International Women’s Day: ten books by eighteenth-century women you may not have read

Through no fault of their own, many brilliant eighteenth-century women have fallen into obscurity, either because their work was little-valued in their own time or because, although they were popular among their contemporaries, subsequent scholarship has done little to shine a light on their œuvre. It is therefore sometimes a little difficult to know where to start when seeking to diversify our reading habits, and we risk missing out on some brilliant and crucial works. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are ten books by women you may not have read.

Isabelle de Charrière

Isabelle Agneta van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Belle de Zuylen), the future Madame de Charrière, by Maurice Quentin La Tour (1766).

Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie, Isabelle de Charrière (1784)
This epistolary, written by Dutch/Swiss Enlightenment writer Isabelle de Charrière, explores the tensions between reason and sensibility. This series of poignant letters tell the story of a young woman struggling with a cold, stern husband and the seeming impossibility of happiness within a marriage.

An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, Jane Collier (1753)
The first work of English novelist Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is a satirical conduct book, and includes advice for ‘teasing and mortifying’ a wide range of society, including lovers, parents, servants, and spouses. Other works of Collier’s include The Cry, written with Sarah Fielding, and a recently discovered commonplace-book.

Les Conversations d’Emilie, Louise d’Epinay (1774)
A response to Rousseauian ideas on education, this text represents a key moment in the development of 18th-century pedagogical thought. It takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her daughter, and emphasises the importance of not only the moral formation of girls, but also a well-rounded scientific and classical education.
For a critical edition of Les Conversations d’Emilie, edited by Rosena Davison, see here.

Die Honigmonathe, Caroline Auguste Fischer (1802)
This epistolary, written by German novelist Caroline Auguste Fischer, was published anonymously in response to Wilhelmine Karoline von Wobeser’s 1795 bestseller Elisa, oder das Weib wie es seyn sollte, which glorified the ideal of a selfless, obedient wife, and was much-praised by Fischer’s ex-husband. It tells the story of two close friends: Julie, who is trapped in a marriage of convenience with an increasingly selfish and unstable husband, and Wilhelmine, an ‘Amazon’ who frequently condemns the institution of marriage and seeks to rescue her friend from this unfortunate fate.

Madame de Graffigny

Presumed portrait of Madame de Graffigny, by Louis Toqué.

Lettres d’une Péruvienne, Françoise de Graffigny (1747)
One of Graffigny’s most successful works, Lettres d’une Péruvienne is told from the perspective of Zilia, a young Incan princess who is taken from her home by Spanish conquistadors and eventually finds herself living in France. Zilia is an engaging narrator, and her outsider insight into and critique of eighteenth-century Paris, as well as her suspenseful life of displacement, love, and independence, make for a highly engaging read.
For a critical edition of the Lettres d’une Péruvienne, edited by Jonathan Mallinson, see here. Graffigny’s fascinating correspondence is also well worth a read!

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, Charlotte Lennox (1752)
This satirical novel tells the story of the life and loves of Arabella, an English noblewoman with a lively imagination, strong sensibility, and a love of French romance novels. After the death of her father, her expectation that life will imitate literature gets her into no end of trouble, and her adventures are at points laugh-out-loud funny, even for a twenty-first-century reader.

Histoire du Marquis de Cressy, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1758)
Although less well-known now, the work of French actress and novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni reached a wide audience in her own time; she is even mentioned in the correspondence of Goethe. L’Histoire du Marquis de Cressy is not, as the title suggests, focussed on the life of the rakish Marquis, but instead on the tragic consequences that his deceptive and libertine behaviour has on the women in his life.

Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche (1771)
The first known German-language novel to be written by a woman, this epistolary tells the story of the virtuous Sophie von Sternheim, daughter of a colonel and an English aristocrat, and her experiences in the English court. After the death of her parents she faces interfering relatives, unwelcome suitors, and royal scandals, but she stays true to her values and in the end gets the happy ending she always wished for.

Florentin, Dorothea von Schlegel (1801)
Dorothea von Schlegel, daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, wife of Friedrich von Schlegel, and aunt to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, published Florentin in 1801. The novel follows the travels of Florentin, an Italian aristocrat, and through his relationships and the relationships of those around him explores issues of desire, gender, and marriage.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773).

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley (1773)
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery at a young age. She was subsequently bought by the Wheatley family, a merchant family from Boston, who named her after the ship on which she was forcibly brought to America, The Phillis. This collection of thirty-nine poems is rich and varied, as well as being a deeply important part of American history; it was the first ever work to be published by an African-American.

Of course, this is a very limited (and subjective!) list of suggestions. If you’d like to expand on any of the works listed here, or have other works you’d like to suggest, please comment below or contact us about writing a blog post – we’re always looking for more contributors!

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford