- Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot
Joanne Wilkes’s Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot has more to offer than its unfortunate subtitle suggests. Although the critics featured in this study all comment on one or more of these three canonical novelists, the book’s real focus is on nineteenth-century ideas about women’s intellectual capacities and the anxieties of female authorship. (Readers interested in the critical reception of Austen, Brontë, or Eliot should turn directly to the conclusion for a tidy summary.) As Wilkes puts it in her introduction, she is interested in what women critics thought “was publicly acceptable in their own writing” and what “criteria they should use in assessing women novelists” (10). To explore this fascinating and worthwhile topic, she profiles eight critics—Maria Jane Jewsbury, Sara Coleridge, Hannah Lawrence, Jane Williams, Julia Kavanagh, Anne Mozley, Margaret Oliphant, and Mary Augusta Ward—and focuses on the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century, when both the field of periodicals and the novel genre were expanding.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it reveals a variety of media and genres in which women reviewed other women. Wilkes makes extensive use of periodicals, including familiar titles covered by The Wellesley Index: weeklies like the Athenaeum, Saturday Review, and Household Words, and a handful of less-studied publications such as the Popular Record, the People’s Journal, Eliza Cook’s Journal, and the Christian Remembrancer. In addition to book reviews and essays on literature, Wilkes calls attention to less obvious venues for women’s literary criticism, including works of history, biography, and theology; commonplace essays; personal correspondence; and publishers’ archives. For example, chapter 3 demonstrates how Jane Williams and Julia Kavanagh necessarily passed literary judgments while relating the history of women’s literary achievements. And chapter 4 devotes considerable attention to Anne Mozley’s essays on social subjects, which employ frequent literary references while discussing domestic topics. Wilkes’s examination of Sara Coleridge’s unpublished letters is especially interesting because it reveals the constraints of periodical publication for women. After writing just two articles for the Quarterly Review, Coleridge was so frustrated by editorial interference that she thereafter reserved her critical writing for letters to family and friends. Wilkes treats this correspondence as serious literary criticism, and rightly so, because it offers important contemporary insights on the work of Harriet Martineau, Frances [End Page 101] Trollope, Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many others. The letters also serve as an example of how Coleridge’s anxieties about her status as a writer influence her judgments of other women writers. Similarly, Wilkes makes good use of the Blackwood archive to illuminate how Anne Mozley and Margaret Oliphant each negotiated her position as a woman writer with the publisher.
With such a wealth of research on subjects who, in most cases, have received little previous scholarly attention, Women Reviewing Women ought to seem more forceful than it does. But many of the book’s best parts go unannounced. Besides the misleading subtitle, readers are faced with opaque chapter titles that simply name the critic and give no hint of the larger thesis. In chapters where two writers are discussed, Wilkes’s valuable insights do not have the impact they should because she tends to juxtapose two critics without fully explaining why her subjects have been paired and what these pairings teach us about women and criticism. This is the case in chapter 2, “Maria Jane Jewsbury and Sara Coleridge,” which ultimately explores the struggle women writers face between their intellectual interests and domestic responsibilities. Chapter 3, “Writing Women’s Literary History: Hannah Lawrence, Jane Williams and Julia Kavanagh,” has both the most descriptive title and the clearest thesis. Within this chapter, Wilkes offers a keen analysis of the shifting meaning of terms like delicate as a characteristic...