Eight Classic Female Bildungsromane You Should Know About If You Don’t Already -The Toast

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The female Bildungsroman (or novel of development) is, in some ways, a contradiction in terms. Novels about the transition from girlhood to womanhood have historically been more about “growing down,” in Annis Pratt’s famous phrase, than growing up; they show their heroines learning to conform to gender norms rather than discovering themselves as individuals. Even if the novels contain subversive middles, showing us girls who run and play like boys and harbor ambitions for achievement or fame, they generally end rather depressingly with marriage and subservience, the heroines renouncing all of their earlier dreams.

Of course, the most beloved women’s novels toy with the genre’s conventions. Think Jane Eyre with its rebellious heroine and weakened hero, who come together in the end as equals; or Little Women with its decidedly unromantic match between Jo and Professor Bhaer, which Alcott added in fun when she couldn’t make Jo a literary spinster. Another common ending for the female Bildungsroman, especially for the willful heroine who refuses to conform, has been death, either as punishment or protest; here The Mill on the Floss and The Awakening come to mind. The latter is an interesting example of the novel of development that begins rather than ends with marriage, rightly acknowledging that many nineteenth-century women married before, not after, they had achieved maturity, and that the search for self did not always end on the wedding day.

Today the Bildungsroman remains an important genre for women writers, particularly as women continue to explore possibilities opened up thanks to modern feminist activism. But it would be wrong to assume the genre has only recently come into its own. The nineteenth century is full of varied examples that were relegated to virtual obscurity (along with their authors, but that is another story) that deserve to be read again—not only for their historical significance but also for the diverse forms of artistry they display. They also offer all of the joys of challenging convention that our old favorites do. While the following examples of the female Bildungsroman might be encountered in a college course, they are not widely known, and it is entirely possible to receive a degree in English without reading a single one. The movement to recover women’s voices of the past has waned somewhat in recent years, and thus each of these texts (although almost all are currently in print) are in danger of being forgotten again. Of all of the genres women have written in, the female Bildungsroman is one of the most important — for it often grows out of the author’s own lived experiences, providing a map to where women’s lives have been, and where they are going.

Anne (1882) by Constance Fenimore Woolson

A sensation in America and England when it was first serialized in Harper’s magazine, and the most popular novel of Woolson’s illustrious career (she was often compared to George Eliot and Henry James), Anne rejects the conventions of the domestic tale, following its eponymous heroine from her idyllic childhood on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron out into the cruel world. Anne Douglas belongs in the pantheon of iconoclastic heroines, as she goes against type, saving reckless maidens in danger and serving as a Civil War nurse, while also coming to accept her passionate nature, preferring to be true to herself rather than to conform to what others think is proper. Anne is a wonderful example of how the quest and romance narratives can converge in the female Bildungsroman. Anne is an epic love story, murder mystery, adventure novel, and coming-of-age narrative all rolled into one, sharing similarities with Jane Eyre and The Portrait of a Lady, yet Americanizing their themes. (This is the only novel on the list not available in a modern edition. It deserves to be.)

She threw herself into her Italian songs with so much fervor that Belzini sat aghast; this was not the manner in which demoiselles of private life should sing. . . . [Her teacher] always put down with iron what she called the predominant tendency toward too great freedom—sensationalism—in young girls. She spent her life in a constant struggle with the American ‘jeune fille.’

Bread Givers (1925) by Anzia Yezierska

Bread Givers is the powerful coming-of-age story of a second generation Jewish immigrant girl, Sara Smolinsky’s, who refuses to fall in line with the submissive model of womanhood her rigidly patriarchal father enforces and to which her mother easily submits. Anyone who has ever yearned for release from the confinement of childhood will empathize with Sara’s intense yearning for a freer, American way of life that includes gaining a college education. Here is a heroine who refuses to “grow down,” despite virtually all of the circumstances of her life that conspire against her.

My hands clutched at the knob. This door was life. It was air. The bottom starting-point for becoming a person. I simply must have this room with the shut door.


The Hidden Hand (1859) by E.D.E.N. Southworth

In Little Women, Jo March tries to write sensation stories like Southworth (called Mrs. S. L. A. N. G. Northbury), an indication of how popular she was in her day. Her most popular book, The Hidden Hand, was serialized three times and performed in forty different stage adaptations. Resembling Don Quixote more than the typical domestic fare of the time, it is a rollicking romp through the adventurous life an orphan girl named Capitola. We first meet her disguised as a boy in the streets of New York. When she is rescued by her ward, a wealthy Virginian aristocrat who wants to turn her into a lady-like Southern belle, she refuses to his efforts to tame her sharp tongue and fiery spirit. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, she jumps into the action whenever she can, even fighting her own duel and thwarting a would-be rapist.

“And so, sir, while all the ragged boys I knew could get little jobs to earn bread, I, because I was girl, was not allowed to carry a gentleman’s parcel, or black his boots, or shovel the snow off a shopkeeper’s pavement, or put in coal, or do anything that I could do just as well as they. And so because I was girl there seemed to be nothing but starvation or beggary for me!”

“Oh lord! oh lord! that such things should be!” cried Old Hurricane.

