Thackeray's decorated 'T' he history of Craik's relationship with the critics reveals as much about changing critical fashions and public tastes as it does about the quality of her writing. Her career began during the decade when the novel came to be seen as the dominant literary form and the competent novelist could expect to earn intelligent respect as well as a decent living. At the time Craik began to publish there were suddenly, also, several women novelists who could be taken seriously and, perhaps more important, critics wanted to take them seriously. "What does the literature of women mean?" asked G. H. Lewes in an 1852 Westminster Review article on "The Lady Novelists":

It means this: while it is impossible for men to express life otherwise than as they know it — and they can only know it profoundly according to their own experience — the advent of female literature promises woman's view of life, woman's experiences: in other words, a new element. Make what distinctions you please in the social world, it still remains true that men and women have different organizations, consequently different experiences. To know life you must have both sides depicted.

Craik's early novels did not attract so much attention as the first books of not in print version Charlotte Brontë and not in print version Elizabeth Gaskell, which came out at practically the same time, but they were reviewed, and reviewed seriously; critics put Craik from the start into the class of "writers" rather than "silly lady novelists." By 1851 Colburn's New Monthly Magazine devoted a seven-page article to "The Author of 'Olive,'" treating her as a writer with a growing oeuvre, rather than merely a novelist of the season, and giving special praise to her strength in portraying ordinary people.2 Even in less favorable comments, we often discover that the critic is objecting to traits that another generation might well have praised. Craik is said to lack a "poetic [117/118] richness of style," to spend too much time on introspection and her characters' interior development, and to be unsuccessful at plotting because she uses her story only as a device for revealing "the dynamics of character."

There were other promising young women writers in the same period who were treated seriously by critics — Margaret Oliphant, Geraldine Jewsbury, Eliza Lynn (later Linton). It is therefore significant that Craik's was the name most frequently mentioned in the same breath with Brontë's or Gaskell's, though generally in the latter half of the sentence. The Lewes essay in Westminster Review (quoted above) listed Craik as a new novelist of "considerable power"; Gentleman's Magazine in 1853 found her not quite so talented as Charlotte Brontë; a Blackwood's essay in 1855 said that she was "touched by the spirit of Jane Eyre." Sydney Dobell suggested that Brontë and Mulock were "kindred stars reflecting each other's light" — although Dobell, we must remember, was a friend of Dinah Mulock's, and Brontë evidently found the suggestion amusing. An important midcentury literary theorist, discussing the trend toward realism in the English novel, referred to "the representation of previously unexplored tracts of provincial English scenery and life in the novels of Miss Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss Mulock, and others."

When George Eliot entered upon the scene, she also became an explorer of these tracts. One French reviewer referred to her as a new rival of Miss Mulock. Although most critics immediately hailed Eliot as something more than that, the two names were rather frequently paired, throughout the period of their joint working lives, in a context that contrasted "good literature" to the other sort. The American National Quarterly Review complained in 1860 that "'Sensation stories' are now all the rage. Nine out of every ten (nay, we may say ninety-nine out of every hundred) persons prefer the stories of Sylvanius Cobb, Jr. to the noble productions of Miss Muloch and George Elliott [sic}." Henry Kingsley protested about the way reviewers treated him: "I know perfectly well that if I was to write a book as good as John Halifax or The Mill on the Floss, I should not have fair play." Charles Knight, writing in 1865, found only Brontë, Mulock, and Eliot worth mentioning in his discussion of women in literature.

John Halifax was an extraordinarily popular novel. To an extent, its very popularity may have begun to damage Craik's reputation [118/119] among the makers of reputations; then, as now, snobbery about mass-audience taste influenced the judgments of the critical establishment. It was noted that Craik's most ardent admirers were found among those who led an active rather than a contemplative life. Such people expect, said the Saturday Review, "a Bowdlerized edition of humanity," and Craik's novels provided it for them.

