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The Woman of Genius and the Woman of Grub Street: Figures of the Female Writer in British Fin-de-Siècle Fiction Penny Boumelha University of Adelaide IN THE FICTION of the late nineteenth century, whether avowedly feminist or not, there is a strikingly frequent female figure: the independent heroine as writer, whether novelist, journalist, or amanuensis and researcher for a male writer. I propose here to explore the expression "woman of genius," look at figures of the female writer in their ideological context and determine the interrelation and interdependence among them. The Woman of Grub Street I set out from Grub Street (or perhaps more accurately, New Grub Street). Condensed in this category are the woman journalist, the researcher/editor, and the hack writer, whether successful or not. Together , these form a densely populated area of the fin-de-siècle novel, as a partial roll-call will illustrate. Herminia Barton, in Grant Allen's runaway best-seller The Woman Who Did, for example, keeps herself and the child born outside marriage after she did by means of journalism ; Hadria Fullerton, in Mona Caird's The Daughters ofDanaus, is a genius in musical composition but of a kind too advanced for public taste, and so makes a precarious living from writing articles; Marion Yule, in Gissing^ New Grub Street, works virtually on a shiftwork basis in the Reading Room of the British Museum, conducting research for her father's unsuccessful writings, and comes to see herself as "a mere machine for reading and writing," an automaton in the service of industrialized literary production; in a novel virtually in dialogue with 164 BOUMELHA : FIGURES OF THE FEMALE WRITER New Grub Street, The Story of a Modern Woman, Ella Hepworth Dixon's Mary Erie similarly serves her father's research needs before earning her own living through made-to-order hack fiction; Elizabeth Caldwell MacLure, heroine of Sarah Grand's The Beth Book, maintains herself as a struggling journalist between leaving her husband and finding her true calling as a public speaker; and Alice Barton, in George Moore's A Drama in Muslin, combines writing for magazines with nursing her sick sister.1 These various figures from novels of the 1880s and 1890s have obvious points in common. First, they combine the tasks of writing and more traditionally womanly virtues of self-sacrifice and devotion, with the needs of a child, father, sister or needy friend that are prominent among the motivations for their activities. Secondly, it is difficult to think of any such female character who actually wants to be a journalist or to write in this way; such work is a last resort under the pressure of financial necessity for many whose initial artistic aspirations are higher: Herminia Barton has written a high-minded novel that does not sell; Hadria Fullerton suffers because her music is too advanced; Mary Erie sets out to be a painter; Elizabeth MacLure is the absolute type of the woman of genius who has not yet found her medium. History reveals, though, that journalism was not an occupation in which many women found themselves by accident. It was, instead, a keenly competitive area of professional activity for women, growing and being transformed in the last twenty years of the century by such innovations as syndication, the literary agent, the gossip column and the expansion of the popular press.2 Sally Mitchell has demonstrated that women journalists organised themselves rapidly into a professional body, establishing in 1892 a Writers' Club near Fleet Street, where they could produce their copy in relatively calm surroundings, and setting up a Society of Women Journalists which, in 1899, had 200 members.3 In 1898 there was a substantial market for Arnold Bennett's Journalism for Women, a manual for those desiring to enter the profession.4 The journalist Mary Frances Billington, writing in The Woman's World, offered in 1890 a rather sobering account of the difficulties faced by aspiring entrants. Women could have no reasonable expectation of reporting on areas of activity dominated by men—sports, war, finance, or the role of travelling correspondent . Unless they worked specifically for women's journals, female reporters must expect to write...


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pp. 164-180
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Will Be Archived 2021
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