Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 267-273
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Guide to the Year's Work
David G. Riede
As its title suggests, Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900, edited by Joanne Shattock, takes on a huge, multifaceted topic, especially since, as Shattock indicates in her introduction, the volume is concerned with "the extent and variety of women's contribution to nineteenth-century literary culture in its widest sense" (p. 1). The "widest sense" includes consideration of women as producers and consumers of print culture, as journalists, scholars, teachers, editors, subscribers, and purchasers of literature ranging from poetry to historical and economic scholarship to hack journalism. The volume enlists an impressive array of specialists to provide the best possible analysis of this wide range of topics and offers as comprehensive coverage as could be reasonably expected, but despite the impressive scholarship of the thirteen essays, the book obviously cannot be exhaustive. Still, the combined scholarship and knowledge of the authors does produce a volume almost too densely packed with valuable information. Linda Peterson's essay on "Women Writers and Self Writing," for example, cannot provide the extensive analysis offered by her book on the subject, but does bring to bear her formidable scholarship to provide a valuable overview of the subject, and Virginia Blain's "Women Poets and the Challenge of Genre" provides a similarly useful overview of its subject. Inevitably the authors tend to repeat what they and others have said elsewhere, so the collection doesn't seem to break much new ground, and the vastness of the topic precludes a very focused overall argument, but the book is a valuable compendium of expertly written discussions of its many subtopics. At the very least, Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900 provides an abundance of evidence demonstrating that despite the official ideology that limited them to the house, women had an immense share in producing nineteenth-century and, ultimately, modern culture. Further as the authors frequently point out, even the impressive range of writers and works discussed can at times only gesture at the diversity of cultural work done by nineteenth-century women. In her excellent essay, "Women Writers and Religion," for example, Elisabeth Jay notes that her "summary chapter" has "not entirely resisted" the danger of limiting discussion of the topic to "Christian hegemony, and then [End Page 267] defining the faithful against any voice of protest along a binary divide" (pp. 268-269).
Among the writers Jay glances at on the outside of Christian hegemony are Grace Aguilar and Amy Levy, whose "rediscovery" is "beginning to reveal the subtle variations in the problems encountered by women as they strove to access the literature of their own religious tradition and negotiate the gap between private and public utterance" (p. 269). The rediscovery of Amy Levy, in particular, has been consolidated by Linda Hunt Beckman's important Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters. Over the past decade or so, Levy's poems have been appearing more and more extensively, but it was difficult to arrive at any sense of Levy's struggles with hegemonic Christian culture until Beckman's concise and compelling biography and her publication of Levy's letters. Levy was not a particularly brilliant writer of letters, and she seems to have been especially tongue-tied when writing to anyone she considered as in any way her superior, such as Vernon Lee, whom she loved and idolized, but her letters to family and especially to her sister Katie poignantly reveal her struggles with a crushing weight of depression and her sufferings with increasing deafness and other physical ailments. The letters also reveal complex ambivalence about her own Jewishness, and intriguingly, but not definitively, suggest the nature and extent of her homoerotic desires, from a schoolgirl "mash" on her schoolmistress to an adult infatuation with Lee. Working from these letters and other unpublished sources, Beckman compiles a convincing account of Levy's doubly or trebly marginalized life—marginalized by religion, sexuality, and disability. The biography deftly explores the intersection of Levy's private life with the cultural institutions of...