 - P. G. Hamerton ("written under the pseudonym Adolphus Segrave")
97. Black but Comely - 1879 - G. J. Whyte-Melville
98. The Master of Ballantrae - 1889 - R. L. Stevenson
99. Reuben Sachs - 1889 - Amy Levy
100. News from Nowhere - 1891 - William Morris

My potted history of the novel would roughly be that what are now recognized in hindsight as early novels tend to be somewhat isolated tour d`forces by male pioneers like Cervantes and Defoe. It wasn`t clear before the second half of the 18th century if the novel was a permanent type of writing. 

But, in the 1740s Samuel Richardson discovered with Pamela and Clarissa that there was a large market for books about women, and presumably read heavily by women, and from then on the novel was definitely a thing. Fairly quickly, women novelists emerged and earned a sizable share of the commercial market by the 1770s.

In general, female novelists tended to be less stylistically innovative or ambitious, and got less critical respect. Dr. Johnson, for example, would grump to Boswell about how much money Mrs. Burney was making, but also confess to having stayed up all night reading her latest page-turner.

The undisputed best of the first couple of generations of women novelists, Jane Austen, was a bestselling writer toward the end of her short life, with a major fan in the Prince Regent. After her death in her early forties, interest inevitably faded, but her reputation was kept alive, although not by critics and scholars, but by subsequent great writers such as Charles Dickens who frequently mentioned his large debt to her books. A recent computer study of word patterns in English literature found that the two most influential writers after Shakespeare were Austen and Sir Walter Scott. 

(By the way, I`m becoming interested in Scott as a political-historical thinker on ethnic conflict, such as between Scottish Highlanders and the English and between the Normans and the Saxons. Any recommendations for the most accessible of Scott`s books along those lines?)

In general, I`d say that the male writers on Mr. Shorter`s list are, from the perspective of 2013, on average more distinguished than the female writers. This would be another example of the common phenomenon of the male sex having a larger right tail of whatever bell curve you are looking at than the female sex. But the effect is not overwhelming. 

The 1898 list also adds 8 novels by living writers (e.g., Tolstoy, Hardy, Henry James, and Zola), none of them women. That`s a tiny sample size, but I suspect that it`s possible that women novelists subsequently faded in literary importance for awhile during the stylistically innovative late 19th and early 20th centuries.