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Linda H. Peterson, Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market.  Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009.  289pp., ISBN 978-0-691-14017-9, hb $35.00.

Reviewed by Joellen Masters, Boston University.

Linda Peterson’s graceful study explores the Victorian woman writer’s ‘flowering of literary professionalism’ as a consequence of the rise of the nineteenth century’s commercial and periodical press.  In absorbing detail and sparing reliance on theoretical methodologies and jargon, Peterson examines how six authors refashioned themselves as professional ‘women of letters,’ an appellative itself a ‘Victorian invention’ that, by the 1880s, was in common usage (4). 

An already extensive scholarship attests to the great number of studies on Victorian attitudes about gender, work, authorial genius, and the period’s concerns about the literary market or literature’s value.  Peterson’s gift lies in her keen illustration that the commercial periodical provided what she calls ‘apprenticeships’ that taught women writers about market tastes and publishers’ whims, and that influenced their own literary efforts, whether those of a mid-century writer like Elizabeth Gaskell or a New Woman author like Mary Cholmondeley.  Throughout, Peterson’s close-readings of illustrations, novels, reviews, poetry animate sections; rich discussions draw on letters, journals, account books.  Peterson shows us these Victorian writers vigorously engaged in the literary life and publishing community they depended on and shaped.  We hear each woman’s voice so that singular personalities remain distinct even while all blend to substantiate the main argument.  Consequently, Becoming a Woman of Letters avoids being a thematised scholarly catalogue and offers instead an involving argument about a particularly Victorian phenomenon.

Chapter 1 lays out the background within which a woman author perfected her craft at a time when readers’ appetites for various genres meant that writers of both sexes could support themselves strictly by their professional work.  Peterson counters arguments that this new professionalism excluded women with a thoughtful explication of Fraser’s Magazine’s ‘Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters,’ showing the portraits registered uncertainty about gender binaries even while they integrated conventional domestic motifs in depicting authors.  The chapter presents key points about an author’s place within the century’s shifting perceptions of the professional:  early reticence about talent and earnings shifted into a mid-century equation with vocational energy, particularly as Victorian feminists framed paid employment (like literary endeavour) within the paradigm that public service was also ‘self-realization, self-help, and self-dependence.’ By late century, the ‘role of the public intellectual in British culture’ (50) had been affirmed.  Nonetheless, as Peterson reaffirms in this chapter’s, the woman author who sought recognition as a professional always had to navigate the culture’s gender ideals. 

Chapter 2 examines Harriet Martineau, whose Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-1834) made her the foremost woman of letters in the century’s first decades and a model for future women writers.  Martineau minimized or omitted stages in her professional growth from her Autobiography, creating her own myth about herself, a ‘solitary young authoress’ (Martineau’s label).  Peterson charts the real work behind the Autobiography’s narrative:  Martineau’s early devotional tracts, reviews of women writers, and her essays on Walter Scott for W.J. Fox’s Unitarian Monthly Repository (for which she was also a contributing editor) to show that Martineau ‘[studied] long and hard the maps’ (75) other writers had followed.  Her early success with traditionally female modes – those devotional tracts and tales about piety and resignation – anticipated later fame with stories about individual action founded on ‘economic knowledge and political consciousness’ (81).  Her alignment with the Monthly Repository’s ‘phase of cultural and political prestige’ (64) expanded her professional autonomy.  Her employment of male paradigms – Scott and a regendered Carlylean ‘Hero as a Woman of Letters’ (95) -- contradicted Romantic ideals about artistic original genius and re-inscribed literary talent within middle-class ideological beliefs about discipline, training, and work.  Ultimately, Illustrations of Political Economy shows Martineau’s vision of the woman of letters – an author whose social and political criticism could affect policy, her own specific heroic mission.

Mary Howitt ‘embodied the dominant early Victorian literary figure’ (97) and her ‘collaborative poetics’ (7) influenced Victorian British feminists like Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes.  Peterson claims Howitt’s progressive myth of artistic success through collaboration exposes the tensions in mid-century models that collapsed boundaries within an author’s or artist’s family unit.  This engaging third chapter investigates Howitt’s continued ability to manipulate the home in evolving representations of a domestic utopia for the woman writer.  Peterson chronicles the various ways a ‘compatible and intertwined’ (100) personal and professional life manifested itself in Howitt’s literary productions.  The chapter’s attention to Howitt’s touching collaboration with her daughter Anna Mary highlights the role female unity played in an aesthetic domestic economy.  However, unlike the aestheticized domestic sites Howitt regularly devised, the private sphere in Anna Mary’s novella, The Sisters in Art (1852), which fictionalizes the Langham Place Group and Barbara Leigh Smith’s home Scalands, portrays the real ideological differences that divided the Victorian feminists and personal disputes that isolated family members.  Ultimately, however, Mary Howitt’s Autobiography (1888-1889), the ‘most remarkable example of collaborative life writing produced in Victorian England . . . conceived and executed as a collaborative project’ (124-125), resurrects the ideal professional artist family free of ideological or professional rifts, supported by shared ideals and goals.

