Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender


My understanding, prior to today, of the history of English Lit. goes like this:

Greeks & Romans
The Bible in Greek, Latin and Hebrew
The Dark Ages
Beowulf (975-1025)
Piers Ploughman (1370), William Langland
The Canterbury Tales (1387), Geoffrey Chaucer
Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press (1440)
The Bible in English
Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Walter Allen in The English Novel: a Short Critical History (1951) writes “The comparatively sudden appearance at the turn of the seventeenth century of the novel as we know it was a manifestation of a marked change in men’s interests.” Dale Spender is nothing if not a feminist and you can imagine how this gets up her nose!

The subtitle of Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (1986) is ‘100 good women writers before Jane Austen’ and Spender’s intention is to demonstrate the influence on the early development of the novel of women, who were then and I am sure are often now, completely ignored by the literary establishment, not least of course by Allen. I have in previous posts discussed male writers and essayists (here) who influenced Jane Austen, and I have also started working backwards, with a review of Austen’s immediate predecessor, Fanny Burney’s Evelina (here).

I won’t say much about the list above. Beowulf, which begins, “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,/þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon”, I know only from seeing in Campus Lit that real lit. students had to study it. Piers Ploughman and The Canterbury Tales I owned and read in my (Engineering) student days. English translations of the Bible were mandated by Henry VIII in 1539 (see for instance my review of The Taming of the Queen, Phillipa Gregory (here)).

Shakespeare is credited by Allen with the introduction into literature of fiction, by which he means the telling of made-up stories in current settings.

Then there is Jane Austen from whom the modern novel sprung fully formed.

On reflection I might add John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which Allen regards as the modern novel’s immediate predecessors. Alongside Shakespeare there were poet/dramatists Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Samuel Pepys was a bit later and his Diary (1660-1669) wasn’t published until the C19th.

Spender begins her account of the rise of the novel with Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance Arcadia (1590). Sidney was another contemporary of Shakespeare’s and Shakespeare drew on Arcadia for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear (wiki). This brings up two issues, firstly that ‘pastoral romances’ were fictions carefully avoiding any connection with current times (longer definition below); and secondly that writers routinely used each other’s plots, writing variations on a theme so to speak, which is why there is so much material for the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ crowd.

The first of Spender’s 100 is Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroath (1587-1652) who wrote Urania (1621), a variation on Arcadia with significantly stronger female figures. Also, for the first time –

Realism intrudes: and it is not just the realism of content. Wroath also introduces dialogue … and it is impressive and realistic dialogue… One of the responses to Urania … was widespread discussion among writers and readers about who these realistic characters really were.

Lady Mary Wroath (or Wroth) was clearly the first woman to write with the intention of being published, and the first to write for money, her husband having died in 1614  leaving her destitute. She was also a notable poet. See for yourself, Latrobe Uni have published transcribed and modernized versions of her poetry side by side (here).

Spender goes on to discuss – and I’m only talking about Spender’s first three chapters for the time being, there’s already too much to write about – Anne Weamys who wrote A Continuation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1651); Katherine Philips, one of a number of women who wrote poetry privately but was published posthumously; Anne Clifford, Lucy Hutchison and Anne Fanshawe who wrote biographies of their husbands, to assert claims arising out of the disruption of the Civil War or just for family information; and Margaret Cavendish.

… if there is to be one woman singled out to represent the starting point of women’s entry to the world of letters, it must be Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1624-1674). She wrote and she wrote; she wrote poetry, prose, philosophy; she wrote about people and she wrote about science…

She wanted to be a writer, a serious writer, and a recognised writer, and because she did not shrink from public view, because she unashamedly sought publication and wasted not one whit of her time in trying to preserve or protect her reputation, she encountered the most savage and sneering response that society could devise. She was called ‘Mad Madge’ for her literary efforts and was publicly mocked and ridiculed.

Margaret Cavendish was a feminist who reflected at length on the position of women and the power of men.

She had, writes Spender, to invent many of the genres of writing (including SF!) which are today taken for granted, and was as well or better known as a writer in her own time than all the men cited by Allen.

The exclusion of women from the literary heritage has not been confined to efforts to keep them out of print but has extended to keep them out of consideration even when they are in print.

Spender is a fierce feminist, and Mothers of the Novel is a polemic, well argued and bursting with the stories of previously unacknowledged women writers.

Spender writes of the literature Mary Wroath would have grown up with –

Any reading for leisure or pleasure would have consisted of versions of the classics with their heroes (and occasional heroines) of antiquity, or pastoral romances, based on conventions of courtly love, and which were unrealistic, highly extravagant and affected affairs, such as those written by Marie de France in the twelfth century …

Apart from the more imaginative offerings (some would say fantastical offerings) of the pastoral romance – where romantically named shepherds and shepherdesses [who mostly proved to be princes and princesses in disguise] gambolled in exotic surrounds and obeyed the ritualistic dictates of love, compounded by mistaken identities – there were also … sermons, tracts and ‘philosophies’ which were associated with education.

Venturing down yet another rabbit hole: Marie de France who is not otherwise mentioned by Spender was a poet of the C12th whose life is completely unknown except from her surviving work. She may have been French, but then so was the whole English court (of Henry II). She was a “creator of verse narratives on romantic and magical themes that perhaps inspired the musical lais of the later trouvères, and author of Aesopic and other fables, called Ysopets. Her works, of considerable charm and talent, were probably written in England” (Britannica).


Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986

Further reading:

Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (Abridged with modern spelling), 2016  (buy it here)
Margaret Cavendish, [her ‘science fiction’ classic] The Blazing World, 1668. Project Gutenberg, 2016 (here)
Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760, Project Gutenberg, 2015 (here)
Aurélie Griffin, Mary Wroth’s Urania and the Editorial Debate over Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Études Épistémè [Online], 22 | 2012 (here)


13 thoughts on “Mothers of the Novel, Dale Spender

  1. I admire your fortitude in reading Spender. I find I would rather read other people reporting what she says, than wade through her polemics. But as a T/Lib I was much influenced by her work, scouring my library for girls as heroes and working to restore a gender balance in the titles in the catalogue.
    Anyway, can I make a suggestion about Beowulf? I mention it because someone, I forget who, has just written a feminist rewriting of it…
    I used to read Beowulf to my senior students which gave rise to interesting discussions about the role of war in establishing peace, about good and evil, about the ethics of crime, punishment and vengeance, exclusion and otherness and so on. (I also found a voice file of someone reading a bit of it in Old English, which they found fascinating). The illustrated edition that I used was by Michael Morpurgo, and your library probably has it in the children’s or YA section. (Definitely not an ok book for five-year-olds.) On no account watch the Hollywood version of it, it is excruciatingly bad and not at all faithful to the original. Along with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf is an useful book for 10-14 year-olds because they have such black-and-white views about good, evil and justice and both these (anonymous) old legends force them to look at things in a more complex way.


    • I am immensely grateful to Spender for the Aust C19th women writers she caused to be republished and reevaluated so I’m happy to make my way through her accounts of early women writers. As you can tell I know nothing of Beowulf and am happy to follow your advice


  2. As you know I have this book and am keen for my JA group to read some of these authors. Next year might be the year as we need some new tangents to explore. I’m wondering whether to suggest we all read the same one, or suggest people choose their own from a list of those she covers. What would you think from what you know. (Of course I have to find sources – and that might be hard because while I’m assuming many of them will be available via Project Gutenberg, many my the older cohort are not particularly keen on e-reading.

    BTW being very pedantic now, I wouldn’t call Greek and Roman classics English lit. They’re Greek and Roman – albeit English lit students do well to know their classics. My earliest English lit reading is Chaucer which we did in high school. I wonder how many high school English lit courses today do Chaucer!


  3. Up till a century ago educated people had all read ‘the classics’, and of course 500 years ago, apart from the Bible, that’s all that they had read, which is why I made it my first step.

    With my limited present knowledge I would nominate Urania (modern version in book form), something by Aphra Benn, Udolpho and Clarissa or Evelina. I would set you Sir Chas Grandison but then you wouldn’t have time to contribute to Gen 2. If only one then I found Evelina both accessible and enjoyable.


    • True, Bill, my main point really was just that those Classics aren’t English literature but Literature more widely. Classics tend to be a different department at universities than English Literature?

      Thanks re these suggestions. We have talked about Sir Charles Grandson as it’s seen as one of Austen’s favourite novels but it’s very long. However. I think we could do it as a slow read over some months. I will add you suggestions to our group’s discussions regarding next year. We’ve just done all the Austen 200th anniversaries so are looking for some new avenues to explore, though we will return to the novels soon because we are all happy to read them again and again. We have done all sorts of things like looking at roles (eg ministers in Austen), emotions, relationships (eg parents), topics like the sublime, biographies, her letters, her juvenilia and unfinished novels, and so on. There are so many ways to explore Austen aren’t there?


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