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Marilyn Pemberton, Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, 397 pp., ISBN 978-1-4438-4195-5, hb., $84.99.

Reviewed by Ruth Heholt.

Marilyn Pemberton’s 2011 article for The Latchkey “The Fairylands of Mary De Morgan: Seedbeds of Domestic Anarchy,” made an excellent, contextualized argument about Mary De Morgan as a New Woman writer who embedded (and indeed secreted) a rebellious and subversive ideological stance within her fantasy fiction. In the article Pemberton usefully looks at the fairy tale genre as a fruitful space for “critiquing society” and describes De Morgan’s tales as “seedbeds of anarchy” (2011). She convincingly argues that De Morgan uses the fairy tales “to challenge the conventions of marriage and the woman’s position therein” (2011) in a way that other more well-known (and most often male) writers of fairy tales did not. Pemberton persuasively suggests that fairy tales were, at the time, much more likely to be “used to maintain the patriarchal status quo and to endorse the values and social codes of the time, including those of marriage” (2011). De Morgan though, Pemberton claims, used the fairy tale genre in a different way; making a male-dominated genre a space where she could be subversive in her imaginative writing of fantasies. This strong and relevant argument could have been productively expanded in Pemberton’s book on De Morgan. Disappointingly though, I did not find this to be the case. The book falls somewhat awkwardly between two genres: biography and literary analysis with the biographical detail dominating and indeed determining the book’s very structure in a way that curtails potential debate about the scope, relevance and importance of De Morgan’s work.

The book is divided into six chapters with nearly a third of the entire book given over to  appendices of reproductions of some of De Morgan’s lesser known published work and a selection of her unpublished work. Chapter 1 consists of a brief biography of Mary De Morgan’s parents and includes interesting background information, especially about De Morgan’s mother who supported the anti-slavery movement, was active in the suffrage movement, involved in social work for the poor and needy and held deep Spiritualist beliefs. This is a reasonably engaging opening chapter, but it is a strange choice of subject for a book about Mary De Morgan as it is not about her at all.  Chapter 2 begins with Mary’s birth, moves on to the death of her sister, Alice, three years later and looks at how this Spiritualist family dealt with the bereavement. There is a brief section on “Family Holidays” and a quite long section entitled “Chrissy’s Letters” in which Pemberton reproduces word for word reams of letters between Mary and her older sister Chrissy. Pemberton provides little comment and it is unclear why the letters have been reproduced in such detail, even to the extent of including passages which have sections missing. This is typical of the book in that it lays emphasis on recuperating facts and artefacts about De Morgan rather than attempting to construct a coherent argument. For example, chapter 3 begins with an article De Morgan wrote in 1891 for an American magazine The Home-Maker entitled “Thomas Carlyle’s Home and Home-Life: Reminiscences of a Neighbor” (72-78). This five page article about Carlyle is reproduced in full but without introduction or context and it is this sort of decision about what to include in this book that I believe to be injudicious. There is little narrative flow to the book and Pemberton too often ignores her audience in her rush to document everything she has found. The book is obviously a labour of love and Pemberton’s enthusiasm for everything “De Morgan” shines through. She has conducted meticulous and extensive research and makes many fascinating links between the materials. However, I feel that Pemberton has done almost too much research and she needed a stronger editorial hand than her publisher provided to discriminate between what is relevant and interesting and that which, from my point of view, merely distracts. 

However, in spite of the book’s frequent digressions, I find real value in Pemberton’s discussion of De Morgan’s fiction. Chapter 3 has a large section examining On a Pincushion (1877) and chapter 4 looks closely at The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880) both collections of the fairy tales that De Morgan is most famous for. Here Pemberton provides close and insightful readings, and De Morgan’s fairy tales are delightfully described and rigorously deconstructed. Pemberton shows how De Morgan subverted the genre and inscribed many feminist ideas into her tales claiming that she provides “a critique on the prevalent idealisation of the female form and the erroneous correlation of beauty with goodness” (Pemberton, 128). She demonstrates De Morgan’s critiques on marriage and the growth of mass consumer culture. However it is not just that these parts of the book give a coherent argument, Pemberton brings De Morgan’s work to life with her mixture of description and quotations and shows De Morgan’s fairy tales to have a delicate and even elegant touch. She includes some wonderful illustrations from the fairy tales and we get a clear sense of Victorian fairy tales at their enchanting best. The pen and ink illustrations are mostly by her brother-in-law William De Morgan and Walter Crane, both part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the illustrations reproduced are characteristically elaborate with a medieval feeling. The many illustrations reproduced here certainly add to the appeal of this middle section of the book. Unfortunately though, these attractive, well-argued and rigorous sections just cannot compete with the book’s imperative that seems to be to include in full any document or letter that even vaguely pertains to Mary De Morgan. Thus places with reproductions of the beautiful illustrations that accompanied De Morgan’s fictions must compete with tables of figures, facts and accounts, letters or articles that seem unnecessary. Pemberton needed a much clearer idea of her audience in order to make her book a more readable biography or academic treatise.

