NEW WOMAN FICTION, 1881-1899. Part II: VOLUMES 4-6. (Vol 4: C. L. Pirkis, <em>The Experiences Of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective</em> (1894); Vol 5: Annie E. Holdsworth, <em>The Years that the Locust Hath Eaten</em> (1895) and Joanna Traill, <em>Spinster</em> (1893); Vol. 6: Netta Syrett, <em>Nobody's Fault</em> (1896) and <em>The Sheltering Tree</em> (1939) by Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, Adrienne E. Gavin, and SueAnn Schatz, et al., eds., Reviewed by Tara MacDonald
 

NEW WOMAN FICTION, 1881-1899. Part II: VOLUMES 4-6. (Vol 4: C. L. Pirkis, The Experiences Of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective (1894); Vol 5: Annie E. Holdsworth, The Years that the Locust Hath Eaten (1895) and Joanna Traill, Spinster (1893); Vol. 6: Netta Syrett, Nobody's Fault (1896) and The Sheltering Tree (1939)
Eds. Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, Adrienne E. Gavin, and SueAnn Schatz, et al.
(Pickering and Chatto, 2010) lxxxii + 716pp.
Reviewed by Tara MacDonald on 2011-07-12.

Click here for a PDF version.

The+Experiences+Of+Loveday+Brooke,+Lady+Detective+(1894);+Vol+5:+Annie+E.+Holdsworth,+The+Years+that+the+Locust+Hath+Eaten+(1895)+and+Joanna+Traill,+Spinster+(1893);+Vol.+6:+Netta+Syrett,+Nobody's+Fault+(1896)+and+The+Sheltering+Tree+(1939)>Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

At the end of her autobiography, The Sheltering Tree (1939), New Woman author Netta Syrett questions the legacy of her writing. She states matter-of-factly, "I have no illusions about the importance of my work. In a few years, or even less, everything I have written will be as dead as the dodo. Already my novels are being swamped by those of the beginners in the art of fiction, who in their turn are destined to be superseded by children now at the nursery" (268). Although Syrett seems comfortable with her "transitory existence" in the literary world (268), Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton's three part, nine volume series aims to correct the transitory state of New Woman writing. This is an ambitious and worthy project. In the introductory volume, Oulton defines a New Woman text as one that "engages in some way with the increasing calls for female independence that were a feature of the 1880s and 1890s" (Vol. 1: x).

The collection, she notes, aims to demonstrate the diversity and contradictoriness of New Woman writing by bringing together a range of little-known writers. Research on New Woman fiction has increased substantially in the last thirty years. Yet like sensation fiction, a subgenre often cited as the precursor to New Woman writing, many notable novels, short story collections, and autobiographical works remain out of print. This series, like Pickering and Chatto's earlier Varieties of Women's Sensation Fiction, 1855--1890 (General Editor Andrew Maunder, 2004), aims to rectify that omission. Oulton's is a strong, valuable series, but its price is certainly prohibitive for personal purchase. At £275.00 or $495.00 for just Part II of the three volume series, it may be more than even some university libraries are able to spend.

Part II begins with Adrienne Gavin's introduction to C.L. Pirkis's detective stories. The character of Loveday Brooke, Gavin claims, is not only a New Woman, but also one of the earliest lady detectives created by a British woman writer. Gavin admits that Pirkis "clearly wrote for the market" (4: x) and that Victorian critics regarded her as the author of "if not high, then readable and enjoyable fiction" (xi). In her own time, Pirkis's stories were faulted for their "fatiguing sameness" (Saturday Review, qtd. 4: 178), and her work might be the weakest in the collection. Yet these seven stories do function as useful companion pieces--or contrasts--to Arthur Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes. The comparison was so obvious to Pirkis's publisher that he touted Brooke as "A Female Sherlock Holmes," and reviewers could not help seeing her in this light, by turns praising and criticizing her Holmesian qualities (4: xv).

