- Mary Jeune, Late-Victorian Essayist: Fallen Women, New Women, and Poor Children
THOMAS HARDY called her “Mrs Jeune the irrepressible” in a letter written in the year of their first meeting (1885); her obituary in the Times, written forty-six years later, was entitled “Lady St. Helier: A Hostess of Genius.”1 Everything we are beginning to know about her suggests that she remained irrepressible right up to her death. Critical attention in recent years has focused on adjusting the “Hostess” label and moving it off to the side a bit in order to see what else is there. Jeune was, indeed, a famous London hostess for two decades and more, yet her talents and energies also found expression in her tireless philanthropic work and in her prolific career as a periodical essayist. Present-day scholars are now engaged in the first stages of rediscovering her many periodical articles and their importance to the study of Victorian literature and culture.2 Though at present only a couple of critical studies address Jeune’s periodical essays—and only a select few of her essays at any one time—the body of Jeune’s work, to apply the words of Andrea Broomfield, “encourage[s] readers to examine the assumption that Victorian middle- and upper-middle-class women, ensconced in domesticity, were not familiar enough with ‘worldly’ events to write serious nonfiction.”3 Jeune’s fifty-odd essays go a long way in challenging and effectively dismissing this assumption.
Surprisingly, not one representative sample of Jeune’s work appears in the anthology Prose by Victorian Women edited by Broomfield and Sally Mitchell; her name does not even appear in the list of excluded authors. For Broomfield and Mitchell, Jeune is one of the “Dozens of women essayists whose work was known by nineteenth-century contemporaries [but who] have slipped into invisibility in the twentieth century.”4 This article examines Jeune’s place among other Victorian [End Page 181] women prose writers and provides an introduction to her essays and a more detailed examination of her articles concerning three areas of special interest to her: fallen women, New Women, and poor children.
Jeune in Context: Victorian Women Prose Writers
In her study of Victorian essayist Alice Meynell, a contemporary of Jeune’s, Tracy Seeley notes that “From the 1850s on, women essayists established an ongoing women’s presence in a medium of profound cultural importance. In essays on the ‘Woman Question,’ in reviews, critiques, and the ‘leaders’ and ‘paras’ of the daily press, women essayists became the shapers of opinion, debaters in the public forum of prose.” Seeley goes on to note, however, that “Piecing together a history of women’s involvement in periodical literature is yet a field in its beginning stages,”5 an idea noted in the first sentence of Alexis Easley’s 1997 study of Harriet Martineau: “The contributions of Victorian women writers to periodical journalism have received relatively little critical attention.”6 However, these and other studies have begun to fill this critical gap, and by referring to some of their findings we may begin our study of Jeune by placing her work in the context of other women writers for the periodical press during the nineteenth century.
For example, D. J. Trela notes in his introduction to a special issue of Victorian Periodicals Review devoted to nineteenth-century periodicals and women: “from as early as the 1830s, women successfully worked as editors and critics. In these capacities, they gradually rewrote the rules, gradually altered the consciousness of their age.” “Gradually” is correct. Margaret Oliphant, another contemporary of Jeune’s, enjoyed “a nearly fifty year association with Blackwood’s” and on three occasions wrote her own regular column, “which perhaps suggests her prominence as a critic and her potential as an editor.”7 Alice Meynell wrote “hundreds of essays on art, morals, politics, faith, and children. Her prose appeared in British and American journals for nearly fifty years”8—facts that warrant our study of her work today. Meynell, like Oliphant, also wrote a regular column (a weekly for the Pall Mall Gazette). As Barbara Onslow notes, Eliza Lynn Linton wrote periodical pieces for fifty years and...