- The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing ed. by Linda H. Peterson
The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing, as most readers will know, was the last project of Linda H. Peterson, the widely respected specialist in Victorian women’s life writing. The collection retains the imprint of Peterson’s characteristic interest in periodical culture, featuring articles on “Periodical writing” (by Margaret Beetham), “Reviewing” (by Joanne Wilkes), and “Assuming the role of editor” (by Beth Palmer), along with several more general topics that, by their nature, tend toward periodical studies: “Making a debut” (by Alexis Easley), “Becoming a professional writer” (by Joanne Shattock), and “Working with publishers” (by Peterson herself). Peterson commissioned articles on three different genres of Victorian nonfiction prose: history writing, life writing, and travel writing. The book has three articles on different genres of fiction, and this equivalence between fiction and nonfiction prose itself makes an important point. Drama and poetry, by contrast, get only one article apiece, although poetry also gets considerable attention in the article on colonial and imperial writing, thanks to the fact that it is coauthored by poetry specialists Mary Ellis Gibson and Jason R. Rudy, and shows up in Alison Chapman’s account of canonicity due to the special status awarded to the figure of the poetess.
The fact that I am writing about genres also reveals something important about this Cambridge Companion. Even twenty years ago, a book on Victorian women’s writing would have been expected to have a chapter on the Brontës, a chapter on George Eliot, and a chapter on Jane Austen. Not one of the seventeen articles in this book is devoted to a single canonical figure. The writers cited most frequently include Harriet Martineau, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Riddell, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Frances Trollope: hard-working, professional authors known for productive, lengthy careers in multiple genres. This Cambridge Companion makes an important and welcome statement that we are past the fetishization of individual authors, and instead we are in the world of genres, systems, and economics. Even the painting beneath the title, an empty study with books lined up on a table, draws our attention to the quantities of books, not to a particular female inhabitant. It takes courage to choose a painting without a woman as the background image on the cover of a Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing, even if an engraving of Martineau floats over the empty room.
Cambridge Companion articles are generally designed to offer an overview of the field to a scholar just starting to explore it. As a result, they tend to be encylopedic. This is not a critique, but rather what the articles are supposed to do, and the scholar who can submerge personal research interests in order to give a fair account of a large field ought to be thanked. This book has several such satisfyingly comprehensive articles: Easley’s “Making a debut,” Peterson’s “Working with publishers,” Ella Dzelzainis’s “Silver-fork, industrial, and Gothic fiction,” Deborah A. Logan’s “History writing,” Beetham’s “Periodical writing,” Palmer’s “Assuming the role of editor,” Chapman’s “Assuming fame and canonicity,” Lyn Pykett’s “Sensation and New Women fiction,” and Wilkes’s “Reviewing.” These solid, useful overviews are exactly what the reader wants. [End Page 530]
Once in a while, however, a scholar can manage to give that comprehensive overview an imaginative twist, perhaps by investigating a field from an original point of view, or by presenting a field so new that describing it requires conscious theoretical crafting. It is to the great credit of this volume that it boasts an unusual number of these articles. Gibson and Rudy’s electrifying piece on “Colonial and imperial writing” manages the almost impossible task of covering multiple countries, genres, and theoretical perspectives. Tamara S. Wagner is the only contributor to interrogate the volume’s emphasis on women, reminding us that we need to avoid reductive...