Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
This book of thirteen essays by leading scholars in the field is an impressive and valuable contribution to the study of nineteenth-century women writers. Canonical figures such as Austen, the Bronte sisters, Gaskell and Eliot are examined in the wider context of the social, cultural and economic conditions which influenced the production and dissemination of their work and reputations. In addition, the very nature and construction of the canon of nineteenth-century woman writers is interrogated.
These essays reveal the tremendous extent and variety of women's contribution to the expanding range of discourses that helped to form the culture of the nineteenth century. Fiction, poetry and drama are strongly represented but space is also made for biography and other forms of life-writing, religious fiction, journalistic polemic, scientific and political essays, and writing for children. The studies are contextualised within a broader examination of women as consumers as well as producers of print, and revelations concerning the process of canon formation that accompanied the mid-century celebration and reassessment of their extraordinary rise to literary prominence.
Joanne Shattock's focus on Wollstonecraft, Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Eliot reveals the seminal role played by contemporary biographies in establishing a sense of literary community among women although the emphasis was placed on notions of 'womanhood' rather than literary talent. Joanne Wilkes contributes to this theme in her discussion of the impact of the sexual politics of the canonizers on the literary reputations of their subjects. Margaret Beetham reveals how industrialization and imperialism transformed the market in print by targeting the new generation of women readers and writers. She identifies the 'cultural anxiety' stimulated by the question of women's intellectual and physical responses to the 'pleasure and power to create new ways of being in the world' that literature afforded them.
Lyn Pykett's essay reveals how 'masculinist' publishing houses and gendered critical discourse shaped women's representations of gender, sexuality and motherhood in fiction, poetry, magazine articles, conduct books, pamphlets, and life-writing. Her readings of work by Bronte, Nightingale, Eliot, Caird, Cholmondeley, Gaskell and Braddon demonstrate how women writers reacted and responded to the 'often deeply contradictory stories that their culture told about themselves'. Valerie Sanders examines the influence of 'the male clubland of editors, publishers and reviewers' on women's literary careers and suggests that by the middle of the century women handled their careers with a greater degree of professionalism. Mounting a strong challenge to the triple-decker novel women also overturned what H. G. Wells described as 'the prevailing trivial estimate of fiction'.