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Reviews Diane Nicola Thompson, ed. Victorian Woman Writers and the Woman Question. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. xii-259 pp. Nicola Diane Thompson's compilation of fourteen chapters by leading scholars on Victorian popular women novelists is timely and provocative. In her introduction, "Responding to the Woman Questions: Rereading Noncanonical Victorian Women Novelists," Thompson introduces the book's subject by arguing that most Victorian women's fiction has been ignored by literary critics for two interrelated reasons. First, "[p]opular works by women dealing with issues concerning women and often addressed to women" were "dangerously in line for the critical guillotine," due to a division emerging in the 1860s "between popular and 'serious' literature" (8). Second — and this is the provocative part — these women writers continue to be under-studied because many critics evaluate their work according to whether or not they were feminist (or at the very least subversive) or antifeminist and "domestic." If critics label the Victorian novelist the latter, they tend to make a derogatory judgment about the novelist's work and hence justify their reasons for neglecting it (11). Thompson furthermore suggests that Gail Cunningham, Dorothy Mermin, Sally Mitchell, Elaine Showalter, and Patricia Stubbs — the critics who have been largely responsible for unearthing these Victorian women writers in the first place — assess them according to their own ingrained modernist aesthetic biases. While Thompson rightfully credits Showalter in particular for her eloquent description of"the impoverishment ofthe female literary tradition," she nonetheless criticizes Showalter for seeming to "take for granted that the women novelists she surveys are 'minor' and 'not great,' dismissing many ofthem as unimportant" (11). Hence, feminist ideology in conjunction with the aforementioned modernist aesthetic bias largely governs what works instructors assign in classrooms and what works scholars choose to pursue. The canon stays essentially the same, Thompson maintains, with only a handful ofVictorian women writers (the Brontes, Eliot and sometimes Gaskell) receiving serious attention. 140volume 26 number 2 Reviews Had Thompson merely edited a collection ofessays on popular Victorian women novelists who dealt with women's issues, her study would most likely make minimum impact, given the large number ofsuch works in current circulation. What distinguishes Thompson's studies and what guarantees that it will generate interest and controversy is her bold challenge to the scholarly community to consider its own complicity in maintaining such a small canon ofVictorian women's novels. More importantly, Thompson dares to raise the thorny questions ofwhy we read what we read in the first place, what value judgments we make when we read, and what literary standards govern our decisions to teach and study particular works. Thompson states her book's objective as such: "... I prefer to make a case that [these Victorian women writers] deserve renewed and sustained attention for their cultural significance and for their aesthetic merits, that their works deserve to be widely available in print and that the writers merit study in university courses alongside Dickens and Eliot" (13). Regarding Thompson's attempt to make a case for the authors' cultural significance, the contributors are successful. In discussing Ouida, E. Nesbit, Margaret Oliphant, Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Yonge, Eliza Lynn Linton, Mary Ward, along with even more obscure writers, the study's contributors focus primarily on complicating these women's presumed antifeminism. In "Shot Out of the Canon: Mary Ward and the Claims ofConflicting Feminism," Beth Sutton-Ramspeck convincingly argues that Ward's continued neglect on the part ofcritics is the result ofher reputation as a "lady novelist" and ofher presumably "wrong" ideas (205). But through a careful analysis ofMarcelL· (1894) and Delia Blanchflower (1914) against the backdrop of the women's suffrage movement, SuttonRamspeck shows that Ward used her fiction as well as her own career to negotiate between "competing and often contradictory feminisms," and that the complexity ofher opinions in conjunction with such things as her frequently cited Nineteenth Century article, "An Appeal Against Female Suffrage" (1889), have made it convenient for the literary establishment to label her pejoratively as an "antifeminist" Victorian Review141 Reviews and to neglect her on that basis alone (205). In a similar vein, Alexis Easley's "Gendered Observations" Harriet Martineau and the Woman Question" contends that Martineau has traditionally...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 140-146
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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