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British Women Writers Network

From Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence[1]:

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that [she] has failed to create [herself]?


 

From Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley:

She goes to stand before the portrait, and stares up at it.

Godwin glances up.

Godwin You have grown more like her.

Mary Have I?

Godwin A little in your looks. A great deal in your stridency of expression.

You went away a girl, and have returned a young woman.

Mary I still look like you though, don’t I? Everyone says so.

Godwin Oh, yes. You will never be rid of that nose. The Gods are not entirely benign.

He continues with his work.

Mary Is it a good likeness?

Godwin Very.

Mary How old was she then?

Godwin About thirty. She was pregnant with Fanny.

Mary She looks happy.

Godwin finishes his work and sets his pen down.

Mary Are there more books about my mother which I can read? Or can I read the other books she wrote?

Godwin Hum. I can’t remember what you’ve read already.

He goes to the bookshelves.


 

From Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done. But at second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfil what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever.


 

Legacy and intellectual inheritance has been a constant in previous research done by this researcher.  A preoccupation with the inter-connectivity of creative thought and its effect on creative descendants is an intellectual exercise that yields a great deal of thought.  More specifically, this researcher has long been preoccupied with feminine thought and inter-connectivity. Thus, a decision was made to start building a network of women writers in English Literature from around the Restoration to 1900.  What this researcher wished to discover were the interactions and continuity of those “scribbling women”[2]. The original intention was to start with just major iconic female writers (Austen, Shelley, George Eliot, Behn, etc.), an intention which eventually grew as research carried on and I felt a fear of excluding someone based on academic biases[3].

In order to gather the data needed for this project, attempts were made to access the Orlando Project.  Unfortunately, these attempts came to no fruition, as the majority of the project is now behind a paywall, and an inquiry for access was unanswered[4].  A decision was then made to use Wikipedia to help with wide inclusion.  The problem with defining an “iconic” woman writer is that it’s highly subjective to one’s research corpus and personal knowledge, so effort was first made to include women who have been admitted into the collective canon[5], then began going through Category: English women novelists, Category:British women poets, and Category:English women dramatists and playwrights on Wikipedia as a starting point[6].  The criteria for selection of the women was very simple:

  • Identification as a woman writer.
  • Publication.
  • Publication prior to 1899.

Because of time constraints, it was impossible to pull all of the women from the list of novelists, and a limitation was made to however many writers could be added meaningfully to the network within a time frame of two weeks.  Connections were made on four levels:

  1. Common themes/content type.
  2. Common literary movement (Gothic, Romantic, and political are thus far accounted for in the data collected).
  3. Friends/Shared Social Connections/Romantic Partners.
  4. Blood Related.

So far the only literary movements documented are Gothic, Romantic, and political writings– specifically because of their prevalence among the current dataset.  Plays, poetry and novels were considered to be “content types”.  Naturally, novels are the largest link among women.  In this researcher’s opinion, this is an important link as there is a distinctly feminine history for novels[7].  The Bluestocking women were categorized on the social level, so the Bluestocking movement is not noted on the lower level.  There are also a high proportion of related writers, particularly among dramatists (such as the Burney women).  It should also be noted that at least one woman (Mary Angela Dickens) was descended from or related to a male writer.

CSV files were compiled of the resulting dataset and connections formed by an examination of the writers’ Wikipedia pages and quick verification for validity of the pages[8]. The data was then entered into Gephi, and visualization was generated to test the dataset and connectivity. The following image is representative of the resulting network:

NWW16001900

What quickly became obvious is that there was a huge level of connection, especially at the first level.  The high level of connectivity, which eventuated from the project, is presently an inevitable byproduct of the currently pulled data.  The eventual inclusion of other content types and a more nuanced connection level system might make for a more reflective end product[9]. The average degree for the currently existing project is 97.379, with a graph density of .743.

Because of the high level of connectivity, however, it does become difficult to parse through the deeper connections among the writers.  As such, there is a version without the level one connections. The density of the current network which makes analysis difficult is a primary reason that the network will eventually be overhauled with a more nuanced approach (as mentioned in footnote number 9).

No Level 1

This version makes clearer the connections of those who actually interacted or were related.  The upper left corner is highly connected due to a wide social circle, blood relation, and common political persuasions.  The upper right is representative of the Gothic and Romantic movements, which are highly interconnected.  Mary Wollstonecraft is perched in the center with wide connections in various social circles. The removal of the blanket category allows for a more elevated approach, where actual relationships and engagements become more readily apparent.

