“Mrs. Wollstonecraft,” engraved by William Ridley after John Opie’s portrait in oils, was published in 1796. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

In her revolutionary polemic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft argued women were — or ought to be — autonomous beings with lives, minds, and identities of their own. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

John Opie’s 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft, in a copy commissioned by one of her American admirers, Aaron Burr. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Miniature portrait on ivory of Mary Shelley, based on a death mask, by Reginald Easton, ca. 1851–93. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

The jealous husband of Lady Sarah Pennington (d. 1783) forced her into a legal separation. She wrote An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters (1803) and other works partly to vindicate her reputation, insisting that although she may have acted coquettishly, she had been a faithful wife. Her advice to her daughters was very much of its time: the inward instruction and approval of their own consciences was not enough, as she had learned to her cost; “the public voice” also “should be regarded.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Is Not She a Spunky One — or The Princess and the Bishop Engraving, an 1816 print by Charles Williams (fl. 1797–1830) satirizes the famous flight of Princess Charlotte, heir apparent to the English throne and the only child of the future George IV and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, after her father tried to force her to marry against her better judgment. Her elderly tutor, the Bishop of Exeter, is no match for her agility. Charlotte did not actually run to a ship, and was soon returned to Kensington Palace, but she held her ground and finally met, in Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, a man who was suitable to both her and her family. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The Fashionable Mamma, — or — The Convenience of Modern Dress, a 1796 print by James Gillray (1756–1815), satirized “fashionable” nursing along with the revealing dress of the 1790s (exaggerated for effect). James Gillray portrays an aristocratic woman feeding her goggle-eyed spawn while the coach waits to carry her to more diverting occupations. The peasant in the painting on the wall shows the sentimental side of maternity, and comments ironically on the fashionable mamma's lack of affection. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

Britons of all classes and sexes loved gambling, although moralizers on both the left and right decried it, as illustrated by the tone of this 1796 etching, Lady Godina’s Rout, by James Gilray. For aristocratic women, being expected to pay “debts of honor” with sexual favors was a real danger — or a viable option, depending on one’s point of view. Playing at cards and wearing a revealing gown made the same statement in the mid-1790s: the player was willing to take risks. Both were extremely fashionable. Here, at a card-party, a cool-headed young woman seems intent on ignoring the lecher at her shoulder. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

Despite the long tradition of female campaigning, women politicians found themselves vulnerable to ridicule. The 1784 election for Westminster, an area of London with an unusually large electorate, demonstrates the conflict: when Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, supported the Whig Charles James Fox, she was lambasted in dozens of scurrilous prints, some of which gave new meaning to the term “dirty politics.” In The Poll, an etching by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), she appears on a phallic seesaw with the Honorable Mrs. Albinia Hobart; elsewhere she is depicted kissing butchers to win votes. All of these prints were paid for by the opposition — and they didn’t work, since Fox won the election, thus retaining Whig control of Parliament. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

A Modern Venus was originally a rough sketch by a Miss Hoare, possibly the artist Mary Hoare. It is shown here as later professionally engraved in 1786. (The surname is comical, but the Hoares were a prominent family of artists in Bath.) The image satirizes the puffed-out and puffed-up styles of the mid-1780s, implying, as well, that underneath everything, all that matters about women is their sexuality. It oddly prefigures the exhibition, from 1810 to 1815, of Sara Baartman, a South African woman billed as “the Hottentot Venus,” whose prominent buttocks were an object of wonder to easily entertained Britons. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

Women’s adultery was judged by completely different rules than those applied to men, and even radicals found it difficult not to blame Queen Caroline, in 1820 the despised and abandoned wife of the new king, George IV. Even an abandoned wife’s taking a lover was considered an offense, and her “guilt” was flagrant. No shrinking violet, she demanded a great deal of attention at a time when flamboyant public display was less and less countenanced, especially for women. Public opinion for and against Caroline split on Whig and Tory political lines, with a few independents seeing sins on both sides. They included Thomas Jonathan Wooler (1786–1853), the supposed author of the poem The Kettle Abusing the Pot. A Satirical Poem. By The Black Dwarf. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Dorothy — known as Dora — Jordan was the most important comedienne of her day, seen here in a 1791 mezzotint by John Jones (ca. 1745–1797), after John Hoppner (1758–1810). For close to 20 years she was also the mistress to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, with whom she had 10 children, raised in cozy domesticity. Audiences adored her, and her gamine appeal shines out of her portrait as Hypolita, one of the cross-dressing roles for which she was famous. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

