This review first appeared in the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where the original can be seen here. The author has reformatted and illustrated it for the Victorian Web, adding links and captions, with the kind permission of the journal. All images except the first, of the book cover, come from our own website. They are available for reuse, with attribution: please click on them to enlarge them, and for more information.

Kimberly Stern has chosen an important topic — the way in which women critics in the long nineteenth century not only contributed to the body of writing about literary works, but also helped to reshape the whole culture of criticism, not simply individually but as much, or more, through their interactions with each other at various levels. Relegated to the margins of the male critical community of their time, they queried it, forming their own networks and engaging in their own dialogues within them. In this way they carved out a role for themselves which strengthened both their presence and their voice in the political arena as well. The overlap between the literary and the political is made clear in the opening chapter, when Stern defines "criticism," for the purposes of her discussion, as:

a piece of writing (whether appearing in a periodical, published volume, or preface) that reflects an investment in analyzing and passing judgment on a literary, aesthetic, or philosophical work. Judgement sometimes assumes the form of appraisal or censure, but it just as frequently takes the form of an analysis in which the text or texts in question become a springboard for social, political, or cultural commentary. [17]

Portrait of Violet Paget ("Vernon Lee"), by her friend, John Singer Sargent.

Among the women who come to mind in this connection are Anna Jameson, Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, Anna Maria Hall ("Mrs. S. C. Hall"), George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, Eliza Lynn Linton and Violet Paget ("Vernon Lee"), and the most obvious arenas for their writings were periodicals like the Westminster Review, Blackwood's, Fraser's Magazine, the Penny Magazine, and the Saturday Review, as well as independent collections like Jameson's Diary of an Ennuyé (1826), where critical pieces first published in the London Magazine appeared as part of a diary, and Lee's Althea (1894), which presented the author's views of aesthetics in the form of critical dialogues. But it is the collective impact that impresses. There is a body of criticism here that has only recently begun to garner the attention it deserves. Its importance is only fully apparent when it is seen as a whole; then, it emerges as a powerful counterpoint to the male criticism of the period.

Networking is key here, and the second chapter deals with the eighteenth-century coffeehouse from which periodical criticism took its form: "The coffeehouse was virtually synonymous with print culture from its very inception," Stern explains, taking her cue from Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences (1987), and showing how this male-oriented establishment became, over time, "not only a space where periodicals were consumed and discussed, but also a discursive model for sociable criticism repeatedly invoked in the periodical's form and content" — until the periodical itself became a kind of "virtual coffeehouse" (27-29).

This is not to say that there was no scope for feminine input. But those who praised women's conversational ability also tended to perceive their particular brand of sociability as being different — gossipy and competitive — making it hard for them form sound, impartial judgements. Stern shows how Addison and Steele's famous Tatler, that appeared to reach out to the female reader, actually reinforced this stereotype. In competition with this, the Female Tatler, and later the Female Spectator, began the challenge that was to lead to the issues that still trouble us today, about the impact of gender on the role and standing of women writers of all kinds.

Two etchings by Daniel Maclise in Fraser's Magazine. Left: The Fraserians (an etching of male editors and contributors in the issue of January 1835). Right: Regina's Maids of Honour (an etching of female contributors in the issue of January 1836). (Click on the images for a full description, and more bibliographic details.)

Women were, of course, excluded from the gentlemen's clubs that succeeded the coffee houses and flourished from the early nineteenth century, and the many periodicals that sprang up at this time adopted the kind of male collaborative approach that they encouraged. Stern's third chapter focuses on Anna Jameson, and examines the tension between the "discursive 'spirit of the age' " exemplified and expressed by them, and the concept of the "sentimental and solitary woman writer" (58). A pair of etchings by Daniel Maclise helps to illustrate the situation, although it goes further than that too. One, entitled The Fraserians, is of the contributors to Fraser's Magazine — "a corporate body of men poised shoulder to shoulder in their effort to bring order to the expanding world of nineteenth-century letters" (63-64). There is more than a hint here of Josiah Conder's description of such men, in his pamphlet Reviewers review'd (1811), as being filled with a sense of their own importance. Maclise's other etching, entitled Regina's Maids of Honour, shows the magazine's female contributors, when released from their solitary labours, indulging in quite a different kind of social intercourse — chatting intimately in twos or threes at the tea-table, complete with tray-bearing lackey and importunate lap dog.

