Women writers in the nineteenth century were measured against a feminine, rather than a literary ideal. Even the term »woman writer«, in its straightforward juxtaposition of a neutral feminine term with a neutral professional one, was a paradox for the Victorians; the associations of »woman« and the associations of »writer« were too far apart to be connected without strain. So the Victorians frequently substituted other terms - authoress, female pen, female writer, and, most characteristically, the delicately chivalrous term, lady novelist. Such terms served as constant reminders that women writers were a separate and inferior species of artist. Everyone expected that the female of the species would be weaker than the male; on the other hand, a lady novelist, if she behaved like a lady, ought not to be treated harshly or impolitely in a review, anymore than she ought to be forced to endure bad manners in a drawing room.
But the generation of women writers to which the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Geraldine Jews-bury, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning belonged did not wish reviewers to be kind to them, to overlook their weaknesses, to flatter them on their accomplishments simply because of their sex; in this repudiation of the courtesy ladies might exact from gentlemen, they were rebelling against the feminine ideal and all its restrictions As long as ladies had to request masculine indulgence and protection they could not expect to be considered as equals. Victorian women writers would not cringe and plead weakness; instead, they spoke intensely of their desire to avoid special treatment, of their wish to achieve genuine excellence, and of their determination to face rigorous and impartial criticism. Most women writers felt humiliated by the condescension of critics; by what Mrs. Browning labeled »the comparative respect which means that absolute scorn«. In Aurora Leigh (1856) she parodied the typical review a woman could expect:
What grace! What facile turns! What fluent sweeps!
What delicate discernment... almost thought!
The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women, competent to ... spell.
In part, this new spirit of pride and independence came in response to the increasingly acknowledged dominance of the novel form. Even before George Eliot had tried to write novels herself, she felt deep interest in and respect for the possibilities of the form, and had begun to consider the contributions women might make to it. She appealed to critics to exercise discrimination in their judgments, and not to be swayed by chivalry; severity, she thought, was ultimately the kindest service a critic might render the genre of the novel, and the future of women novelists. In »Silly Novels by Lady Novelists«, (1856) her famous satiric review of several subspecies of feminine fiction, she states her hope that
every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will, on principle, abstain from any exceptional indulgence toward the productions of literary women. For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature, that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence - patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer's art.
In this article, written just ten days before she began her first work of fiction, Amos Barton, George Eliot was declaring some of her own artistic credos and measuring her own talents against the deficiencies of the opposition. But in addition to the personal motive, one recognizes in this essay the familiar Victorian exhortations to earnestness, duty, and self-reliance. Just as the feminists were urging women to work, to make themselves useful, to put aside needlework and sketching for charity work and teaching, so George Eliot was attempting to get the frivolity out of fiction by frightening away the incompetent. Neither was she to be softened by pleas of financial need: »Where there is one woman who writes from necessity, we believe there are three women who write for vanity; and besides, there is something so antiseptic in the mere healthy fact of working for one's bread, that the most trashy and rotten kind of feminine literature is not likely to have been produced under such circumstances«.
Addressing herself directly to women, Dinah Mulock Craik, a novelist of far more modest abilities than George Eliot, expressed nonetheless the same ideals of artistic integrity and the same scorn of the dilettante. Women must not deceive themselves about their abilities; they must not confuse their feminine and their professional roles. »In any profession«, Mrs. Craik wrote, »there is nothing, short of being absolutely evil, which is so injurious, so fatal, as mediocrity.... Therefore, let men do as they will - and truly they are often ten times vainer and more ambitious than we: - but I would advise every woman to examine herself and judge herself, morally and intellectually, by the sharpest tests of criticism, before she attempts art or literature, either from abstract fame, or as a means of livelihood«.
Undeniably, personal ambition and frustration throbs fiercely beneath the surface of these statements on literary women. What was the use of laborious dedication to one's art if any moralizing fool enjoyed an equal critical esteem? Why bother to achieve perfection when one's efforts would be greeted with compliments cheaply obtained by any woman who was willing to make herself an object of pity? Privately, they might be indignant at the rudeness of reviewers, or resent the demands made upon them by publishers, editors, and families; self-pity was not foreign to them. But publicly, as Mrs. Craik maintained, they agreed that »to exact consideration merely on account of her sex, is in any woman the poorest cowardice«.
A striking evidence of this change in the attitudes of women writers is the use of the pseudonym. Where the eighteenth-century authoress modestly concealed her identity by publishing anonymously, or by signing only her preface, her Victorian counterpart frequently attempted to deceive the public by assuming a masculine name. Although Jane Austen, for example, never publicly acknowledged her authorship, she did not conceal her sex; the title-page of Sense and Sensibility (1811) showed the author to be »A Lady«. Jane Austen was proud to be classed with such reputable writers as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth. But the ambition of the Brontes, or of George Eliot was quite different. In the biographical notice of her sisters' lives which Charlotte Bronte wrote for the 1850 edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, she explained their choice of pseudonyms:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called »feminine« - we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward a flattery which is not true praise.
