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Private Sphere to World Stage from Austen to Eliot


Elizabeth Sabiston


 Aldershot, Hampshire & Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2008.

Hardcover. £55.00. 214 p. ISBN: 9780754661740


Reviewed by Robin Ganev

University of Regina (Canada)



Private Sphere to World Stage from Austen to Eliot examines six women novelists from the nineteenth century: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Gaskell.  It looks at how these authors used their female heroines to question, critique, and explore the position of women in nineteenth-century society, particularly with regard to their participation in the public sphere.  In every case Sabiston finds something to suggest that the novels lend themselves to a feminist reading and that both their authors and their heroines are progressive and independent, though perhaps not in obvious ways. All the heroines are interpreted as going against the grain of nineteenth-century social expectations for women.  With Gaskell and Stowe, Sabiston has more difficulty building a case for their heroines’ feminism, because the heroines are fairly traditional, but she talks about the two authors’ social conscience and perseverance as writers despite also being mothers and wives. Sabiston is persuasive in her argument that all of her women authors were critical of society’s treatment of women, whether they made an explicit case for the rights of women or not. The book is well researched and carefully documented and Sabiston’s interpretations are engaging and thought-provoking. This is a valuable study that will be useful to literary critics and students of English literature interested in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps one area where the book could be strengthened is in its historical sensitivity.  Pace the New Historicism, literary scholars often read to understand how past works of fiction are relevant to our modern world and experience. Sabiston accomplishes this kind of reading quite well, and the value judgments she makes about which works are worth studying and which heroines are of interest are shaped by her sensibility as a modern reader. With Austen she directly asks the question, why do we still read her?

These kinds of readings are of great value. The reason the classics are still relevant today is that they have something to say of importance to modernity. Yet being a historian, I would like to argue that history is also important to our understanding of literary works, and too great a focus on their utility to a modern audience can blind us to some of the historical reasons as to why protagonists acted the way they did.

Sabiston’s reading of Jane Austen in particular could benefit from more historical reflection, though she has much to add to our understanding of the novels. The analysis of Northanger Abbey is stronger than that of Persuasion, as Sabiston makes more modest claims for Catherine Morland than for Anne Elliot. One problem for a feminist reading of Austen’s novels is that many of the female heroines seem to have a male mentor who teaches them about things like taste and reading. The case of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland is a good example. However, Sabiston argues that Henry is not always right and Catherine is not always wrong. Catherine criticizes Henry’s ideas about history, pointing out there are no women in most historical accounts. So Catherine is more than a simpleton for Henry to educate, she can teach him something too [28-30]. This is a fine and astute observation.

Sabiston describes Anne Elliot as strong and active rather than repressed and passive and this too is convincing. However, when Sabiston refers to Anne as a “truly liberated woman” she is on more shaky ground. It would help to elaborate more on the term “truly liberated.” Certainly Anne is one of Austen’s more timid heroines, and she is obedient, unfailingly respectful of her elders, and possessed of all the feminine graces valued during her time, even if her inner life does not fully correspond to her outward behavior. So she is constrained by her time period, and the expectations of women that existed at the time, in the same manner as most literary heroines from the period. 

Another less persuasive aspect of Sabiston’s analysis is that she is overly keen to cast the female heroines in the role of “artists”. She argues Anne Elliot represents the artist, the only evidence for this being that Austen has “endowed Anne with her own gifts” [54.] By this definition everyone is an artist. She adds Emma to the list, saying that Austen spoke through Emma and Anne and that thus these are self-portraits of the artist as a woman [56]. The case perhaps can be made for Anne expressing the authorial voice, but definitely not for Emma, a deeply flawed heroine that Austen views through the lens of irony—certainly she does not stand for the author, or at least not in a direct and straightforward way.  Neither of these heroines is really an artist in the sense Austen was an artist. Again, in Wuthering Heights, Sabiston argues Cathy Earnshaw is the artist. She is a poet “trying to create herself”. How do we know this? She wrote her names on her desk and it is common knowledge that the poet is “the namer” [115]. Further evidence is that Cathy wrote notes in the margins of her Bible and she speaks for two pages in the novel in her own voice, which turns out to be a “forceful novelistic voice” [117]. But are these pages not forceful because Emily Bronte’s writing is forceful? Why is Heathcliff not an artist? He does dictate letters to Cathy. Why is that a lesser accomplishment than writing your name on a desk and scribbling marginalia in one’s Bible? The artist idea is a dubious one at best.

