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Suffrage Fiction: A Political Discourse in the Marketplace SowoN S. Park Wolfson College, Oxford IN THE YEAR of its publication, 1905, Elizabeth Robins's A Dark Lantern received an appreciative review by Virginia Stephen in the Guardian: "There can be no doubt that few living novelists are so genuinely gifted as Miss Robins, or can produce work to match hers for strength and sincerity."1 Robins's other works, such as The Convert (1907), were similarly well received, and widely read. Yet academic responses to these novels have been neither frequent nor favourable: the major works of literary criticism on this period do not mention feminist novels, such as Violet Hunt's White Rose of Weary Leaf (1908) or May Sinclair's The Judgement of Eve (1907), despite their centrality to the suffrage era. Two of the most reputable feminist literary histories, namely, A Literature of Their Own and No Man's Land, have not been approving of suffrage literature. "The suffrage movement was not a happy stimulus to women writers" is Elaine Showalter's estimation in her landmark study of British women's literature.2 Showalter's evaluation is perhaps indisputable in terms of the "qualitative " literariness of the works produced. On the other hand, the mass of textual production prompted by the suffrage movement in the form of poetry, sketches, polemical essays, tracts, short stories, novels, farces, burlesques, and plays makes it possible to claim that the suffrage movement was an unprecedented stimulus to women writers. Not only did suffragism motivate many women to write for the first time, many women began to take an active role in production: publishing literature through numerous suffrage presses and distributing it in suffrage shops or on street corners. Ranging in price from a penny—the price of a postage stamp in 1918—to around one shilling and six pence, suffrage 450 PARK : SUFFRAGE FICTION literature, in quantitative terms, marked a new epoch in the socio-cultural context of writing for women. Showalter's account is so concerned with the quality of women's writing that the socio-cultural significance is overlooked; and suffrage literature is seen as nothing but a fallow period in women's writing, a transition between two significant eras— Victorian and Modern. Gilbert and Gubar have settled for a generalization about suffrage literature, instead of pursuing more specific aspects. They focus on the empowerment of women writers in the modern industrial "no-man's land," and argue that although women's polemical writing waged war against men, fiction presented women either as victims or crafty manipulators of their enemy. Women's novels of this period are construed as "guilt-ridden" and marked by a "rhetoric of sacrifice."3 But much suffrage fiction, such as Mabel Collins and Charlotte Despard's Outlawed (1908), Gertrude Colmore's Suffragette Sally (1911), Elizabeth Robins's The Convert (1907), to mention but a few, written to persuade and convince, defies this categorization.4 Suffrage fiction has also been dismissed by a different criterion. Since the advent of structuralism, the significance of the innovative and experimental potential of politically committed novels, written in the realist form, has been negated, on the basis that the conventional form contradicts and undermines the radical content. Structuralist and poststructuralist critics maintain that reconstituting the hegemonic discourse demands more than a "simple" change of content and symbols, and point out the contradiction between the realist narrative and radical content in political novels as a genre. Many feminist critics, caught up in this interpretative paradigm, tend to overlook the socio-cultural significance of the interventionist contents of suffrage novels, though they try to salvage something from this undoubtedly formative period in women's writing. Coming from a Modernist perspective, they look for, and find, the precursors of Modernism; and suffrage novels are evaluated as but a step in the evolution of truly radical, formally experimental texts of the women Modernists. One of the most recent of such interpretations has been made by Jane Eldridge Miller, who claims a place for suffrage fiction in the genealogy of Modernism by arguing that it was a "Modernism of content."5 The assumption here that Modernist forms should necessarily supersede realist forms is problematic...


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