Although anonymity had long been a defense against unladylike publicity, and, as in the case of Sir Walter Scott, a way of protecting one's literary reputation when the novel was still a low genre, the Bronte sisters were among the first women writers in England to adopt masculine pseudonyms. Mrs. Gaskell had published three short stories under the name »Cotton Mather Mills« in 1847; Mary Barton (1848) was published anonymously, although a letter to her publisher shows that she was thinking of using the pen name Stephen Berwick. Why did the masculine pseudonym appear so suddenly and become so widespread? There was, of course, the example of George Sand, who was probably second only to Goethe among foreign authors influencing Victorian literature. In 1847 she would have been the most inspiring model for a woman writer of independent spirit, and Charlotte had certainly read her novels. The Bronte girls, however, were a law unto themselves, and from childhood they had been accustomed to assuming masculine roles and names in their games of imagination. Charlotte had used several masculine pseudonyms in her Anglian chronicle; Charles Thunder, Charles Townsend, and Captain Tree were some favorites.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the practice of anonymity on title pages and in periodical journalism lost favor and was thought cowardly; but among women writers it increased. The Brontes' example was widely imitated; although George Eliot is the only woman writer of the period who is remembered by her pseudonym, there were dozens of novelists, minor then and forgotten now, who used masculine names: »Holme Lee«, »J. Masterman«, »Hamilton Murray« in the 1850s and 1860s; »Lucas Malet« (the daughter of Charles Kingsley) in the 1870s and 1880s; and later still, »John Oliver Hobbes«, »John Strange Winter«, »Martin Ross«, »George Egerton«, »Vernon Lee«, and »C. E. Raimond«. The practice spread to the United States, where in the 1880s Mary N. Murfee, writing under the name Charles Egbert Craddock, deceived not only the public, but also her publishers, for six years. As her brother explained, »The name was assumed as well for a cloak in case of failure as to secure the advantage that a man has in literature over a woman. He obtains a quicker reading by the publishers, is better received by the public in the beginning, and altogether has an easier time of it«. In England women also continued to publish novels anonymously well into the latter half of the century; among them was Rhoda Broughton, who did not sign her first novel, published in 1867.
In addition to the professional risk of encountering reviewers' bias, women writers also faced the personal danger of having their fiction read as autobiography. Without anonymity or a pseudonym, they found separation of their work and their private lives impossible. Even these defenses did not preclude scandal and gossip. Because Charlotte Bronte dedicated Jane Eyre to Thackeray, whose wife was in a hospital for the insane, the rumor spread that Thackeray was Rochester, and that Becky Sharp was Currer Bell.
George Eliot's case was especially delicate. As Mary Ann Evans, she had acquired a reputation in literary London for political and religious liberalism which had made her some enemies; as editor of the Westminster Review she had offended certain factions. More seriously, by living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, she had put herself outside the boundaries of Victorian respectability, and she did not dare to sign her real name to novels that preached the message of duty and renunciation. All those most closely involved with the publication of Adam Bede - Lewes, the publisher John Blackwood, George Eliot's old friends - tactfully avoided the subject of her connection with Lewes. Lewes himself, writing to Blackwood, emphasized the wish to avoid critical bias: »When Jane Eyre was finally known to be a woman's book, the tone noticeably changed«. When they decided to abandon the incognito, Lewes wrote proudly to George Eliot's friend, Barbara Bodichon, that »it makes me angry to think that people should say that the secret has been kept because there was any fear of the effect of the author's name. You may tell it openly to all who care to hear it that the object of anonymity was to get the book judged on its own merits, and not prejudged as the work of a woman, or of a particular woman. It is quite clear that people would have sniffed at it if they had known the writer to be a woman, but they can't now unsay their admiration... .«
Subsequent events proved that Lewes' fears about anti-feminine prejudice affecting reader's responses to the books were justified. But he and George Eliot were much more frightened of possible moral outrage. The Black-woods too were apprehensive that announcement of authorship would injure the chances of future novels by George Eliot, especially sales to families. While she was finishing The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot became so anxious and sensitive that she wrote to Blackwood's, asking if they wished to remain her publisher since her identity had become known. John Blackwood's reassurances were directed, albeit discreetly, to her fears of scandal: »As to the withdrawal of the incognito, you know how much I have been opposed to it all along. It may prove a disadvantage, and in the eyes of many it will, but my opinion of your genius and confidence in the truly good, honest, religious, and moral tone of all you have written or will write is such that I think you will overcome any possible detriment from the withdrawal of the mystery which has so far taken place«.
To summarize, the women novelists were both fearful and defiant of the critics; they expected a certain amount of derision and hostility; they took precautions against personal attack if they could; but they had a keen sense of professional and artistic responsibilities, and where these were involved, they would not make concessions or ask for favors. Men shook their heads over female stubbornness and professed themselves mystified by the new spirit of pride and self-reliance. »We might forgive her intolerance, for it is a ladylike failing«, a critic wrote of Harriet Martineau, »but she will accept of no allowance on account of sex«. Editors and publishers discovered, to their amazement and often chagrin, that the most gentle and feminine lady novelists could turn tough-minded and relentless when it came to business. Mrs. Gaskell's refusal to change her work to suit Dickens' preferences in Household Words was one such instance, showing her confidence in her own writing and her resolve to fight for her artistic freedom. Unused to such rebelliousness, Dickens made no secret of his anger. »Mrs. Gaskell - fearful - fearful. If I were Mr. G., oh, Heaven how I would beat her!« It took the combined efforts of John Chapman and George Eliot to persuade Eliza Lynn to tone down the love scenes in her novel Realities; and neither Geraldine Jewsbury nor Rhoda Broughton was willing to surrender a word. Even Mrs. Craik, one of the most docile and conventional women novelists, demanded financial justice from her publishers and could write a sharp letter when the situation required it.
Fiction was a calling for which they might take up arms without sacrificing their own sense of feminine duty. Writing demanded freedom from the tyranny of self; so long as they had to worry about their novels' being used as evidence for or against them, they felt stifled. Charlotte Bronte wrote to Lewes that »come what will, I cannot, when I write, think always of myself and what is elegant and charming in femininity; it is not on those terms, or with such ideas, I ever took pen in hand«.
But the pressures of public opinion were inescapable, and all the women writers were to feel and suffer from them. First of all, the code of feminine behavior was class-oriented. Its crudest pretense, as Kate Millett has pointed out in Sexual Politics, was that all women were »ladies«, members of a leisure class. The requirements of gentility were barely compatible with any professional ambition on a woman's part, although it WaS tacitly accepted that in the lower classes women labored in the mines as well as the mills. All Victorian women writers, in fact, came from the middle or upper class; there were no milkmaid poets or shopgirl novelists. For women of the upper Classes Writing Was regarded as a harmless occupation so long as it remained an avocation. Literary ambition, however - the wish to publish one's writing and maybe make money from it - was not wholly respectable for women until the middle of the century. Harriet Martineau, for example, tells in her Autobiography that she rejoiced when her family went bankrupt: »I, who had been obliged to write before breakfast, or in some private way, had henceforth liberty to do my own work in my own way; for we had lost our gentility«.
