Female philanthropy and women novelists of 1840-1870
Many women writers between 1840 and 1870 were producing a particular form of social or "social protest" novel which is identified here as a "philanthropic novel", a form distinguishable in content and tone from social novels written by men of the same period. The philanthropic novel is a work which has as its main protagonist a philanthropic heroine who is modelled - perhaps more covertly than overtly but significantly so - on the great revolutionary female philanthropists and social campaigners of the day, such as Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler. Despite the social and economic constraints imposed on women, the middle years of the nineteenth century saw an unprecedented upsurge of both women novelists and women philanthropists. A high proportion of women writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Yonge, were philanthropists themselves; others, like Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, admired the activities of eminent women philanthropists. Although, the majority of women novelists lacked the wider experience of politics, the law and commerce which was available to male writers, they now had available to them this new experience of philanthropy to draw upon for their novels. Notably, philanthropic heroines created by male authors, such as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Kingsley, were more commonly depicted along conventional stereotyped lines as "ministering angels" : the male authors were less inclined to rely on actual women philanthropists as models even though they were personally acquainted with many of these revolutionary women. This analytical and psychological enquiry into the social history and novels of the period, reveals that the philanthropic novel not only played a crucial part in the developing literary tradition of women; it also led to a new, freer consciousness for women which assisted in a reappraisal of themselves and their worth to the wider community.