- Ella Hepworth Dixon: The Story of a Modern Woman
Although The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) ranks among the best and most famous of the "New Woman" novels of the 1890s, reliable information about its author, Ella Hepworth Dixon, remains elusive. Reading Dixon's own 1930 memoir As I Knew Them does little to clear up questions about her life, as it supplies few facts, even about such straightforward matters as the circumstances of her birth, the names of her siblings, or the titles and locations of her various periodical publications. Until now, the only biographical accounts have been few and brief, including Kate Flint's introductory essay for the 1990 Merlin Press reprint of The Story of a Modern Woman; Steve Farmer's two-page-long chronology of her life and career in the 2004 Broadview Literary Texts edition of the same novel; Natalie Joy Woodall's entry in G. A. Cevasco's The 1890s: An Encyclopedia of British Literature, Art, and Culture (1993); and my own 1999 essay about her in Late-Victorian and Edwardian British Novelists, Second Series (Volume 197 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography). None of these sources was able to establish so much as Dixon's precise birthdate, despite her importance to late-nineteenth-century feminist literature.
Valerie Fehlbaum's Ella Hepworth Dixon is thus welcome and necessary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its inclusion of photographs of Dixon's birth and death certificates, along with lists of the periodical issues in which her short stories and essays (most of them uncollected) were published. Fehlbaum also supplies the first-ever listing of short fiction and reviews by Dixon's sister, Marion Hepworth Dixon, who deserves a study of her own as a major contributor to turn-of-the-century British art criticism. Fehlbaum's research allows us to appreciate more fully both of these women as prolific, active writers who took up the mantle of their father, William Hepworth Dixon (editor of the Athenaeum), and supported themselves through journalism. It enables us to recognize, moreover, that "New Women" of the 1890s such as Ella Hepworth Dixon were innovators not merely as novelists, but as authors who shaped a variety of genres by defying gender barriers, "competing in what remained largely a man's world" (67), and entering the burgeoning world of magazines and newspapers.
Indeed, Fehlbaum's two most impressive chapters—"The Bastille of Journalism" and "The World of the Theatre"—move away from fiction into other realms. Fehlbaum has done invaluable archival research and given us access to Dixon's many contributions to the debates about marriage, women's work, and "rational dress" that roiled the late-Victorian press. Analyzing these, she finds that "A high regard for her own sex and a desire for greater justice for women permeates [Dixon's] entire output. Moreover, her capacity to combine the 'frivolous' and the 'zealous' is a particularly distinguishing feature of her writing. This enabled her to treat even the most delicate or thorny [End Page 126] subjects with wit" (77). This wit was more polished and developed than that of most of Dixon's contemporaries, Fehlbaum suggests. At the same time, she pays homage to Dixon's ability to strike other notes, including the melodramatic and the tragic, as in her one-act play The Toyshop of the Heart (1908). Fehlbaum seems to admire most Dixon's capacity to "diversify her talents" (154). But this study insists throughout that such range was not unique among self-supporting literary "modern women," who had to master different voices and registers, even as "Few, if any, of the women confined themselves to novel writing" (47).
As a commentator on works such as Dixon's major novel or her many short stories, Fehlbaum is solid, but by no means comprehensive. Readers will not find any discussion here of the importance of late-Victorian scientific theory in general or of post-Darwinian literary naturalism in particular to The Story of a...