7 Best-Selling 19th Century Female Novelists You've Never Heard Of

"Brontë who?"
"Brontë who?" / traveler1116/iStock via Getty Images Plus

When you think of 19th-century women’s literature, it’s likely you automatically think of the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, or George Eliot. You think of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, or Middlemarch. Few people today know the names Mrs. Henry Wood, Charlotte Riddell, or Maria Edgeworth—yet these women all wrote immensely popular, best-selling Victorian novels that allowed them to command top dollar. To put their work into context, Austen had to pay to publish Mansfield Park herself, while Maria Edgeworth was paid the enormous sum of £2100 for just one of her novels. Here are some of the greatest Victorian female novelists that you’ve never heard of.

1. Maria Edgeworth

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The daughter of a wealthy father, Maria Edgeworth was born in England but grew up in Ireland, where the Edgeworths moved in 1782. Edgeworth was educated alternately at home and at a series of schools as the family moved between England and Ireland. Later, she became her father’s assistant and helped him run the family estate. She began writing in the mid-1790s and published her first novel, Castle Rackrent, in 1800.

Thanks to her unusual upbringing, Edgeworth’s writing was unconstrained by what were believed to be “proper” subjects for young ladies of the time, and her books were wildly popular. She had achieved the status of literary celebrity by 1813, hobnobbing with such stars as Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. A year later, she reached the height of her success, being paid the enormous sum of £2100 for her novel Patronage.

Must Read Novel: Castle Rackrent

2. Charlotte Riddell

Charlotte Riddell (nee Cowan) was born in Ireland, though into less exalted circumstances than Edgeworth’s. Her mother was English, and following her father’s death in 1851, Charlotte and her mother returned to London around 1855. There, she began her career as a writer—first to support her dying mother, and later to support her husband, J.H. Riddell, whom she married in 1857 and who was constantly in debt.

Initially, her work was frequently rejected (she would later recall of her early days in London, “I could not eat; I could not sleep; I could only walk over the ‘stony-hearted streets’ andoffer my manuscripts to publisher after publisher,who unanimously declined them”), but eventually, Thomas Cautley Newby published several of her short stories under the name F.G. Trafford. In 1856, The Moors and the Fens was accepted by the publishing firm Smith and Elder, which also published both Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray, and published under Riddell’s Trafford pseudonym.

As Emma Dale notes in her introduction to a reissued edition of Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel A Struggle for Fame, “Female authors commonly wrote under male or gender-neutral pseudonyms in order to avoid being treated unfairly by the critics and reading public because of their sex.” But by the 1860s, Riddell commanded a decent price for her work, and, according to Dale, “was prosperous enough to buck this trend.” The author “was convinced to publish under her own name,” Mrs. J.H. Riddell. In 1967, Riddell became part owner and editor of St. James Magazine. She wrote more than 50 novels in her lifetime.

Must Read Novel: The Moors and Fens

3. Ellen Price, a.k.a. Mrs. Henry Wood

Rebecca Batley

Growing up, Ellen Price was always surrounded by books, and she began writing as a child. None of her early stories survive—she unfortunately destroyed them—but she eventually picked up the pen again to support her family when her husband’s business failed. Wood began contributing short stories to New Monthly Magazine while living with her husband in France. Her first novel, Danesbury House, was written as part of a contest; she won £100, and the novel put her on the literary map.

Wood became a household name, smashing through all sectors of society with her brilliant (if implausible) 1861 novel East Lynne. By the end of her 30-year career, she was earning £6000 a year. Wood’s works were read all over the world—they reached as far as Australia, where she outsold Charles Dickens.

Wood died in 1887. Her obituary in the London Illustrated News called her “one of the most acceptable female contributors to popular literature,” while The Times described her as a “female phenomenon.”

Must Read Novel: East Lynne

4. Mary Russell Mitford

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Considered by many to be a writer and playwright without rival, Mary Mitford’s fans included Samuel Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, with whom she exchanged nearly 500 letters. Her melodramatic tragic drama Rienzi was performed 34 times; over 8000 copies of the play were sold.

Mitford’s most popular work, however, was her series of prose sketches, entitled Our Village, which was published by installment in Lady’s Magazine. According to The Times, there wasn’t “a household in the whole country that was not talking about these stories,” and Mitford earned enough money to buy her own country retreat.

Must Read Novel: Our Villages

5. Sarah E. Farro

Born in Illinois in 1859, Sarah Farro became one of only five African-American novelists who published in the entire 19th century, and only the second Black woman to do so, when she published her first and only novel, True Love, in 1891. Her fanciful and melodramatic style of writing was in fashion at the time, and the novel was a smash hit: People in the UK in particular were particularly keen on reading a story written in America but which emulated British writers such as Thackeray and Holmes.

At home, Farro’s book was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, and her popularity soared. Sadly, today her book is mostly forgotten. As University of Amherst Massachusetts English professor Gretchen Gerzina writes at The Conversation, “The reason for True Love’s disappearance might be simple: It takes place in England, a place Farro probably never visited, and all of its characters are white.” Farro was emulating her favorite novelists—among them Charles Dickens and Oliver Wendell Holmes—in her writing. “Had Farro’s role models been black female authors who had written novels about black women,” Gerzina concludes, “she may have crafted a different kind of novel.”

The name Sarah Farro, on the lips of thousands of readers and in dozens of newspapers in the 1890s, has hardly been spoken since.

Must Read Novel: True Love: A Story of English domestic life

6. Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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Born in London in 1835, Mary Elizabeth Braddon had an unconventional childhood. Her mother, Fanny, defied the norms of the period by leaving her husband—who had been cheating on her—when Mary was 4, choosing to raise her three children as a single mother. Braddon took up writing early, and attended several schools before moving to Bath to become an actress. In 1861, Braddon raised eyebrows when she moved in with the already married John Maxwell, who was also the publisher of some of her works. (They wouldn’t marry until October 1874, a month after Maxwell’s wife Mary Ann died.)

Braddon’s novel Lady Audley's Secret, published in 1862, made her almost instantly famous and earned her a small fortune. She went on to publish two novels a year, which allowed her to buy a large house. By the time she died in 1915, Braddon had written over 80 novels as well as a number of magazine articles.

Must Read Novel: Lady Audley’s Secret

7. Ann Radcliffe

Dubbed the 19th century’s “Queen of Gothic novel” and the “Shakespeare of Romance Writers,” Ann Radcliffe (nee Ward), born in 1764, outsold almost every other 19th-century female writer. Her name is best known today through her 1794 book The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is referenced by Jane Austen in her own gothic parody, Northanger Abbey.

Radcliffe was extremely private and exceedingly shy, and not much is known about her life. In 1787, she met and married the journalist William Radcliffe, who encouraged her to write to occupy her time. Her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, was published in 1789.

Radcliffe wrote five novels, which terrified, delighted, and enchanted her readers in equal measure, in her lifetime. The books proved so popular, she quickly became the highest-paid writer of the early 1800s. She stopped publishing fiction after 1797’s The Italian—in theory because she no longer needed to do so to make money—and focused on poetry, where she had less success. Radcliffe died in 1823 of complications from pneumonia; another novel, Gaston de Blondeville, was published posthumously.

Must Read Novel: The Mysteries of Udolpho