The traditional presentation of prostitutes as greedy and deceitful was also still viable in the Romantic period, especially in conjunction with other stereotypes, such as this anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jew in Ladies Trading on Their Own Bottom (ca. 1810), an engraving by Thomas Rowlandson. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Courtesans, usually attached to one man from whom they often received a fixed allowance, were not merely prostitutes. They made aristocratic men comfortable with refined social skills, but enjoyed sex shamelessly in an age when shame had begun to be the mark of a lady. The courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786–1846) blackmailed former lovers — many of them rich and respectable — withholding their names from her 1825 Memoirs of Harriette Wilson if they paid up. The four-volume book was issued in monthly installments, giving her time to negotiate. Even when she named names, however, Wilson was suggestive, never graphic. As soon as the publication was complete, the printing pirates leapt on it, since works like hers could not claim copyright protection; in these pirated editions, such as The Courtezan, illustrators compensated for her taste with racy pictures. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Thomas Rowlandson’s print reminds us that the newer image of women as passive “angels of the house” was not the only one carrying cultural currency; older images of women who were raucous and ready for a fight were still funny to audiences in 1815. But the melee he depicts, in which bluestockings — a semi-contemptuous term for learned women — fight like fishwives and spill “French cream” (shorthand for their supposed interest in the French Revolution), is a far cry from the decorous bluestocking teas commonly held in previous decades. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Other female writers “only seek for flowers,” but she, Wollstonecraft tells Catherine Macaulay, “contends for laurels.” NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Poet and novelist Helen Maria Williams (1761–1827) crossed the Channel in time to celebrate the first Bastille Day, July 14, 1790, and settled permanently in France. Her Paris home quickly became the social center for English-speaking expatriates. Many of her French friends, political moderates like herself, were guillotined during the 1793 Terror; Williams was imprisoned and then moved temporarily to Switzerland. She began publishing eyewitness accounts of French life and history in 1790, and continued them throughout her life. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Readers and reading were sources of constant interest to artists in the Romantic period. The young woman in an engraving titled Comfort holds Matthew Gregory Lewis’s “terror-gothic” The Monk (1796). A phantasmagoria of murder, suicide, corruption, and incest, it is one of the few novels for which 19th-century disapproval might still seem justified, and it was blamed for considerable moral degradation. The subject of Comfort heats her posterior along with her imagination. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The scarcity of respectable jobs for women made writing attractive: it could be done anonymously and, if necessary, in private, from one’s own room. For women who sought fame, the cachet of authorship was considerable, and the rewards could be as well. The parlor of the Irish novelist and travel-writer Lady Sydney Morgan (1783–1859), shown here in the frontispiece to her 1859 autobiography, Passages from my Autobiography, was the embodiment of authorial success. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Elizabeth Inchbald married a fellow actor, found herself widowed young, and instead of remarrying prized her independence, maintained by scrupulous attention to her reputation. Despite her efforts, Henry Wigstead satirically portrays her living in squalor, with a bottle of gin and the Earl of Rochester’s erotic poetry on the table, writing promotional “puffs” for her own work. Highlighting Inchbald’s unusual solitude, the engraving suggests the discomfort some Britons felt at seeing a woman living without masculine protection. I’ll Tell You What! — the subject of this stipple engraving — and Such Things Are are two of Inchbald’s plays. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The father of the Swiss-born painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807) recognized his daughter’s gifts when she was very small, and saw to it that she received the best training in Europe. Within a year of arriving in England, she could count herself one of the most popular portrait painters of the day. Her work as editor and illustrator is seen here in a 1794 book intended to be given as a gift. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Anna Atkins (1799–1871), an amateur marine botanist, was responsible for every aspect of her masterpiece, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843–53): she collected hundreds of specimens of seaweed and identified, labeled, and made photograms of them, employing the cyanotype process now used only for blueprints. (This involved placing the specimens on chemically treated paper and exposing them briefly to the sun.) Then she put them into a series of volumes whose images, such as the Laminaria digitata seen here, hover between science and art. She made fewer than 20 copies of the whole, and gave them to scientific institutions, friends, and relations. Since she came from a prominent scientific family, this included people like the astronomer Sir John Herschel. Herschel developed the cyanotype process and communicated it to Atkins via her father; she presented this copy to him. NYPL, Spencer Collection   More information

