When Austen wrote, her work was near the bottom of the pecking order in literature, and as fiction written by a woman it was even lower. The novel had been the poor relation of literature since its origins, though it was becoming the popular genre; it was disparaged as at best mere idle entertainment and at worst as corruptive. It was felt that weaker minds, particularly those of young girls, could be easily corrupted not only by outright depictions of depravity, but also by any highly imaginative escapist fiction. Heroines who had adventures, were bold and independent, fell in love with unsuitable, Byronic heroes, and married for love, might give girls ambitions beyond their proper sphere. ‘The glutted imagination soon overflows with the redundance of cheap sentiment and plentiful incident.’1 It was in an author’s interest to claim that the novel could have (and that their own work did have) an educative and moral function. Perhaps this is why many novels of the period contain passages whose uplifting moralising seems bolted-on. Novel writing was one of the few respectable ways by which an educated woman could earn money in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and one of the even fewer ways in which she could work whilst remaining with her family. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey (1847) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) show how unpleasant were the alternatives.
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- ‘It has not however that elevation of virtue’: Reviews from the 1830s to 1870s
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