WOMEN REVIEWING WOMEN IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN-THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF JANE AUSTEN, CHARLOTTE BRONTË, AND GEORGE ELIOT by Joanne Wilkes, Reviewed by Talia Schaffer
 

WOMEN REVIEWING WOMEN IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN-THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF JANE AUSTEN, CHARLOTTE BRONTË, AND GEORGE ELIOT
By Joanne Wilkes
(Ashgate, 2010) x+175pp.
Reviewed by Talia Schaffer on 2010-11-29.

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Joanne Wilkes's new book closely examines periodical prose written by female literary critics throughout the nineteenth century. Wilkes aims to show how  a variety of women read the three literary figures who would emerge as the giants of the period. "How far," she asks,  "did women...respond to those writers specifically as women novelists?" (3). While this is an intriguing question, Wilkes chooses a problematic way to answer it: focusing on female reviewers' reactions to Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. Unfortunately, many of her subjects simply have little to say on these three canonical novelists, and Wilkes is reduced to parsing occasional comments in letters in great detail, while their much richer texts remain underexplored.

 If the canonical focus of the book is dubious, however, the actual subjects offer a welcome variety.  Covering seventy-plus years, Wilkes surveys work by writers ranging from the famous to the obscure, and from historians to novelists and theologians.  Her authors  include  Margaret Oliphant, who was famously prolific as both a journalist and a novelist, and Sara Coleridge, who published scarcely anything.  She also features historians such as Hannah Lawrence, Jane Williams, and Julia Kavanagh, whose accounts of women from Anglo-Saxon times through the eighteenth century required them to make judgments about the merits of women's writing from the past through the present.  A whole chapter highlights  Anne Mozley, the prominent journalist whose Christian perspective and publishing venues inflected her reviews in interesting directions.  The final chapter-- on Oliphant and Mary Ward--, sensitively demonstrates   how these two novelists   respond to more famous writers, where competitive resentment might well mingle with reluctant appreciation. Enlarging our knowledge of  women and periodical publication in nineteenth-century England,  this book ably supplements the recent work  of scholars such as Barbara Onslow, Margaret Beetham, Laurel Brake,  Hilary Fraser, Judith Johnstone, and Stephanie Green.

In her first chapter, Wilkes shows how much the work of the late-Romantic writers Maria Jane Jewsbury and Sara Coleridge  was impeded by their domestic commitments. When her mother's death left  Jewsbury to care for her six younger siblings, she had little time to write unless she was staying up late with a sick child (22). While Coleridge did not have such domestic work, she did have the burden of demonstrating her fidelity to her father's memory. Both Jewsbury and Coleridge struggled with periodical publication. Jewsbury clung to anonymous reviewing, which allowed her to express herself without seeming to seek fame. Coleridge, however, found that her editor "markedly distorted" her manuscript (in Wilkes's words) by cutting and altering so as to change the whole tone of the piece and adjust its judgments (43). Moreover, Coleridge had difficulty limiting herself to the short space afforded by a periodical review. Indeed, throughout the book Wilkes is admirably aware of the ways in which her writers experienced the specific conditions of periodical publication: anonymity,  length, and editing practices.

Wilkes's second chapter examines  three mid-Victorian writers not very well known even to Victorianist scholars of periodicals: Hannah Lawrance, Jane Williams, and Julia Kavanagh. Lawrence displays  a remarkable expertise in medieval figures, documents, and languages.  It is interesting to see how she,  Williams, and Kavanagh  construct their histories of women in various periods, deciding not only whom to include but also how to describe their work. Hannah Lawrance's Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England from the Commencement of the Twelfth Century (1838) and The History of Woman in England and her Influence on Society and Literature, From the Earliest Period (1843); Jane Williams's The Literary Women of England (1861); and Julia Kavanagh's English Women of Letters (1862) and Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity (1852) all depict women writers, and Wilkes pays close attention to the authors' assumptions about the inherent qualities of female and male authors in order to explain their specific reactions to Austen and Brontë. Lawrance, for instance, vividly defends Charlotte Brontë's intellectual strength, while Kavanagh argues that Austen had  a powerfully penetrating vision. In both cases, these writers ascribe traditionally masculine qualities to their subjects.

Anne Mozley forms the subject of the third chapter, where Wilkes's impeccable research serves her subject beautifully. Mozley was a High Church writer who produced mostly unsigned periodical pieces. She seems to have felt freer to write when she could both withhold her name and disguise her gender.    Identifying Mozley's productions with the help  of the Centre for Literacy and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and in particular with the help of work by Ellen Jordan,   Wilkes reads each article with scrupulous care.  Mozley's adoption  of a male persona in her writing and her endorsement of traditional beliefs about women's limitations might seem to make her a relatively unattractive subject for recovery. For instance, Mozley disliked Jane Eyre, appalled by its "outrages on decorum, the moral perversity, the toleration of, nay, indifference to vice" (99), and she also found  Brontë's heroines completely unfeminine because of their shocking self-reliance (99).  But rather than trying  to prove that Mozley felt some kind of underlying feminism, Wilkes  treats her  perspective with fairness and understanding.  On the whole,  Wilkes notes,  Mozley's review of  Jane Eyre offers a conflicted account of Brontë,  as Brontë herself noticed:  an account  profoundly shaped by Mozley's assumption that the author's life is closely related to her works.  This approach exemplifies the effort Wilkes  makes throughout the book:  to explain  each woman's particular configuration instead of trying to fit them all into  a predetermined perspective.