Chapter 4 treads familiar ground with well-chronicled details about Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), the text that shaped Brontë’s private authorial persona into the archetype that dominated the mid-Victorian period, and that introduced Gaskell’s powerful ‘parallel streams’ model that rejected defining female genius and a woman author’s domestic role as conflicted polarities.  Peterson pursues her question about Gaskell’s ‘[reluctance] to associate the woman writer with the professional author’ (147), in Chapter 5’s focus on Charlotte Riddell’s challenge to Gaskell’s Brontëan myth.  In 1883 when Riddell published her Künstlerroman, A Struggle for Fame, the triple-decker novel was near its demise.  As Peterson reminds us, this popular form’s collapse signalled further discrediting for the woman author.  In her explication of A Struggle for Fame, Peterson contends Riddell linked herself to the Romantic paradigm of original genius and its conflict with gender ideals about domestic duty.  Despite her prolific writings, Riddell did not achieve Brontë’s spectacular celebrity, and her own fraught personal affairs were ‘incompatible with sustained literary achievement’ (169).  Peterson argues Riddell’s regular stories for Christmas books, serialized fiction, essays, and her eventual editorship of St. James’s Magazine augment the novel’s portrayal of the woman writer’s negotiations between the professional and the domestic, depicted in the ‘wrenching testimony’ of letters by many women authors (165).  Peterson suggests that, unlike Gaskell, Riddell understood more clearly the damage the ‘parallel streams’ model could inflict. 

The final chapters pair two fin-de-siècle authors, Alice Meynell and Mary Cholmondeley.  Meynell’s phasal self-construction, from a nature poet steeped in male Romantic conventions into a modern essayist and poet, depended on her industrious professional activities in the substantially changed context of the fin-de-siècle literary world.  Peterson asserts that Meynell’s ‘angel of the house’ reputation in much of current scholarship elides Meynell’s goal to be perceived as a professional and to write a ‘major Western form of verse’ (197).  In fluid and sensitive comparisons, Peterson illustrates Meynell’s ‘gendered alienation from [the Wordsworthian] tradition of English lyric’ (188) and her skepticism about a ‘true natural philosophy’ (191) even while she understood the prominent place nature poetry held for the English reader.  Her early reviews about women writers located literary inspiration in personal emotion.  Later more sophisticated essays analyzed historical and cultural influences in an author’s development.  Combined with a poetic tradition Peterson modifies as ‘Sapphic’ (an underdefined and overused modifier), Meynell moved beyond Wordsworthian conventions into a ‘modern mode of writing nature’ (195), reaching an apex with The Children (1896) whose maternal poems’ realistic observations about women’s domestic roles made her a ‘preeminent fin-de-siècle poet and forerunner of modern feminism’ (201).  Modernism would deny Meynell’s poetry a canonical place comparable to Wordsworth’s, however.  Peterson’s terse conclusion examines how ideological gender beliefs rewrote Meynell’s critical reputation and Meynell’s complicity in this reconstruction during a time when a new literature also signalled new audiences.

Peterson argues in her last chapter that end-of-the-century alterations in book and periodical publishing denied the New Woman writers a secure place for their fiction; she tells a ‘more complicated story’ (223) about those writers’ disappearance in the early twentieth century than the critical heritage has conveyed.  Mary Cholmondeley’s career reflected the formula plots her New Woman fiction contemporaries depicted: she survived the three-decker novel’s collapse; she became associated with an elite modernist aesthetic, and enjoyed immense popularity with her novel Red Pottage (1899), but could not sustain this fame.  Red Pottage manipulates deeply engrained Victorian conventions about genius and gender; it diminishes the daily obligations of ‘submission, acceptance, negotiation, production, and advertisement’ (214) Cholmondeley knew to be true of any author’s profession; it revives the Brontëan prototype and portrays late-century female professional accomplishment invulnerable to market changes or inspirational loss.  The book’s popularity – documented in glowing critical remarks from literary magazines – guaranteed Cholmondeley’s continued publications in middle and highbrow women’s magazines, just as her ‘ reputation as an elite novelist’ let her ‘experiment with more “advanced” work’ (218).  However, the short-lived nature of the 1890s high-culture magazines, like the Yellow Book, and the fin-de-siècle’s cult of personality, jeopardized the shy Cholmondeley’s reputation and image.  Unlike Meynell whose periodical essays guided her return to writing an inspired poetry, Cholmondeley approached her prefaces from the time of The Lowest Rung (1908) as the places in which she would defend not only her views about art but, more significantly, her own weakened authorial identity.

