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Antifeminism and the Victorian Novel: Rereading Nineteenth-Century Women Writers By T ...

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Antifeminism and the Victorian Novel:

Any deliberate division (and consequent discrimination) might well have a detrimental impact on the writing as well as the reception of literature. Oliphant’s at-times virulently critical accounts of popular writing and its reception highlight the centrality of debates on its quality in Victorian literary culture, testifying to the multiplicity of markedly self-reflexive reactions and, furthermore, to the creative impact of the variously contending counterdiscourses. Their significance for the development of popular fiction in the nineteenth century, however, has so far largely been pushed aside—or gingerly sidestepped—in discussions of Victorian antifeminism, has been overshadowed by often ideologically skewed readings.

Beyond a critique of the dangers of delimiting binary constructions, with all the typecasting they necessarily entailed (and some of the most persistent clichés still prevail), Oliphant, it is crucial to note, specifically articulated the limits such dichotomous concepts could impose on narrative itself.1 Bad enough that “this curious sexual theory” (174) threatened to erase all complexities of human relationships, to marginalise the “spiritual resemblance” or “affinity” between “brother and sister, between parent and child of opposite sexes” (174). In concentrating almost exclusively either on romance and marriage or, conversely, on domesticity’s literal or metaphorical confinement of desire, especially sentimental and sensational fiction was seen to press both moral concerns and narrative arcs into the same circularity revolving on “wild notions about marriage [and] the ‘Sex Problem’” (49), as Oliphant was to put it in her contribution to the 1897 Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign: A Book of Appreciations. And the problem did not stop there. Female writers increasingly struggled with fears of being expected to produce what George Eliot termed “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in her often cited, eponymous article of 1856. In 1849 Charlotte Brontë similarly anticipated the need to admonish editors and reviewers not to typecast her work: “To you I am neither man nor woman—I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgement” (Letter 364 2: 64). In her seminal study of nineteenth-century women’s writing, Elaine Showalter refers to the Brontës’ “radical innocence” as they “confronted all sexually biased criticism head-on” (96), a radicalism that in itself promises to complicate any then emerging binaries.