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  • New Woman & Adventure Fiction
  • Maria Carla Martino
LeeAnne M. Richardson. New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. vii + 181 pp. $55.00

After thirty years or so of regular output of critical works on New Woman fiction some scepticism about the possibility of any startling novelty on the subject might be justified. In spite of this, Richardson's inclusive, well-documented study comes as a welcome addition to our knowledge of the complex relation between the late-Victorian cultural debate on gender, race and empire, and two popular fictional genres of the fin de siècle, the New Woman novel and the colonial adventure romance. In the last ten years critical research on the New Woman has widened its scope. Sally Ledger's The New Woman and Angelique Richardson and Chris Will's collection The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact have begun to scrutinize the relation between New Woman fiction and a number of contemporary issues, such as eugenics, imperialism, Decadence, and socialism. As to the colonial adventure romance, Richardson's study is preceded by Stephen Arata's Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle, which sees the adventure romance as a response to anxieties (in which the New Woman played no small role) regarding the degeneration of the British race and a supposed emasculation of British culture.

In dealing with the late-Victorian debate on gender and imperialism, Richardson does not limit herself to tracing the separate relation of the adventure romance and/or the New Woman novel to Decadence and imperialism, nor to detecting traces of "New Womanism" in colonial adventure heroines, as previous critics have done. The novelty of her study lies in bringing together two literary subgenres most directly influenced by ideological attitudes in relation to the questions of gender and the empire. In investigating the connection between New Woman fiction and the colonial adventure novel, Richardson throws light on the complex way the two subgenres intersect and influence one another despite the obvious differences: in the author's words they are in fact "formally, structurally and ideologically complementary." [End Page 114]

The juxtaposition of the two subgenres provides valuable insights into the extent to which the two fictional forms permeate each other and become the ground of convergence for a number of issues that inflamed the cultural debates of the age. Richardson's close reading of the texts is supported by a wealth of references to contemporary sources (essays, articles in periodicals) all tending to illustrate how deeply questions of gender politics and imperialism were interrelated, and how they are reflected in contemporary narrative. Often New Woman fiction appropriated tropes and metaphors typical of colonial discourse while the colonial adventure novel at times resorted to domestic discourse to represent imperial practices. From this type of crossover, Richardson argues that the two subgenres seem to elude any clear and simple categorization, while some of these novels can be considered as truly hybrid forms. In order to illustrate such complexity Richardson adopts the dual theoretical approach of genre theory and discourse analysis, a combination that allows her to explore better the "interplay between ideology and literary form."

Since the Woman Question represented a challenge not only to the patriarchal system but also to the very principles on which the British Empire grounded itself, Richardson investigates how the common concerns of New Woman novels and colonial adventure romances bring about a number of "submerged" similarities of form; despite this, however, "in many ways, these two subgenres represent opposite responses to the pressure of modernity." Richardson then moves on to illustrate how this polarity coalesced in the end-of-century debate on romance and realism, which ended by identifying each subgenre with one of the two modes. Richardson's ample survey of the contemporary debate on the subject shows how in the 1890s readers, critics and the novelists themselves perceived the realistic mode as almost exclusively associated with feminist writing. In the process the term "realism" came to assume a strongly derogatory connotation; at the same time anxieties about effeminacy in realistic literature brought about a revaluation of the adventure romance as exalting...


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pp. 114-117
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