When the Women Set Sail

In 1852, after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning urged her friend, art critic and memoirist Anna Jameson to read the novel, and expressed her indignation when Jameson found the subject of the novel too incendiary for a woman to tackle. Barrett Browning wrote in her letter to Jameson: “[I]s it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s assertion of her obligations as a female writer and poet is just one example of female writers’ active participation in the debates about the crucial concerns of civil society. Instead of concerning themselves solely with their domestic lives, women writers over the centuries have devoted themselves to aspiration, adventure, and public discourse. With stories about traveling, emigration, escape, and exodus, they have confronted ideas such as class formation, slavery, warfare, feminism, globalism, and the clash of cultures.

At Home in the World by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord is a reevaluation of the works of women writers, from canonical figures such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, to contemporary writers like Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai. The authors argue that a complicated relationship and a recurring dialectic of home and abroad remain central in the literary expression of women’s experiences over two centuries. Searching for a “promised land” or a site of true belonging (the Home with a capital “H”), these women writers find the idea of Home in need of constant rediscovery and reinvention.

And rediscover they do. At the conclusion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot takes a brave step to liberation by accepting a future life of possible distress and impending war. Anne ends in a “non-place,” her possible life on a ship will be a life with indefinite location; however, this might offer her a true Home alongside Captain Wentworth, which promises conjugal happiness and a loving companionship. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe leaves England abruptly and impulsively for the town of Villette, and starts a journey of adventure and dislocation. She increasingly comes to “mark her place”, not as wife or keeper of a household, but as traveler, writer, and teacher. She retreats from bourgeois domesticity and begins to envision a new model of Home: a place that enables a woman to live and thrive alone in the world. Stepping out of the private realm and a conventional home provides a space of possibility—a new incarnation of Home begins to take shape at the moment when the women set sail.

When explaining the title of their book, DiBattista and Nord write: “Our title is meant to conjure the image of those dauntless women writers who ventured across the threshold that leads from home into the public thoroughfares of thought and action where history is made, the world reformed and reimagined. The peripatetics whose work and tradition we chronicle in these pages are determinedly and inventively moving toward a promised land—for so many called it that—where they hope to feel, at last, at home in the great world” (11). However, the discovery of a true Home is always problematic or even impossible, for its discovery or search often takes the form of “creating, writing, recording, and reporting back—activities that never really find a terminus” (248).

Public engagement by women writers is an ongoing process. Through continued dissent and active involvement with the most pressing issues in public life, they continue to forge an artistic path home in the world.

You can read the introduction to At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, From Austen to the Present, by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord here.