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Fiction and ‘The Woman Question’ from 1850 to 1930


Edited by Nicola Darwood, W.R. Owens and Alexis Weedon


Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2020

Hardback. xxv + 160 pp. ISBN 978-15275-50414. £58.99


Reviewed by Margaret Sönser Breen

University of Connecticut



Consisting of eight chapters, Fiction and ‘The Woman Question’ from 1850 to 1930 examines works by popular as well as lesser-known writers whose works of fiction, whether conservative or radical in their vision of women’s autonomy, focus on a range of issues regarding female agency and self-determination, including marriage, motherhood, divorce, work, education, and enfranchisement, from the mid-Victorian era to the Interwar period—from Dinah Mulock Craik to Clemence Dane. Along the way, the collection offers a useful introduction, chronology, and literary biographies, and it draws attention to subjects of special interest to critics, including the interplay of gender and genre; problems of temporality; canon formation; and literature as a means of social engagement and political response. With essays by both established and emerging scholars, Fiction is highly readable, instructive, and at times illuminating.

The editors’ aim is to make available discussions of literary works that have not received much critical interest in recent years. Such inattention also holds true for most of the authors considered in the collection, including Craik, Ouida, Marie Corelli, William Hale White, Stella Benson, and Dane. This emphasis on overlooked writers proves worthwhile. It bids readers both to reevaluate the authors and their works, together with the availability of those works. Further, it allows volume contributors to foreground the varied approaches of writers who took up “The Woman Question,” and in the process to present a more nuanced assessment of those writers themselves.

The impulse toward critical reappraisal is apparent in the volume’s first two contributions, Lindsey Stewart’s chapter on Dinah Mulock Craik’s “The Double House,” and Laura Cox’s on Ouida’s Moths (1880) and Marie Corelli’s Wormwood (1890). Stewart’s essay invites a reassessment of Craik and of the sentimental fiction with which she is associated. Calling into question feminist presses’ decision in the 1980s not to reprint Craik’s work, Stewart argues convincingly that while Craik did not support women’s suffrage and while she believed in fundamental differences between men and women, her conventional sentimental prose affirmed the lives of her single female readership. Marriage, for Craik, was always to be a choice, not a necessity. This viewpoint is hardly one that can be readily dismissed as anti-feminist: “‘The Double House’ is strangely chilling in its dissection of the outward appearance of marriage … [The short story exposes] “a domestic tyranny which Craik fashions for her spinster readership, such that they might satisfy themselves that marriage might not be all it is sometimes claimed” [17]. Cox offers a comparable reexamination of popular though critically dismissed writers Ouida and Corelli. While, they, like Craik, were known for their anti-suffrage stances, their personal lives hardly accorded with the Victorian ideals of womanhood. They were single and economically independent; they supported their own households, which, in Corelli’s case, included her female partner. Moths and Wormwood also, much like Craik’s short story, adapt genre conventions—in their case, elements of sensation fiction—in order to foreground women’s oppression within, defiance of, and resilience apart from marriage. Cox aptly notes that Moths is likely the first novel in which a divorced woman is permitted to lead a happy life. Incorporating elements of sensation fiction their novels, Ouida and Corelli created an “immersive” experience that allowed both their works and their readers to “test alternative ways of living and of structuring society, and … push the boundaries of nineteenth-century standards” [33].

The next two contributions to the volume focus on novels by William Hale White, who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Rutherford. In Chapter 3, Jean-Michel Yvard takes up the issue of Hale White’s “overlooked critical interest in the lives of women” [35] and explores how his final three novels, written in the 1890s, Miriam’s Schooling, Catharine Furze, and Clara Hopgood, engage the New Woman figure and “The Woman Question,” even as the novels are themselves set at mid-century. For Yvard, Hale White’s concern with questions of religion and spirituality shapes his portrayal of the protagonists’ lives: “Although he portrayed numerous rebellious women, the novels generally end with an expression of renunciation and sacrifice”; such resolutions are “scarcely ... feminist” [43]. Yvard’s conclusion is borne out by Elisabeth Jay’s helpful summary of the advances in women’s emancipation over the second half of the nineteenth century. Drawing on these developments as well as biographical information, her smart, witty essay argues that Hale White’s responds to “The Woman Question” by turning to the past: “The mid-century ideal for women had been that of silent self-sacrifice, and that in the end is the feminine ideal to which Hale White clings. Yes, he could see and sympathize with the suffering it had caused for exceptional women, but for him it continued to constitute the noblest ideal of womanhood” [69].

