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Catherine Delafield. Women’s Diaries as Narrative in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6517-5. Price: US$99.95/£55.00

  • Deborah M. Fratz

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  • Deborah M. Fratz
    University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

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The nineteenth-century debate about the respectability of female authorship often focused on the kind of text produced. A woman’s diary escaped this consideration because it reaffirmed feminine norms, with its domestic concerns and private nature. Yet when a woman’s diary is revealed to others, displaying this private life potentially transgresses feminine proprieties. The diarist’s intentions become suspect when she publicly divulges her private thoughts. Writing with an audience in mind suggests an artfully contrived performance rather than a modest, truthful account of home life. Catherine Delafield’s work adumbrates the evolution of women’s diaries in Victorian narratives, and while other critics have studied fictional diaries that stand alone, relayed through a single voice, Delafield focuses on those embedded in other literary productions, and the ways in which the inclusion of a diary expands narrative possibilities. She enriches her exploration by tracing how gender norms impact the effects of a diary written, or perceived to have been written, by a woman. By exploiting “the ideological position of the woman as narrator,” authors could use the real limitations on Victorian women’s voices to formulate new narrative devices (47). In considering what Delafield terms the “narrative of inclusion,” the readers’ attention is drawn to the physical object of the diary, how a woman produces it and transmits it to readers, and how the diary is shaped by an outer frame negotiated by an editor. Delafield’s observations about these narrative techniques become particularly compelling in her analysis of the serialized fiction within periodicals.

This monograph methodically traces the history of publishing women’s diaries, first as real accounts, and then as narratives embedded in works of fiction. Part One explores how the non-fictional diary influences the reading and writing of fictional diaries. While the Romantic valuation of individual experience sanctioned accounts of private lives, nineteenth-century women had a more ambiguous relation to diary writing when gender norms dictated that their highest ambition was to turn attention away from themselves and toward others. Nonetheless, the diary authorizes female self-representation when, addressed to a kind of silent confidante or second self, it simply records family events, household economies, and spiritual life. The writer documents only what she knows at the time of writing without the benefit of retrospection, thus presenting an artlessly conveyed, “unmediated reflection of a life without interpretation” (15). Maintaining this domesticity pitches the diarist’s feminine voice as authentic by downplaying the diarist’s authorship, even when a woman’s diary was read by an intimate circle of family and friends.

The second chapter examines the originally unpublished diaries of Frances Burney and Elizabeth Gaskell to show how even a small audience promotes the female diarist’s awareness of her performativity, thus transforming her, however unwillingly, into an author. When a woman’s diary enters the public in print, as nonfiction or fiction, it invites “a more complex negotiation between self and society” (39). The next describes how editing reshapes published diaries to suit readers’ contemporary social norms rather than the author’s. For example, excerpts from Burney’s diary were edited in the 1840s by her niece, who, without diminishing Burney’s worth as a novelist, nonetheless emphasized approved, nineteenth-century feminine qualities: rather than an authoress who enjoyed her fame, Burney emerges as a retiring, dutiful woman who delighted in the domestic realm. The nonfictional diary’s entry in the nineteenth-century marketplace promoted the use of fictional women’s diaries in larger narratives. The increasing demand for women’s literature and women’s real stories expanded the social acceptability of a woman’s private life revealed in print. Using several novels, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859-60), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the chapters in Part Two provide a detailed analysis of the diary and competing literary productions, such as the epistolary novel, the serial narrative in Victorian periodicals, the documentary, and the sensation novel.

The substance of this text lies in Delafield’s delineation of the narrative devices offered by embedding a woman’s diary in another literary production. The embedded diary’s mere appearance in a novel provokes a narrative: it draws the reader’s attention to the physical reality of the text and how it is produced, just as the epistolary novel dramatizes the conditions under which a woman writes. The diary is a document that can be lost, destroyed, or modified by someone, such as an editor or collator. This intermediary figure may become suspect, for the diary is a private document, and readers speculate whether this diary was offered willingly, or if it has been read in secret, thus perhaps violating the diarist’s privacy. The choice of editor further complicates the diary’s presence in the larger text. Often the editor/collator is male, suggesting that women’s writing must be revised to become worthy reading, yet female diarists can maintain editorial control by selecting which parts of the diary to surrender, as seen in Collins’s The Woman in White. Marian Halcombe reads her diary to the collator, Walter Hartright, thus denying him first-hand scrutiny of the text. On the one hand she maintains her authority by this withholding, and on the other, Hartright is still the ultimate authority in the text we read. Delafield considers how the narrative of inclusion may also subtly affect the reader’s experience of the text, depending on “whether that reader is reading with the diarist or rereading with the un/authorized editor,” thus aligning the reader with a possibly violated female diarist, or with the violator (82). In contrast to the narrative of inclusion, a female diarist’s absence of language for describing sexuality and female trauma allows the author devices for conveying omissions, and tempering the emotional intensity of a first-hand account of private experience, as in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The younger Helen’s diary lacks a vocabulary for describing her infatuation with her future husband, his abuse of her after marriage, or her sexual attraction to another man. This same reticence may also allow the novelist to omit key events that a woman cannot acknowledge, even in the privacy of a diary.

The exploration of the interplay between women’s diary writing and the form and content of the periodical is especially compelling, particularly the evaluation of the embedded diary in serialized narratives. Like the diary, the periodical was a female literature, with its female consumer base and focus on the domestic sphere, and it shared the diary’s low status in the hierarchy of textual production. Both were similarly produced and read: comprised of short pieces of text, they could be read or written without disrupting household rhythms. Serial narratives share a fragmentary, time-limited quality with the embedded diary: the woman’s diary presents daily entries for a life-narrative that has not concluded, as serialized fiction offers limited installments of a narrative with an unknown conclusion. And just as the serialized narrative encompasses the woman’s diary, the periodical encompasses the serialized work of fiction. Delafield presents Collins’s The Woman in White as an ideal serialized novel for comparing the literary production of a woman’s diary and its embedded fictional counterpart. While it uses first-person like a diary, it also presents a kind of interacting miscellany, such as the letters and diaries of Halcombe, Hartright, and Frank Fairlie, as well as other documents and testimonies, like the cabman’s log and a death certificate. Other miscellany contributions to the periodical, such as poems, articles, and advertisements, shaped the reading experience. For example, All the Year Round features a sympathetic article on the life of a cabman in the same edition in which the installment of The Woman in White includes a cabman’s log that reveals that Laura Fairlie is still alive.

Delafield’s thorough description of the multiple narrative devices that an intercalated woman’s diary offered to literary production dominates her work, somewhat at the expense of another argument that explains how those diaries were consistently devalued. She effectively shows how narrative devices exploited the real limitations on Victorian women’s self-expression, but what is lost is how readers and writers dismissed or discredited the diary’s contribution to the unfolding narrative. For example, in the chapter devoted to the diary as a document, Delafield states that Mina’s contributions to the collated text that makes up Bram Stoker’s Dracula have a reduced impact in the finished work, by virtue of being copies of documents rather than originals, and by being produced or reproduced by a woman. The thrust of this argument is not made clear until the end of the eighth chapter. However, this is slim criticism: this work coheres from one part and chapter to the next. This thoroughly considered and methodically presented monograph merits the attention of scholars interested in specific genres or the core texts that serve as examples, and in gender studies focusing on women’s authority in self-representation, privately or in print.

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