Monday, May 10, 2010

Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain. A Review

Our thanks to Ashgate Publishers for sending us a review copy of this book.

Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain
The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot


* Imprint: Ashgate
* Series : The Nineteenth Century Series
* Published: April 2010
* Format: 234 x 156 mm
* Extent: 194 pages
* Binding: Hardback
* ISBN: 978-0-7546-6336-2
The study of gender in the Victorian novel has been the subject of much interest in the last decades. The Brontës both as challengers of the gender traditional boundaries and at the same time participants in the gender roles and rules which characterise their sociocultural environment have also been in the critical epicentre of this research.

In recent years the subject of the contemporary critical response to their works has been explored within the limits of the Brontë myth construction (by Lucasta Miller for instance) or in the wider panorama of women's writing in the nineteenth century. It is in this context that Joanne Wilkes's book Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain needs to be placed. The author focuses on eight women reviewers (which in chronological order are: Maria Jane Jewsbury and Sara Coleridge, Hannah Lawrance, Jane Williams and Julia Kavanagh, Anne Mozley, Margaret Oliphant and Mary Augusta Ward) and particularly on their comments and critical analysis of three major women novelists which also mark somehow three stages of the British novel: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Elliot. It is not an altogether groundbreaking task as this subject has been explored before but not with the detailed analysis and the extensive study of many first-hand material, including manuscripts, letters, memoirs, etc. which, in some cases, have been scarcely explored before.

The final result - before entering into any specifics about the Brontë segments - is frankly interesting and ambiguous. The issue of anonymity in many of the published reviews in periodicals or journals is discussed with examples that show how these female reviewers understood gender as a performance which gave them the possibility of 'ventriloquising' men when they felt the need to add an extra dose of respectability to their articles. From a modern reader's perspective it can be surprising to notice how reviewers of the nineteenth century were already capable of adapting their styles and even slightly (or not so slightly) remodulate their opinions in order to connect with their - mainly conservative - audience of the journals where they published. They also, generally speaking, show a trend that values female contributions to literature(1) in a sort of protofeminist vindication which, nevertheless, limitated their own boundaries around several specific topics and styles(2).

As for the Brontës, the book only discusses widely the responses to Charlotte Brontë's novels and Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. Some brief references are made to Emily Brontë but as the author says in the introduction:
I would also argue that Emily Brontë, via both her writings and what was published about her life, came across as too unusual a person to be easily discussed, either then or now, in terms of the nineteenth-century conceptions of gender that concern me here(3).
From a Brontë perspective(4), we can highlight Sara Coleridge's legitimate surprise discovering Currer Bell was a woman. Her perception of gender was somewhat agitated in discovering that the novel that she has admired previously for her masculine qualities was written by a woman. This dicotomy of masculine-feminine traits in literature becomes a common framework in which nineteenth-century reviewers seem to feel completely at ease.

Particularly interesting is the discussion of Anne Mozley's views on Charlotte Brontë because in some way it reproduces the critical/popular perception of the author in the evolution from the coarse Currer Bell to post-Gaskell angel-in-the-house. Anne Mozley's 1853 review of Villette in the Christian Remembrancer is an example of the first trend, echoing some of Elizabeth Rigby's (in)famous comments about Jane Eyre(5). Also discussed is how the review made Charlotte Brontë write to the journal trying to counteract some of Mozley's accusations in the conviction that her reviewer was a man (which in some way Mozley was posing as). But Ms Mozley changed her discourse in her 1857 review of Gaskell's Life for the same journal, accepting some of the arguments made by Mrs Gaskell who tried to redeem her biographee and friend from her coarseness and unfeminine sins(6). A similar path was followed by Margaret Oliphant in her 1855 Blackwood Magazine's article (before Gaskell) and later on in her chapter in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign (1897) and her subsequent writings.

The section devoted to Mary Augusta Ward is not proportional to the importance that Mrs Ward has in the critical history of the Brontës (but of course this is not a book exclusively devoted to the sisters). Her treatment of the Brontës in her Introductions to the Haworth editions of The Life and Works of the Brontë Sisters (1899-1903) was comprehensive, going beyond the biographical details and finding literary or more spurious possible influences. From Celtic heritage to French Romantic writers (in Charlotte's case) or German ones (in Emily's case).

Each chapter (and the whole book) has its own introduction and final conclusion which allows each to be read independently (in contrast, a continuous read is prone to annoying repetitions). From a Brontë scholar perspective the book probably doesn't introduce many new elements to the critical history of the Brontës but it provides a well-documented and gender-oriented contextualisation of the reception of Charlotte Brontë's novels in the decades that shaped the roots of what we now know as the Brontë myth.

Notes
(1) Especially in the realm of the novel domains. Poetry was still considered men's territory even by the majority of the (female) reviewers discussed in the book.
(2) There's an obsession for merging the cultural notions of womanhood with the female writings. In this way women's literature is described as prone to 'delicacy', 'tenderness', 'attention to detail', minute descriptiveness, etc...
(3) Anne Brontë's is not discussed in general and when it is done, for instance by Mary Augusta Ward, it is in a negative way. It was not until well into the next century that her work was critically vindicated.
(4) Maria Jane Jewsbury, who had died before Charlotte Brontë's first publication, is only discussed in relation to her writings and her reaction to Jane Austen.
(5) Although Joanne Wilkes suggests that she was adapting herself to the conservative audience of the journal.
(6) Neverteless Mozley maintained some of her reservations, especially concerning Charlotte's religious choices. Hannah Lawrance, who also reviewed the novel for the British Quarterly Review in 1857 was more willing to accept Gaskell's views.

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