The obligations of gentility were not the only barriers to feminine ambition. From childhood, girls were taught that women were created inferior to men in body and in mind, and that God had commanded woman to submit to masculine mastery in return for economic, emotional, and spiritual protection and guidance. Most Victorians believed that women's inferior role was their punishment for Eve's crime, and rebellion against it was unChristian. God's message to women, as recorded in Genesis 3:16, was explicit: »I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee«.
Women were therefore destined to find fulfillment in a sphere of life lower than men's. Yet they were told that culture, leisure, and education might produce from female nature a being of the highest stature to which such a nature could aspire. As the Westminster Review summarized it in 1831, the feminine ideal meant that
- Woman ... is formed to obey, and though she have an active and exclusive part to perform, still she must perform it under submission to her lord. Her duties are confined to her home, and consist in ministering to the comfort of her husband, and in educating her children during their early years. To perform these duties well, she must have a docile, patient and submissive spirit, she must possess no elevated description of knowledge; as she is gentle in her temper, so she must be inferior in her attainments.
Women were created to be dependent on men; their education and training must prepare them to find and keep husbands. Their mental qualities, therefore, should be those which would »stimulate the instincts and soothe the feelings of men«: modesty, delicacy, liveliness, and sensibility. Women should be truly religious, in order to influence their husbands and children; they should be ignorant of the evils of the world, in order to preserve their purity of spirit; in short, they ought to present in every Way a contrast to and an escape from the harsh intrusive realities of human vanity, greed, and sensuality. The feminine ideal combined elements of the angel and the slave.
The widespread acceptance of this impossible ideal from the eighteenth century on made life very difficult for women writers, especially if they came into open conflict with society's dictates. First, there was the question of motive; a proper woman did not seek fame. Her special virtue was modesty. Then, literature was in some degree an exposure of serf, and a truly modest, delicate woman would shrink from the scrutiny of strangers. Therefore, the act of publication alone made a woman suspect.
Furthermore, the Victorians had inherited a set of negative stereotypes of women, expressing many of the qualities which women writers were likely to embody. The two most common of these were the bluestocking and the old maid; frequently they were combined. The stereotype of the woman writer, which began to develop early in the nineteenth century, drew upon these older prejudices. In contrast to the ideal woman, the bluestocking-old-maid-woman writer was seen as tough, aggressive, pedantic, vain, and ugly.
As individuals, women writers were understandably loath to class themselves with the bluestockings, or to agree that they lacked feminine charm and virtue. But individual compromises, and for that matter, individual triumphs, had little effect on the stereotyped image of the woman writer. Women writers themselves were often the first to attack the sisterhood; and, to adapt Jane Austen's query, if the authoress of one novel be not patronized by the authoress of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? No doubt jealousy played a large part in this mutual disapproval, as well as the desire to win masculine support; by condemning the audacity of women writers en masse, they hoped to emphasize their own socially acceptable femininity The feminine ideal, therefore, divided women writers and kept them from making a forceful, united response to the hostile stereotypes.
Because they were so susceptible to the self-doubt engendered by the ideal, most Victorian women writers also conspicuously repudiated the feminist movement, even though they were basically sympathetic to its aims. Few Were Willing to battle the public hostility toward feminism. Nonetheless, conservative reviewers were quick to associate an independent heroine with a concealed revolutionary doctrine; Several found Jane Eyre to be a radical feminist document, as indeed it was. For Charlotte Bronte, how ever, who had demanded dignity and independence! without any revolutionary intent, and who considered herself the meekest of Christian Tories, such criticism was an affront. Her bad experience served as a warning to other women writers. As a group they were so cautious in their statements about feminism that in 1851, Harriet Taylor, the future wife of John Stuart Mill, attacked them anonymously in an article on »The Enfranchisement of Women«:
The literary class of women, especially in England, are ostentatious in disdaining the desire for equality or citizenship, and proclaiming their complete satisfaction with the place which society assigns to them; exercising in this, as in many other respects, a most noxious influence over the feelings and opinions of men ... [whom they] believe hate strength, sincerity and high spirit in a woman. They are therefore anxious to earn pardon and toleration for whatever of these qualities their writings may exhibit on other subjects, by a studied display of submission on this...
Her accusations stung Charlotte Bronte, who wrote to Mrs. Gaskell that their feelings on the review were the same: the author »forgets there is such a thing as self-sacrificing love and disinterested devotion. ... To many women affection is sweet, and power conquered indifferent, though we all like influence won«.
Although both Charlotte Bronte, and Mrs. Gaskell were using their novels to protest against specific wrongs in the condition of women, neither wished to be involved in legal and political reforms. Mrs. Gaskell believed that women should be rebellious and aggressive only in the interests of others; a mother might fight for her children, but not for herself. Furthermore, she distrusted social legislation generally; what was needed, she felt, was a change of heart. Many brilliant and competent women had so completely accepted the myth of female inferiority that they had no faith in their own sex and considered themselves superior exceptions. George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example approved of feminism in theory, but could not believe that Victorian women were ready to assume the responsibilities of equality. Mrs. Browning, a political liberal who wrote against American slavery and for Italien liberation, and whose verse novel Aurora Leigh was attacked as propaganda for women's rights, wrote, nonetheless, that she was not »a very strong partizan (sic) of the Rights-of-Women side of the argument.... I believe that, considering men and women in the mass, there is an inequality of intellect, and it is proved by the very state of things of which gifted women complain; and more than proved by the manner in which their complaint is received by their own sisterhood.« Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Lynn Linton, Mrs. Craik, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and Christina Rossetti were violently opposed to the movement; Mrs. Linton and Mrs. Oliphant even wrote against what the latter called the »mad notion of the franchise for women.«
Although they were opposed to female emancipation, women writers supported innovations and reforms in women's education. Until 1878 women were not allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge. Girls received one kind of secondary education; boys another; so that knowledge of Latin and Greek became a symbol of intellectual achievement for women.
