Before Victoria

Foreword to Before Victoria, an exhibition of women's achievements, at the New York Public Library (2005)

Who were the women in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds who set themselves apart from social expectations? A new exhibition at the New York Public Library, drawing on its great Pforzheimer Collection, opens up the lives of an array of women who turned away from the beaten track during the fifty years before the rise of "the Woman Question," the more familiar movement that took off during Victoria's reign.

In 1787, two years before the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was a restless governess, reading Rousseau in an Irish castle and collecting matter for her first novel, Mary. "The soul of the author" was to animate "the hidden springs" of a new kind of being called by her own name: "in a fiction, such a being may be allowed to exist; ... not subjugated to opinion; but drawn by the individual from the original source."

Later that year she took the novel to London, determined to shed the limited occupations open to women. She meant to find a new plot of existence for her sex. "I am... going to be the first of a new genus," she confided to her sister Everina. "I am not born to tread in the beaten track - the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on." When "Mary" in the novel rejects the practice of "giving" a bride in marriage, the author herself was germinating the new character who found fruition in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Every phase of her life was an experiment: the school she set up in her twenties, her years in France during the Terror, her travels to Scandinavia, and her unconventional union with William Godwin, the foremost radical philosopher of the day. As we trace her experiments, above all "that most fruitful experiment" her relation with Godwin, we see everywhere a single purpose: to center the affections as a counter to the twin predators of violence and commerce.

Her one-time pupil Margaret Mount Cashell also broke with women's traditions. In 1806 she abandoned her aristocratic life and disguised herself as a man in order to attend medical lectures at the University of Jena. She went on to practise medicine in Pisa (in the respectable guise of help for the poor), rejecting harsh and hopeless interventions as well as lucrative drugs, in favour of gentler cures, particularly with children, and better use of the body's own curative powers. Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft's daughter, earned her living as a writer, most famously as author of Frankenstein. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, played the overture to Rossini's new opera Cenerentola, and her voice, trained to performer's standard, thrilled their Pisa circle in one of Shelley's greatest poems, "To Constantia, Singing." After Shelley's death Clairmont supported herself as a governess in what she called "my ice cave" – Russia – where she developed Wollstonecraft's innovative ideas of education, and wrote letters yet to be recognised as amongst the best in the English language. The achievements of this generation were all the braver in the context of counter-revolution, its silencing of women and their obligatory retreat from the public arena.

There were others, like the novelist Mary Hays, who tried out the character Wollstonecraft had brought into being. The future poet Elizabeth Barrett was only twelve in 1818 when she read the Rights of Woman. At fourteen she declares her "natural" independence of mind and "spurns" the triviality of women's lives. Similarly, in 1825, a daughter of a New England clergyman published her thoughts on "The Natural Rights of Woman." The Creator, she argues, crowned his labours by giving being to the most intelligent of his creatures:

Male and female created he them; but declared them of one bone – one flesh – one mind. To them he directed his divine commands – and gave them rule over all he had made... But it seems that man soon became wiser than his Maker, and discovered that the Almighty was mistaken... and that all the mind... had been bestowed on himself, and that woman had received only ...the mere leavings, and scrapings that could be gathered after his own wise brain was furnished.

Ten years before Mount Holyoke, the first women's college, the author is hopeful of the schoolhouse with its custom of equal education, and fewer inducements to phoniness. To be sure, girls still leave with nothing more than "a smattering of terms," but "we feel the influence of the female character" in some shift from modish sensibility towards "sympathy for real distress."

Curiously, this author's name was Mary Wollstonecraft. It was not an invention or coincidence. This American Wollstonecraft, a botanist, was in fact the widow of an English immigrant, Charles, youngest brother of the more famous Mary.

In Britain's Cape Colony in the late 1870s Olive Schreiner, a young governess in a lean-to room on a rocky stretch of veld, wrote a novel about a New Woman. Though she appears an oddity on a backward, colonial farm, she does not yield her conviction of who she is in order to pursue the mediocre plots open to her sex. An authentic self seems to speak out of a stark and timeless landscape. When Schreiner brought her novel to London, her eloquence broke in on the earnest deliberations of the Men and Women's Club for redefining the nature of the sexes. Her manner was visionary, her gestures emphatic, her dark eyes glowed as she looked back to the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mary Wollstonecraft, she says, is "one of ourselves." Nearly a century earlier this woman had foreseen "the mighty sexual change that is coming upon us." In the 1880s the two sexes seemed still a mystery, "what in their inmost nature they are.... Future ages will have to solve it."

The nineteenth century pressed the issue of the vote and education; the twentieth century, that of professional advance; but the subtler issue of our nature is still to be resolved. In 1869 John Stuart Mill, first to propose women's suffrage in the British Parliament, says, "what is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing." In 1915 Virginia Woolf predicts it will take six generations for women to come into their own - if so, we're not there yet. "The great problem is the true nature of woman," she alerts students at Cambridge. If this century is to solve it, the gender revolution in the late eighteenth century and its heirs in the next generation offer a start.

In the period covered in this exhibition a new-found creature – "almost unclassified" - was crawling out from under the stone of history. In the early 1830s, a Yorkshire schoolgirl called Ellen Nussey, visiting Harworth Parsonage, witnessed the young Brontë sisters marching round the dining-room table - as she relates in her manuscript recollections in the Library's Berg Collection. At nine, when their aunt retired, the three sisters put away their sewing, blew out the candles, and began to pace the room, their forms glancing into the firelight, then out into the shadow. Ellen thought that they blew out the candles for economy, but darkness freed them to be what they were. When, later, Charlotte Brontë's Lucy Snow is asked "who are you," she replies, "I am a rising character."

A past experience revived for its meaning, Eliot said, is "not the experience of one life only /But of many generations." Our present generation, in the choices and opportunities open to us, are heirs of the "new genus" that came to life amongst the deviant throngs of artists, mistresses, bluestockings, gamblers and criminals during the fifty years before Victoria.