How was the popularity of 19th-century literature impacted by the gender of the author?

It’s no secret that female authors from the 1800s are less known and less popular than male authors from the same time. Writers such as William Wordsworth, Victor Hugo, and Charles Dickens were household names, whereas female authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, and Jane Austen were relatively unknown at the time, despite their present-day popularity.

Many women, fearing an automatic rejection from publishers simply because they were women, opted to write under a pen name or pseudonym. The best known of this group are the Bronte sisters who wrote as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, and although names such as George Eliot and George Sand might be familiar to you, their actual names, Mary Ann Evans and Lucile Dupin, are likely not.


Stylometry

First, stylometry was used to analyze a selection of novels written during the 1800s by male authors, female authors, and female authors who published their work using pen names. Next, the most popular novels of the late 1800s were displayed using data visualization software. Finally, collocation analysis and relative frequencies were used to analyze book reviews from the 19th century in order to determine reviewers’ attitudes to novels depending on the gender of the author.

Stylometry is the most common text analysis application used to determine the authorship of documents, as well as to evaluate an author’s writing style by using statistical analysis on their works.

Both delta analysis and zeta analysis were used to measures the textual difference between multiple groups of texts, grouping them based on the results.

  • Delta Analysis of Male and Female Authors
  • Delta Analysis of Male, Female, and Pen Name Authors
  • Delta Analysis of Male, Female, and Pen Name Authors using Hoover's Word List
  • Delta Analysis of Male, Female, and Pen Name Authors using Hoover's Word List by Genre

The graph shown is the result of a delta analysis, with the addition of labeling each novel with its most commonly attributed genre. This analysis proves that not only do men and women not have distinctive writing styles, which completely deconstructs “gender” as a genre classifier, but it also proves that women who used pen names did not write more stylistically similar to women than they did to men. In fact, the writing style of women who used pen names forms its own unique classification, which proves that women during the 19th century were not comfortable writing authentically, and instead tried to change their writing style to not be seen as “women”.

It could be argued that the best-selling novels of the 19th century were popular due to their content, i.e., genre, rather than the gender of the author, however, the results shown in this graph also disprove this theory. The fact that the pen names that are grouped together all have five unique genres is incredibly interesting. This proves that women who used pen names wrote in a way so stylistically different from men and women both, that their style of writing overcame the natural differences that exist between different genres.


Bestsellers Lists

Next, to further determine the popularity of 19th-century novels, I examined sales records found in literary magazines and newspapers at the time, both from bookstores and book whole traders.

Through close reading of literary magazines, the shown graphs were created. On a month-to-month basis, almost ninety percent of the bestselling novels were written by men, as shown in the pie chart. Yet when the most popular novels of the decade are compared to one another, the percentage of male authors reduces to seventy percent, while the number of women increases, as can be seen in the bar chart.

Female authors appeared either at the very top of the bestsellers list or else they don’t appear on it at all. This proves that it is only through excellent writing that they are even considered, whereas average male authors made the bestsellers list on a regular basis.


Book Reviews

Finally, book reviews of the 19th century were analyzed to determine if the attitudes of professional critics changed depending on if the author of the novel was male or female. To examine this, I completed three different experiments:

  • A delta analysis was used to determine if male book reviewers wrote about all female authors in a similar way.
  • Examining word frequencies revealed how often positive and negative words were used in reviews of both male and female authors.
  • A collocation analysis was carried out to find the words commonly used in close proximity to specific terms.
  • Delta Analysis of Book Reviews based on Male, Female, & Pen Name Authors
  • Delta Analysis of Book Reviews based on Authors perceived to be Male or Female
  • Delta Analysis of Book Reviews based on Male, Female, & Pen Name Authors with Subgroups based on Gender

The results of each of these experiments further prove that the gender of the author impacted how critics reviewed their work. Similarly, both Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë, who were believed to be men at the time, were written about in the same way as other “male” authors, whereas Charlotte Brontë, the only known “female” Brontë, was written about in the same way as other women were. It’s clear that the gender of the author affected the way that professional critics reviewed books.


The results of the relative frequency of positive words:

The results of the relative frequency of negative words:

The most notable of these experiments was the relative frequencies of positive and negative words. This method was used to determine how often both types of words appeared in reviews about men and reviews about women. The relative frequency of negative words is pictured.

It is immediately clear that female authors were criticized far more often than male authors. Likewise, female authors were very rarely praised, male authors were often praised. This experiment was then divided into two sections, the first focusing on male and female authors, and the second focusing on female authors who used pen names.


I then examined the difference in positive word frequency between men and women, and then the difference in negative word frequency between men and women.

It is interesting to see that although female authors were praised almost as often as male authors, they were criticized far more harshly. Very few male authors had any of the top ten most frequent negative words used in reviews about their works, whereas every single negative word was used at least twice for the female authors.


To prove that this was because of the author’s gender rather than the books reviewed themselves, I created the same type of chart using the female authors who used pen names, namely Mary Shelley, Mary Braddon, and George Eliot.

Reviews were gathered based on female authors who used pen names, both from the time when they were assumed to be male, and from the time after they revealed that they were female. By examining the change of frequency of both positive and negative words, before and after they revealed their true gender, I can quantifiably prove that gender did play a role in how authors were written about.

Female authors assumed to be male at the time are shown in blue, and female authors later confirmed to be female are shown in pink. The difference between the supposedly “male” authors and female authors is staggering. When they were all believed to be men, they were highly praised and rarely criticized. Yet when those exact same authors were reviewed after they publicly announced that they were women, the results drastically changed, and they received far fewer positive reviews and a lot more negative reviews. This proves that the so-called professional reviewers at the time not only wrote about women in the same way, but they rarely ever wrote about female authors in a positive light, and instead condemned their works thoroughly.


The final experiment that I completed in order to determine if the attitudes of reviewers changed depending on the author of the novel was done using collation analysis.

Collocation Analysis of "Author"
Collocation Analysis of “Author”
Collocation Analysis of "Authoress"
Collocation Analysis of “Authoress”

Whereas the male authors were spoken about in relation to their work, female authors were spoken about in relation to their capability and standards. This final experiment proves that female authors were criticized more heavily than male authors.


It’s clear that the popularity of 19th-century literature was greatly impacted by the gender of the author. Female authors were criticized more heavily and reviewed less often than male authors, and the attitudes towards authors who used pen names drastically changed before and after they revealed their true gender. Through the processes of stylometry, relative frequencies, and collocation analysis of writing styles, bestsellers lists, and book reviews, it is evident that the gender of authors from the 1800s played a large role in how popular they once were.