Some of England’s best-known and most-respected women authors worked hard during their lives to promote positive action for women in the ongoing fight for gender equality. To celebrate International Women’s Day, find out more about these boundary-breaking literary lights through the places they loved, where they lived, wrote and thought. Written by Jamey Bergman.
When England’s great novelist of irony, social commentary and country houses moved to Bath in the early 19th century, the Georgian city’s bustling social class offered her plenty of fodder to create literary masterworks full of strong heroines and important themes such as women’s lack of access to jobs and limited property rights. Austen completed two novels while living in Bath and four more in the years shortly after she left. Walk ‘In the Footsteps of Jane Austen’ to learn how the city inspired her.
Heroines in their own rights, the three Brontë sisters showed great determination to see their masterpieces published – initially under male Noms de Plume – and still inspire regular pilgrimages to their childhood home in Haworth. The town and its surrounds feature in the rich fictional worlds of the Brontës’ novels, as do themes of independence and empowerment that challenged the patriarchal status quo. Visit Haworth to see the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Brontë Waterfall and Brontë Bridge.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lifetime determination to be a champion of gender equality was nurtured in her childhood home in Herefordshire. Unafraid of challenging convention, Browning’s prodigious talent and intellect put her in the company of Victorian England’s greatest poets – traditionally a male pursuit – and her use of politically-charged subject matter positioned her as a leading voice for several progressive causes. Visit Ledbury for its ancient timber-framed buildings and walk the Malvern Hills, where Browning’s family had their estate, for dramatic views of the surrounding countryside.
Another in the line of Victorian women authors considering the so-called ‘woman question’, Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing was borne from Manchester’s industrial roots and brought some of its injustices to light. Compared to Austen and author of a biography of Charlotte Brontë, Gaskell’s works of fiction critiqued convention and earned her a place in England’s literary pantheon. In Manchester, visit her restored home and the beautiful Portico Library where Gaskell was a member.
The world’s best-selling author (purportedly, her works are the third-most widely published after the Bible and Shakespeare), Agatha Christie was partial to Torquay, in Devon, having spent much of her childhood there. Christie’s life and the heroine detectives she created both offer character studies in strength and courage. Walk a mile in her shoes along the English Riviera anytime, or celebrate all things Agatha during her namesake festival each September in Torquay.
Beatrix Potter is still beloved as an author of more than two dozen children’s books, and during her lifetime, her artistic talents and independence shined despite a Victorian system that limited women’s access to higher education. Visit the English Lakes District, where Potter spent nearly 40 years of her life. Her home, Hill Top, makes up part of the more than 4,000 acres of land Potter protected, conserved and donated to The National Trust to create the National Park.
Modernist writer Virginia Woolf was both a genre-busting literary genius and an ardent feminist. As she paid homage to many of the female authors who came before her in feminist essays, she also sat at the centre of England’s literary and intellectual culture as part of the Bloomsbury Group. Visit her hideaway retreats, Monk’s House and Charleston, in East Sussex to get a sense of the way the influential author lived.
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