This young woman, coyly identified in the title of this 1782 mezzotint as a “Beauty in Search of Knowledge,” is about to enter a circulating library. These commercial establishments provided more than just books — they were places to meet friends and flirt with strangers. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Ada Byron (1815–1852), seen in this watercolor by an unknown artist circa 1835, inherited poetic imagination as well as good looks from her father Lord Byron, but employed it in mathematics. The mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville was a friend and advisor; through Somerville, Ada met her future husband and also, probably, Charles Babbage, whose mathematical machines, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, were precursors of the computer. This research became the great passion of her life and she developed an early programming language. Much later, the United States Department of Defense named one of its computer languages ADA in her honor. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776–1839) was famous in her lifetime as the woman who left London for the desert of present-day Lebanon, living with a freedom she was denied at home. She is seen in this frontispiece smoking a hookah and conversing with her confidant and doctor, Charles Meryon (1783–1877), whose Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope was instrumental in preserving her memory. On only a modest income, Lady Hester built a large compound and acted as doctor, astrologist, and hostess to travelers and the local population. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Little is known of Margaret Bryan (b. ca. 1760, fl. ca. 1797–1815), author of A Compendious System of Astronomy (1797) and Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1806), except that she ran two successful schools for girls, teaching the sciences at high levels. This frontispiece tells us only that she was handsome and had at least two daughters. The subscription list for the Compendious System is long and full of aristocratic names, indicating that whatever else she was, Bryan had a good public relations network. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Frances Wright, a philanthropist of Scottish birth, founded Nashoba, in Tennessee, as a utopian community to educate slaves in preparation for freedom. Lacking proper planning, it became a large mud puddle full of tree stumps and only a few half-finished buildings. Wright’s friend, the writer Frances Trollope, who had hoped to teach there, later described it: “Desolation was the only feeling — the only word that presented itself.” Nashoba was abandoned, but Frances Wright persevered with a speaking tour promoting her utopian ideals. Although she was a marvelous public speaker, her ideas prompted caricatures such as “A Downwright Gabbler, or a Goose That Deserves to Be Hissed” (ca. 1830s), by James Akin (1773–1846). NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

Hannah More (1745–1833), Evangelical Christian abolitionist and philanthropist, was indefatigable in her efforts to encourage docility and obedience among the poor. Many items from her long series of Cheap Repository Tracts, made to be given away or sold very cheaply, address specific problems — as here, with “false excuses” — in order to teach servants and other members of the laboring classes how to behave. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The father of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) died when she was an infant. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, followed — knowingly or not — two dicta of the influential Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in her parenting: she breast-fed Victoria herself, and raised her in isolation. But the methods employed were more puritanical than Romantic; she encouraged her daughter’s conscience by having Victoria write reports on her own behavior. The princess’s lessons included drawing, for which she shows a marked talent in this picture made circa 1830. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Princess Victoria, depicted in a stipple engraving by William Keenan (b. ca. 1810), does not look like the sort of girl who would describe herself as “VERY VERY VERY VERY HORRIBLY NAUGHTY!!!!!” — but she did, in 1832. She had absorbed a stern sense of discipline and asserted her power by firing her mother’s ambitious advisor, Sir John Conroy, as soon as she became queen in 1837. During her long reign, monarchical power diminished steadily, and Victoria took the middle-class virtues that her mother had imparted — conventionality, truthfulness, the wish to be good — and made them royal as well. NYPL, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs   More information

Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the Romantic Era


A Sexual Revolution for Women Seemed Possible

First of a New Genus: Mary Wollstonecraft

Fables for the Female Sex

Politicians, Gamblers, Lovers, and Other Improper Ladies

Female Patriots

Stronger Passions of the Mind

Rational Dames and Intrepid Travelers

The Youngest Romantics

In 1780s Britain, life was more rigidly stratified than it is today: people knew where they belonged, and law and custom kept them there. Women labored under special disabilities. Politically disenfranchised, they also could not join the professions and were barred from many jobs. Married women had no rights to property or even to their own children. Centuries of common sense claimed that women were less than men in every way except in their ability to bear children. But, in the wake of the French Revolution, political equality and something like a sexual revolution for women seemed possible. Moreover, thanks partly to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the legal and social restrictions under which women lived were briefly but hotly contested during the period we now call the Romantic era (1789–1837).