The next two chapters explore the significance of motherhood and marriage in works by George Gissing, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Kate Chopin. In his essay, Tom Ue looks Gissing’s Sleeping Fires (1895) alongside Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924), in part because of the authors’ acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, with one another. Ue argues that the roles of maternal characters, whether actual or symbolic, and whether traditional or progressive, are key to making sense of both texts, a point that critics, in the case of Gissing’s novella, have typically not recognized. Viviana Castellano, in turn, examines the American writer Chopin’s feminist classic, The Awakening (1899). Similar to Ue, whose essay performs what Adrienne Rich has termed an act of “re-vision,” Castellano builds on Second Wave feminist scholarship. For her, Chopin’s protagonist, like Chopin herself, personifies the New Woman. Edna Pontellier must break free of patriarchy and with it the bonds of marriage and motherhood in order to claim her independence, albeit one that is synonymous with her death.

The final two chapters offer excellent discussions respectively written by co-editors Nicola Darwood and Alexis Weedon. Supported by archival research, these essays focus on two twentieth-century figures, Stella Benson and Clemence Dane. The first of these pieces is a work of recovery. Darwood considers the diaries of minor writer Stella Benson to chart her evolving feminist consciousness and her contributions to “the suffragist and suffragette movements” [105], which found expression in her writings on behalf of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and in her suffragette novel, I Pose (1915). With its allegorical protagonist, the suffragette, and explosive ending, the novel passionately reflects Benson’s belief in every woman’s right to equality. While Darwood’s essay is a work of recovery, Weedon’s returns to the question of critical reassessment so prominent in the collection’s first two chapters. “Artist, novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter” [124], Dane is an impressive yet critically neglected figure, whose own ideas resonate with and indeed anticipate those of other, far more famous writers, including Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall. Weedon points out that Dane, in a review essay from 1922, takes up the issue of women artists three years before the publication of Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own. Dane’s vision, Weedon underscores, is attuned to a late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century moment: “Instead of looking for genius, Dane looks for a movement” [136]. This is such an important point regarding not only Dane’s insightfulness, but also the power of women’s networks to facilitate and sustain women’s creative expression, even when, it must be noted, such expression is not conventionally acknowledged as art. Weedon’s chapter, with its focused readings of the novel Legend (1919) and the plays Bill of Divorcement (1921) and Wild Decembers (1932), convinces me of Dane’s contribution to such networks in her own time. Critics have recognized Hall’s lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness (1928) as a response to Dane’s Regiment of Women (1917). To my mind, Dane, who was probably lesbian herself, contributes to the understanding of Hall’s novel in another, provocative way: Beginning in the teens, Dane used ghosts in her fiction and plays to signal the “continuity between past and present” [135], much as Hall does at the end of her novel. Lesbianism is often figured as spectral, a present-absence within texts; the idea that ghosts mark a transhistorical networking adds a new dimension to thinking about The Well’s ending as a tribute to the overlooked persistence and power of lesbianism within society.

The intellectual excitement of this final chapter made me wish that lesbianism had been more directly addressed in the collection as a whole. Little is made of the topic’s importance to “The Women Question,” even as the New Woman of the 1890s was a figure whose gender troubling included the possibility of same-sex desire. One thinks, for example, of Mina Harker and Lucy in Dracula, or of that oft-overlooked Stoker novel The Man (1905), whose protagonist, Stephen Norman, was surely a precursor of Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen Gordon. I could not help wondering how welcome an essay on Radclyffe Hall, particularly with regard to some of her short stories or her lesser-known novel The Unlit Lamp (1924), might have been. The question pressed on me all the more because of Weedon’s elegant analysis; that chapter’s as well as others’ consideration of the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 brought both Hall’s The Well and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, published that same year, to mind anew. Neither is a critically overlooked novel, but a discussion of the act that granted women over the age of 21 the right to vote suggests a new approach to these famous works of lesbian fiction.

As I hope the above indicates, Fiction and ‘The Woman Question’ from 1850 to 1930 is a timely volume, one that models inclusion. It brings together essays on a range of works of fiction; individually and together, these pieces inform and complicate our understanding of “The Woman Question.” It has left this reader energized and, indeed, wanting more.


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