Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

7 - Literary women of the 1850s and Charlotte Mary Yonge's


The issue of work was central to discussion of the “woman question” from the 1850s onwards. Books and periodicals commented frequently, variously, and at length on women's work in this period, employment registers and employment societies for women, including the Society for the Promotion of Employment for Women, were founded, and the English Women's Journal was established in 1858 largely to discuss “the present industrial employments of women” and the “best mode of judiciously extending the sphere of such employments.” Literary work, however, was a special case. As Frances Power Cobbe observed, in her 1862 overview of women's employment opportunities, there was “little need to talk of literature as a field for woman's future work. She is ploughing it in all directions already” (“What Shall We Do,” p. 375). Indeed, women had for many years been active in the literary world, working as editors, reviewers, and publishers' readers as well as poets, essayists, dramatists, and, preeminently, novelists. For literary women, then, employment issues involved not so much establishing new opportunities as exploring the relationship between femininity and literature – the connection between gender and the nature and reception of the literary product, and the difficulty of combining a literary career with a woman's domestic responsibilities. Cobbe's survey addresses a dramatic recent change in the status of women in the arts, caused by an influx of “women … distinguished for one quality above all others – namely strength” (“What Shall We Do,” p. 366).