Molly Youngkin. Feminist Realism at the Fin de Siècle: The Influence of the Late-Victorian Woman’s Press on the Development of the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2007. ISBN: 9780814210482. Price: US$39.95 (£21.95).[Record]

  • Mark Llewellyn

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  • Mark Llewellyn
    University of Liverpool, United Kingdom

Molly Youngkin’s new book represents an important intervention into the study of the literary and cultural influences on the development of English fiction at the fin de siècle. In four substantial chapters, a detailed scene-setting introduction and a revisionist afterword, this book illuminates the significant relationship between new and emerging discourses of authorship and the realist mode at a moment when the feminist periodical press was reaching the heights of its influence on the cultural and aesthetic marketplace. Taking as her theme the idea of a “consistent ‘feminist realist’ aesthetic” (7) at work in contemporaneous periodicals such as Shafts and The Woman’s Herald, Youngkin argues these publications produced significant changes in the novel as a form and a medium for the transmission of issues related to women’s identity. These changes involved three main innovations in the representation of female agency: the transformation of consciousness, the articulation of consciousness through the spoken word, and the use and example of concrete action to alter the female condition. In focusing on thought, speech and activity in this way, Youngkin is able to argue not only for the penetration of feminist issues in the novel’s late-nineteenth-century development but also for the ways in which novels provided illustrative case studies of methodological and ideological thinking in action. Youngkin’s useful summary of recent scholarship on the New Woman and the 1890s illuminates the ways in which her study marks out new paths of thinking. Given the extent of the research thus far, it is striking that one of the best features of her work is its firm rooting in the untapped potential of primary sources. Throughout, Youngkin covers the work of a range of authors from the 1890s, some mainstream and others now under-read, if it all, among them Mena Dowie, George Meredith, George Moore and Henrietta Stannard. This inclusive approach is important; by exploring the critical failures as well as the successes of this period Youngkin generates some different approaches to the issue of canonicity. Looking beyond the initial reception of texts, Youngkin examines how the influence of the feminist reviewers could be a feature in canon-making. Although this point about canonicity is not dealt with either as explicitly or as concertedly as one might expect, this off-shoot of Youngkin’s approach illustrates the ways in which the continuing richness of this period for scholarly study is as yet untapped. Using the material to be found in periodical reviews, the four chapters of the book are based on a series of pairings between female and male authors of the period: Sarah Grand and Thomas Hardy, Mona Caird and George Gissing, Mena Dowie and George Meredith, Henrietta Stannard and George Moore. Although this schematic might imply a series of formulaic contrasts between female and male success (as marked against the feminist realist aesthetic ideal outlined in Youngkin’s introduction), the results are far more interesting and subtle. In the chapter entitled “Women at Work, at War, and on the Go: Feminist Action,” which deals with the pairing of texts by Dowie (A Girl in the Karpathians and Women Adventurers) and George Meredith (Diana of the Crossways), Youngkin explores how specific critical responses to Dowie’s texts brought their view of the merits of her work down to a very specific level of criticism concerning the portrayal of women as smokers. Dowie’s work was satirized as a result in publications like The Woman’s Herald. Interestingly, while Meredith received plaudits for his novel and became a celebrated writer in the eyes of the feminist press throughout the 1890s (Gertrude Kapteyn gave him a six-page …