Work in Progress – A new research project.

My research for the next EAST exhibition began very slowly.  I looked at women’s education from dame schools to the first acceptance of female students at British Universities. 

I then happened upon the image of The Magdalen Reading on the National Gallery website.  This is a tiny part of an altar frontal attributed to Rogier Van der Weyden, and is thought to be the first representation of a woman reading.

Rogier van der Weyden The Magdalen Reading before 1438

So a question to myself was who have been the most influential/significant women writers?

Information is fairly sketchy before the Restoration as it seemed that most accounts of literate women were from those who had taken Holy Orders.  However, after the restoration of Charles II and the re-opening of the theatres,  women acting in those establishments began to write for the stage.  Two companies were formed, The King’s Company, and  The Duke’s Company, and it was for the latter that perhaps one of the most well known of these, Aphra Behn (1640-89), wrote.

Cited as being the first truly professional woman writer, she was rediscovered as a significant writer in the 1970s.  Behn  published five prose works, the best known, Oroonoko, The Royal Slave (1688), remains in publication. Her play The Rover (1677) is currently on the ‘A’ level syllabus and a statue of her is planned for Canterbury in 2024.   

On the Internet I found a quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it is she who earned them the right to speak their mind.

This find began my search for the most remarkable British female novelists of the past 350 years.

Eliza Haywood
1673-1756
Fanny Burney
1752-1840
Jane Austen
1775-1817
George Eliot
(Mary Ann Evans)
1819-80
Virginia Woolf
1882-1941
Doris Lessing 1917-2013

Pictured above are six more remarkable and influential women writers from what would become an increasingly long list.

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