This review is adapted from one originally published in English Studies, Vol. 61, No. 6, December 2000: 606-8. It raises some questions which are still pertinent, although a great deal of new work has now been done in the areas covered by these books. In particular, many more novels by less well-known women writers can now be read online, and more has been written about them. Still, it remains true that they are not easily accessible for general readers. Note that a few long quotations and links have been added to the original review.

The recovery of a whole lost tradition of women's writing continues apace in feminist criticism. Though the enterprize started back in the seventies with Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter (Literary Women and A Literature of Their Own, respectively) there is still an air of retaliation about it: in her study of Women's Reading in England, for example, Jacqueline Pearson points out that "the act of canon-formation participated in the cultural movement to counteract female hegemony over the novel and reconfigure it as a form more amenable to male control" (199). The mass of literary evidence which she assembles here is used expressly to restore that hegemony.

However, Pearson's focus is not on the neglected, sometimes even anonymous writers of her chosen period. Rather, it is on their audience. Representatives of this audience, both fictional and historical, are produced from texts of all kinds, including well-known novels by the male novelists (Bridget Allworthy, Jenny Jones and others from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, for example), contemporary periodicals like the Lady's Magazine, and prescriptive works like Sarah Green's Mental Improvement for a Young Lady, on Her Entrance into the World (1793). These and other sources, such as poetry and memoirs, are all mined for evidence of contemporary attitudes towards women's reading. Fielding's views are representative: while his own reviews "condemn the behaviour of non-reading female characters and recommend women writers like Charlotte Lennox," Pearson notes that in his novels women readers "tend to be mocked," and both "female reading and writing" are associated "with sexual risk or transgression." Thus,

Delarivier Manley in Shamela and Aphra Behn in Tom Jones embody improper reading, and so forceful is this gendering of corrupt literacy that keen female readers are often suspected or convicted of sexual impropriety: Jenny Jones is the foundling's supposed and Bridget Allworthy his actual mother; Harriet Fitzpatrick, consoled in an unhappy marriage by her "beloved reading," is wrongly believed by her husband to be unfaithful. Even Sophia Western's reading generates misunderstanding or danger, although her choice of books consistently demonstrates taste and virtue: while reading the work of a "young lady" of a "good understanding ... and ... good heart" (perhaps Sarah Fielding), Sophia is berated by her ignorant aunt. Women's reading, however innocent and however charming the sensibility it reveals, is a problematic area for Fielding. [23]

Despite or because of Pearson's adoption of a postmodern "spiralling" approach (see p. ix), she reaches several conclusions. The first is that more and more women — not as a homogeneous group, but in all their diversity of class, age and interests — were reading voraciously and eclectically during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The second is that both the act of reading, and the nature of the material selected, were subject to the most intense and often critical scrutiny (thinking again of Bridget Allworthy and Jenny Jones, for instance). The third is that, as a result, the woman reader was nothing less than "the novel's touchstone for moral and social value" and thus "a central enabling figure for the whole cultural project" (220). In this way, even contemporary censure of women is turned to advantage in the long term.

Focusing on the image of the woman reader in the more familiar works produces some provocative new readings. For example, the attack on the female Gothic in Northanger Abbey is seen by Pearson as "apparent" rather than real (213): it is a "smokescreen" (210), she claims, behind which Austen not only re-credits the Gothic itself, but mounts a strong defence of women's literary pursuits in general. Inevitably, Pearson draws on Austen's own famously entertaining claims for the novel in chapter 5, the most extravagant of which are usually taken as tongue-in-cheek (for example, by Anne Ehrenpreis in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, p. 21). But it is worth looking at these claims again in the larger context which Pearson has now provided, and at the very least one must agree with Pearson that Catherine's "reading of Gothic has been educational as well as escapist, having taught her not to judge naively by appearances, to assume that General Tilney is 'perfectly agreeable and good-natured' simply because he has good manners and is 'tall and handsome'"(210) — a lesson well worth learning.

