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Reviews

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).

  • Mark Llewellyn

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  • Mark Llewellyn
    University of Liverpool, United Kingdom

Logo de Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Corps de l’article

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 appraisal in one journal), Dowie’s work never recovered from the hit it received and her important New Woman eugenicist novel Gallia (1895) did not receive the sustained feminist attention the work merited. The fact that Meredith remains a recognizable name and few readers have heard of Dowie illustrates Youngkin’s point about how canonical status might be influenced, if not determined, by the feminist press of the period.

Youngkin is a good historically grounded reader of the literary and cultural text. While she focuses on feminist aesthetic ideals, her drawing together of cultural frameworks around a series of social debates (from rational dress to eugenics) demonstrates how the political engagement of the feminist periodicals became a key feature in the development of the themes and ideas explored in the fiction it reviewed. She teases out with great skill the ambiguities and tensions within the published reviews in a way that underlines the reviewers’ own textual constructions and literary ideals. Youngkin takes great pains to provide a detailed sense of a given reviewer’s perspective: the section dealing with Gertrude Kapteyn, for example, is very interesting in drawing attention to the wider social contexts of the reviewer’s background, such as her interest in European literary trends and her practical work in the moral education of children. Even where there is no specific or hard evidence for how one of the feminist periodicals reviewed a particular work, Youngkin is able to construct useful interpretations based on the previous or subsequent engagements with that author’s general oeuvre in a way that is both convincing and compelling. In the case of Meredith’s The Amazing Marriage she argues that the absence of a review in Shafts and The Woman’s Herald should not be interpreted as a condemnation (which the novel received from the mainstream press) because the feminist reviewers would not have hesitated to publish a critical review. Instead, it illustrates the ambiguity of the novel’s conclusion, an ambiguity not found in Diana of the Crossways, the “model text” (120), which received such an extended review and prominence in the mid-1890s, a full decade after its original publication.

While the focus is predominantly on the authors of the fiction under review, Youngkin provides pertinent facts about the editorial structures of the periodicals themselves and the newly professionalized nature of the female reviewers’ work. The manner in which they handled the materials they were sent to review and their response to fiction within the parameters of the feminist realist aesthetic fed into a wider cultural, aesthetic and social movement. As Youngkin points out, using Shafts and The Woman’s Herald as the focus of her study makes a great deal of sense given that “both periodicals had mottos emphasizing one or more” (7) of the feminist aesthetic methods: in the case of Shafts this connection is found in the declaration “Light comes to those who dare to think” and in The Woman’s Herald “Speak unto the people that they go forward.” The emphasis on progress, development and the articulation of that development through female agency and thought is rooted within these periodicals’ editorial aims and intentions.

Of course it was often the male novelist who succeeded in providing the different and striking representation of the female consciousness demanded by these journals and their writers. Thus Youngkin’s final chapter on George Moore and Esther Waters (1894), a text which is coupled with Henrietta Stannard’s work, provides a wonderful explication of the ways in which Moore in some senses sought to exploit the feminist aesthetic within the novel in order to secure his own literary posterity; in other words, the consciousness of Esther Waters was Moore’s passport to Parnassus. Youngkin uses the term “female helpmate” for Esther’s role here, and what she reveals is just how skilfully Moore’s text and his conscious plans for what he could do with the character of Esther, fed neatly into the demands and desires of the periodical reviewers. Esther Waters is the only one of Moore’s texts still in popular print, so although his reputation has unfairly waned over the years, his most serious encounter with the feminist reading market has proved to be his most enduring. This is an important comment on both the male author and the significance of the very female aesthetic embedded with aspects of the periodical culture of the late-Victorian period.

Youngkin’s readings open up significant new angles on some critically familiar and less familiar texts from the period. I do, however, have one question to raise about what this new account of the engagement between periodical and novelistic publication can achieve. The difficulty lies in the idea of “influence” so prominently flagged-up in the title, and specifically the exploration of how the general cultural and literary climate of the feminist press came to bear on the development of individual texts. It is in this area that the book appears to me less sound for the principal reason that Youngkin is exploring the responses the feminist press made to particular books after they were published. In this sense, the book cannot show how the feminist press shaped the development of the specific novels looked at in these chapters because the reviewers’ engagement with the novelists is, by definition, post-publication. From this perspective it would have been interesting to see any evidence brought forward for the way in which novelists themselves responded to and even changed their writing methods as a direct result of a feminist press review—either of their own work, or the reaction to the work of another. There is some of this attention in the chapter on Esther Waters, but Moore is exceptional in many respects because he repeatedly re-wrote everything and his texts exist in multiple versions and editions; in this sense, his later re-writing of Esther Waters cannot be attributed directly to the response it received from the feminist periodical press, although it can be enlightened by it.

Another factor worth consideration is whether the focus on the novel as the medium of publication might also disadvantage some of the women writers looked at here. It is important to remember that women’s more experimental developments in this period were often with the short story. Perhaps Youngkin might have paid more attention to the way in which women used the periodical form not only for reviews but as a means to access print and articulate both fictional and non-fictional representations of female agency. This comes out to a certain degree in Youngkin’s afterword in which she does make a more explicitly revisionist case in arguing for the centrality of these debates and engagements within the periodicals in the shaping of modernism. Engaging with a kind of proto-modernist aesthetic perspective on female consciousness and narrative form in the 1890s, as Youngkin rightly suggests and ably proves, means that these writers, successfully or not, canonical or not, were all part of the literary forces that helped to forge the principles and ideas that would become the modernist movement in English fiction.

My quibbles are minor in relation to a book that is likely to become essential reading to scholars and students working on the literary culture of the fin de siècle.

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