In Becoming a Woman of Letters Linda Peterson has produced an insightful and comprehensive study which, in its scrupulous scholarly apparatus, also testifies to our own generation’s impressive women of letters, such as Elaine Showalter, Mary Poovey, and Talia Schaffer.  By investigating the Victorian woman writer’s achievements, Linda Peterson highlights the advances made by these later women literary critics, and illustrates for any reader and scholar of the Victorian literary world other, and newer, models of professional best.

Sharon Bickle, ed. The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field, 1876-1909. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008. xliii + 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-8139-2751-0, hb.

Review by Donna S. Parsons.

The Victorians were prolific letter writers.  One only needs to browse the twelve volumes of Charles Dickens’s letters or the nine volumes of George Eliot’s in order to gain an appreciation of Victorian society and literary culture.  These published editions as well as those of William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, and John Ruskin’s letters have provided a window into an author’s relationship with family members, professional colleagues, personal friends, editors, and even society.  What can another volume of letters possible reveal?  In the case of Michael Field, the pseudonym under which Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper published their poetry and dramas, the answer is a resounding wealth of intimate details regarding women’s personal, academic and literary lives in late Victorian and Edwardian England.  Field scholars have focused most of their archival research on “Works and Days,” the two women’s manuscript diaries, and with good reason.  The 28 volumes, dating from 1888 to 1914, offer key insights into their daily lives and interactions with friends and the outside world.  While the diaries are immensely valuable in understanding Bradley and Cooper’s mature lives, the correspondence between the two women reveals, as Sharon Bickle cogently argues in The Fowl and the Pussycat:  Love Letters of Michael Field, 1876-1909, ‘the origins of that rich imaginative life’ (xiii-xiv).  Indeed, the correspondence can in some ways be regarded as Bradley and Cooper’s juvenilia.  Within these documents we see the beginning of their experimentation with nicknames and identities, the manner in which they describe scenes and various persons met during their travels, the inspiration derived from their personal and research-related visits to museums and art galleries, and their meticulous recording of interactions with family members. 

The 168 pieces of correspondence chosen for this volume were those that Bickle was able to identify as having been written by Bradley to Cooper, or vice versa.  They include letters, postcards, annotated envelopes, letter cards, and even an annotated newspaper cutting.  Bickle consulted the Field collections in the British Library, the Bodleian Library (which holds the majority of this correspondence, 146 pieces), and the all but forgotten collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library (which contains15 pieces, primarily written in 1897). The letters begin in 1876 and predate ‘Works and Days’ by slightly over eleven years.  Letters that can be found in ‘Works and Days’ were not included, as Bickle believes they might be a part of the diary or pasted in after the fact (xxxv).  Bickle notes the obstacles she encountered in choosing letters.  When doubts arose due to an errant shelfmark or the application of one nickname to multiple persons, she made her final selections based on the subject matter of the individual piece of correspondence (xxxv). Every letter is prefaced with an address.  If the physical location of the sender is unclear, then ‘[c]onjectural addresses’ appear in square brackets or “an explanatory note is provided” (xxxvi).  Original punctuation and spelling are retained (xxxvi, xxxvii).  Having read ‘Works and Days’ several times, I can attest to the difficulty in transcribing entries.  While Edith’s handwriting is fairly easy to read, Katharine’s is more ornate, loopy and periodically resembles a scrawl.  At times one is also uncertain whether entries were made by the original writer or copied into the journal later by another.  Bickle is to be congratulated for successfully completing such a tedious and painstaking project. 

Bickle notes in her introduction that ‘[o]ne of the most challenging aspects of editing these letters has been identifying the myriad of literary, biblical, and historical allusions contained within these letters…’ (xix).  Her generous notes accompany each item and underscore connections between the various pieces of correspondence, identify family members and friends, and reveal the allusions to a multitude of literary works. The correspondence in this volume confirms the long-held belief that Bradley and Cooper were voracious readers and meticulous researchers.  Although reading lists appear in many volumes of ‘Works and Days,’ their correspondence provides a more elaborate picture of the scope of their literary and historical knowledge.