The final full chapter explores the reviews of two prolific, well-respected, and prosperous late-Victorian female novelists: Margaret Oliphant and Mary Ward. Both of them, we learn, tried  to rescue Austen from her nephew's hagiography, showed respect for the fiery passions expressed in Brontë's work,  and resented the dominance of  Eliot.  Although Oliphant and Ward were very different,  they shared an ambivalence about Eliot that might well be ascribed to discomfort with her status, and both insisted that Austen was a far more intelligent, disciplined, witty, and skillful writer than the figure found in J.E. Austen-Leigh's 1870 Memoir of his aunt or the rather slipshod edition of Austen's letters published in 1884, the sole material available to Oliphant and Ward.

However, the attentive reader of Wilkes's book may be excused for feeling slightly baffled that it is subtitled The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. For most of Wilkes's subjects did not write reviews of these three novelists.  Though Jewsbury wrote  a formative article on Austen, she  died before Brontë and Eliot started publishing.  Coleridge, who died in 1852,  makes only  glancing comments about Austen in her letters,  and her comments on Brontë mostly involve the question of Currer Bell's real identity. Lawrence mentions Brontë only briefly; Williams apparently reviews none of the three  writers featured in Wilkes's title (preferring L.E.L. and Hemans);  and Kavanagh admires Austen but does not address Brontë. The later writers-- Mozley, Oliphant, and Ward-- do  evaluate  all three novelists.  But  five of the eight "women reviewing women" do not in fact review the three women Wilkes regards as central.

For this reason, one may well wonder why Wilkes presents her book as a study of critical responses to the writing of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. Just because they are currently the most canonical Victorian women writers does not mean that their reception history is particularly interesting. To help make the case for its relevance,  Wilkes might have pointed out that while Austen took time to be recognized,   Brontë was an instant cause célèbre;  that Brontë was as scandalous as Eliot was revered; and  that changing responses to each writer's central concerns allow us to trace the Victorians' changing feelings about issues like marriage plot, provincial life, or erotic passion. In other words, Wilkes could have justified her choice of these three writers. Without such justification,  however, the reader never fully accepts the book's premise. Wilkes could just as well have used writers like Felicia Hemans, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Yonge,  or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Some of these writers were more prominent, more popular, and more provocative during the nineteenth century than Wilkes's Austen-Brontë-Eliot triad. Some of them are discussed at length in important reviews by Wilkes's subjects.

As judged by female reviewers of the nineteenth century England,  the three women novelists whom we now see as canonical did not yet overshadow all their female contemporaries.    The very fact that the reviewers sometimes overlooked the work of the three indicates that their would-be centrality is something Wilkes constructs after the fact: something she should have interrogated rather than  assumed. Moreover, the reviews of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot are often the least interesting work of the reviewers. Their books and letters offer much richer material, as Wilkes evidently knows, since she spends a good deal of time on this material.

So in spite of her subtitle,  readers soon realize that Wilkes's deeper interest does not lie in the reception of the canonical trio, but rather in the gendering of Victorian writing styles, more precisely in what made a female reviewer read a text as "masculine" or "feminine."  Wilkes  interrogates each of her authors' texts to discover whether they believe in inherently feminine or masculine styles, and if so, what might characterize such styles.  In studying assessments of anonymous writing, Wilkes seeks  to  know what leads the assessor to  classify it as the work of a man or a woman.   She is highly skillful at picking through, say, accounts of Anglo-Saxon queens to deduce whether the author believes that female qualities are inherent or constructed, and indeed Wilkes provides some of my favorite moments when she  teases out the authors' subtle gender preconceptions.

But Wilkes also prompts me to imagine a different version of this book.  If she had explicitly focused on women writers' prose reactions  to "feminine" writing, this book would  have been  bigger, and, I think,  more true to itself.  It could have shown how  different writers struggled with the demands of producing properly "feminine" writing, or how  they undermined, questioned, and rethought the very notion of "feminine" style. Rather than forcing Wilkes to parse  passing comments in letters, such a topic would have licensed her to explore all forms of her subjects' prose, from their history books to their Christian exhortations. And the things Wilkes does well -- the close readings eliciting underlying attitudes, the explanations of writers' choices -- could have taken center stage.

As it stands,  in spite of its admirably meticulous and hard-working analyses, this book  often drags.  It asks the  reader to slog through page after page  of detailed explications of a single review. For instance, it takes Wilkes seven full pages to explain two of Mozley's articles about Charlotte Brontë, and five pages to sum up two of Ward's reviews of Brontë. At times it seems that we are going through these reviews literally line by line. Though Wilkes's attention never flags,  it is hard to imagine the reader who would feel the same.    A specialist in Mozley would probably want to look beyond her reviews.   A scholar working on the nineteenth-century reception of Brontë' would want a wider range of reviews. And anyone who wants to know what Ward says about Brontë would want  to read her review directly. Moreover, this relentless focus on tiny details in multiple reviews means that reading this book becomes an exercise in processing hundreds of individual observations. It is hard to assimilate such a mass of details into a larger picture. Even Wilkes's Conclusion is more a summary of the disparate judgments of her varied subjects than an attempt to pull them together.

In spite of these problems of excessive detail and undertheorized focus, however, this book  is very much worth reading. Since Wilkes is  both a trustworthy reader of texts and a reliable guide to a woman's career. I learned a good deal from her.   The book  is not flashy and it makes no big claims. But with the printed word now  threatened by digital media and alternative forms of entertainment, I find it reassuring to know that books like this can still be produced, meticulously filling in missing information about forms of writing in the nineteenth century. It may not make huge imaginative claims; it may not take chances, provide a startling idea, or redefine a field.  But if I may end by turning the tables, here is what Eliot might have said in reviewing the present book.  It sums up "that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation"(Middlemarch [Penguin 1994], 165).

 

Talia Schaffer is professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.


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