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REVIEW ARTICLE NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY Barbara Caine. Victorian Feminists. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. xii + 284. $39.95 US. Mary Jean Corbett. Representing Femininity: Middle-Class Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Women's Autobiographies. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. vi + 240. $50.50 US. Carole Seymour-Jones, Beatrice Webb: Woman of Conflict. London: Allison & Busby, 1992. xiv + 369. £17.99. These three authors approach the Victorian woman via three very different styles of historical writing. Mary Jean Corbett is highly theoretical; Barbara Caine isn't (mercifully); and Carole Seymour-Jones attempts a popular biography with flashes of Bulwer-Lytton melodrama ("Dawn streaked the sky as the snow-speckled hills of Gloucestershire emerged from the darkness; in the other rooms of Standish House the household held its breath, but in the master bedroom Lawrencina Potter tossed restlessly on the bed . . .") (1). But though they start from widely separated points on the scholarly compass, these books all converge on many of the same pitfalls, and reading them will convey a sense of what is wrong with women's studies as it is practiced today. A lack of adventurousness weights down all three volumes, especially Beatrice Webb: Woman of Conflict. Seymour-Jones offers a portrait of a woman torn between two egos — masculine and feminine, rational and passionate, skeptical and mystical, sexual and celibate, achieving and denying. The difficulty is that this point has been made by every one of Beatrice Webb's biographers, beginning with Beatrice Webb herself. This book is based mainly on her published diaries and correspondence; though Seymour-Jones has also combed through some archival material, she unearths no surprises. After the work of Kitty 50Victorian Review Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, A.M. McBriar, Deborah Epstein Nord, and Lisanne Radice, we should face the fact that Beatrice Webb is a worked-out mine. Seymour-Jones places more emphasis on the personal than the political, with detailed accounts of Beatrice's "anorexia" and diets (252-54). She does not mention the ten volumes of English Local Government, though the Webbs devoted thirty years of their lives to writing them. Her focus is on Beatrice's early life: the book is two-thirds done before she marries Sidney, though most of her life's work still lies ahead of her. As the volume rolls into her later years, the biographer seems to grow tired and compresses the story ever more ruthlessly. Twenty years (1911 to 1931) are crammed into a single chapter, with a world war and two Labor governments flashing past us. The Webbs in those years are cutely labelled "radical chic" (282), when, in fact, they were neither. Seymour-Jones has read the necessary secondary works, and she does make an effort to sketch in the historical background. Occasionally, though, she gets careless. She begins the Russo-Japanese War two years ahead of schedule, and she assures us that Joseph Chamberlain's school "had abolished capital punishment," (92) possibly because it depressed enrollment. Barbara Caine deserves credit for acknowledging what most feminists don't: that "women's history" was being written before 1970. Her collective biography Victorian Feminists draws on a substantial bibliography of works published since the 1920s. Whether she adds much to them is another question. She protests that historians have failed to analyze the feminist thought of Emily Davies, treating her "as a 'worker' rather than a 'thinker'" (55) — but in the end, that is pretty much how she is treated in Victorian Feminists. Caine draws heavily on Davies' unpublished "Family Chronicle"; otherwise, her accounts of Frances Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett make only limited use of archival sources. It is difficult to think of a single issue — from prostitution to women's education — on which all four of these women agreed. Given that, does it make sense to speak of "Victorian feminists"? Caine understands that it is something of an anachronism: the word "feminism" was not invented until the end of the century. She claims that her four subjects all accepted what Nancy Cott has identified as the central dogmas of feminism: "an opposition to sex hierarchy, a belief that women's condition is socially...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 49-53
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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