In fact, there is an eye-opening, under-discussed decline in the proportion of fiction actually written by women, which drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950.The number of characters who are women or girls also drops. While gender roles were becoming more flexible, the space actually allotted to (real, and fictional) women on the shelves of libraries was contracting sharply.This essay explores the changing significance of gender in fiction, asking especially whether its prominence in characterization has varied from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first.
Moreover, a role like "Miss Bennet" can belong to different people over the course of a narrative.
Gender, on the other hand, is comparatively easy to recognize.
Some aspects of this pipeline are relatively fragile.
In using only proper names to identify characters, we miss out on characters who are exclusively referred to in generic terms, such as "the footman"; uncommon nicknames (such as "Pip" for Philip Pirrip) may result in a single character sometimes being divided into multiple roles.
More importantly for the diachronic argument we will be making in this essay, accuracy seems to be relatively stable over time.
In short, while Book NLP may not provide a precise count of the sheer number of characters in a volume, it does consistently divide descriptions of men from descriptions of women.
We will cast light on those questions only indirectly, by showing that public signs of gender had a fluctuating and uncertain significance.
To trace the representation of character across 104,000 books, we needed a way to identify the characters in a work and separate them from each other.
Going on academic accounts of literary history, we might predict that the prominence of female characters in this tradition would have increased in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries But we might hope at least to see an overall story of progress across two centuries.
If we start with that loosely positive expectation, we will be disappointed.