It is not often an author has the capacity to create a shift in cultural conscience. This ability is reserved for the most creative and talented minds: writers that can not only entertain, but revolutionise, galvanise, and place a spark of being into society’s mindset. Having said this, writing craft alone will not suffice, the conditions must be prime and the masses in a place to welcome the change that may arrive. The political unrest, industrial intensification, and extreme classism during the nineteenth century provided creatives with the opportunity to influence and disrupt. One change that ensued was that Britain would soon (somewhat) acknowledge women as professional authors. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Elizabeth Gaskell were amongst those who awkwardly fumbled their names into the zeitgeist via anonymity and pen names, yet eventually their books, Frankenstein, and Mary Barton respectively, each offered society a revolutionary new perspective.
Eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley’s inspiration for writing Frankenstein is its own marvellous tale as documented by herself in an early edition of the book. Whilst holidaying in Switzerland, celebrity poet Lord Byron challenged Mary, her husband, and their friend to each write a ghost story. Her intention was to write a story ‘which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of their heart’. After learning of Erasmus Darwin’s experiments involving galvanism and stitching together corpses, absorbing the Gothic nights on Lake Geneva, and reading ghost stories on an evening, eventually, Frankenstein’s monster visited her in a horrific nightmare. Shelley knew then how her story would transpire. She did not realise that this novel was the first of its kind as a horror story that held its roots in science – she had just invented science fiction.
Critics were perplexed after reading this new genre. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published an article in 1818, the same year of the novel, which attempted to categorise Frankenstein as romantic fiction and then as a political satire and found it to be ‘the first general division of works of fiction, into such as bound the events they narrate by the actual laws of nature’. It also claimed that its ‘logical precision’ set it apart from other novels. However, this did not mean that people were prepared for the notion that science could possess the ability to create life; a predominantly Christian readership initially rejected the novel. Also published in 1818, The Quarterly Review claimed, ‘the dreams of insanity […], and the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero’. The critic’s main issue was the book’s lack of moral substance, finding that ‘it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart’. These contemporary reviews demonstrate a baffled, offended, and fascinated reaction to this story.
Although writing with different motives, Elizabeth Gaskell also defied established cultural norms by engendering a new view of northern-working class life. After working as a philanthropist in Manchester, Elizabeth gained an intimate insight into the struggles faced by the factory workers and their families. She consequently felt compelled to write her first novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). This novel traces the lives of multiple working-class families, each violently suffering from the consequences of an extremely classist nineteenth century, but finding solace and comfort in collective unity. In a Manchester that renowned philosopher Fredrich Engels deemed ‘hell on upon earth’, the characters in Mary Barton possess a tenacity for altruism and equality.
Gaskell exposed the domestic issues faced by industrialisation in northwest cities and attempted to trigger empathy and understanding amongst the middle classes who seemingly viewed the lower classes with contempt. She documented families who were willing to sell heirlooms and give the last of their food to ensure the survival of strangers with humility and grace. Gaskell also shines a light on the unrelenting efforts of the Chartist movement through the character John Barton who conceives: ‘The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds’.
Like Shelley, Gaskell was risking agitating her middle-class readership as she presented factory owners as avaricious and misanthropic. A review by The Manchester Guardian, published in 1849 claims ‘The only fault of the book is that the authoress has sinned gravely against the truth, in matters of fact either above her comprehension, or beyond her sphere of knowledge’ suggesting that ‘it appears very strange that no notice whatever is taken of what has been done by the masters for improving the condition of the workmen’.
These authors disrupted traditional firmly held attitudes to create a shift in the collective consciousness: the impact of which we are undoubtedly still feeling today. Their writing skills and creativity were powerful enough to defy the society they were in dispute with, and although both were published anonymously and were initially assumed to be men, their craft was still persuasive enough to prevail once their gender was revealed. These women not only created something unique but were imperative in establishing females as disruptive writers.