By the time Victoria inherited the throne in 1837, other, gentler changes had taken place. Genteel women no longer laughed at bawdy jokes or made them, as they had in the 18th century. Noblewomen no longer ruled the fashionable world by establishing private casinos, and their political campaigning was largely confined to the drawing room. By 1800, many women had begun to understand motherhood as a sacred calling. This transformation in women’s lives also produced poetry, novels, plays, and paintings; new ways of understanding feminine sexuality; and new feminine roles in British culture. Not least, it produced — and was produced by — some fascinating women: wives, mothers, and lovers, as well as actresses, botanists, poets, novelists, travelers, sculptors, astronomers, courtesans, and utopians.

Many were helped by being born into wealthy families. A few gained autonomy by declining to marry. Almost all were born with talents, energies, or temperaments that made them — loudly or quietly, gracefully or awkwardly — fighters. Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era, an exhibition held at NYPL in 2005 and the title of a companion book by Elizabeth C. Denlinger, told the stories of some of these women, putting them in the context of their extraordinary revolutionary moment. What follows are a few highlights from that show.

Brilliant, adventurous, compassionate woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) embodied a new sense of what was possible for her sex. As a girl, she tried to defend her mother against the drunken violence of her father. Later, she became a governess, founded her own school, and slowly transformed herself into a versatile professional journalist. The height of fame came with her 1792 masterpiece, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she demanded that women take responsibility for themselves, and reform the world by reforming their own lives.

Alone, she traveled to Ireland, Portugal, France, and Scandinavia. In France she witnessed the Revolution’s progress, wrote its history, took an American lover — Gilbert Imlay — and became a mother. Abandoned by Imlay, Wollstonecraft returned to London and twice attempted suicide but lived to meet her great love, the philosopher William Godwin. She died in September 1797 soon after giving birth to their daughter, leaving an unfinished novel called The Wrongs of Woman. That daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, grew up to write Frankenstein, a novel imagining the wrongs of science and the rights of monsters. Wollstonecraft, above all a persevering explorer of the human condition, would have been proud of her daughter’s work.

During the Romantic era, women and girls were constantly told: Be good! This meant being a virgin at marriage and a faithful wife afterward, with marriage the only socially approved goal. There was nothing new in this. What was new in Romantic-era Britain were gradual changes in the meanings of virtue, sexuality, and motherhood. Under multiple pressures — conservative panic at the French Revolution; long wars that aroused both patriotism and anger; a growing population; and, not least, the industrial revolution, which made power differences more brutal, even as it created a new world for consumers — the age-old association of women with purity and goodness became more firmly entrenched.

“Virtue” came to imply that even the appearance of impropriety was unacceptable; an innocent walk alone with a young man was a dangerous undertaking. Conduct books, prints, novels, preachers, parents, and teachers enforced the idea that virtue was fragile and irrecoverable if even slightly damaged. And virtue became politicized: while Mary Wollstonecraft saw the French Revolution as liberating for women, many more heard in it a call to discipline. Ideas about motherhood also changed. Although birth control was almost unobtainable, conduct books promoted a new sense that motherhood was a calling, not just biological destiny. Breast-feeding became fashionable, then widespread. Women were expected to instruct their young children in reading, writing, arithmetic, and, especially, Christian virtues. But real life was more difficult, more painful, and more forgiving than conduct books would have it.

If the Romantic era offered new ways to be good, it also offered many ways and places for women to have fun and to get into trouble. These included gambling, politics, theater, pleasure parks, operas, masquerades, and — not least — adultery. Not all of them were entirely new, but they came to the fore in these years, in which women performed a risky balancing act between having a good time and being good.

Since divorce was almost unobtainable, there was little recourse for an unhappy marriage. The sexual double standard — by which men could do as they liked, but women had to make sure that their sons belonged to their husbands — meant that the stakes in games of love were high indeed, and sex tinged everything, from politics to theater to the roulette wheel. The risks were not equal: wealthy women had a cushion of money and social connections, while poor women who had a bit of bad luck might quickly find themselves working as prostitutes. In the middle were actresses and courtesans, the latter decidedly improper, the former now able to retain their good names — if they worked very hard at it. Finally, the Romantic era saw the beginning of modern lesbian culture, exemplified in the now-obsolete social relationship known as romantic friendship, held up as a model of female virtue and devotion — as long as there was no hint of sex.

