Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature
Written by Shelley DeWees
Published in 2016 by Harper Perennial
There is this ridiculous idea out there that Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are the only English women novelists worth reading. Intelligent, sophisticated people actually believe this. And it drives me bonkers.
There is in fact a fuckton of brilliant writing from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that almost no one reads or studies. Mostly because women wrote it. Women who, you know, forged the literary landscape as we know it.
In Not Just Jane, Shelley DeWees does her part to solve this problem by lionizing seven of England’s underappreciated women writers.
Each chapter is devoted to one of England’s prolific, brilliant, defiant, genre-busting, convention-flouting, revolutionary, gifted women writers. All of them were famous and successful in their own time, but all are largely forgotten today. (Why? Because patriarchy. And shit academic criticism, but that’s another post.) DeWees puts each writer in historical context, and then provides a sort of literary biography, detailing how each of the writers’ most famous and influential works came to be.
Pros and Cons
Because of my academic background, DeWees’ approach was both refreshing and a bit jarring. Her writing style is warm, informal, and approachable. She does not drown the reader with theory and pretension, as one must in academia. Her target audience is anyone genuinely interested in the subject. Which is why I found this book both interesting and fun to read.
There was one major drawback. DeWees insists on referring to all seven writers by their first names. I understand why: she’s deliberately refusing to put these women on a pedestal. But I still don’t like it. In a book that is meant to “rediscover seven amazing writers,” I expect these women to be given the same respect as male writers. That includes surnaming. Also, please no use of the term “authoress.” Just no.
That said, Not Just Jane is fantastic. This field has seen a flowering of interest in recent years, so I loved that instead of focusing on more famous writers like Francis Burney (who is amazing by the way) DeWees wrote about seven virtual unknowns. Each chapter gave enough background to make me invested in the author. Reading of the struggles these women went through just to be able to write was both heartbreaking and inspiring. There were also tantalizing excerpts from each writer’s work that made me determined to read everything they wrote. This book was an introduction, a guidebook, a map.
I loved it. Read it! And then go to Project Gutenburg, Google Books, and Archive.org to find all of the writing by these seven remarkable women.
I also highly, highly recommend Hidden Histories: The New Statesman’s History Podcast. In it, Helen Lewis and a rotating cast of (all women!) guests discuss eighteenth century novelists and writers. It is wonderful.