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 ...
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).