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  • The British & Irish Novel in English, 1880-1940
  • Kate MacDonald
Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek, eds. The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 520 pp. $160.00

This hefty volume is highly useful background reading on the novel as produced in the British Isles between 1880 and 1940. The editors have assembled a large team of contributors, most of them leading researchers in these areas, to deliver the equivalent of a university course on The British Novel. The book is organized chronologically, with the first section on the fiction industry for the whole period. Part II is on the novel from 1880 to 1914, followed by Part III on subgenres and specializations. The First World War is used as a natural break in the sequence, which continues with Part IV on the novel from 1914 to 1940. Part V on genre specialization follows, on regional fictions, with Part VI on theory and critical responses. [End Page 116]

The quality of the writing is in almost all cases reassuringly high. The reader is kept attentive by the stimulating juxtaposition of themes and writers and eased through discussions of less familiar works by regular references to canonical writers, occasionally in noncanonical surroundings. However, as one reads through the book, increasingly names are repeated. In the first half of the book Hardy, Moore, Bennett, Wells, Conrad, Gissing and Lawrence form a dominating canon of realist authors, cited and discussed again and again. Readers may wonder when they will read about a woman writer. George Eliot is cited briefly as a critical authority. Woolf is noted as a harbinger of the modernism that is to come. Surely some women wrote novels before 1914? Disturbingly, seven of the nine contributors writing on the novel from 1880 to 1914 in Part II give barely any attention to women novelists from this period (admittedly, one of these is writing about the masculine romance, but surely women wrote in this subgenre at this time as well as in every other?). In these seven chapters, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Allen Raine, and Somerville and Ross are discussed in only four paragraphs. In one chapter of fifteen pages, the only female authors "discussed" are two very obscure women novelists mentioned only in one sentence.

In embarrassing contrast, Angelique Richardson, in this section in her chapter on "New Women and the New Fiction," discusses nine important women authors of this period at length and with fluent authority. Still in this section, Clive Bloom shows no gender bias at all in his wide-ranging survey of best-selling fiction. Clearly women writers were productive, well known, and popular, and are worthy of critical attention. Given that the seven contributors noted above are very willing to discuss women's experiences as written by men in late-Victorian and Edwardian fiction, it is bizarre that the opportunity of looking at how women wrote women's experiences, or men's experiences, or indeed any experiences at all, seems to have been ignored or avoided. It is ludicrous to find that such an artificial segregation can still be considered acceptable in critical writing in the twenty-first century.

This Edwardian blind spot is, thankfully, atypical, and does not extend throughout the whole book. In the sections dealing with the novel after 1914 the question of gender bias simply does not arise, since the balance in discussion is so naturally and evenly apportioned. There is also a commendable focus on Jewish writing in Patrick Parrinder's chapter, and on the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English regional novel in chapters by, respectively, David Goldie and Cairns Craig, Maud Ellmann, Jane Aaron and Steven Matthews: some or all of the writers discussed [End Page 117] here may be unfamiliar to many readers. The chapters I enjoyed most, and which taught me most, were those by John Baxendale on popular fiction and the critique of mass culture, Clare Hanson on short stories and short fiction, Christopher Hilliard on working-class fiction, Andrew Nash on novel production, David Punter on Gothic and supernatural fiction, and David Trotter and Andrew Shail on cinema and...


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pp. 116-118
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