Chapter 4 moves into a discussion about De Morgan’s friendship with William Morris. She worked with one of his daughters and was very friendly with William Morris himself as evidenced by extracts from his letters in which he mentions her affectionately. The chapter then describes De Morgan’s social work in London’s East End and finishes with a hasty description of De Morgan’s one and only novel, A Choice of Chance which was published in 1887 under the pseudonym William Dodson. This novel is a romantic melodrama about the trials and tribulations of its heroine Audrey Dalrymple and was not well received by the critics. Chapter 5 combines synopses of her campaigning letters and articles on co-operative food production and trade unions as well as her family’s views about “the Jewish Question” and a table that details the shares in different stocks De Morgan owned (190). The letters and articles prove De Morgan to be thoughtful and liberal in her political attitudes but the many disparate topics are juxtaposed without enough in-depth discussion. The intention is to give a rounded idea of De Morgan’s passions and finances; however, yet again, the imperative to include everything, detracts from the parts that are of interest.

The final chapter begins with synopses of De Morgan’s book of fairy tales The Windfairies (1900), before moving into a discussion about De Morgan’s life in Egypt, where she moved for health reasons before she died in 1907. Here, Pemberton includes lengthy extracts from other late nineteenth-century travellers’ memoirs of Egypt which can only have the most tenuous link to De Morgan’s separate and largely unrelated travels. This final chapter ends with Mary’s death and correspondence about her will and legacy. Pemberton writes: “It is indeed unfortunate that we do not have De Morgan’s diaries, if they ever existed, or much of her personal correspondence, but it is possible to gather together all the small, passing references to her made by other people” (241), and this statement is what much of this book comprises. Despite Pemberton’s abilities as an astute literary critic, too much secondary material that has only a vague association with Mary De Morgan makes the book lack any real center. Too many diversions limit it as pure biography and too many key points get lost in the press of facts, documents, letters, reviews, statistics, tables and trivia. In Chapter 1 Pemberton writes, “I have included quite a bit of information because I think it is important to understand the environment in which De Morgan grew up, but some readers may not find it of interest and they are quite at liberty to skip this chapter” (9). Just why a reader would want to “skip” the very first chapter of a book he or she has chosen to pick up is unclear, but the remark hints at the confusion about Pemberton’s potential audience that pervades this volume.

Overall Out of the Shadows is a book that has not really found its way and consequently represents something of a missed opportunity. Mary De Morgan is clearly a figure of great interest and Pemberton’s engagement with her subject and scope of research is impressive. The book certainly goes a long way to recuperating De Morgan; as a socially aware New Woman and as an enlightened and accomplished writer of fairy tales. Also some of the lesser known work and previously unpublished work included in the final section of the book is of great interest. Unfortunately the structure of the book diminishes much of this value. Out of the Shadows needed a clear sense of purpose and, as it is published with an academic publisher, a rigorous and coherent academic focus. There is merit in some of the minutiae included however, and if the reader will take time to sift through the biographical, factual, tangential and distracting irrelevancies there are some fascinating and even important parts to this book. What remains most essential is that her fairy tales are wonderful, and, in the final analysis, Out of the Shadows has done what is perhaps its most vital work in that after reading it I will be going out and buying De Morgan’s fairy tales for my own children.

Ruth Heholt is a senior lecturer in English at Falmouth University. Her publications and research interests involve the supernatural, ghost stories, masculinity and the Gothic. Her work ranges from Victorian literature on ghosts to popular ghost hunting programmes on television today. She is the editor of a new online open-access peer-reviewed journal entitled: Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural which can be found at