- The Feminist Realist Aesthetic
Feminist and antifeminist discourse really heated up in fin-de-siècle Victorian England. Debates simmered about relations between the sexes; questions were raised about the viability of marriage as a social institution; people argued about women’s suffrage or about women’s “natural duties” as wives and mothers in contention with the cultivation of their talents, their quest for a calling, and their pursuit of individual rights and liberties. Essays on these topics appeared frequently in periodicals, written by Eliza Lynn Linton, Margaret Oliphant, Mona Caird, and many others. Molly Youngkin, in her thoroughly researched and freshly insightful Feminist Realism at the [End Page 326] Fin de Siècle, focuses on this impassioned decade by examining the role of the feminist press in advocating for a feminist agenda in Britain. One of her main premises is that the feminist periodicals’ ongoing advocacy of realistic literary representations of women’s agency changed readers’ attitudes and contributed to the transformation of gender roles in British society, in particular to the individual liberty of women.
Youngkin begins her argument by enumerating three specific fictional expressions of women’s agency: “a transformation of consciousness to realize their condition, [the ability to] articulate their condition through spoken word, and [the ability to] use concrete action to change their condition.” Youngkin’s book then persuasively argues that in the 1890s two feminist periodicals, Shafts and the Woman’s Herald, advanced women’s rights by advocating for this “feminist realist aesthetic” in their positive reviews of books that practice this aesthetic in their protagonists’ dawning consciousness, expression of feminist thinking, or performances of specific feminist actions. Moreover, and even more provocatively, Youngkin posits that these feminist periodicals, in praising this aesthetic’s operation in novels of the day by such authors as Sarah Grand (Frances Bellenden-Clarke McFall), George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, and Mona Caird, encouraged the development of a new kind of novel: they “helped transform the novel from Victorian to modern.” Because the feminist realist aesthetic “placed stronger emphasis on consciousness and subjective experience than previous aesthetics had,” the fin-de-siècle novelists who depicted their protagonists’ inner worlds as their gender consciousnesses were gradually raised were precursors to Woolf, Joyce and other modernists. Youngkin argues, “By incorporating a literary aesthetic that privileged consciousness over spoken word and action, these authors anticipated the centrality of subjective experience in the modernist novel.”
In her introduction, Youngkin thoroughly defines the feminist realist aesthetic as well as the concept of woman’s agency and the political and aesthetic meanings of “feminism.” Occasionally her progress slows as she overly emphasizes her theoretical underpinnings, especially the poststructuralist feminist theory of Judith Butler and Amanda Anderson, and the work of Habermas, to establish how she will be using their concepts in the rest of the book; her survey of scholarship and criticism on literary representations of psychological realism and French naturalism in relation to the New Realism and the New Woman are much more useful for what follows. Also useful is her overview of feminism in [End Page 327] the later nineteenth century. She, for example, distinguishes fin-de-siè-cle liberal feminism, with its belief in political and legal equality for all, from conservative feminism, which applauds the differences between the sexes and supports the separate spheres doctrine. She also gives a useful bit of history about the evolution of the women’s presses, especially of the Woman’s Herald and Shafts, and illustrates their emphasis on literary criticism, reviews of books by women writers, and their radical belief “that literary representation and social change are intertwined.” In her introduction, Youngkin briefly analyzes review articles from the two periodicals to establish their advocacy of the feminist realist aesthetic. While tending herself to approve of the feminist realist aesthetic, Youngkin also considers briefly the charge that this aesthetic may have been too prescriptive about acceptable forms of agency for a female protagonist...