“Impressions of an Indian Childhood” (1900) by Zitkala-Ša

This collection of vignettes from Zitkala- Ša’s childhood was first published in the Atlantic Monthly and quickly followed up with “The School Days of an Indian Girl” and “An Indian Teacher Among Indians.” (They are printed along with other works in American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings.) Taken together, these three autobiographical works comprise a fascinating Bildungsroman that follows Zitkala-Ša (whose given name was Gertrude Bonin) from her Sioux family of origin to the white boarding school where she found enforced assimilation painful but also discovered her joy in reading and writing. She ultimately became a teacher herself. Throughout, she tells the stories from the point of view of her older, wiser self, who regrets her rejection of her Native heritage and criticizes the hypocrisy of her white teachers and the prejudice of her fellow students. Zitkala-Ša’s writings led to her dismissal from her teaching position, and she went on to become an activist for the rights of Native Americans.

Soon we were being drawn rapidly away by the white man’s horses. When I saw the lonely figure of my mother vanish in the distance, a sense of regret settled heavily upon me . . . Now the first step, parting me from my mother, was taken, and all my belated tears availed nothing.

Moods (1864) by Louisa May Alcott

Readers of Little Women will be surprised by Moods, an earlier and darker novel of Alcott’s, written for adults. Heavily influenced by the feminist ideas of Margaret Fuller, Alcott explores the fate of a young woman, Sylvia Yule, who is ruled by her moods (not unlike Jo) and has not yet come to know and love herself before she jumps into marriage with a man she admires but does not love. Moods is that rare nineteenth-century novel that follows its tempestuous heroine into an unhappy marriage and into the murky territory of contemplating divorce (which other more famous novels, such as Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady assiduously avoid). Not surprisingly, the novel’s controversial subject drew criticism from reviewers.

“Something must be done about that child, father, for she is getting entirely beyond my control. . . . If I beg her to take exercise, she rides like an Amazon all over the Island, grubs in the garden as if for her living, or goes paddling about the bay till I’m distracted lest the tide should carry her out to sea. She is so wanting in moderation she gets ill, and when I give her proper medicines she flings them out of the window, and threatens to send that worthy, Dr. Baum, after them.”

The Morgesons (1862) by Elizabeth Stoddard

This strikingly original novel was brought back into print in the 1980s by two prominent literary critics who hailed it as worthy of comparison to Hawthorne and Melville; however, it still has yet to gain much of a reading. Part of the reason is probably what some have called its lack of polish and others have seen as a proto-modernist, elliptical style. But Stoddard’s refusal to connect all of the dots and explain her characters’ motivations is what makes The Morgesons such a thrilling read. Think Emily Dickinson meets Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter, with explosive passion lurking just beneath the genteel surface. The heroine, Cassandra Morgeson, tells her own story of passion and will set against the strict social milieu of New England, allowing the reader to immerse herself in one of the more original minds in nineteenth-century fiction.

“That child,” said my aunt Mercy, looking at me with indigo-colored eyes, “is possessed.”

When my aunt said this I was climbing a chest of drawers, by its knobs, in order to reach the book-shelves above it.


Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet E. Wilson

Our Nig may be the first novel published by an African-American and is powerful example of a thwarted Bildungsroman. The title character, Frado, is a mixed-race girl in New England who is abandoned by her parents and given to a white family to raise. However, they can only see her as a servant and treat her as if she were a slave. A roman-a-clef that has much in common with slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Our Nig was written as an attempt to stave off poverty and to awaken the North to its own racism. It is a tragic tale of a young woman starved of love and robbed of her health and ability to grow into happy womanhood. Yet the fact that it was written at all is a triumph of will characteristic of the female Bildungsroman.

Thus passed a year. No intelligence of Mag [her mother]. It was now certain Frado was become a permanent member of the family. Her labors were multiplied; she was quite indispensable, although but seven years old. She had never learned to read; never heard of a school until her residence in the family.

Ruth Hall (1854) by Fanny Fern

Fanny Fern was the pseudonym of the popular newspaper writer and humorist, Sara Payson Willis. The highest paid columnist in the country and a powerful satirist, she delighted in mocking the hypocrisies of powerful men. In Ruth Hall, Fern took aim at her own family members, who refused to help her and her children after her husband’s early death. Reviewers called her unlady-like and vengeful while readers couldn’t get enough of this talented writer who was not afraid to speak truth to power. Told in short, episodic chapters that flout the formalistic conventions of the novel, Ruth Hall also flouts convention by beginning with a happy marriage, instead of ending with one. The heart of the story is a woman’s struggle and ultimate triumph in a patriarchal world that tries to silence women’s voices.

And so, while Ruth scribbled away in her garret, the public were busying themselves in conjecturing who ‘Floy,’ might be. . . . Some maintain[ed] her to be a man, because she had the courage to call things by their right names, and the independence to express herself boldly on subjects which to the timid and clique-serving, were tabooed.

Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson and a collection of Woolson’s fiction, Miss Grief and Other Stories, are both out February 29.

Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor at the University of New Orleans and the author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and a collection of Woolson’s fiction, Miss Grief and Other Stories, both available from W. W. Norton. She offers a monthly profile of a forgotten woman writer in her newsletter The Bluestocking Bulletin.

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