Thursday, August 4, 2011

A 19th Century Take on Women Writing Literature

'Writing is like flirting: if you can't do it, nobody can teach you; and if you do it, nobody can stop you.' So says the heroine of a contemporary novel, and I am bound to say that I agree with her.

So states Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, the author of an 1905 article in The Writer, a popular Boston literary magazine which commenced publication in 1882 and is still being produced. I get such a kick out of reading old writings — illuminating society of past times, yet sometimes resonating with the thoughts we have today.

As the article continues I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did for both advice and humor.

To those who feel that they cannot write now, but some day hope they will, I can only give the celebrated advice of Punch "to persons about to marry"— "Don't." If you feel that you can help writing, by all means do help writing, and turn your thoughts and your wishes in another direction.

"Mute, inglorious Miltons," believe me, are very rare birds indeed. As a rule genius — like murder — "will out." I fear I have not much patience with those people who are convinced that they could have done some great thing if circumstances had been different. Circumstances have very little to do with the question. These persons could have done some great thing if they themselves had been different, I admit; but that is the only "if" they can lawfully plead.

A few years ago it was the fashion for every girl to play the piano, whether she could or whether she could n't. Valuable hours of her never-to-be-recovered learning time were wasted on the acquisition of songs she could never sing, and the practicing of pieces she could never play. Which of us does not remember the breathy voice and the wooden touch of the compulsory songsters and pianists of our youth? Now it is just as much the fashion for every girl to write. Literature has taken the place of music as the modish art. Not to have written a book has become as unpardonable as not to have learnt the five-finger exercises used to be. And everybody seems to consider it a question of will rather than of capacity.

People are constantly saying to me: "Now that you have taken to writing, I think I must." They have not the slightest intention of being uncomplimentary — or even humorous. To them it is the same as saying: "Now that you have let off fires, I must," or "Now that you have taken to the cheese diet, I shall." On the whole, they meant it as a compliment in the shape of that imitation which is synonymous with flattery. But that they couldn't do such a simple thing as write a book never enters their heads.

Yet the writing of books is by no means as easy as it appears — and most especially is it not easy for women. Because a woman's nervous system is more highly strung than a man's, creative work takes much more out of her than it takes out of a man, and all women who wish to write should first consider the cost. Sheridan said that "easy writing makes hard reading" — only he put it a little more forcefully than that; and he knew what he was talking about. Therefore, to all those who wish to write because they think it an easy ascent to wealth and fame — I repeat the advice, Don't.

But supposing that you can no more help writing than you can help breathing — that you must write whether anybody will read or not— then to you I will give another and a more lengthy word of advice.

First, I would remind you that this is no light task you are undertaking, and I would urge you to give your whole attention to the matter in hand, writing nothing but the very best that it is in you to write.

People sometimes say to me, "I just dashed off that little thing quite easily; it is no trouble to me to write." And I have no difficulty in believing them — after I have read it.

In order to write, you must first read: for it is only by studying past masters in style that you can form a good one of your own.

Then in writing fiction you must be careful to differentiate between a narrative and a story. The difference is not easy to define. Beginners and amateurs rarely see it — but it is enormous all the same. A narrative is a mere string of events, leading nowhere and culminating in nothing; a story is a complete thing in itself, in which every character and every event lead up to one final end or climax.

In a well-written story every incident has its bearing, every character its purpose. Real life, however eventful, except in very rare instances, is narrative rather than story; and that is why plots given by amateurs out of their experience are so very rarely of any use to professional story tellers. They would make most thrilling and interesting newspaper paragraphs, but they are useless as plots for a novel.

I remember the late Mrs. Lynn Linton once saying to me that it is difficult for an author to know how much to say and how much to leave unsaid. Of course, to you who are writing the book every detail about your characters is clear, but your public only know as much as you choose to tell them, and it is very difficult for you, the author, to tell them enough to enable them fully to grasp every situation, and yet not to overstate things — not to pile up the agony too much nor to rub the comedy too much in. You must not take it for granted that they are acquainted with circumstances which have occurred only in your own imagination, nor, in the other hand, must you repeat and dwell upon details as you would in imparting elementary knowledge to an infant school.

If you wish to be effective in literature you must learn the art of putting yourself in another person's place, not only in that of your characters, but also of your readers. You must remember that you will be read by various people in various moods, and you must endeavor to say nothing that will grate on any one of them.

Finally, there is a general idea afloat that a woman's literary success makes against her domestic usefulness — that she cannot adorn both the hearth and the bookcase, or wield the poker as well as the pen. Why not? She has two hands, therefore why cannot she hold both pen and poker at the same time, using each, as she thinks fit? It is this idea which induces many a girl who is bored by "the trivial round, the common task," to fly to literature and to make up her mind to write. Let her write a book if she can—and must, but let her remember that doing the one is no excuse for leaving the other undone.

Writing a book will in no wise absolve you from fulfilling your heme duties. To say that you would rather be literary than domestic seems to me as absurd as to say that you would rather have roast fowl than fine weather, or a Liberal Government than a blue serge gown. There is no alternative, no reason why the same woman should not be both — or neither.

But to every woman who has indeed the gift of writing books I say, go on and prosper. She holds in her hand the key to an earthly paradise. I bid her to turn now and again from the dusty highways of life into the delightful byways of fairyland, taking, if possible, others in with her; not, be it understood, thereby unfitting herself for the daily duties of that dreary road, but rather strengthening and refreshing both herself and her companions for the due continuance of that journey, so that they may all go on their way rejoicing.


  1. Carla - this was great! I love the way our 19th century ladies used the fullness of the language - and the wit in expression almost sneaks up behind you and gets you with a - wit for it - after taste. I'm reading the latter sentence and suddenly chuckling at the former. Our lady has some relevant points - a cautionary tale, to be sure. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thank you, Kathy! I enjoyed this so much and agree with you on the fullness of language.


Thanks for visiting Adventures of the Heart. Be sure to check back for my responses to your comments. Be blessed!