- Ella Hepworth Dixon’s My Flirtations: The New Woman and the Marriage Market
“My flirtations is one of the most amusing books we have come across for a long time,” affirms the critic in the Saturday Review (Untitled). High praise, indeed. Even more worthy of note, however, is the critic’s comment that “the lady who writes under the name of Margaret Wynman has vindicated her sex from the old charge of having no appreciation of humour, old or new.” As Margaret Stetz points out in her seminal work, British Women’s Comic Fiction 1890–1990 (2001), humour was rarely associated with women and with the New Woman least of all, except, “naturally,” when women were the butt of jokes. The reviewer in the Lady’s Pictorial, perhaps deliberately to titillate readers’ curiosity, raises doubts about the identity and gender of Margaret Wynman: [End Page 189]
It is not for me to say whether the owner of the clever pen, and the observant eyes, is not already known to the world under another name. In fact, I have my own strong suspicions as to the sex of the writer, and I should not be at all surprised to learn that the pseudonym hides the identity of a well-known literary man.(“Blue Stocking”)
Originally published anonymously in serial form in the Lady’s Pictorial from 23 January to 30 April 1892, My Flirtations was ascribed to Margaret Wynman, the name of the first-person narrator, when the various sketches were collected in book form. Such a pseudonym is fitting for a woman who does indeed set out to win a man, as was expected of all women, and surely adds to the overall whimsical tone of the writing. The author behind this pseudonym was Ella Hepworth Dixon, a London-based author who had been earning her living by her pen since the 1880s. Anonymity, however, was very common at the time, and in reference to My Flirtations in her memoirs, Dixon claimed, “As it had a foolish title (suggested for publishing reasons) I never owned to its authorship” (As I Knew Them 35).
As the name of its protagonist and the title of the collection suggest, My Flirtations is a series of humorous sketches dealing primarily with the trials and tribulations of a young woman in the “labyrinth of love” (to use the expression employed by the reviewer for The Sketch). Nevertheless, a close reading of these thirteen stories reveals much more than mere light entertainment. Little escapes the critical eye and satirical pen of Dixon as she lays bare the foibles of both men and women, so that at the end the reader is left with a comprehensive overview of fin-de-siècle society mores. Most of the sketches, for example, contain barely disguised portraits of real-life contemporaries, such as Oscar Wilde and Richard Le Gallienne, and much fun must have been had trying to identify the original models. For our present purposes, however, Dixon’s overall style and themes are of even greater interest. She is playing with readers’ expectations in terms of plot, and although the pursuit of a husband is ostensibly at the core, thanks to her humorous tone, she is carefully distancing herself from the polemics of the so-called marriage debate and from the Woman Question in general. Moreover, she is both challenging and disproving the commonly held notion that New Woman writers were too morbid or inward looking.
The tone is set by the opening lines when Margaret, Peggy to most people, attempts to recall “the first one—the very first one” and has to admit that “he, the primeval one, is lost in the mists of antiquity” (My Flirtations 1, 2). A little later, she refers to past admirers as “dear departed,” not that they are in fact dead, with the exception of one lover, but their devotions are short lived and they “depart” “with phenomenal celerity” (5). Why this should be so remains a mystery to the heroine, but, tellingly, some people, including perhaps her older, more world-wise sister, say it is because she “doesn’t let [End Page 190] them talk about themselves...