- Victorian Bestseller: The Life of Dinah Craik by Karen Bourrier
Since Elaine Showalter and Sally Mitchell’s recovery efforts almost forty years ago, feminist scholars have mined Dinah Craik’s biography and writing for the many insights they offer into Victorian codes of gender, disability, and kinship. Critics have likewise turned to Craik for material histories of the book, the domestic novel form, travel writing, translation work, children’s literature, and family magazines. Recently, Karen Bourrier has been at the forefront of these studies and is therefore particularly well positioned to write the first biography of Craik. With Victorian Bestseller: The Life of Dinah Craik, Bourrier illuminates four decades of Craik’s diaries, along with 1,000 unpublished letters, weaving them together with astute literary analysis and historical context to craft an elegant narrative about a successful Victorian woman’s authorial career, one that is “now all but forgotten” (vii). The result is a learned, tremendously researched, and lucid literary biography that is accessible to a range of audiences.
Bourrier deftly guides the reader through the various phases of Craik’s life and career, with chapters organized as follows: three opening chapters dedicated to her parents and childhood; a chapter on Craik’s four early novels; one on the biographical and historical contexts of her most famous work, John Halifax, Gentleman (1856); and later chapters that examine her shift from novel writing to periodical work, along with her marriage, nontraditional motherhood, translation work, and later years. The book concludes with a satisfying epilogue that briefly touches on the lives of Craik’s widower husband and adopted daughter as well as the copious afterlives of her writing. The book’s organization follows a logical trajectory and facilitates a thorough examination of Craik’s life, from her business acumen and massive contributions to women’s writing to the many ways in which her life was marked by disability (most notably, in the men around her).
One of Victorian Bestseller’s strengths is the light it sheds on Victorian women’s sociability. Bourrier shows how Craik established her writing career at a young age and, subsequently, how she helped girls and young women throughout her life. As a new arrival to London, teenaged and “chaperoned by her father,” Craik became “a regular attendee at Mrs. S. C. Hall’s soirees,” where she had the “chance to meet the artistic and literary lions of the day” (32). Such gatherings allowed Craik to publish in periodicals from 1844 [End Page 463] to 1848. Craik thus “became part of a sociable nexus that fostered the careers of young woman writers” (60). The immense consequence of these women-led parties, as Bourrier explains, reveals how networking worked for women writers’ careers, affording them “the kinds of opportunities that clubs and dinners offered men” (32).
As she became involved later in life in editing and writing for family magazines, Craik developed relationships with publishers that proved lucrative and personally rewarding, and her writing began to appear in family magazines in the United States. Though her fiction often details a heroic, individual striving that resonated with American readers, Craik benefitted from a web of connections and extended similar kindnesses to authors around her. In one of the book’s most vivid chapters, “Motherhood, 1870 to 1879,” Bourrier examines Craik’s nontraditional approach to maternity. She adopted a baby, Dorothy, who was abandoned, and served as substitute mother to other girls and young women. Once established in her home, Corner House, just outside of London in Bromley, she would regularly host parties. As Bourrier explains, “Dinah’s mentorship of young women was part of a larger pattern in women writers’ lives” (192).
Victorian Bestseller has as much to relate about disability as it does the material and social conditions of women writers’ experiences. That Craik’s life was shaped by the mental and physical disabilities of loved ones helps to explain her rich, complex portrayal of embodiment in novels like Olive (1850). As Bourrier notes, “Tracing the contours of...