Three 18th century women writers and their legacy

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Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn. Women writers of the 18th Century, neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. As poet Rev. James Sterling would call them, “the Fair Triumvirate of Wit” contributed in creating a triad of women with something to say, whether it was reported as irony or drama.
The most popular of them, Aphra Behn, extends her reputation to our very own days: born in 1640, the 17th century saw Behn rise to fame, only to be completely cast aside by literates of the Romantic age. It was only with the open-mindedness of Modernist authors that Aphra Behn was once again seen as a strong contributor for female writing: “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn“, said Virginia Woolf, “for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds“. Despite being the eldest of the three and the one who had lived the farthest from our times, Behn was perhaps posthumously remembered as the forerunner of female writing because she was definitely one of the few. Most writers were men, most spoke of the indecency and immorality of society and most doors were usually open to male writers at the time. Written in the Restoration years, “Oroonoko” is her most famous work and is in fact the oldest novel written by a woman: it tells the story of an african King’s grandson who ultimately falls in love with the daughter of a general. Despite a low public interest at first, the novel later became popular both as a book and as a theatre adaptation.

But as Behn expressed her feminism through her status of being a writer, Eliza Haywood managed to express it in her narrative aswell. Seen as a very prolific author, Haywood sparked interest and criticism for conveying the message that fallen women could be forgiven or granted the same respect as any other woman in “Love in Excess or The Fatal Enquiry” (1719) but is mostly remembered for writing satirical fiction and also for having responded to Samuel Richardson’s novel “Pamela” with “The Anti-Pamela; or Feign’d Innocence Detected” in the 1740s. Outrageous and transgressive, Haywood’s name was brought back to academic studies only in the 1980s and her works analysed in a feminist perspective. Equally popular at the time was Delarivier Manley, a female author who mostly faced several personal scandals throughout her existence, one of them being married to a bigamist. After a tepid reception as a playwright, “New Atalantis” established manley as a relevant writer of the time. Published in 1709, this work explains British politics by imagining life in a non-existant Mediterranean island. She did write other works, but all were of minor importance and her name is now mostly to be found in academic researches.

Whether or not these women have achieved fame during their lifetime or decades or centuries later, what we are interested in is understanding the perception and the symbolism that they can achieve in our time.
How do we see the resourcefulness of these women? Among them are those who were the voice of the woman’s issue in their novels, but others embodied this issue by being female authors in such periods, by creating non-conformist stories and characters. Have these people had the courage to trust the future? Have they gone against the schemes because they knew that one day they would be understood, and thus can be considered luminaries? Or have they just listened to their intuition as they could not do otherwise? Can one choose to be an outcast, at least from a literary point of view? What we can say, beyond these rhetorical questions, is that today these authors have found a place, they have met possibilities. Their names have emerged from the dust of time and are waiting to be examined from new perspectives. Will we ever see a new edition of the books by these writers? Perhaps one bearing a year of publication that is included in the 2010s?

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9 thoughts on “Three 18th century women writers and their legacy

  1. Enjoyed this post. I am going to call it to the attention of my young nieces who have recently become interested in writing.

    • Sounds great! The more attention we give to those who seem to be forgotten, the more the literary world will be better!! As pointed out, these authors are now academically active, I would say. But commercially, they are more than forgotten, sadly.

  2. I remember being introduced to Delarivier Manley in my university days (seems like another lifetime) and would be interested to read all of the works by these authors again – would they be in the Gutenberg Project?

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