Not thought, but feeling was held to be the woman's forte, and the Victorians especially distrusted women's pretensions to abstract thinking. Emotional prejudice, they believed, disqualified women from objective judgments upon such matters as history, philosophy, and government. Again and again in the journals, reviewers attacked women attempting philosophic discussions. Physical and intellectual weakness were associated, as we can observe in the following comment on Mrs. Hofland's The Czarina (1843): »Women have no business whatever to dabble in historical romances ... [they] are no more capable of conceiving the abstract idea of a mind Which 15 framed for the rise and fall of empires than they are physically constituted to play a prominent part in the revolutionary drama when it opens«. Similarly, affection and partiality, however charming In a wife, are repellent in a scholarly endeavor: »Ladies who assume masculine functions must learn to assume masculine gravity and impartiality«.
Obviously, hearing such sermons' preached from childhood would eventually affect women's estimates of their own capabilities, and thus many women writers concurred in this unfavorable opinion of their own sex. As Mrs. Gaskell put it, »I would not trust a mouse to a woman if a man's judgment could be had«. ,
Among women writers, educational backgrounds ranged from Margaret Oliphant's simple lessons from her mother to the expensive tutoring enjoyed by Elizabeth Barrett. George Eliot studied music, drawing, French, history, arithmetic, and English composition from the Misses Franklin at Coventry. Charlotte Bronte, after her brief, disastrous experience at Cowan Bridge (the school which became the model for Lowood in Jane Eyre), spent happy years at Miss Wooler's School and later in Brussels Studied French at the Pensionat Heger, under the guidance of the fiery M. Heger. Young Elizabeth Barrett wrote her first poem at age four; at thirteen she spent eight hours a day at her studies which included French, Italian, Latin, and Greek; the classic she studied with her brother's tutor.
Compared to the opportunities men enjoyed, the formal education of these women was perhaps not extensive. None of them attended a university; but then, neither did Branwell Bronte or George Eliot's brother Isaac. And they read omnivorously; they taught themselves languages, subscribed to journals, and ordered books or borrowed them. Through discipline and dedication, they made use of leisure, of isolation, even of loneliness and rejection. There is Elizabeth Barrett, suddenly an invalid at fifteen, mastering, over a ten-year period, German, Spanish, and Hebrew. George Eliot, caring for her widowed father in Nuneaton, studied German, Italian, and Latin, and read theology, history, fiction, poetry, and science. Much later, she showed this same enviable ability to use periods of forced seclusion for study, instead of wasting them in nostalgia or self-pity. In the years 1855-1858, during the long period of social ostracism, when, because of her honest avowal of the union with Lewes, she was not invited to dinner«, she read, in Greek, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Ajax, the Oedipus trilogy, the Electra, the Philoctetes, and the Aeschylus triology; and in Latin, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, Persius, Livy, Tacitus, Plautus, Quintilian, and Pliny. Her knowledge of the classics, Gordon Haight believes, was »more solid than that Thackeray got at Charterhouse and Cambridge, probably wider than that Trollope got at Harrow and Winchester«.
It is easy enough, therefore, to see why women writers were often thought to be bluestockings. Gentlemen meeting Mrs. Browning or George Eliot for the first time expected them to be shrill, domineering, and masculine, and in accounts of these meetings there is often a note of pleased surprise that, instead, Mrs. Browning was a »quiet little person« (Hawthorne); a »modest sensible little woman« (Coventry Patmore), who would sit with the boring wives and let the men »discuss the universe« (D. G. Rossetti). Tennyson commented on George Eliot's »soft soprano voice« (he had probably expected a baritone), and John Fiske exclaimed in astonishment, »I never saw such a woman. There is nothing a bit masculine about her; she is thoroughly feminine and looks and acts as if she were made for nothing but to mother babies«. These two women, however, were thought to be exceptions, and the species of women novelists was still expected to be both ignorant and pretentious.
Despite increased social acceptance of women writers toward the middle of the century, working conditions were dependent on the attitudes of an older generation that had been brought up on the feminine ideal and had passed it on to their daughters. The Brontes, Charlotte Yonge, George Eliot, and, of course, Elizabeth Barrett Browning obtained their youthful ideas about proper feminine subservience and dutifulness from their exigent fathers; Mrs. Oliphant and Harriet Martineau received the doctrine from their domineering mothers; and these early lessons they never unlearned completely. The attitude and expectations confronting Charlotte Bronte at the beginning of her career are implicit in a correspondence she had with Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate, in 1837. She had asked his opinion of her poetry; Southey answered that it showed talent, but he advised her to give up thoughts of becoming a poet, »Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation«. Humiliated, and yet grateful for his concern, Charlotte Bronte answered him in a pathetic letter that speaks dramatically - even melodramatically - of her daily agony of renunciation of her imagination and ambitions. Explaining that she tried to curb her imagination by working with all her
energy as a governess, she wrote:
I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. Following my father's advice - who from my childhood has counselled me just in the wise and friendly tone of your letter - I have endeavored not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm »teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself, and my father's approbation amply rewarded me for the privation.
No woman writer in the nineteenth century dared consider abandoning domestic responsibilities, however tedious, distasteful, and menial, for her art. The poorer ones, like the Brontes, peeled the potatoes; those with servants, like George Eliot, still kept close watch over the linen closets and the silverware.
