Lost in Time: Forgotten Bestselling Victorian Female Writers

“There is no fame, no glory, and no power that can never end. In the end, there is oblivion.”

― Bangambiki Habyarimana, “Book of Wisdom”

While Habyarimana’s words may not ring true for many of the great stalwarts out there, his saying holds clout for more people than you can imagine. Many of us dedicate our lives to the pursuit of fame, glory, and power. In our quest to immortalize our memories forever, we neglect to live in the moment. Yet only a few of us are fortunate enough to leave an indelible mark on this earth. Even if we attain unimaginable fame in our lifetimes, it is quite possible for us to be lost in the sands of time.

The 19th century was a phenomenal time for the literary world.  Many believe that it was the foundational era for literature. It saw the rise of master writers irrespective of class, race, wealth, and of course gender. Today, when we think of the 19th century, unforgettable names like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lord Byron, Samuel T Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, among many others come to mind. Have you ever thought if they were the big names of their own times? While some were renowned even when they lived, a number of them only gained credence posthumously. Similarly, you would be surprised to know that many of the top-paid authors of the day are now lost in obscurity.

Let us take this time and remember some of the bestselling female authors of the 19th century who are little known now.

An Unrivalled Writer

Author: Mary Russell Mitford

Must-Read: Our Village

Mary Russell Mitford by Benjamin Robert Haydon

Mary Russell Mitford was an author held in the highest of regards in her time. All her works were instant hits with her readers. More than 800 copies of her drama, Rienzi, were sold worldwide. The play itself was performed 34 times. Mitford created a record with her series of prose sketches, Our Village, which was published in installments in Lady’s Magazine. In fact, Mary Russell Mitford became so famous that she was able to purchase her own country retreat.

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A Worldwide Household Name

Author: Mrs. Henry Wood

Must-Read: East Lynne

Ellen Price Wood small

Mrs. Henry Wood enjoyed a brilliant literary career spanning over 30 years. She made an astounding £6000 a year with her writing. Right from her childhood Mrs. Henry Wood, also known as Ellen Price, had an affinity toward books. She started writing when she was just a child. Regrettably, she had destroyed all her early stories written in childhood. After growing up, she had to pick up the pen yet again to support her family when her husband’s business faltered. The New Monthly Magazine published her short stories while she was living in France with her husband. She won £100 with her debut novel, Danesbury House, which was penned as part of a contest. In 1861, Wood came up with the smashing hit, East Lynne. The implausible yet gripping novel made her a household name. In fact, she became so famous that she outsold Charles Dickens in Australia.

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A Stroke of Survival

Author: Charlotte Riddell

Must-Read: The Moors and the Fens

Charlotte Riddell in 1875

Circumstances led Charlotte Riddell to the path of writing. Though born in Ireland, she had to relocate to London with her English mother after the death of her father. She first began writing as a means to support her ailing mother. However, she had to continue on the path even after her marriage as her husband, J.H. Riddell, was perpetually indebted. Though her work was frequently rejected, she never lost hope. Finally, Thomas Cautley Newby decided to take a risk on her. He published a number of her short stories under the pseudonym F.G. Trafford. In 1856, her The Moors and the Fens was accepted by the publishing establishment, Smith and Elder. Riddell decided to publish her works under her own name in the 1860s. By this time, she was fairly confident about her popularity. In her lifetime, she became the author of over 50 novels.

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Defying Society

Author: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Must-Read: Lady Audley’s Secret

Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (née Braddon) by William Powell Frith

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s life was far from conventional. When she was just a girl, her mother boldly left her cheating husband and raised her three children singlehandedly. Braddon started her writing pursuits quite early in life. She finally moved to Bath to become an actress after several stints at various schools. Her tryst with unconventionality did not stop there. She moved in with the married John Maxwell in 1861, creating quite a scandal. However, scandal was not the only thing that defined her life. She became an instant hit with her novel, Lady Audley’s Secret. Since then, she had been churning out at least two novels a year. Soon, she was able to buy a house. Braddon passed away in 1915. By that time, she had penned more than 80 novels and a plethora of magazine articles.

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The Second Black Novelist

Author: Sarah E. Farro

Must-Read: True Love

The 19th century was not a time of racial equality. In fact, there were only five African-American authors who were able to publish their work at the time. Sarah E. Farro was one of these rare few writers. In fact, she was the second Black woman to be published when her book, True Love, came out in 1891. Her melodramatic writing style made her a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Her book was even exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, further boosting her fame. Though her book is mostly forgotten now, her name was widely popular in the 1890s.

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A Literary Success

Author: Maria Edgeworth

Must-Read: Castle Rackrent

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman 1807

Maria Edgeworth had quite an unusual upbringing. Though in England, she grew up in Ireland after her family moved there in 1782. She had a diverse education thanks to attending various schools as well as being home-schooled. Her wealthy father even gave her the rare opportunity to be his assistant. All this ensured that her books encompassed a variety of exciting topics. Edgeworth published her first novel, Castle Rackrent, in 1800. Since then, her literary career was on an upward trajectory. By 1813, she was a celebrity moving in the exalted circles of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Released in 1814, her book, Patronage, earned her an enormous amount of £2100. Indeed, she had reached the height of literary glory during her lifetime.

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Nothing can be as transient as fame. Fame is fleeting but talent lives on. Even though a number of us are unfamiliar with the works of these amazing women, their immense contribution to literature is undeniable. The peak of stardom that they reached in their lifetimes is imitable. So, let us all take out some time and appreciate these bestselling yet forgotten authors of the 19th century. Do let me know who, among the list, intrigues you the most.

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