- The New Woman and the Empire, and: New Woman and Colonial Adventure Fiction in Victorian Britain: Gender, Genre, and Empire
The relationship between late-Victorian feminism, New Woman writing, and the project of imperialism has long been established within New Woman studies. Late-twentieth-century works of social and cultural history such as Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History (1992) and Margaret Strobel and Nupur Chaudhuri’s Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (1992) were followed up over the subsequent decade by Anne McClintock’s literary and cultural history Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Imperial Contest (1995), by my work on New Woman fiction and imperialism in The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (1997), and by Carolyn Burdett’s Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire (2001). Between them, Iveta Jusová and LeeAnne Richardson show themselves aware of most if not all of this scholarship, but I approached these two monographs uncertain as to whether there really could be much left to say on the subject. The answer is a qualified “yes.” While both authors broadly reassert the critical-historical intellectual frameworks of earlier studies and often focus on now-canonical New Woman texts, each also pushes beyond existing canonical boundaries, and both have plenty to say that is new.
Jusová’s starting point is the now generally agreed assumption that “many British fin-de-siècle women were actually deeply invested in the maintenance of the British Empire, and their work was often steeped in their imperial culture’s racial bias” (p. 5). The novelty of Jusová’s approach lies in her selection of four women writers who were ethnically diverse: Sarah Grand and George Egerton were both Anglo-Irish, Elizabeth Robins was Anglo-American, and Amy Levy was Anglo-Jew. Between them, too, the four selected New Woman figures embraced just about all the available literary genres of their period—novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays, and theatrical performances. The book examines the ways in which the four women at various points “supported British imperialist ideology and colonial practices” while at other times “represented the idea of the colonial master and colonial appropriation as pathological” (p. 6). It also shows how the four writers were differently implicated in late-nineteenth-century discourses on scientific racism.
Previous accounts of the New Woman have generally focused on late-nineteenth-century prose fiction; however, more recently, scholars have [End Page 178] increasingly paid attention to New Woman poetry, notably in the writings of Ana Vadillo and Emma Francis. Jusová’s book does important work in tracing shared cultural and political concerns across genres, and the work on Robins is particularly significant in this respect.
The central question posed by the book is whether these broadly representative New Woman writers generally aligned themselves with anti-imperialism or whether they framed their respective projects within the limits of imperialist discourse. A chapter on Grand proposes that her imperial feminism was inspired by her personal investment in the imperial status quo to the exclusion of women of other classes and races. In readings of the now very familiar The Heavenly Twins (1893) and The Beth Book (1897), Jusová demonstrates how Grand connects British upper-middle-class women’s bodily discipline to the state’s imperial power in order to seize an albeit limited measure of social influence for a select few women. The section on evolutionary discourse in Grand’s work is fuller than previous accounts, as is her interpretation of the figure of the hysteric. For me, the most illuminating sections of this first chapter relate to the configuration of colonial space in The Heavenly Twins and on the Irish and the fetish of white skin in The Beth Book.
The chapter on George Egerton is fresher in approach, and Jusová rightly emphasizes Egerton’s...