Reconciling the parallel currents of work and female duty took great energy. Probably the exigencies of female authorship balanced its social advantages; needy women who were too dull or too timid to choose other work may well have been attracted to novel-writing, as George Eliot scornfully suggested; but a three-volume novel, even a bad one, could not have been written without some degree of concentration and endurance. Even successful professionals, like Margaret Oliphant, worked under deplorable conditions: »up to this date«, she wrote in 1888, »I have never been shut up in a separate room, or hedged off with any observances. My study, all the study I have attained to, is the little 2nd drawing room where all the (feminine) life of the house goes on; and I don't think I have ever had two hours undisturbed (except at night, when everybody is in bed) during my whole literary life«. A room of one's own, Virginia Woolf's symbol of artistic autonomy, was yet to be earned.
An even more insidious outgrowth of the feminine ideal was the characteristically Victorian veneration of motherhood. In its extreme form, this doctrine proclaimed motherhood the entire purpose of a woman's life. As the feminist pioneer Frances Power Cobbe lamented, many Victorians believed that »the woman who has given birth to a son has fulfilled her >mission<, the celibate woman - be she holy as St. Theresa, useful as Miss Nightingale, gifted as Miss Cornwallis, - has entirely missed it«.
Because maternity was regarded as the highest office a woman could attain, and because motherhood allegedly conferred mystical gifts of wisdom and moral infallibility upon its votaries, women writers were more respected and admired and got better treatment from the critics if they were also mothers. Even women who were quite revolutionary in other respects grew dewy-eyed and mealy-mouthed when the subject of maternity came up. The same Frances Power Cobbe who is quoted above in protest against the idealization of maternity insisted that mothers must not dream of activity beyond the domestic sphere until their families are grown:
So immense are the claims on a mother, physical claims on her bodily and brain vigor, and moral claims on her heart and thoughts, that she cannot, I believe, meet them all and find any large margin beyond for other cares and work. She serves the community m the very best and highest way it is possible to do, by giving birth to healthy children, whose physical strength has not been defrauded, and to whose moral and mental nature she can give the whole of her thoughts.
Mrs. Marsh, Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Browning got on very well with conservative critics who never tired of reminding readers that these ladies were mothers.
Geraldine Jewsbury and Charlotte Bronte were less fortunate. In the unkindest cut of all, Lewes criticized Charlotte Bronte's portrayal of Mrs. Pryor in Shirley, attributing the defects of the characterization to the author's childlessness. Lewes argued that no mother would abandon her child because it resembled its detested and depraved father. »Currer Bell!« cried Lewes, »if under your heart had ever stirred a child, if to your bosom a babe had been pressed, - that mysterious part of your being, towards which all the rest of it was drawn, in which your soul was transported and absorbed - never could you have imagined such a falsehood as that!« No wonder Charlotte Bronte wrote to him after this review, »I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends«.
In the hands of a real reactionary, the maternity argument became even more absurd and repressive. In his review of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth, J. M. Ludlow first noted that »the authoress of Ruth is a mother, and the duties of hallowed motherhood have taught her own pure soul what its blessings may be to the fallen«. No admirer of »women authors as such ... certain creatures of the female sex, with ink half-way up their fingers, and dirty shawls, and frowsy hair«, Ludlow suggested that for decency s sake, only married women, preferably mothers, and apparently those of middle age, should write novels:
By this time, with family cares upon their hands, and the moral responsibilities of their now completed life upon their consciences, to write and to print will be no more temptations to their vanity, and it will be for them to judge whether they are really called upon to say something to the world - whether they have that to say which their husbands will gladly hear, which their children will never blush to read; and whether their calling be to works of fiction or to the severest exercises of thought, we are sure that the little flaxen heads at their knees will add a truth and a charm to matter and style alike, though it be only through the instinctive erasure of those hard words which Willie does so cry over in his lesson.
Secure in matronhood, Mrs. Gaskell gleefully called the review »delicious«, but to Charlotte Bronte and to many other lady novelists, it must have been bitter indeed.
As if this preference for motherly mediocrity were not enough, women writers also had to contend with the prejudices associating them with feminists and other political radicals. Most dangerous of these stereotyped associations was the identification of professional women with the birth control movement. In the 1840s Malthusian doctrine was almost universally regarded as diabolical. A woman who publicly supported Malthus had to expect abuse; she was, the Victorians thought, not only wicked, rebellious, and profane, but very probably perverted. Harriet Martineau's espousal of Malthusian philosophy (in the unfortunately titled Monthly Novels) put the Quarterly Review into hysterically righteous rage: »A woman who thinks child-bearing a crime against society!«
Behind such outbursts was the uneasy fear that women who were given attractive alternatives to marriage and motherhood would take them, and that the proud race of Britons would wither away. This persistent anxiety explains, I think, the seemingly excessive angry response critics so often made to the books of single women that took issue with traditional social patterns. When women began questioning the structure of society, critics thought, they might end by destroying it.
In the case of women writers, the problem of family versus career seemed particularly insistent, because literary creativity seemed to rival biological creativity in the most direct way. The terminology of childbirth had been used to describe artistic creation for centuries; and the creative impulses of parenthood and authorship were familiarly spoken of as identical. Using this old joke, Thomas Moore wittily, cruelly, and anonymously attacked Harriet Martineau in a »Blue Love Song« in the Times:
Come wed with me, and we will write,
My Blue of Blues, from morn till night.
Chas'd from our classic souls shall be
All thoughts of vulgar progeny;
And thou shalt walk through smiling rows
Of chubby duodecimos,
While I, to match thy products nearly,
Shall lie-in of a quarto yearly.
And so on, for a dozen more lines. The obvious implication was that the bluestocking woman writer was barren and unsexed. All Harriet Martineau could do in her own defense was refuse to speak to Moore at parties.
