Why is Jane Austen the only woman in early modern English literature textbooks? Blame the pride and prejudice of men.

09/04/19 – BOSTON, MA. – A microfilm transcription of a text written by women that have been forgotten to history Snell Library on Sept. 4, 2019.. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

English anthologies make it seem like Jane Austen was the only woman who published anything worth reading before the nineteenth century. But why? Blame the pride and prejudice of nineteenth century men who excluded women from the original literary canon, according to researchers at Northeastern’s Women Writers Project.

In the late nineteenth century, when English literature became a topic that was studied at the university level, faculty needed to establish a standardized collection of literature, according to Julia Flanders, a professor of practice in English and director of the Women Writers Project.  

The project is redefining the canon by digitally transcribing texts written by women from the 1500s to the 1850s, which were forgotten because they were never immortalized in university libraries. Early modern English literature is still taught this way today, as if all the writers were men.

“In the hands of professional university faculty who were mostly men, it devolved into a canon of male writers,” Flanders says, even though historically some of the most popular authors were women.

Lots of women were writing novels, plays, poems, and political commentary long before Sense and Sensibility. 

Take the author Charlotte Turner Smith, for example. She’s not exactly a household name, but as these researchers have learned from contemporary eighteenth century reviews of Smith’s work, she was one of the most prominent and well-respected novelists of her time. 

“These are voices who are not just notable for being women,” Flanders says. They’re notable for who they were.”

A guest book signed by people who have visited their collection of forgotten texts. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

So far the online collection contains more than 400 texts. Each text is manually transcribed, proofread, and augmented with additional information that provide context and meaning to sections that might otherwise be lost on readers today. 

These digital tags are important for literary researchers interested in quantifying and analyzing older texts. “Margaret Cavendish, who is a prolific seventeenth century writer of plays, is often described as having female characters who talk more than male characters,” says assistant director Sarah Connell. 

“With the encoding, I’m able to investigate the kinds of claims that people have been researching in a very time-intensive way for years by running a few lines of code,” Connell says. 

Before the Women Writers Project began digitizing these texts, the only versions were the original publications or photocopies specially-ordered from rare book libraries, Flanders says. 

The goal of the online collection is to provide educators with more resources and expand the canon of literature to include a more realistic taste of the culture of the times that includes writing from both men and women. 

“These women weren’t just sitting in their studies writing,” Flanders says. “They were engaging in the dialogue of the times and, in some cases, they were considered leaders.” 

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