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  • Women Writers and the Nineteenth-century Marketplace
  • Gillian Sutherland (bio)
Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market by Linda H. Peterson. Princeton University Press. 2009. £20. ISBN 978 0 691 14017 9

At the end of the nineteenth century as at the beginning, there were only two occupations in which middle-class women could earn money and be confident that they need not thereby compromise their social status: writing and teaching. One could engage in either – or both – and remain a ‘lady’.

This bald assertion conceals as much as it reveals. In the course of the nineteenth century both occupations were transformed. This is not the place to consider changes in teaching. However, revolutions in the technology of book production and printing interacted with economic growth and the relentless growth of population to generate mass markets in books, periodicals, and newspapers. These transformations, most recently traced in the sixth volume of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain,1 have attracted sustained attention from historians and literary scholars and critics alike. Yet the two groups have seemed so often to proceed on parallel tracks, seldom if ever talking to each other or exchanging insights. The bibliography of Philip Waller’s recent giant volume, Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870–1918,2 suggests an almost studied [End Page 95] avoidance of the mass of literary analysis and commentary on the authors he considers. On the other hand, the army of women scholars who have advanced on the ‘New Woman’ writing of the 1890s seem, for the most part, uninterested in the circumstances of its production. The late Sally Ledger declared that the ‘textual configurations of the New Woman at the fin de siècle are as significant historically as the day-to-day lived experience of the feminists of the late Victorian women’s movement’.3 Maybe; but they can’t be valued in the same currency. And if she wants, as she did, to convince us that these textual configurations were in a ‘dialectical’ relationship with the beliefs and practices of feminist women, then it is necessary to know something not only about the texts but also about such beliefs and practices and the ‘lived experience’ more generally of late Victorian women.

Against the background of such a dialogue of the deaf it is a pleasure to encounter Linda Peterson’s book, which could and should be read with profit by historians and literary scholars alike. Writing with exemplary clarity and a refreshing freedom from jargon, Peterson sets out to explore the fortunes of women writers in the rapidly changing nineteenth-century marketplace and to consider what it might take to establish oneself as a woman of letters, with all that that implied. She does this through a series of strategically placed case-studies of writers and their work, an interesting and informative mix of the canonical and the relatively ephemeral: Harriet Martineau, Mary Howitt and her family, Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Riddell, Mary Cholmondeley, and Alice Meynell. These enable her to survey the period from the beginning of the 1820s to the First World War.

The nineteenth-century market for print was expanding, but it was also changing. The market for poetry was collapsing in the late 1820s and, as Mary Howitt recognised, the only profitable place to publish poetry became annuals, alongside stories and pictures. Although Alice Meynell made her debut with a volume of poetry in 1875, she turned to essays and journalism when her marriage to a journalist meant that they both had to earn to sustain a middle-class lifestyle. She returned to poetry with a privately printed volume in 1896, included by John Lane in Later Poems in 1901. In these, Peterson suggests, ‘she resolved the conceptual questions that plagued her at her 1875 poetic debut: what lyric traditions might a late Victorian writer continue and develop in the modern age?’ (p. 173). In addition, she was now well established and making money, with the [End Page 96] support not only of Lane but also of the editor W. E. Henley, and she could afford a relative self-indulgence...


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