- Modernism and the Women’s Popular Romance in Britain, 1885–1925 by Martin Hipsky
Despite the recent emergence of scholarship on low modern and popular modernist genres, the work of women romance writers has not received the attention that their past popularity merits. Martin Hipsky’s study attempts to redress the “romance gap” by examining a small group of romances that “best exemplified the meteoric rise of the woman-authored love story in Britain” (xii). In doing so, he provides a detailed evolution of the popular romance genre, and draws some insightful connections to high modernist works. Considering writing by Mansfield, Lawrence, Joyce, West, and Woolf, he examines how these “modernist writers incorporated elements of the romance mode and a related neo-Romanticism into their innovative fiction” (xvi). Indeed, one organizing principle of his study is drawn from Gillian Beer’s The Romance (1970), that “all fiction contains two primary impulses: the impulse to imitate daily life, and the impulse to transcend it” (xi). Throughout the study Hipsky returns to an important link between an emergent modernism and the popular romance, which is that both depart from literary realism of the nineteenth century. The romance writers he considers have “followed the same directive as the high modernists: the imperative to loft us, however fleetingly or intermittently, into a refashioned symbolic order that would bridge us across the pain of the historical Real” (xxi).
Hipsky’s first chapter gives an overview of the romance mode and British literary practice, delineating how prior to World War I, almost all popular novels were placed in the not yet gendered category of “romance.” It was not until the third decade of the twentieth century that the romance as a narrative mode was considered a feminine genre. Previously, popular romances did not bear the ideological stigma of the “feminized ‘other’ discourse” (2). While he [End Page 855] notes that feminist criticism and gender studies may offer the most useful framework regarding theories of genre and mode, he nonetheless is “not presuming to offer a bid for the canonization of the neglected women writers or to describe the historical reading experience of the female audience” (2). Rather, his concern is to map how what we refer to today as the “women’s romance” took shape out of shifts in the literary field that occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century. Although beyond the avowed scope of the study, an analysis grounded in gender studies and feminist theory would have benefitted his theoretical framework.
Using Bourdieu’s theory of literary production and reception, Hipsky’s second chapter charts developments in categories of popular fiction penned by women through the career of romance writer Mary Ward. By 1880 there were two ready-made roles for female fiction writers: the “serious lady novelists” such as Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot, and the “silly lady novelists,” a term coined by Eliot herself for female writers of melodramatic popular novels (21). Mary Ward innovated these two disparate positions over the course of her career. After establishing herself as a “serious lady novelist,” she employed aggressive marketing tactics and achieved unprecedented sales figures and transatlantic success. Ward seemingly transformed herself into a “money-generating fiction machine” and all traces of intellectual ambition and resistance to generic codification had drained from her work by 1908 (43). Subsequently, the most successful female fiction writers in Edwardian England soon abandoned the “serious lady novelist” model altogether. Ward’s trend to write strictly for mass audience appeal had derisive effects on the cultural capital of women’s fiction. It took the emergence of high modernist female writers such as Woolf, West, Mansfield, Richardson, and others to redeem the “symbolic capital of the female literary writer as a social construct” (61); however, this came at a price of increasing the polarization of the literary field. By 1920 intellectually ambitious writers distanced themselves as much as possible from writers who catered to large-scale literary production. Hipsky’s compelling point in this chapter—that modernist women writers defined themselves “as Ward’s...