Finally, there was the widespread belief I have already mentioned, that motherhood and authorship were essentially competitive and therefore incompatible activities. Creative energy was thought to be finite; children claimed so much of it that no good mother could have much left to spare for fiction. At any rate, she would have less than a man. The unfairness of this theory is plain; it failed entirely to allow for individual variations in personality and circumstances. But Mrs. Gaskell cited it in a letter advising a young mother not to write until her children were grown. Not only was it likely, Mrs. Gaskell thought, that a writing mother might neglect her real children for her imaginary ones, but aIso that a mother would be a better artist for having waited and endured and grown through the trials of maternity:
The exercise of a talent or power is always a great pleasure; but one should weigh well whether this pleasure may not be obtained by the sacrifice of some duty. When I had little children I do not think I could have written stories, because I should have become too much absorbed in my fictitious people to attend to my real ones. I think you would be sorry if you began to feel that your desire to earn money, even for so laudable an object as to help your husband, made you unable to give your tender sympathy to your little ones in their small joys and sorrows; and yet, don't you know how you, how everyone who tries to write stories must become absorbed in them, (fictitious though they be) if they are to interest their readers in them. Besides-viewing the subject from a solely artistic point of view, a good writer of fiction must have lived an active and sympathetic life if she wishes her books to have strength and vitality in them. Then you are forty, and if you have a gift for being an authoress, you will write ten times as good a novel as you could do now, just because you will have gone through much more of the interests of a wife and mother.
Even if she had no children, a woman was expected to lag behind men because of physical problems. In particular, Victorians generally believed that menstruation was a disease that made all women invalids for much of their lives. Until the twentieth century all but the most advanced medical authorities believed that during menstruation women were incapable of physical or intellectual exertion. Although convention forbade discussion of menstruation in polite journalism, it is often discussed discreetly in accounts of the problems of women's colleges, particularly in the United States. As late as 1878, the British Medical Journal printed a correspondence on the subject of the contamination of meat by the touch of menstruating women. Probably menstruation is one of the elements G. H. Lewes had in mind when he wrote that »for twenty Ol the best years of their lives - those very years in which men either rear the grand fabric or lay the solid foundations of their fame and fortune - women are mainly occupied by the cares, the duties, the enjoyments and the sufferings of maternity. During large parts of these years, too their bodily health is generally so broken and precarious as to incapacitate them for any strenuous exertion«.
All in all, women were told that their instincts, their organic processes, their brains, and their religion commanded conformity to the domestic pattern. Again these doctrines weighed most heavily on single women, who were made to feel that their struggles to find meaningful and profitable employment for their lives were ultimately futile. And there was a real belief single women who wrote were merely seeking an outlet for their pent-up emotions and fruitless passions. Attempting to explain the creative impetus, G. H. Lewes wrote of the lady novelist, »if the accidents of her position make her solitary and inactive, or if her thwarted affections shut her off somewhat from that sweet domestic and maternal sphere to which her whole being spontaneously moves, she turns to literature as another sphere«.
In short, no matter what they did, women writers were told that they could not hope to equal the achievements of men. If, like Mrs. Gaskell and Mrs. Oliphant, they fulfilled their domestic responsibilities, they were at a theoretical disadvantage with men, who could dedicate themselves wholly to their art. If, like Charlotte Bronte and Geraldine Jewsbury, they were unmarried, their work was nonetheless interrupted by the periodic debility of menstruation. If the woman met her maternal obligations, she would exhaust her creativity. If she devoted herself to art instead of having children, the art would be mere compensation; it would be secondary and inferior; wish fulfillment. Thus, by 1845 critics, both male and female, came as a matter of course to expect that a novel by a woman would in all probability be inferior to that of a man.
All the confused, hostile, and repressive aspects of the Victorian concept of femininity had their outlet in the criticism of women writers. By the late 1840s, when the Brontes and Mrs. Gaskell, among others, were submitting their manuscripts to publishers, an entire separate and prejudicial critical standard for women's writing had evolved. Through the 1850s and 1860s this criticism, both theoretical and specific, increased in response to the large number of important novels by women that were appearing. Hardly a journal failed to publish an essay on woman's literature; hardly a critic failed to express himself complacently upon its innate and potential qualities.
Victorian critics agreed that if women were going to write at all, they had best write novels. »Of all departments of literature«, G. H. Lewes wrote, »fiction is one to which by nature and circumstances, women are best adapted«. Theories of feminine aptitude for the novel tended to be patronizing, if not insulting. According to the theory of female nature, women had a natural taste for gossip and trivia; they were sharp-eyed observers of the social scene; they enjoyed getting involved in other people's affairs. All these traits of the female character found a happy outlet in the novel. This view, as grudging toward the novel as toward women, is usually expressed in a tone of mock admiration: »Women ... have a talent for personal discourse and familiar narrative, which, when properly controlled, is a great gift, although too frequently it degenerates into a social nuisance«.
In passages like this, the critic giveth and tile critic taketh away; the least difficult, least demanding response to the superior woman novelist was to see the novel as the instrument that transformed feminine failings into virtues. What mattered was the channeling of these unfortunate interests and impulses. Women were dominated by sentiment and obsessed by love; well, sentiment and love were the essentials of fiction. J. M. Ludlow worked it out very carefully in his 1853 review of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth:
Now, if we consider the novel to be the picture of human life in a pathetic, or as some might prefer the expression, in a sympathetic form, that is to say, as addressed to human feeling, rather than to human taste, judgment, or reason, there seems nothing paradoxical in the view, that women are called to the mastery of this peculiar field of literature. We know, all of us, that if man is the head of humanity, woman is its heart; and as soon as education has rendered her ordinarily capable of expressing feeling in written words, why should we be surprised to find that her words come more home to us than those of men, where feeling is chiefly concerned?
By eliminating from his definition of the novel all the qualities he could not bring himself to grant to women, Ludlow could accept the success of the books without having to alter in the least his feminine stereotypes. So intent is he on showing the perfect compatibility of the stereotype and the real product, that he can dismiss the question of »expressing feeling in written words« as the merest trick of the literate.
«The Lady Novelists of Great Britain«, a discussion in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1853, is another good example of the typical mid-Victorian tone, doubly offensive in this case because the reviewer so plainly believes himself to be a model of broadminded generosity: »Nothing... moves us from our belief that novel-writing is quite one of the legitimate occupations of women. They cannot, indeed, fetch up materials from the haunts into which a Dickens or a Bulwer may penetrate. They may in vain try to grapple with the more complicated difficulties of many a man's position and career; but, as far as they go - and often they can and do go far - they are admirable portrayers of character and situation«. And so on, for three smug pages.
