- Feminist Realism at the Fin de Siècle: The Influence of the Late-Victorian Woman's Press on the Development of the Novel
In Feminist Realism at the Fin De Siècle, Molly Youngkin explores the ways in which late nineteenth-century women's magazines redefined realism according to a distinctly feminist agenda. Youngkin argues that Shafts and The Woman's Herald (which subsumed two other periodicals, The Woman's Signal and Women's Penny Paper) articulated a feminist realist aesthetic. This conception of realism assumed that literary representations of women should provide a model for social change. In their book reviews, these journals emphasized a range of acceptable feminist realist tenets that provided a positive representation of woman's agency, including the use of internal perspective to demonstrate developing consciousness, dialogue to indicate an articulation of self-awareness, and concrete action to show how women worked to change their own conditions. Youngkin claims that the depictions of women's agency deemed most successful "balanced all of these narrative strategies, and, when authors managed to combine all three, the result was a decidedly feminist heroine" (7). Youngkin does an excellent job of surveying discussions of these narrative techniques in the works of eight fin de siècle authors: Thomas Hardy, Sarah Grand, George Gissing, Mona Caird, George Meredith, Ménie Dowie, George Moore, and Henrietta Stannard. She concludes that these writers' ultimate privileging of consciousness over both spoken word and action "anticipated the centrality of subjective experience in the modernist novel" (8).
Youngkin situates her claims within the realm of liberal feminism because the analysis of women's issues and literary representations in these periodicals is based on "the equality doctrine" (8), which eliminates separate spheres ideology, rather than [End Page 354] on the difference-based doctrines of the conservative and radical feminists, which both focus in their own way on sexual morality. After carefully defining her terms, she goes on to explain how her study intervenes in current critical conversations. Youngkin argues that the term realism has been too narrowly defined and has typically excluded feminist perspectives. In an effort to combat this oversight, she unites the New Woman novelists with the New Realist novelists, arguing that the similarities between them "help clarify the degree to which both male and female authors contributed to the debate over realism, as well as the transition from Victorianism to modernism" (16). This breakdown of the barrier between New Woman and New Realist writers is, indeed, one of Youngkin's central contributions to fin de siècle studies in the novel. She effectively argues that these writers must be studied as part of a single novelistic movement rather than as parallel sub-genres and provides convincing support for this from feminist press reviews that treat these novels similarly. She states that "New Realists had an interest in retaining the feminine audience that had ensured the success of the mid-Victorian novel, and they recognized that New Woman writers appealed to this audience.…Likewise, the New Woman novelists recognized that the New Realists employed narrative strategies that held authority with critics who had denigrated the work of women writers" (15). As a result, the two groups came to share many traits as they attempted to appeal to women readers as well as critics.
Each chapter of the book considers a pair of novelists, one from each tradition, demonstrating that Shafts and The Woman's Herald classified their works together under the category of feminist realism. Chapter 1 analyzes the ways in which Sarah Grand and Thomas Hardy incorporate feminist consciousness into their novels by depicting the internal perspectives of female characters in The Heavenly Twins (1893), The Beth Book (1898), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). Youngkin argues that while Grand's novels are more overtly feminist, Hardy was given credit for his efforts in part as a way to pull a mainstream male writer into the feminist realist fold...