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Echoing the title of Rachel Brownstein’s 1982 book Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels, Linda Peterson’s Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market tells the story of how nineteenth-century women writers became and conceived themselves as being professionals. Peterson’s book implicitly deconstructs the premises of a work like Brownstein’s by exposing the contours of the myths that have made nineteenth-century women writers like Charlotte Brontë such compelling figures. Instead of re-inscribing these myths, Peterson explores the tension between “the models of authorship that writers project . . . and the material conditions in which women writers produced their work” (9-10).
Peterson fills each chapter with details, reviews and descriptions of the writers’ works; biographical writings; and periodical essays. This material provides a densely researched background that allows readers to see how Victorian authors, both male and female, were consciously working through the problems involved in conceiving of writing as a professional activity. Peterson’s great gift lies in her ability to enter into the consciousness of others. She lays bare the configurations of the myths with which Victorian writers grappled without imposing an alternative mythology of her own.
Becoming a Woman of Letters deals with three eras in Victorian publishing, in each case exploring a pair or writers: one a well-known, the other a lesser-known figure. The first two chapters deal with the era of the 1820s and 30s, when authors were beginning to be able to make a living from their writing because of the rise of the periodicals, which paid for contributions. Peterson shows how two different, implicitly gendered models of writing enabled Harriet Martineau and the Howitts, Mary and her daughter Anna Mary, to conceive of themselves as successful professional artists. Martineau’s self-conception involved models like those articulated by Thomas Carlyle in his 1840 lecture “The Hero as Man of Letters.” She saw herself entering a literary market place in which she would seek to influence the public sphere. Writing first for periodicals, where she valued both the validation she received from editors and the money she earned, Martineau was able, when she published her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-34), to transform a genre associated with women, the religious tract, into a radical commentary on social relations.
In contrast, Mary Howitt and her daughter viewed their professional work as coming out of the private domestic arena. Working together with her husband to produce Howitt’s Journal, Mary Howitt made sure that her daughter was trained in illustration as well as writing so that the two women could work together. Anna Mary Howitt carried this model over to her work as a painter, as she became involved with a group of women artists and activists who became known as the Ladies of Langham Place. Eventually writing a novel about that group, The Sisters in Art (1852), Anna Mary, like her mother, consciously posited a collaborative model of professionalism as an alternative to the individualist model that made Martineau successful.
The middle chapters of Becoming a Woman of Letters deal with the middle decades of the nineteenth century when, as G. H. Lewes argued in his 1847 essay “The Condition of Authors in England, Germany, and France,” “literature has become a profession” (qtd. in Peterson 34). But, while male writers wrote openly about the money professional writers could make, such a position was difficult for women to assume. Peterson shows that Elizabeth Gaskell dealt with the tense relationship between women and professionalism at mid-century through a “parallel currents” (131) model of authorship in which the woman writer is imagined to have both a powerful investment in the domestic sphere where she is a dutiful daughter and wife, and in the creative sphere where her genius is conceived as god-given and ungendered.
In discussing Gaskell’s biography, Peterson shows how, as she does also with Percy Lubbock’s biography of Alice Meynell, in creating the myth that surrounds the woman author, biographers carefully suppress certain letters and emphasize others. Gaskell excludes most of the letters that show Brontë’s interest in professional interchanges that dealt with her writing. Such elisions allowed Gaskell to create a model of literary professionalism that “was important in the history of women’s authorship for its apparent accessibility, its imitable pattern for young women writers” (149). But Peterson also shows the Victorians questioning the viability of such models when she turns to Charlotte Riddell, a lesser-known woman writer who experienced in her life and explored in her fictions the difficulties of following the pattern that Gaskell lays out in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) in the practical world of mid-Victorian letters.
The Riddell chapter marks a turning point in Becoming a Woman of Letters as the Riddell novel that Peterson analyzes, A Struggle for Freedom (1883), was written in the 1880s, though it is set in the 1850s. In discussing it, Peterson emphasizes the difference between the latter decades of the nineteenth century, when writing had become a fully professional activity for both men and women, and the mid-century years, which, in retrospect, look like a time of relative amateurism. By the 1880s the woman of letters had become a common figure. Peterson picks up this thread in the chapter that follows her discussion of Riddell where she shows how Alice Meynell used the genre of the literary essay to establish a professional voice that let her return to and become a publically successful poet. (One of the pleasures of Becoming a Woman of Letters is that it makes no distinction in treating the professional woman as a writer of poetry or prose.)
Meynell was able to cross boundaries, creating a self-image of someone who is at once successful in the market place and associated with high art. She also crossed gender boundaries to the extent that she could be defined, in Richard Le Gallienne’s words, as a “‘man of letters worthy the name’” (quoted 184). But even in Meynell’s case such an absolute establishment of herself as a genderless professional writer did not last. Toward the end of her career, as she began to produce poems on children and motherhood from the distanced perspective she had established as an essayist, “this work remade her into a late Victorian ‘angel in the house’ and contributed to a modernist tendency to treat her work as thematically Victorian, thus effectively depriving Meynell of the ‘classical,’ canonical status that she had apparently won” (201).
Here we sense the edge of Peterson’s own critical approach. She wants readers to feel the way that even the Victorian women writers who became famous were constrained by the myths that were formed around them. Peterson’s critical enterprise suggests, as I implied initially in referencing Brownstein, a return to and rethinking of classic feminist approaches to the novel. In Becoming a Woman of Letters, Peterson explores Victorian women writers’ experience of the uses and limits of the myths that both feminists and others have created around them.
The book ends with a short consideration of another writer of the fully professionalized 1880s and 90s, Mary Cholmondeley. In the case of Cholmondeley, Peterson shows, (as she also shows of Riddell), an example of a writer not protected by a myth of authorship which allows either the writer herself or her biographer to conceive of her as a successful professional. Instead Cholmondeley reacts to the vagaries of the changing literary market place at the end of the century. Abandoned when Macmillan’s bought out Bentley’s publishing, she responded in anger by writing her most successful work Red Pottage (1899), an innovative novel that explores the publishing industry’s resistance to literary innovation. But the same changes in publishing that drove Cholmondeley to write her most successful work also kept her from capitalizing on that success. Writing in the era when the periodicals that had dominated nineteenth-century publishing were becoming increasingly short-lived and when the cult of the personality was arising, she was never able to establish a fully successful professional persona.
Inviting readers to be as interested in women writers who were unable to follow the dominant cultural myths as those who did, Becoming a Woman of Letters recovers a wealth of information about the relation both male and female authors, the famous and the little known, bore to the publishing industry. In the process Peterson transforms our views of the nineteenth-century literary landscape. Though she opens by asserting that a “full history of authorship in Victorian England, one that takes into account women writers and their work, has yet to be written” (5), Becoming a Woman of Letters has gone a long way toward filling in that gap.
Elsie B. Michie is Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University. She has recently co-edited Victorian Vulgarity: Taste in Visual and Verbal Culture (Ashgate 2009) with Susan David Bernstein and is completing a project titled The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James, part of which appeared in PMLA (March 2009).