More than any other event in this period, the French Revolution changed lives. Its early political reforms — the abolition of the monarchy, the expansion of civil liberties, the limitation of Church power — improved life for millions of French citizens (no longer subjects), and encouraged hopes across Europe that life might be more equitably arranged. Many Britons reacted with joy to the first news of the Revolution, but this early, hopeful phase did not last long. In particular, the guillotines’ hackwork during the Terror of 1793 changed the minds of many former supporters of the Revolution. Britain’s wars with France began in 1793 and continued until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815.

Revolutions arouse strong emotions and heated discussions took place all over Britain after 1789. In pamphlets, novels, poetry, and images, people asked questions: Should women have the same rights as men? Did people have rights or duties, and were they citizens or subjects? Of what use was the nobility, anyway? Was human nature mutable? Would all this lead to mob rule? If all men were created equal, how could the slave trade be justified? Answers to these questions and others ensured that printers were kept busy, despite some episodes of governmental censorship. Although women, even the most conservative, were not welcome in the discussion, enter it they did.

The continuing spread of the print revolution that began with Gutenberg made the Romantic period an enormously fruitful time for readers, writers, and even visual artists. Growing numbers of readers supported growing numbers of books, newspapers, prints, and journals. The figure of the author gained a new glamour and mystique. Circulating libraries made books widely available, and reading aloud was a favorite pastime.

Women took up authorship for the sake of fame and artistic glory, but for practical reasons too: writing required no formal education beyond a knowledge of the genres, and no tools beyond paper and ink. Books could be published anonymously, and written from home. Thus, some of the legal obstacles that women endured — they were barred from universities and most jobs — could be evaded by working with a pen. New genres, such as the annuals — pretty, highly illustrated gift books — and the increasing number of works for children provided outlets for women’s writing. Above all, women wrote novels, a wildly popular genre; they produced everything from trash to masterpieces. But it was poetry that brought the greatest critical esteem, and women such as Felicia Hemans competed with Lord Byron in sales.

The visual arts were not so profitable for women, since oil painting required professional training and unladylike self-promotion. But all genteel girls learned to draw, and some, such as Lady Diana Beauclerk, did forge professional careers. Others, such as Anna Atkins, an early photographer, brought extraordinary dedication and skill to their amateur work.

Education for women in the Romantic era was underdeveloped. Most people agreed that poor girls should be literate, but many educators limited their teaching to reading without writing. Genteel girls were taught in boarding schools that mostly emphasized the “accomplishments”: fluffy subjects including drawing, dancing, and manners. But one advance was made that would later be lost: science education.

Science was not much taught in the universities and so it lacked the masculine cachet of the classics. Since work in elementary zoology, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and other disciplines could easily be carried on from a country house, there was no reason for girls not to engage in these subjects. Many of their science textbooks were anything but fluffy, and many were written by women. In the Victorian era, as the sciences became professionalized, women were shut out, but some extraordinary early women in science — among them, Caroline Herschel, Ada Byron, and Mary Somerville — are still known today.

Women travelers, too, sought to learn about the material world, and needed a great deal of courage to set off. Some, such as Frances Trollope, were economic emigrants. Others, such as Lady Hester Stanhope, sought freedom from social convention. Travel later became a genteel pursuit for the whole family, and unlike early scientists, women travelers were followed by generations of successors.

Where poetry had been the most esteemed and popular form among readers of a generation before, the novel was now the most-read genre. The publishing business boomed as new methods of making paper resulted in cheaper books and magazines. In fact, all of Britain — except for Ireland — was booming, in its industry, its population, its overseas empire. And in the magazines, the topics of debate reflected this boom: child labor, factory conditions, “scientific” racism, prostitution, conditions in the colonies. It was a larger world altogether, with starker differences between people.

Expectations of women’s sexuality had also changed. Convention had forced Mary Wollstonecraft to pretend that Gilbert Imlay was her husband, but George Eliot lived openly with her life partner, George Henry Lewes. In Wollstonecraft’s London, women were assumed to be the same lustful creatures as men, and even respectable newspapers printed gossip. In the larger, smokier, more secretive London of the mid-19th century, it was easier for women to live independently, lost in the crowd. Within their families, however, social demands were more stringent, and middle-class women were assumed to be “pure,” that is, passionless. Women of the period before Victoria, their longings unsuppressed, seem more familiar to us. And while the past is not a mirror for the present, the strivings of these women — like Princess Victoria’s beautifully drawn outstretched hand, seen here — reflect the still unrealized plans that are their legacy.


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