Long before our grandmothers were born, women, and a few wonderful men (John Stuart Mill first and foremost), were striving for a more equitable society for women. Writers in the 19th century tackled social reform in their novels as a catalyst for change, from Dickens protesting the abysmal conditions of the workhouse in Oliver Twist to Wilkie Collins voicing support for fairer inheritance laws in No Name. The women on this list were, in the main, self-avowed feminists, but even those that were not, saw writing as a means of combating social injustices. As usual I have tried, in the cases of authors like Alcott, Eliot, and Bronte, to choose less familiar works.
A Long Fatal Love Chase - Louisa May Alcott
Written in 1866, but not published until 1995, this brilliant gothic novel by the author of Little Women stands in vivid contrast to Alcott's works for young girls. The longest and most fully developed of her sensational stories, this novel was originally rejected both for its length and its controversial content. Rosamund is a lonely and isolated young woman, trapped on an island with her cantankerous guardian, until she is swept off her feet by the Mephistophelian Phillip Tempest. After a hasty marriage, Rosamund discovers that her husband has another wife and rather than crawl into the corner and die (as most heroines of her time would have done), she makes her escape, commencing the chase of the title. A strikingly frank depiction of sex and sexuality, set in a world where women were owned, virtual slaves, by their husbands.
Shirley - Charlotte Bronte
Bronte's second published novel is set in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic Wars, a time of civil unrest and economic hardship. Shirley is an unusual heroine and a joy for feminists - an unmarried and completely independent woman landowner, whose lively interest and involvement in her own business concerns leads her to philanthropic efforts for the working classes. Her friend, Caroline, is a more traditional female character, though she also struggles against the constraints and hypocrisies of her society. While the overt theme is the political and social agitation caused by industrialization, the book offers an extremely critical implicit examination of women's roles in a rigid patriarchal society.
Romola - George Eliot
Romola is a brilliant and highly cultured young woman living in Florence in 1492 - Columbus has just sailed to the New World and Savonarola is about to embark on his frenzy of religious reform and rebellion against the Medici family, which will culminate in the Bonfire of the Vanities and a series of bloody riots. Amid the religious and political turmoil, Romola undergoes a startling transformation from a naive girl easily led into a bad marriage to a strong woman whose deeply felt compassion gives her life purpose. The theme of duty is central to Eliot's story, particularly when the duty of obedience transforms into an equally strong duty of resistance.
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert was charged and eventually acquitted of obscenity when Madame Bovary was first published, a trial that rendered the work notorious and extremely popular. It's no wonder that the overzealous found the book obscene - this early realist work is about Emma Bovary, a bourgeois wife whose boring and tedious marriage drives her to seek romantic thrills in adulterous affairs. Emma is first and foremost a romantic, unable to accept that the humdrum reality of respectability even qualifies as real experience. While Flaubert can hardly be considered a feminist, his critique of bourgeois marriage and his scrupulous refusal to condemn Emma's adultery make the novel a milestone for feminists.
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
In Gaskell's social novel, Margaret Hale is forced by circumstance to move from an idyllic country home to the bustling industrial town of Milton (based on Manchester) where her observations of the cruelties and deprivations suffered by the working classes leads her to fierce disputes with John Thornton, owner of one of the town's cotton mills, and involvement in the campaign for political reforms for workers. Margaret becomes an advocate and friend to the mill workers and a force for peaceful change, eventually embarking on business propositions of her own, informed by the labor struggles she has witnessed and supported. North and South was severely criticized when it was first published, with male critics averring that Gaskell, as a woman, could have no genuine understanding of the complexities of industrialism and the labor market. Feminist and Marxist critics have since embraced the novel for its prescient political stance.
Valvedre - George Sand
Any of George Sand's novels could be included on this list, but Valvedre has the unfortunate distinction of being less well-known. The novel is a scathing critique of traditional ideas of femininity and the catastrophic effects such ideas had on love relationships during a time when divorce was all but unobtainable. Henri is a young botanist, eager to fall in love, working in the alps with a distinguished naturalist, Valvedre. When Alida Valvedre arrives, already discontented in her marriage, she and Henri tumble into a precipitous affair, defined by their closely held and delusive romantic ideals. All three protagonists are deeply sympathetic; their choices are tragic because of the social restrictions under which they live. As usual, Sand's female characters are complex social and moral beings.