In the current dataset, the most connected writer is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, author of Frankenstein.  Her high connectivity comes from her lineage (Shelley was the daughter of political writer William Godwin and the iconic Mary Wollstonecraft) and various social connections throughout her life[10].  She also is considered to be a member of multiple literary movements (Romanticism, Gothic, Travel Writing).  The least connected writer is Maria Gisborne, who happens to be a close friend and correspondent of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and thus is only connected to her at this point.

The eventual goal of this project is to map all documented female writers from the Early Modern to late Victorian eras and have a complete record of connectivity.  A future methodology and plan is to proceed in the following order:

  • Create a complete index of women writers in the entirety of the British Isles and Empire from 1600 to 1900.
  • Following this indexing, connections will be made on a more nuanced level.  There will be varied weights depending on genre and level of inter-connectivity. To repeat from footnote 9, the proposed levels would be as follows:
  1. Similar content/themes (bildungsroman, problem novel, poetry, drama, etc.).
  2. Contemporary productivity period.
  3. Same literary/political movement.
  4. Shared social circle.
  5. Friends
  6. Romantic partners.
  7. Blood relations.
  • Consult with other British Literature and feminist academics to look over corpus and check methodologies.
  • Build an interactive web version, with images and data present on the network.

The hope that predominates this current focus is to be able to clarify a lineage of feminine thought across a formative period of literary history. In literary analysis, the influences of male writers on all writers are clearly defined. While these particular influences are incredibly interesting and worthwhile[11], perhaps time has come to start seeing the legacies of women in a more clear light. Perchance a reflection on the women that built much of the modern novel might shake the dust off of many of these women’s works, which were once incredibly popular but fell into obscurity after their authors shuffled off their mortal coils[12].

The current network (CSV and Gephi files) can be found here.

[1] Note: Harold Bloom will only be mentioned (and finally made more inclusive) just this once.

[2] As they were called by Lord Byron and Nathaniel Hawthorne in equal derision.

[3] The focus of this researcher has been in Early Modern drama and the Shelley circle.

[4] Hopefully the project is still being attended and this was just an administrative issue.

[5] A truly pitiful percentage of the hundreds of women who made impact on the literary field.

[6] This actually turned out to be incredibly helpful and yielded a vast amount of data.

[7] Aphra Behn is often credited as the first English novelist (although this is in question). However, novels have long been a more widely chosen form of feminine expression—it’s only very recently that poetry has stopped being widely considered a masculine pursuit. In fact, the predilection has often been used against female writers, as the novel was not seen as elevated as the pursuit of poetics.

[8] Many connections were based on common sense. Of course the Brontë sisters were connected to each other without the necessity for verification by checking sources.

[9] Currently, consideration is being put into a system that is a more nuanced categorization and negates the current blanket categorization of novels. The proposed levels would be as follows:

  1. Similar content/themes (bildungsroman, problem novel, poetry, drama, etc.).
  2. Contemporary productivity period.
  3. Same literary/political movement.
  4. Shared social circle.
  5. Friends.
  6. Romantic partners.
  7. Blood relations.

[10] It must also be admitted that the researcher has done extensive work on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the past, and thus is more aware of nuanced inter-connectivities and social connections for this writer, which is reflected in the current incarnation.

[11] As someone who has built six years of academic work and analysis focused on this approach, I am hard pressed to eschew it full force. It would be counter-intuitive to claim that women were not influenced by those whose cultural force was as strong as Milton or Shakespeare, when the women themselves tell us these paradigmatic writers influenced them.

[12] This obscurity is often a by-product of several factors. Because so many women were popular novelists, their work was seen as common. Also, there’s the whole patriarchy issue.

Works Cited

Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. “Orlando: Women’s Writing – Home.” Orlando: Women’s Writing – Home. Cambridge University, 2006. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“Category:British Women Poets.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“Category:English Women Dramatists and Playwrights.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“Category:English Women Novelists.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Edmundson, Helen. Mary Shelley. London: Nick Hern, 2012. Print.

Roach, Ashley Renée. “Charlotte Brontë’s Visions of Paradise Lost: Ire and Passion Encapsulated.” Bounty as Boundless as the Sea. 7 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Roach, Ashley Renée. “Eve’s Daughters and God’s Sons: Power and Inheritance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder.” Bounty as Boundless as the Sea. 9 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Roach, Ashley Renée. “Mary and Mary on Milton: Maternal Bonding via Discourse.” Bounty as Boundless as the Sea. 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“The Open Graph Viz Platform.” Gephi –. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. EBooks@Adelaide, 15 July 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

The preceding was written for Digital Humanities I at Pratt Institute in December 2015. 

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A. Renée Roach
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