George Henry Lewes' article, »The Lady Novelists« (1852), repeats the traditional distinction that the masculine spirit is intellectual, and the feminine spirit emotional. Since fiction demands the expression of the »emotional facts of life«, women are likely to succeed in it, although philosophy, history, and poetry, the more intellectual branches of literature, would exclude all but the exceptionally gifted. Lewes maintained that the sexes possess separate but equal literary abilities. Great and lasting works, such as the novels of Jane Austen and George Sand, could be produced with the materials domestic experience provided. But not even Jane Austen could have written so intellectual a work as Vanity Fair. The best praise Lewes could grant a woman writer he bestowed on Jane Austen (he had not met George Eliot yet); she knew her limitations, used to the fullest the distinct abilities she commanded, and never tried to invade masculine territory.
Another essay of more than ordinary interest is »Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax« R. H. Hutton's review of Dinah Mulock Craik's novels. Hutton devoted three-fourths of his review to an analysis of »the main characteristics in which feminine fictions, as distinguished from those of men, are strong or defective«. Hutton's first point concerned the narrative structure; in a woman's novel, he thought, all the narrative interest derived from the characters, whereas in men's novels the characters were placed in a broad intellectual framework and related to a general idea which dictated the composition of the narrative, such as Scott's contrast of history and the present, or Thackeray's satiric attack on his society. Hutton felt that women's novels had a special intensity which came from their strictly organized plots and invitation to identification with the characters. But this intensity was transitory, since it was intellectually limited. Accordingly, he considered Dickens a »feminine« writer: his genius »was founded on delicate powers of perception alone, though lighted up with something broader than feminine humor. There is no intellectual background to his pictures: and in this respect he resembles the numerous authoresses of modern English fiction«.
Lack of imagination, rather than lack of experience, was for Hutton the major deficiency of the woman writer. When applied to character, this judgment meant that women excel at social detail, at creation of characters externally observed, but fail at depicting inner life. The exception to this rule is the central character, whose psychology is usually convincingly portrayed. Unless, in fact, the protagonist is the narrator of a pseudoautobiography, the typical woman's novel is out of proportion in Hutton's view, since only one of its characters is likely to be presented in depth. Lack of imagination also accounts for the general failure of women to portray realistic male characters. The very powers of observation that aid women in capturing the external aspects of character prevent them from reaching below the surface and discovering the truths of the hidden personality.
Although much of what Hutton says is reasonable as criticism of Mrs. Craik, his general theories are biased by his selection of examples; he bases his theories about women novelists essentially on inferior novels, whereas his ideas about the abilities of male novelists are derived from a consideration of Scott and Thackeray, among others. He cannot avoid concluding, therefore, that women novelists are inferior.
Comparisons may be odious, but they exert an undeniable fascination, and given the discursive nature of Victorian book reviewing, the many comparisons of the literary abilities of the sexes are not much more significant than comparisons of national literatures. The curious and important aspect of these essays, however, is the degree to which their generalizations were assimilated and turned into absolute standards. During the period from 1845 to 1865 especially, reviewers were virtually obsessed with finding the place of the woman writer and with putting each woman writer in her place. This obsession usually took the form of a persistent determination to expose the female authorship of a pseudonymous or anonymous work. Reviewers found the challenge of detection irresistible; and they enjoyed the pose of omniscience. The more women writers resorted to disguise to win fair treatment from the critics, the more critics focused on the question of sex.
The double standard of literary abilities overwhelmingly favored men. Like the social stereotype to which it was closely related, the literary stereotype adapted very slowly to any real evidence of feminine achievement. Women writers were supposed to have the benefit of the domestic and moral talents of the feminine character; but these talents were outbalanced by their limitations. Feminine talents included refinement, tact, and the ability to observe precisely, present female character effectively, deal knowledgeably with details of dress, housekeeping, and illness (this last a not inconsiderable element in Victorian fiction), and most important, edify the morally needy. Feminine failings were lack of originality, lack of education, inability to comprehend abstract thought, excessive emotionality, prejudice, humorlessness, and inability to portray male characters.
All the most desirable artistic qualities were assigned to men: power, breadth, distinctness, clarity, learning, understanding of history and abstraction, shrewdness, knowledge of life, and humor. Masculine faults were seen to be coarseness and passion; the latter term was used in its Victorian pejorative sense of licentiousness. This distribution of literary qualities meant that a man who approximated the stereotype could conceivably write an excellent novel, but a woman with all the qualities agreed to be essentially womanly could produce only a superfical work.
This double standard was so widely accepted that critics and readers automatically employed it in the game of literary detection. Approaching a novel as if it were a chemical to be identified, reviewers would break it down into its elements, label these masculine or feminine, and add up the total. A predominance of masculine or feminine elements determined the sex of an author. The rigidity of this method of criticism is equaled only by its unreliability. Sagas of mistaken identity are legion throughout the century; considering the odds based on chance alone, the percentage of correct guesses is not impressive. Women were no more accurate detectives than men.
The two most famous cases involving the use of male pseudonyms by female authors were the controversies attending the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, and Adam Bede in 1859. These two works threatened the soothing stereotype of feminine incompetence with the reality of feminine genius, and they engendered a critical response extraordinary for its intensity and ambivalence.
What chiefly astounded and baffled the readers of Jane Eyre was the presentation of feminine independence and female passion. According to the ideal, women did not have the sexual feelings »Currer Bell« (Charlotte Bronte) described. According to the double critical standard, moreover, women writers could not attain the powers Currer Bell displayed. Therefore, as Mrs. Gaskell reports, »The whole reading world of England was in a ferment to discover the unknown author . .. every little incident mentioned in the book was turned this way and that, to answer, if possible, the much-vexed question of sex«.
