Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003) 744-746
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Florence Fenwick Miller: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, and Educator, by Rosemary T. Van Arsdel; pp. xvi + 249. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001, £47.50, $84.95.
Most contemporary histories of Victorian feminism make fleeting references to suffragist and journalist Florence Fenwick Miller (1854-1936). The first sketch of her life appeared only recently, in Elizabeth Crawford's 1999 encyclopedia The Women's Suffrage Movement. Rosemary T. Van Arsdel's new biography, part of Ashgate's Nineteenth Century Series, is therefore a welcome addition to the scholarship on Victorian feminism.
Florence Fenwick Miller began her professional life when she was seventeen. She sought medical training with Sophia Jex-Blake in the unsuccessful attempt to win women's admittance to the University of Edinburgh. When this effort failed, Fenwick Miller earned a certificate for midwifery from the Ladies' Medical College in London. She began writing and publishing while still a student. By twenty-one, she had practiced midwifery among the poor, published articles and books about physiology, and become a respected participant in the London Dialectical Society, an invited speaker in the Sunday Lecture Society, and a popular lecturer in tours across the country. Her speeches spanned an impressive range of topics, including literature, women's history, and science. She also debated prominent men publicly in support of women's suffrage. In 1876, Fenwick Miller was elected for the first of three times to the London School Board; she was twenty-two and would be the youngest member of the Board during the nine years she served.
Fenwick Miller's early success augured a life of notable professional achievements, which Van Arsdel, an expert in Victorian periodicals research, reveals with rich historical detail. She devotes two-thirds of the biography to the period from 1876 to 1902, focusing primarily on Fenwick Miller's career as a journalist and her participation in the international women's suffrage movement. Van Arsdel is particularly comprehensive in [End Page 744] her coverage of Fenwick Miller's publications, especially her national and provincial periodical articles and her books, such as Lynton Abbott's Children (1879), Readings in Social Economy (1883), and Harriet Martineau (1884). Although Van Arsdel does not have space to discuss each text thoroughly, her brief descriptions indicate the breadth of Fenwick Miller's interests and knowledge. A thorough appendix lists the publications, providing a useful reference. Fenwick Miller's relationships with two periodicals in particular stand out: the London Illustrated News, for which she served as a weekly columnist for thirty-two years (1886-1918), and the Woman's Signal, the influential feminist paper she edited from 1895 to 1899. Van Arsdel also illuminates Fenwick Miller's significant role as a primary orator in—and national representative to—international women's congresses in the 1890s and at the turn of the twentieth century.
As a narrative of Fenwick Miller's professional life, the biography is an excellent source of information. Van Arsdel's archival research is extensive, and she creates a compelling portrait of her subject. The chronicling of Fenwick Miller's association with other public figures contributes to scholarship begun by historians Judith Walkowitz, Barbara Caine, and Philippa Levine, furthering our knowledge about interconnections among Victorian feminists and the men who supported them. Some readers may wish Van Arsdel said more about Fenwick Miller's family life, particularly how she educated her daughters, one of whom became an early member of the Women's Social and Political Union. Unfortunately, very few letters, diaries, or other personal artifacts concerning Fenwick Miller's life are available, although Van Arsdel was able to use Fenwick Miller's recently discovered unpublished autobiography, which documents the first twenty-five years of Fenwick Miller's life. Van Arsdel also provides numerous explanatory notes that briefly narrate biographical and historical information about the people, events, and periodicals to which she alludes. While some of these notes are unnecessary for experts in the field of Victorian women's history, they undoubtedly will be useful for readers not steeped in the subject. In this way...