It is cleverly done, and in going back to the period before Kate Flint's The Woman Reader, 1837-1914 (Oxford University Press, 1993), Pearson breaks a good deal of new ground. Copious notes and a long "select bibliography" mean that scholars who want to follow her there have their work cut out for them, in more ways than one. Yet there is something here too for less specialized readers. Jane-ites in particular will be pleased to have Austen brought to the platform in a new way, for Austen herself is one of those "greats" whose voices now have to rise above a chorus of others, as more of their lesser-known contemporaries crowd onto the stage.

In the opening chapter of Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question, Nicola Thompson looks at the problems surrounding the disintegration of the canon, and addresses the important issue of "aesthetic value" (13) at some length. Her admission that those who promote neglected women novelists are themselves faced with the question, "but are they any good?" (14) is a courageous one. and I found this discussion honest and useful. The case Thompson makes for her collection of essays (by other scholars) is a sensible one: to put it simply, the works of these writers are at least as enjoyable and worthy of consideration as those of, say, Anthony Trollope and Charles Kingsley, and have much to tell us even today about the "Woman Question."

The remaining thirteen chapters are split between inter-disciplinary topics such as divorce or the New Woman in Victorian women's novels, and studies of individual authors such as Harriet Martineau, Margaret Oliphant and Edith Nesbit. Taken together, these chapters cover a wide range of women's writing right through the period, including writing for children. In view of their diversity it is rather odd to call them chapters, and their usefulness to students must be reduced by the absence of an index. Yet it would be a great shame if some of these studies were to be missed. For instance, Ann Humpherys's analyses of early Victorian "divorce novels" successfully demonstrate not only the gradual naturalization of divorce in the period, but also (as traditional tropes and narrative closure itself are challenged) the trend towards "modernist experimental forms for the novel" (56). Notable too are the re-readings of writers like Charlotte Yonge normally considered to have been outside the feminist fold. As Beth Sutton-Ramspeck, who turns her attention to Mary Ward, so rightly remarks, "Too often, it seems, feminist criticism listens only to those suppressed voices from the past that speak a feminist language most like our own' (218). In Pamela Gilbert's contribution, even Ouida's much-vaunted anti-feminism is revealed as having been fraught with ambiguities: as Gilbert points out,

Many of Ouida’s characters anticipate the New Woman. Most importantly for our purposes here, her portrayal of women often licenses extramarital sexuality as an expression of a higher ethical standard in a world wherein marriage is corrupted by the profit motive. Further, many of her women reject traditional gender roles, being active, heroic, able to fight men and win. Although these characters succumb to the fate prescribed by mid-Victorian narrative — they die — they retain the sympathy of the reader and in so doing, sustain a critique of the conditions that necessitate their elimination. [171-72]

The fact is that even the most conservative woman writer made some response and some kinds of concessions to the increasingly dominant rhetoric of her times.

Something similar is happening among literary critics today. There is a note of triumph in Thompson's introductory chapter when she remarks, "Canons, of course, are dangerous things, liable to blow up ..." (13). For women's contributions to the literary heritage to be more easily studied and widely appreciated, what is needed now is not a new canon, but reissues of their out-of-print works. But that is where commercial considerations arise. Oliphant comes closest to a female Trollope (and she was twice as prolific), but only a tiny handful of her work is currently in print. Perhaps it is a good sign that Miss Marjoribanks came out in Penguin Classics in 1999. Similarly, Yonge's Heir of Redclyffe appeared in the Oxford World's Classics series in 1997. The hard truth is, though, that despite the efforts of able and inspiring critics like Pearson, Thompson, and Thompson's co-authors, most of the prodigious output of such writers would (outside the English departments) find a very small audience indeed, and so is likely to remain largely unread.


Pearson, Jacqueline. Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. x + 300 pp. Price: £37.50/$59.95.

Thompson, Nicola Diane. Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999. xii + 259 pp. Price: £37.50/$59.95.

Created 28 July 2021