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

by Tamara Wagner


Antifeminism and the Victorian Novel: Rereading Nineteenth-Century Women Writers provides a critical reconsideration of nineteenth-century women’s writing by exploring the significance of antifeminist representations for literary developments in the century’s second half. It seeks to draw new attention to still neglected authors and works, while suggesting that their reappraisal at once demands and helps to facilitate a more encompassing rethinking of a number of long neglected writers and their still underestimated contribution to Victorian literary culture. Their changing classification, their marginalisation within canon formation, and most importantly, their resistance to simplifications suggested by these shifting categorisations prompts us to break out of such ideological straightjackets ourselves. In analysing a range of material that testifies to the wide spectrum, versatility, and reflexive interchanges of popular Victorian fiction, the essays in this collection work together to interrogate the significance of these still neglected works for the development of the novel genre.

It has been an ironic development in the immensely important recovery of forgotten popular writers that authors of works traditionally dismissed as antifeminist have been additionally marginalised. Studies scanning for proto-feminist material have thus tended to put them aside as simply not corresponding to an evolutionary model of progressive female self-representation. Despite growing interest in the divergent ways in which female writers engaged with the evolving form of the novel, in the proliferation of various subgenres, and furthermore in the changing perceptions of the lady-novelist in an increasingly competitive book market, the intricacies of these writers’ often ambiguously antifeminist representations of the domestic has therefore only very recently attracted more attention. Conversely, the likewise all too easy alignment of sensation fiction with the transgressive or subversive has further contributed to simplifying binary constructions that threaten to delimit our appreciation of the sheer variety of Victorian popular fiction. Engendering not only a peculiarly lopsided account of women’s centrality in the shaping of the novel genre, a too focused approach has moreover stereotyped, at times unfairly, writers of domestic fiction such as Eliza Lynn Linton, Margaret Oliphant, or Charlotte Mary Yonge. They have instead featured as the anti-sensational bogeywomen of nineteenth-century proto-feminism. A much needed explosion of such dichotomies promises to lay bare the neglected complexities of domestic women’s writing and, in the process, to offer a significant remapping of nineteenth-century literary culture at large. This revaluation of the careful balancing acts proposed by otherwise markedly different popular writers has emerged alongside similar reconsiderations of self-sacrifice, networks of dependence, or the idealisation of domestic units or close familial and pseudo-familial relationships ungrounded in (suppressed) sexual desire.

By looking closely at the individual texts, literary critics have now been able to explore these often self-defined antifeminist writers’ careful negotiation of art, work, the domestic, and the public, including the pressures generated by the mass market. The present study brings together new work on long typified antifeminist and anti-sensational domestic novelists such as Oliphant and Yonge, the similarly typecast, subversive sensationalism attributed to Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the complex undercurrents in Dinah Craik’s apparent conservatism, as well as detailed research on the editors and contributors of fiction magazines.

This collection makes an important contribution to the study of Victorian literature and especially of recently rediscovered popular writers. It will be of interest to literary critics and students working on the formation of the novel genre in general as well as on nineteenth-century culture more specifically.


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