As we read the correspondence in chronological order, a detailed portrait of Bradley and Cooper’s personal lives and working relationship is revealed.  Even though the two women claimed that their published work represented a ‘perfect mosaic’ (xxviii), the correspondence discloses which writer was responsible for a particular scene in dramas including The Father’s Tragedy, Loyalty or Love? and William Rufus.  Indeed, we see scenes taking shape, whether it is through discussion of their imposing reading list, accounts of sites associated with characters or scenes, or thoughts regarding the depiction of a particular scene.  Through this discussion we learn more about the personal and professional relationship between Bradley and Cooper.  We also gain a sophisticated understanding of each writer’s usage of language and themes, which will aid further research into their neglected dramas.

Since Katharine Bradley wrote all of Michael Field’s professional correspondence with others, our study of those letters provides a somewhat limited rendering of Field’s persona.  In her introduction, Bickle makes a strong case as to why Bradley and Cooper’s personal correspondence provides a unique insight into their collective identity as Michael Field and even to late Victorian culture.  This ‘treasure trove’ (xiv) of correspondence gives us a clearer picture of the manner in which the two women tried out different identities before settling on Michael Field.  Oftentimes Katharine will sign her letters as Arran, Katie, all wise fowl (A.W.F), or simply with a bird symbol.  Not only does Katharine refer to Edith as a type of Persian cat, but in her responses Edith will emphasize some of her feline attributes.  She claims to have ‘soft lavender toes’ (70), to be a cat whom at times ‘mews for you’ (87) and who ‘is purring with the great dead mouse of Kant between its little paws’ (118).  The cat metaphor is intriguing when we consider the dynamics of Bradley and Cooper’s relationship.  In the early letters (as Bickle notes), Edith is obviously in awe of her elder, more experienced aunt, and her letters take on a meek, submissive tone.  As Edith matures, this tone becomes more assertive.  Indeed, the Persian cat sharpens her claws when she believes the fowl has been heavy-handed in the editing of her drafts.  An example occurs in 1885 when Bradley and Cooper were writing The Father’s Tragedy.  After seeing how drastically her work has been altered, Edith opens her response to Katharine by exclaiming, ‘[t]o my consternation I find I have not made my vision clear’ (118). She explains her reasoning for King Robert’s dream in Act V, Scene 1, where he goes to the monastery where his son lies dead, but where he does not actually see the body.  Although Edith is reconciled that ‘[i]f you won’t have the true Vision—I shall adopt your rendering’ (119), Katharine agrees to retain the original vision.  In the published version, only two of Edith’s lines are altered  (120).

The correspondence demonstrates how important the name Michael Field was to Bradley and Cooper.  Not only did they publish several volumes of verse and many dramas under this pseudonym, but their identity as Michael Field also morphed into nearly every aspect of their personal lives.  ‘As the lovers Michael and Field, Bradley and Cooper created for themselves a space in which…they could realize the aesthetic project of experiencing life as art’ (xiii). Their correspondence reveals the multitude of ways in which life and art were melded.  An example can be found by examining the level of detail provided as they describe their travels to one another.  Bickle notes that Bradley lived an unconventional life as a ‘Victorian spinster aunt’ (xvii).  As she traveled around France and Italy, she duly reported what she saw, whether it was the covered arcade and fruit market in Pisa (21), Notre Dame and the Morgue in Paris (14), or Ruskin’s home Brantwood (56-58).  In walking around the Pantheon in Rome, Katharine claimed, ‘[n]ever have I felt the strong antagonism of the pagan and Christian faiths so strangely’ (26).  The question yet to be answered is whether Edith was influenced by the memory of these descriptions when she wrote the verses found in Whym Chow, Flame of Love.

Katharine was not the only traveller.  As Edith was exploring the sights of Boscastle and Tintagel with her father in 1882, she was drawn to the Cornish coastline.  Edith was so inspired by the sound of the waves that she claimed, ‘[n]oise is often the woof in the Garment of slumber’ (81).  Edith’s metaphor is even more striking when we consider the contributions Bradley and Cooper made as Michael Field to poetry, drama, and life writing.  Indeed, as we read their correspondence, the ‘woof’s’ resonance deepens, and we are inspired to look deeper into their work for further echoes.