- Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market
Towards the end of the eighteenth century a change occurred, so Virginia Woolf asserted in Chapter Four of A Room of One's Own, that was more important than the War of the Roses: middle-class women began to write for money. Woolf claimed that it was this "solid fact that women could make money by writing" that underpinned "the extreme activity of mind" among women in the late eighteenth century. It also enabled them to be taken seriously, for "money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for." In fact, because writing remained an insecure source of income with relatively low rates of pay for at least the first half of the nineteenth century, it was difficult for either men or women to earn a living solely from their pen. Moreover, for much of the nineteenth century both male writers and female writers alike were engaged in a struggle to gain recognition for writing or the pursuit of literature as a profession on a par with the practice of law or medicine.
This is the context for Linda Peterson's fascinating exploration of the continuing but by no means smooth development of women's professional authorship during the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, Peterson links the flowering of women's literary professionalism to both the development of new genres and the opening up of established genres, which accompanied the rapid expansion of print culture in the nineteenth century. Women increasingly entered the literary marketplace and the profession of letters as writers for periodicals, often under the cover of the anonymity that was the norm for periodical authors until after mid-century. The originality of this important contribution to the history of authorship in Victorian Britain lies in its [End Page 374] demonstration of how, throughout the nineteenth century, women writers self-consciously constructed specific authorial identities for themselves in relation to particular myths or discourses of authorship.
Peterson organizes her study around three key moments in the development of discourses of professional authorship: the rise of the periodical press and the move towards more adequate payment for writing in the 1830s; the mid-century campaign for copyright and the attempts of both male and female writers to define their contribution to the nation; and the renewed drive for professional recognition in the 1880s and 1890s at the time of the establishment of the Society of Authors. A lengthy and richly informative first chapter gives an overview of the nineteenth-century history of the profession of letters, and then, perhaps more importantly for readers of this journal, Peterson moves to a case study approach based on the biographies of, biographical writings about, and autobiographical writings by, six nineteenth-century women authors. These case studies focus on women whose literary innovations and public self-constructions as writers (or, in some cases, their public construction by others) are seen by Peterson as pivotal in the history of authorship. Some of the case studies focus on writers whose professional success outlived them, others on those who simply enjoyed professional success in their own day.
The case studies begin with Harriet Martineau, a central figure in the book and, Peterson suggests, perhaps the most prominent woman of letters of the nineteenth century. Martineau's autobiography and letters, in which she presents herself as emerging from a long apprenticeship as a solitary and pioneering authoress, are reread alongside a reexamination of the trajectory of her career to show how she progressed from a fairly conventional "feminine" beginning writing devotional literature, didactic tracts, and essays and tales on religious and moral subjects, to reinvent herself as a public commentator on the leading matters of the day-who by 1858 (as Valerie Sanders has shown) was informing the editor of the Edinburgh Review that "I'm your man" to write an article on the repatriation of slave laborers to Liberia, and by 1859 was expressing the hope that he would find that she...