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10:54 pm: I shall now ramble about the nonfiction I just read. I know this is shocking.
Occasionally, I like to do what I refer to as “dive-bombing,” wherein I choose a library shelf that looks interesting and take a number of random books that sound interesting from the titles. (I don’t dive-bomb in bookstores any more, since a) you have to pay for the books and b) I found way, way too many stinkers with pretty cover art and/or interesting titles). Since I just moved back to school, and our library is pretty large—1.2 million books!—I went and did it this weekend.

One thing I wound up with, and wound up reading in about two days, was Valerie Sanders’s Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists. It’s 1996, so it’s a bit dated, but there’s lots of stuff that was new to me in it, and I tend to forgive books for being dated anyway, since they take so much longer to produce than journal articles. (This does not mean I am amused when one of my students attempts to write on abortion in the US exclusively with books that were written before 1973, but that’s a different matter).

The book mentions some other commentators, including some men, but focuses most heavily on four women writers, all of them both journalists and novelists: Charlotte Yonge, Eliza Lynn Linton, Mrs. Oliphant, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. All were anti-feminist in the sense that they had problems with complete equality for women, but they varied on which issues they most strongly opposed (especially on suffrage), and why. And all led lives that were, um, a bit to the side of the married, domestic life they advocated for women:

-Charlotte Yonge: never married, wrote tons of novels, edited The Monthly Packet.

-Eliza Lynn Linton: married and tried to make the marriage work, but wound up separating from her husband; had a succession of adopted daughter-figures, but was herself childless; became agnostic, and “’offered the only documented resistance to Huxley’s exclusion of women from the Ethnological society’, writing an eight-page petition on behalf of women visitors in 1868,” (Sanders 184) yet insisted that Christianity would fulfill most women.

-Margaret Oliphant: lost her husband, outlived all her children, and supported herself, her own children, and her brother’s children by writing furiously (“Oliphant wrote over 100 novels, several biographies, an autobiography, historical sketches, literary histories, and annals of Blackwood’s publishing house…Never remarrying, however, she knew that a large household of dependent children relied solely on her support, and felt she had no choice but to keep writing.” Sanders 207).

-Mary Ward: married and had a pleasant marriage, but outearned her husband; pictured her heroine as the traditional Christian in her first novel, but was herself a freethinker; liked to apply the word “childish” to heroines, but had no children.

They contradict each other, and the author studies how and why they do. The most common reason is that they preferred to think of themselves as anomalies, and often uncomfortable ones, rather than as examples of the life a woman could lead if she wanted to. For example, Linton managed to persuade her highly misogynistic father (her mother died after bearing her, the youngest of twelve children) to let her have a year alone in London, where she did very well. Yet here she is writing about women who exercise political freedom apart from men:

“Women are both more extreme and more impressible than men, and the spirit which made weak girls into heroines and martyrs, honest women into yelling tricoteuses of these blood-stained saturnalia of ’92, still exists in the sex; and among ourselves as elsewhere.” (cit. Sanders 134).

Don’t let women into politics, men, or you’ve got the French Revolution!

Oliphant wrote many, many articles for Blackwood’s, yet continually and anxiously wrote letters suggesting that she wouldn’t take up the topic she wanted to write about, even though she could really use the money, if they thought it was too “manly.” “I am afraid a feminine critic must find but a limited orbit possible to her—but I should greatly like this piece of work if it would answer you” (cit. Sanders 144). And:

“Whereas Linton’s tone is usually opinionated, scornful, and sarcastic, Oliphant’s is measured and ironic, though she avoids caricature, and indeed accuses others of it. Her appeal is always to the sensible, normal reader, who knows that nothing untoward is really happening in the relations between husbands and wives. Whereas in her novels she tends to be cynical about human nature, in her journal articles she is more conventional. As one of few women ‘regulars’ for Blackwood’s, she perhaps felt obliged to be steady.” (144)

One reason this fascinates me is because I see exactly the same kind of argument conducted around me all the time, especially on websites and in my students’ papers. Nice, normal men don’t treat women that badly, and nice, normal women don’t want to be treated better. The emphasis has changed, and issues have really shifted, thank feminism, since Oliphant’s day, but it’s still going on.

Other things that caught me:

-Charlotte Yonge’s father and “spiritual counselor” made her give all the money she earned from writing to charity. I had to read it twice before I understood what I was reading. Then it made me sick.
-Mary Ward did write one novel, Helbeck of Bannisdale, where the heroine is a freethinker and her potential lover Catholic, and they struggle together. Of course, since the novel’s problem can’t be solved by her lover deconverting or the lovers just agreeing to part or live together without caring for religious differences, and Ward was unwilling to make her heroine Christian, the heroine had to die instead.
-Margaret Oliphant’s heroines are often more complicated and competent than her men; they marry incompetent men because managing those men’s careers and cleaning up their mistakes will give them something to do. (There’s a pretty bleak picture of what Victorian middle-class life was like. Imagine doing nothing all day if you were intensely respectable but going on social calls, listening to other people’s problems, and sitting nicely and quietly in an empty room). Her most complicated heroes are ones who are like women and are being pressured into lives they don’t really want; they have to either submit or make some violent gesture towards freedom that winds up with their community rejecting them. The fact that Oliphant’s sons and brothers were lazy good-for-nothings and her husband died might have something to do with that.

It’s all fascinating stuff. It makes me want to read, and write, more Victorian fantasy. And it makes me want to create fictional characters as complicated and self-contradictory as these real people, without slamming them for the beliefs they hold.

Currently trying to decide between Modernism, Romance and the fin de siècle and The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction.

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