The critical verdicts were contradictory, to say the least. Most reviewers, judging by the book's vigor, declared the author to be a man. Others, examining circumstantial evidence of domestic life, insisted that the author must be a woman. Still other reviewers, scandalized by the accounts of passion, announced that the author must be a fallen or depraved woman, an outcast from her sex. One American reviewer solved the dilemma by imagining that Jane Eyre was a team effort by a brother and sister, with the brother handling plot, characters, and passion, and the sister filling in delicate detail and sensibility. Even defenses of the book were obnoxiously insistent on distinctions of sex, arguing that Currer Bell was so innocent and ladylike that she had not realized the meaning of her own words.
Most significantly, many critics bluntly admitted that they thought the book was a masterpiece if written by a man, shocking or disgusting if written by a woman. In an angry rebuttal of these reviews, written to her publisher, Charlotte Bronte eloquently defended her human and literary rights: »Jane Eyre is a woman's autobiography; by a woman it is professedly written. If it is written as no woman would write, condemn it with spirit and decision - say it is bad, but do not eulogize and then detract. ... To such critics I would say, »To you I am neither man nor woman - I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me - the sole ground on which I accept your judgment!«
Like Jane Eyre, Adam Bede was an instant success, and once again, all of England was in a furor to discover the identity of the author. This time readers were virtually unanimous in supposing the author to be a man. As the Saturday Review later admitted, »to speak the simple truth, without affectation or politeness, it was thought too good for a woman's story«. In fact, a male »George Eliot« was quickly located - a clergyman named Joseph Liggins, who lived in the town where Mary Ann Evans was born, and who was more than willing to claim credit for her books. Cheerfully, he gave interviews and accepted the homage of visitors, forcing the real George Eliot to reveal her pseudonym. Immediately the tone of the reviews changed. Where critics had previously seen the powerful mind of the male George Eliot, they now, upon second glance, discovered feminine delicacy and tact, and here and there a disturbing unladylike coarseness.
Arguments ad feminam in periodical reviewing were so characteristic of the years from 1840 to 1870 that I could not begin to list them all. Many of the most talented women writers of the period were criticized for »coarseness« or a lack of ladylike refinement. Anne Bronte's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which described the suffering of a woman married to an alcoholic, scandalized James Lorimer of the North British Review with its »coarseness and brutality.« But the reviewer for Fraser's found charm in what seeded to him only a feeble and innocent imitation of masculine power: »The very hoarseness and Vulgarity is just such as a woman, trying to write like a man, would invent - second-hand and clumsy, and not such as men do use; the more honour to the writer's heart, if not her taste«. With typical Bronte spirit, Anne replied in her preface to the second edition, »All novels are or should be written for both- men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should m censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man«.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was called by the Edinburgh Review »often... more coarsely masculine than any other woman writer«. Again, the objection was to her diction. Her verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857) - one of the few works by a woman, incidentally, with a woman writer as its heroine - was considered especially daring and unorthodox. The Westminster Review commented, in a typically personal and offensive manner, »Mrs. Browning seems at once proud and ashamed of her womanhood. She protests, not unjustly, against the practice of judging artists by their sex; but she takes the wrong means to prove her manhood. In recoil from mincing fastidiousness, she now and then becomes coarse. She will not be taxed with squeamishness, and introduces words unnecessarily, which are eschewed in the most familiar conversation. To escape the imputation of over-refinement, she swears without provocation«.
Women reviewers were just as likely as men to disparage the female novelist or to draw attention to her personal qualities. George Eliot, after all, had herself written about »Silly Novels by Lady Novelists«; the two reviews which hurt Charlotte Bronte the most were by women: Miss Rigby in the Quarterly and Anne Mosley in the Christian Remembrancer. Mrs. Oliphant, who suffered most of her professional life from a bitter sense of literary inferiority, could be a harsh critic of her sister novelists. One of the saddest aspects of prejudice is the way in which it affects the self-image of its victims. Women writers were all too ready to believe that they labored under innate handicaps of mind and experience. Even the most successful seemed to require continual reassurance. Lewes confided to a friend that »After the publication of 'Adam Bede' Marian felt deeply the evil influences of talking and allowing others to talk to her about her writing ... there is a special reason in her case - it is that excessive diffidence which prevented her writing at all for so many years, and would prevent her now, if I were not beside her to encourage her«.
The effects of this repressive criticism were serious and extensive. First, it denied autonomy to women writers by insisting on treating them as a class, rather than as individual artists. This knowledge that their identity was always in danger of being subsumed to a group stereotype acted as a constant irritant. They were anxious to detach themselves from its onus by expressing relatively conservative views on the emancipation of women and by stressing their domestic accomplishments. The stereotype, however, was inescapable, and women were perpetually frustrated when the novels they considered expressions of their own unique personalities were treated as representatives of a trend. At Mrs. Gaskell's request, Charlotte Bronte asked her publishers to delay Villette so that it would not appear simultaneously with Ruth. »... I have ever held comparisons to be odious«, she wrote to Mrs. Gaskell, »and would fain that neither I nor my friends should be made subjects for the same ... I dare say, arrange as we may, we shall not be able wholly to prevent comparisons; it is the nature of some critics to be invidious; but we need hot care; we shall set them at defiance; they shall not make us foes...«. As she predicted, despite their efforts the two novels were reviewed together in many journals. Women writers were thus forced to be rivals.
More significantly, women were either implicitly or explicitly denied the freedom to explore and describe their own experience. While Victorian prudery prevented men as well as women from expressing themselves, it operated much more oppressively on women, because virtually all experience that was uniquely feminine was considered unprintable. Considering the outraged response of critics to Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh, it is sad but not surprising that no nineteenth-century woman writer dared to describe childbirth, much less sexual passion. Men could not really write about sex, but they could write about sport, business, crime, and war, all activities from which women were barred. It is no wonder that no woman produced a novel like War and Peace. What is amazing is the wealth of literature, passionate, witty, and profound, written by women in this period.