In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender

  • Introduction
  • Early Works
  • Major Criticism
  • The Body and Medicine
  • Redefining the Canon
  • Class
  • Women and Homosociality
  • The Fin de Siècle
  • Race and Empire
  • Childhood
  • Poetry
  • Periodicals
  • Other Arts
  • Themes
  • Domesticity, the Private, and the Public

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Victorian Literature Gender
Pamela K. Gilbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0076


The Victorian period is one of the literary fields in which gender scholarship advanced earliest and most fully. The most significant work started in the 1970s and is due not only to the historical turn in Victorian scholarship but also to the volume of women’s writing in the period. Subsequently, most scholarly work has incorporated to some extent some attention to gender perforce, and the bibliography is thus potentially vast. This entry is designed to attend to material that focuses primarily on gender (rather than having gender simply as one of many foci) and to a range of texts and issues (rather than focusing on a single author) that were important to the development of the scholarly conversation on gender. It also includes entries for works exemplary of recent approaches. The early days of gender studies, then often defined as “women’s studies,” focused primarily on middle-class white women in England and on the oppressive nature of the feminine ideal. Later work focused on a gender-studies paradigm that called into question the category “woman” as an absolute or unifying focus. Recent works incorporate a more nuanced analysis of class, give due attention to masculinity and queer histories, and discuss ideas of empire.

Early Works

Significant work related to the current discussion of gender and Victorian literature began in the 1970s, emerging from the women’s movement and civil rights–era discussions becoming a force within academia. At this stage, these critics were still often seen as outsiders in an academy beginning to grapple with issues of canonicity and literary value. This work focused primarily on women and was born out of feminist interests. Thus, it tended to privilege the history of feminist activism and consciousness and attempted to recover a forgotten literary history of women’s writing. Moers 1976 and Showalter 1977 traced such a literary history and between them built a bibliography that has been mined by many scholars since. The early work in this area also focused largely on reading women writers’ resistance to patriarchy and on the representation of female characters. Gilbert and Gubar 1979 stands as a foundational discussion of the influence of a disabling myth of the masculinity of authorship on the works of 19th-century women.

  • Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

    Foundational and influential study of female novelists and poets, including Austen, Shelley, the Brontës, Eliot, and Dickinson. The eponymous “madwoman” is Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, but this term also stands for the woman writer, who is made “other” in the very act of writing, as that act is conceived as male ejaculation.

  • Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

    Provides a history of women in the light of common literary influences and gender expectations for British, American, and French women writers from the 18th century to the present. One of the first volumes to examine women authors as a separate group whose unique situations had a direct impact on shaping literature.

  • Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    Classic feminist study of British women novelists that provides a comprehensive bibliography of both major and more obscure women authors. Showalter divides the authors into the following categories: feminine (1840–1880; accepting male values), feminist (1880–1920; protesting male values), and female (1920 to present; finding an authentic female voice) These divisions have largely been discarded since the book’s publication but were an important foundational paradigm providing a platform for revision and critique.

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