Later, writing for and co-editing the Westminster Review in the 1850s, George Eliot might have drawn on this perceived contrast, interpreting it to women's advantage and turning it to account as part of her interest in fostering "productive differences of opinion" (98). The Review's idea of providing a diversity of thought was, in itself, an advance, a new and fruitful direction in critical engagement. But, Stern argues, Eliot's struggles to bring such differences together usefully were still predicated on the male tradition, and within that tradition they could not be successfully resolved. Particularly interesting here is the way Stern traces these concerns into Dorothea's difficulties with Casaubon and Ladislaw in Middlemarch: both men are wary of the heroine's critical intelligence. It was not until the end of the century, with Eliza Lynn Linton and Vernon Lee, that the increasing prominence of women writers in this area led to a determined effort at being fully accepted – not as embattled female critics, whose intellectual forays from hearth and home were greeted with scepticism (at best), but simply as critics. Vernon Lee's choice of an ambiguous pen name, and indeed persona, might be considered a shield against taunts, but Stern finds it quite otherwise: "it actually put on display the elision of gender categories, provoking readers to question the lines that continued to be drawn between the sexes in professional life" (151). Issues that we now think of as contemporary were already coming up in the careers of all these embattled women, as they strove to validate their contributions to critical debate, and become integrated into the critical community. In this respect and others, they were reshaping the very nature of critical debate itself.

Stern mentions many recent studies in her introductory chapter, and many more in her endnotes. This has now become a popular field for interdisciplinary enquiry, throwing light on both literary and social history, and proving to be of special interest to those interested in gender studies and print culture. The lives and works of most if not all of the writers Stern discusses have books or chapters devoted to them by now, and their periodical writings have also been examined. A sign of this growth of interest has been Faber's reissuing in 2012 of Alison Adburgham's Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria, originally published by Allen and Unwin in 1972 — a pioneering study that gets brief mention here. Another study that might have been useful is Rosemary Ashton's 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London (Chatto & Windus 2006), which looks at George Eliot's roles at the Westminster Review in some depth, showing, for example, how fearlessly she practised her critical and editorial skills on publisher John Chapman himself — another way of demonstrating women critics' growing confidence and prowess. But Stern has not set out to be exhaustive. Her case studies are focused, informative and a pleasure to read.

Photograph of Margaret Oliphant, with her two sons and the nephew whom she supported by her writing.

"How does one dare to lift the small pipe of a lesser voice in presence of these shades," wrote Margaret Oliphant (qtd. p. 12), referring to the formidably masculine band of "sages" who purportedly expressed their views on the current literary scene at Ambrose's Tavern before she created her own review pages in Blackwood's in 1887, under the general title, "The Old Saloon." But her heading carried an undertow of irony: she, and others like her, felt that it was time for more progressive opinions to be heard and respected. It was not easy: John Blackwood's successor, William Blackwood III, for example, tried to take back ownership of Oliphant's series and hand it over to his assistant editor, Alexander Allardyce. The upshot of this particular battle is not made sufficiently clear; but it seems that Oliphant won. In general, these determined pioneers were gaining ground all the time. Stern has not only chosen an important topic; she has done the efforts of our early women critics proud.

Related Material


Stern, Kimberly J. The Social Life of Criticism: Gender, Critical Writing, and the Politics of Belonging. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. Hardback. viii + 240 pp. ISBN 9 780472 130078. £56.22

Created 9 April 2017