By about 1860, then, Craik was no longer taken quite so seriously. Her books began to be treated as women's novels, the reviews to use her as an example of the strengths and defects of the feminine mind. When she was praised for her ability to depict the growth of character, that ability was linked to the maternal instinct. She did not, the reviewers said, have the equipment to comprehend male intellects; all of her heroes were, like Charlotte Brontë's, women in disguise. "Amongst living novelists," wrote another contemporary historian of the novel, "there are few who are superior to Miss Muloch. . . . It is true, that while reading her works we never forget her sex . . . Her men all love like women; but when such a woman is the author, would we have them love like men?"

The dominant note, more and more, was praise for the purity and moral tone of Craik's work. It was, of course, the one characteristic in which the angel of the house was permitted to excel. When she turned to women's causes, in her novels for 1870 and 1871, the Athenaeum reviews trivialized the causes by making fun of the novels. Henry James said that Craik's belief in the essential goodness of humanity led her to look at people "through a curtain of rose-colored gauze" and therefore destroyed the vitality of her books. For the more Victorian of the Victorian critics, on the other hand, the valedictory judgment, as Craik's life drew to a close, was that she had "succeeded in what should be the highest aim of the novelist; she has done good."

By the time of her death, Craik had been assigned rather firmly to the second rank of women novelists, and in that rank to a place slightly below Charlotte Yonge or Margaret Oliphant. In the histories of Victorian literature written during the last years of the century she was generally mentioned as still among the most popular authors; Allibone reported that "her books are said to be more widely read than those of any other novelist except Dickens." The judgment of the Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 13, 1894) is typical: "She was not a genius, and she does not express the ideals and aspirations of women of exceptional genius; but the tender and [119/120] philanthropic, and at the same time energetic and practical womanhood of ordinary life has never had a more sufficient representative."

In the years following World War I, Victorian ideals were under attack and Craik virtually disappeared from literary history. She is not included in Marjorie Bald's Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century (1928) or in Muriel Masefield's Women Novelists from Fanny Burney to George Eliot (1934). The fifteen-volume Cambridge History of English Literature manages to give her one-third of a phrase in the middle of a list. And when she is mentioned, her books are used to exemplify the worst elements of Victorian stereotype. The pioneering work on the images of women in fiction by Robert Utter and Gwendolyn Needham (1936) lambastes Craik for perpetrating heroines who will not be found in major novelists: virginal, ignorant, swooning, armored in clothes and chastity. For Lucy Stebbins, Craik is the "preëminent" Victorian sentimentalist and for R. Brimley Johnson the "last word" in the Victorian woman's inability to create male characters.

Changing critical fashions continue to influence our perceptions of what is to be read and studied. Craik was almost totally eclipsed while new criticism and textual study dominated the scene. The more recent interest in popular culture, in literature as social history, and in exploring the context in which major novelists produced their work has led to a certain revival of interest. Robert Colby points out important correspondences between the work of Craik and George Eliot; Margaret Maison considers Olive in her study of religious novels. Most contemporary scholars, however, know Craik only for John Halifax, Gentleman, which has become useful as a classic example of mid-Victorian bourgeois mentality against which to measure the accomplishments of greater novelists.

Most recently, reevaluations inspired by feminism have revived interest in a number of novelists who may have been ignored by critics in part because they were women who wrote about matters that concerned women. One woman critic at the end of the nineteenth century pointed out that Craik had strengths that were never quite allowed to surface and excused many of her faults on the grounds of the inadequate education and social constraint imposed on women of her period. Elaine Showalter's article in Feminist Studies in 1974 — the only extended treatment of Craik to have been written in the twentieth century — points out that the sentimentality so despised by critics was a means of writing about emotional pains [120/121] that were real, and that women's pains and their often — concealed, or even unconscious, protests against them, are significant.

