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Women better represented in 19th century novels than in modern fiction, says study

An analysis of characters and authors of 1,04,000 novels between 1780 and 2007 has found that while gender roles may have blurred in fiction over two centuries, the proportion of fiction by women writers too has declined.

books Updated: Feb 27, 2018 15:26 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times
Women in fiction,Women writers,Victorian novels
Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in a still from the 2011 movie based on Victorian novelist Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 classic.(Imdb.com)

A new study has found that while gender roles may have blurred in English-language fiction over two centuries, there has been an “eye-opening, under-discussed decline in the proportion of fiction actually written by women”.

The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction, published earlier this month by scholars from the universities of Illinois and California at Berkeley in the journal Cultural Analytics, is based on an analysis of characters and authors of 1,04,000 novels from 1780 to 2007, taken primarily from the HathiTrust Digital Library, according to a report in the Smithsonian magazine.

The study found a decline in female characters in literature “from the 19th century through the early 1960s” and a drop in the number of books by women in the first half of the 20th century. According to the data analysis, “the proportion of fiction actually written by women … drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950,” reports The Guardian.

The study found a decline in female characters in literature “from the 19th century through the early 1960s” and a drop in the number of books by women in the first half of the 20th century.

“The number of characters who are women or girls also drops. We are confronted with a paradoxical pattern. While gender roles were becoming more flexible, the space actually allotted to (real, and fictional) women on the shelves of libraries was contracting sharply,” says the study.

The academics believe this could partly be due to the respect the novel form, initially seen as a non-serious genre, gained later. “As the novel becomes more and more respectable,” Smithsonian magazine quotes Claire Jarvis, a professor of English at Stanford University, as saying, “it becomes less associated with female authorship.”

It could also be due to the fact that over the decades women took to writing in others genres such as non-fiction. “It is not hard to see how expanding opportunities on this scale might have lured women away from the novel,” say the study authors.

However, the decline in women authors was part of the reason for the drop in women characters, say the academics. “In books by men, women occupy on average just a quarter to a third of the character-space,”. But in books by women, “the division is much closer to equal”, says the study.

The study also looked at the gendered use of language in fiction, which declined over time. The algorithm revealed that words like “heart”, “tears”, “sighs”, “smiles” were “gendered feminine” in the 19th century, with “only a few subjective nouns ascribed more often to men; the primary one is passion, which is sometimes a 19th-century euphemism for lust”.

By the mid-20th century, words for mirth such as “smile” and “laugh” were more likely to be used for female characters, while “mid-century men, apparently, can only grin and chuckle”.

The authors note, according to the Smithsonian magazine report, that the study does not cover all novels written during the selected time period and is “missing representation from genre fiction such as romance novels and detective fiction, which grew popular in the 20th century.” However, they contend that the books chosen represented works considered important by academic libraries.

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First Published: Feb 23, 2018 12:28 IST