A selection of their reviews can be found in an appendix to this volume, which also includes the original illustrations and Gavin's introduction. While Gavin begins with a brief account of Pirkis's life, there is little known about her and hence little to say. But for her stories Gavin does provide some interesting historical context, such as advertisements that ran in the Observer in December 1894 for "SLATER'S WOMEN DETECTIVES of all AGES. -- Many men say women have been their downfall, but HENRY SLATER owes his success to his lady detectives for secret watchings, secret inquiries &c." (4: xvii). One wonders how many such detectives Slater employed. Gavin also lists a number of contemporaneous female detective novels, such as Grant Allen's Miss Cayley's Adventures (1899) and Hilda Wade (1900), Beatrice Heron-Maxwell's The Adventures of a Lady Pearl-Broker (1899), and M. McDonnell Bodkin's Dora Myrl, The Lady Detective (1900). If space had permitted, a comparison to some of these works would have helped us to measure Loveday Brooke against them. Yet despite Pirkis's repetitive style, Gavin is certainly right to conclude that the stories refreshingly feature "that rarest of things in fin-de-siècle fiction: a content and successful New Woman" (4: xvi). The unique figure of Loveday Brooke qualifies the stories for inclusion in the series.

Annie Holdsworth's heroines fare less well. White tasting moments of both contentment and success, neither Priscilla from The Years nor Joanna from Joanna Traill survive to profit fully from their professional or personal achievements. Yet Holdsworth's works are important additions to New Woman novels currently in print, for as SueAnn Schatz's excellent introduction explains, her work sheds new light on the New Woman's complicated relationship to class. In The Years, the middle class heroine is shocked by the London poor when she moves into a lower class neighbourhood with her new husband; in Joanna Traill, the eponymous heroine--a meek spinster--becomes a strong, determined woman when she adopts a former prostitute as her ward. Both novels portray philanthropy and personal interaction with the working poor as a fulfilling and useful experience for the female heroine. Addressing Holdsworth's complex class politics, Schatz convincingly argues that in The Years she "pleads justice for lower-class women, but her solution to the working-class woman's problems is to impose middle-class values on her" (vol. 5: xi). Besides portraying cross-class relationships, however problematic, the novel also sympathetically examines the plight of the woman writer and could be usefully compared to novels such as Ella Hepworth Dixon's The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) and Sarah Grand's The Beth Book (1897).

Though Joanna Traill was published serially two years before The Years, it follows the later novel--for some unexplained reason--in this volume. Because the heroine of Joanna adopts and successfully transforms a young prostitute, Schatz explains, the Manchester Guardian called this story a "success de scandale" (5: xviii). Indeed, the story is remarkable not only because the initially-timid spinster assumes that a prostitute could pass as a middle-class young woman, but also because the reformed prostitute is allowed to marry. Though the novel evolves into something of a romance plot, it is ultimately a story about the relationship between these two unlikely female friends. Since the heroine herself never marries but achieves a strong bond with a male friend, Schatz suggestively infers that in the late nineteenth century world of this story, the institution of marriage was "too restrictive for such a constant, faithful and boundless love" (5: xix).

The class politics of the New Woman likewise informs Netta Syrett's Nobody's Fault. As Vybarr Cregan-Reid explains in his helpful introduction, the title of this novel states its premise: it is nobody's fault that the heroine, Bridget, is born to lower class parents but suited, in terms of her education, demeanour, and appearance, for life in the middle to upper classes. Syrett herself disliked the "readiness to blame 'society'" that she found in the work of young early-twentieth century writers. As Cregan-Reid notes, the novel "internalize[s] women's inequalities and transform[s] them into personal ones" (6: x). Tempering the novel's political radicalism, he explains, this focus on the personal would accommodate the tastes of a late-Victorian middlebrow reader as well as the needs of a staunch New Woman. But given its harsh detailing of Bridget's life as a working woman and her choice between duty and desire, it is clearly a New Woman novel.