Conclusion

To those few who still recognize her name Craik has most often appeared as the perfect Victorian woman. It seems quite fitting, perhaps, that one of the last things she wrote was the text for a souvenir album commemorating the Queen's Golden Jubilee, and that World War I, which delivered the death blow to the certainties and the behavior of the nineteenth century, also marked the end of the era when a dozen of Craik's books stood in print ready to be sold. A mere recording of the extent of her work goes some way toward dispelling the impression of narrow-mindedness. It is curious that the one adult novel still being republished, John Halifax, Gentleman, is anomalous — almost the only one to have a hero, rather than a heroine, as its central character.

Craik's works may not belong in the major canon. Some of them are still, however, indubitably good reading. And some which have been forgotten yield clues about the interests and standards of those who make the major canon. The characteristics that made her popular are, to an extent, the same elements that account for her subsequent eclipse: they indicate some of the interests and aspirations and fondly held beliefs that she expressed for her contemporaries. And her somewhat ambiguous relationship to the developing concerns of the nineteenth-century women's movement suggests the deep ambiguities inherent in woman's use of the culturally assigned virtue of moral influence to delineate and accomplish changes in women's condition.

Critics in the middle of the nineteenth century were obsessed by the difference between women's literature and men's literature. They perceived a vast natural difference between the sexes; put in its most simplistic form, men were intellectual and women were emotional. There were, as George Eliot put it, people of high culture, and there were novel-readers pure and simple. High culture — intellectual culture — was, as in many ways it has continued to be, a men's culture.

One 1858 review of "Novels by the Authoress of 'John Halifax'" begins with the remark that women's thoughts dwell on "the purely human interests of life." The writer intended to contrast those [121/122] interests, presumably, to the aesthetic or the philosophical or the theological or — what? To the male reviewer, "purely human interests" — interests in the thoughts and feelings and events that people like oneself know and experience — were second-rate.

Furthermore, over the middle decades of the nineteenth century emotionality itself became publicly unacceptable. It is curious to understand how ways of expressing feelings — and then, ultimately, of recognizing that feeling existed — could alter, and why; Raymond Williams mentions the public schools and the stiff upper lip and the general sobering and tightening in the clothing of both women and men. There was a new model of the restrained British character, as opposed to the public kissing and weeping of hot-blooded Southern races.

Craik used the strategies of sentiment and the codes that made feeling acceptable, at least for women reading in private. Her books expressed the pain, anger, loneliness, frustration, and helplessness that women were not supposed to feel, under the disguise of situations that made them legitimate. She dealt with the practical troubles of the world women lived in — troubles that arose largely because people did not communicate openly with one another. She shaped satisfactory women's fantasies that could resolve the tensions; she imagined solutions that gave women space to trust their feelings and follow their innermost desires, and at the same time assured women that intellect and analytical thought might not be the only — or even the best — way to truth.

Craik was, therefore, a strong representative of the feminine tradition, who used and adapted the literary and social standards of her own world to explore women's lives. She believed that women were, on the average, better than men; that the traits assigned to women — practicality, compassion, sensitivity, emotionality, thoughtful ness, care for others, unselfishness, innate chastity, the maternal ability to sense and meet unspoken needs — were indeed superior traits; and her heroines used those traits to convert or to accommodate the representatives of male society.

Craik did not, intellectually, perceive the limitations that her view of society implied, although those limitations are evident in the air of sadness and resignation that hovers over the end of most of her novels. She was hampered by the critics who delineated the subjects with which she could deal and told her how women should write. Although she accepted her society's ideals, she was aware of [122/123] her own anomalous life and career; her sense of separateness led to an individualism that kept her from being political.

Craik's heroines do not often affect their own society, although they find space and peace for themselves within it. The obtrusive moralizing and Christian resignation — which are so unattractive to twentieth-century readers — defend against the limitations of the real world; they attach value to women's pain by giving it higher meaning. The feminine tradition keeps emotion alive, lets women speak to other women, and creates a world of the imagination that exalts womanly qualities.


Victorian Website Overview Dinah Mulock Craik

Last modified 16 August 2007