It seems the analysis could benefit from more historical research on the issue of how the author’s own voice and opinions, as well as her/his biography, are reflected in their work. When analyzing Tolstoy’s Family Happiness Sabiston says that Tolstoy saw himself in the character Sergei and was reproaching himself through Sergei for some mistakes he had made in the past [89]. No biographical material is offered to support this point.

Sabiston also tries too hard to make certain fictional heroines sympathetic, even if they seem very off-putting. Mrs. Lennox’s Arabella, for instance, seems like a thoroughly silly young woman, obsessed with romance. Sabiston keeps trying to cast her as the victim of patriarchy, but the truth is a lot of her tribulations seem to be the result of her own stupidity. Later, when dealing with Daniel Deronda, she gives Mirah low grades for being a traditional woman and celebrates Gwendolen, a spoiled brat, whose character flaws she attributes to a wrong patriarchal upbringing. No such charitable consideration is extended to Mirah for her patriarchal upbringing, though Mirah seems in every respect a more worthy individual. Daniel’s quest for his Jewish identity, which explains his choice of Mirah and which is central to the book, is subordinated to exploring Gwendolen’s dilemmas as a woman in a men’s world. This is fair given the book’s focus, and yet it takes away from a very important theme in the novel. However, Sabiston’s comparisons between the novel and the Merchant of Venice and Portrait of a Lady are very apt and aid one’s understanding of all three works.

It seems that the reasons for assigning value to a literary work could be stronger as well. They hardly ever have to do with literary qualities such as style and characterization. For Austen, there seems to be a demand in the critical tradition that she be conscious of her art in order to be appreciated. To this end, Sabiston challenges critics who have claimed Austen had no consciousness of her art, and argues that in both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey Austen inserted a manifesto on the art of fiction. It should not be necessary to explicitly speak about the art of fiction for one’s writing to be powerful. Having said that, Sabiston makes a strong case for Austen’s awareness of her art. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion both include passages, spoken by Catherine and Anne respectively, which deal with the question of what constitutes good fiction. Chapter five of Northanger Abbey is a defense of female solidarity and a great defense of the novel. The narrator praises novelists for giving readers more pleasure than any other genre and criticizes their dismissal by critics. This is not a new contribution on the part of Sabiston, as chapter five is well known for its defense of the novel. Still, Sabiston’s argument that Northanger Abbey and Persuasion can both be read as self-reflexive works on the art of the novel allows for a very interesting way of seeing these works [33].

The chapter on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Gaskell is one of the most innovative, though in some ways it fits the thesis of the book less comfortably than the others. Perhaps this is because, as Sabiston points out, these two authors have received less critical attention and there is more one can say about them. Sabiston makes a good case for linking the two women to each other. They were both mothers, both turned to writing after losing a beloved son, both were married to ministers and both had a strong social commitment. They corresponded, they had friends in common and had their portrait painted by the same artist, Henry Richmond. They also met. It is useful to examine the two authors’ lives from a feminist perspective as they persevered in writing despite their family commitments. However, Sabiston does not make a strong case for a feminist reading of their work, as their female heroines do not appear particularly unusual or independent.

Any book can be criticized, and the elements of Private Sphere to World Stage from Austen to Eliot I have found fault with do not take away from Sabiston’s achievement in producing such a carefully researched and thoughtful book on an important subject, the public role of women in the nineteenth century. This is a welcome addition to the critical literature about her six authors and it makes readers take a fresh look at these wonderful works.




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