While Syrett's 1939 memoir stretches the specified timeline of the series (1881--1899), Cregan-Reid pairs it with Nobody's Fault because, he argues, both are narratives of women writers, and the memoir illuminates Syrett's interests and politics. Syrett, however, seems to write less about her politics than about the famous writers, actors, and artists that populated her life, largely spent in London. She details meetings with Grant Allen, George Meredith, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, Ella D'Arcy, May Sinclair, Arnold Bennett, and Thomas Hardy, among others. Surprisingly, she predicts that Hardy "will be remembered as a poet rather than as a novelist" since his novels "deal with types of people doomed to be alien to future generations" (6: 217).

Less likely to interest Victorian scholars are the passages recalling her family life. With so many worthwhile New Woman novels still waiting to be republished, why, we might ask, did the editors choose to include this early-twentieth century memoir? Possibly, Syrett herself might say, as a refreshing contrast to New Woman novels in which the heroine dies or sacrifices her own happiness. Having seen the life of the late-Victorian woman too often portrayed as terribly restricted in fiction, she wrote the memoir partly to "counterblast" this disheartening picture (105). Indeed, her autobiography sparkles with a humour noticeably absent from much New Woman fiction. It includes, for instance, a letter from an eight-year-old male student of Syrett's who admits, "I have been thinking a great deal about my Harem. You shall be one of my favourite wifes. [sic.] You shall have a night out once a week, and all your dresses made in Paris" (168). For Syrett, happily, such a restricted life remains only a joke.

Invaluable for scholars of late-century fiction, these volumes illuminate not just the figure of the New Woman, but also, in Part II alone, late-century detective fiction, working women, class politics, spinsterhood, prostitution, metafiction, autobiography, and relationships between late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century fiction. Oulton's project of making work by and about New Women writers more available began with Let the Flowers Go: A Life of Mary Cholmondeley (Pickering and Chatto, 2009) and Mary Cholmondeley Reconsidered (Pickering and Chatto, 2009), edited with SueAnn Schatz. For her biography of Cholmondeley -- pronounced "Chumlee" -- Oulton unearthed two of the three lengthy diaries that the author kept from 1872 to the eve of World War I.

The diaries reveal a young Cholmondeley who recognizes that she must find some kind of occupation since she is unlikely to marry, as, she admits, "I possess neither beauty, nor cleverness" (Oulton, Let the Flowers Go 27). Despite these humble beginnings, she emerged as an important New Woman author, best known for Red Pottage (1899), a novel detailing, among other things, the plight of the New Woman writer and an intense friendship between two women. Oulton also includes helpful analyses of Cholmondeley's work: the chapter on Red Pottage, for instance, traces Cholmondeley's complex relationship to the New Woman and organized woman's movements. Such analysis continues in Mary Cholmondeley Reconsidered, the second volume in Pickering and Chatto's Gender and Genre Series (General Editor, Ann Heilmann). Some of the strongest essays directly address the question of genre, such as Tamara Wagner's chapter examining Cholmondeley's self-reflexive use of sensational formulae in Diana Tempest (1893); Linda H. Peterson's essay on Cholmondeley's prefaces, which argues that the writer viewed the preface as a vehicle for shaping her literary career; and Karen Yuen's chapter on the Gothic as a major feature of Cholmondeley's short stories and her feminist aesthetic. Cholmondeley's Red Pottage is included in Part III of the New Woman Fiction series, and it is certainly a worthwhile addition. These two volumes suggest that Cholmondeley's short fiction, and novels such as Diana Tempest and A Devotee: An Episode in the Life of a Butterfly (1897), which Oulton argues "has a claim to be [her] most unjustly neglected work" (75), also deserve further recognition. While perhaps not all New Woman novels of the late-nineteenth century deserve to live again, the reprinting of notable and influential works allows us to create a fuller picture of New Woman writing and late-Victorian literary culture: a goal that certainly seems worthwhile.

Tara MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, University of Amsterdam.


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