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Anthony Patterson, Mrs. Grundy’s Enemies: Censorship, Realist Fiction and the Politics of Sexual Representation. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013. 235pp. ISBN 978-3-0343-0887-8. hb. $105.95.

Reviewed by Stacey Kikendall.

In his discussion of censorship and late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century British literature, Anthony Patterson uses the figure of Mrs. Grundy to situate the authors and texts within a larger conversation about social and literary conventions. Mrs. Grundy began her popular culture celebrity as a minor character in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough, and over the course of the nineteenth century came to personify conventional propriety whether as a traditionally acceptable morality or in the more negative sense of an ignorant hypocrisy.  Patterson justifies his choice of primary texts by declaring that they would all be considered enemies of Mrs. Grundy because they respond to and challenge the threat of the period’s literary censorship, particularly censorship aimed at the portrayal of sexuality in literature. Authors from Émile Zola to the New Woman writer George Egerton to H.G. Wells all used fairly similar, albeit individual strategies, to protest censorship, including portraying female sexuality that contested social conventions, declaring their opposition in non-fiction prose, or even incorporating censorship into their fiction as an obstacle their characters faced. However, regardless of their approaches, these authors forced issues of sexuality, morality, and censorship into modern discourse, even while they may have reaffirmed gender and class ideologies. Patterson adds to the current scholarship with his overarching and larger claim: that these Realist writers were dealing with issues of censorship long before the Modernists, who usually get the credit for defeating literary censorship. Despite some repetition and unevenness in the argument’s development, overall Patterson’s book offers a fascinating look at censorship in late-Victorian and Edwardian England.

The introduction considers theoretical perspectives of censorship by Michel Foucault, Ian Hunter, Richard Burt, and Damian Grant among others to explain the complexity of censorship at the end of the nineteenth century.  Patterson introduces historical and cultural contexts, such as the fact that the major circulating libraries often regulated and defined what was considered appropriate reading material for its middle-class audience in order to limit public access to dangerous influences, especially those that would damage the moral health of the nation. The discussion easily leads into the first body chapter, “Zola in the Country of Mrs. Grundy: Naturalism, Reticence, and the Moral Aesthetics of the Victorian Novel.” Widespread condemnation and obscenity trials accompanied the translation and publication of Émile Zola’s novels in English in the 1880s. To defend his novels against claims of obscenity, Zola appropriated scientific discourse about sexuality. As Patterson argues, Zola’s Naturalism “signifies a watershed for sexual representation in English fiction” (28) and became the extreme by which later novels were judged. The most common subject to be censored was portrayal of female heterosexuality outside of marriage, and Zola’s Nana (1880) shows how this transgression in the working class could spread to the ruling classes and lead to the moral downfall of a nation. Zola and his novels represent a foreign threat that influenced the English novel, making him one of Mrs. Grundy’s greatest enemies.

Patterson continues his discussion of the threat offered by French Naturalism in the next chapter, entitled “Some Fear of Mrs. Grundy before Their Eyes: George Moore, British Naturalism and Censorship,” which examines how Moore and his novels A Mummer’s Wife (1885) and Esther Waters (1894) represent how some English writers appropriated, and perhaps diluted, Zola’s Naturalism to attack the censorship controlled by the lending libraries. Moore’s earlier writing had been banned by the circulating libraries, which largely prevented distribution and sales. As a result, Moore convinced Henry Vizetelly, who was tried twice for publishing obscene French novels, to publish A Mummer’s Wife in one volume at a cheaper price, making the novel more affordable and thus avoiding the circulating libraries.  In addition, Moore published Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals (1885), which criticises the censorship the lending libraries perpetrate and the resulting infantilizing of the reading public. Patterson argues that Moore followed Zola’s strategy of anticipating censorship of his novel by claiming the “moral ground by posing as a defender of artistic freedom against the forces of prudery and philistinism” (66). However, Moore’s novel stays away from the explicit depictions of sexuality that Zola included, and his character Kate Ede is a complex woman who is constantly battling her natural desires and social expectations. In the story, Kate Ede believes in the illusions of love depicted in romantic novels, which leads to her elopement and eventual death. Patterson contends that Moore challenges lending libraries and their method of censorship for they constantly publish romantic fiction that could be as pernicious as realistic novels. Patterson continues by claiming that with Esther Waters, Moore moves away from Zola and subsequently gains widespread critical approval, so much so that the lending libraries circulate it. In the novel, Esther Waters’s position as an unwed mother causes her to be condemned by the supposedly morally superior middle class at the same time as she is exploited as a servant. Patterson posits that Esther’s struggle against social injustice is the result of the same hypocrisy that guides Mudie’s censorship. Yet, at the same time Zola and Moore were challenging Christian morality and Victorian ideologies about sexual behavior, Patterson says they were reinforcing ideas of class and gender. According to Patterson, Moore could not envision different endings for his transgressive female characters; Kate Ede dies, while Esther Waters only finds pleasure through motherhood, reducing her importance to the biological function of childbirth.

Chapter 3, “Defying Mrs. Grundy: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and the Hilltop Fiction of Grant Allen,” analyses the ways in which Hardy and Allen respond to censorship similar to those experienced by New Women writers. Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure, provoked outrage on account of its bleak portrayal of marriage and the negative effects of confining sexual instincts. However, Patterson contends that the novel did not get the same treatment as Zola’s works because Hardy was already a respected novelist and had pre-empted criticism by writing about censorship in his article, “Candour in English Fiction” (1890). In Jude, it is Sue who comes to represent a kind of Mrs. Grundy and internalises Victorian morality to a perverse degree. Indeed, according to Patterson, it is the “self-sacrificing and restrained Sue” that is “more disruptive, dangerous and damaging than carnal Arabella” (122). The chapter then switches gears to discuss another controversial novel published in 1895, Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did. Like Hardy and Moore, Allen wrote an article against censorship, “Fiction and Mrs. Grundy,” in which he argued that censorship feminised literature in order for it to fit into the confines of Mudie’s Select Library. However, Allen’s lesser known novel was unique in that it offended both conservatives and liberal feminists by advocating the dissolution of marriage entirely. Patterson argues that current scholarship should focus less on the novel’s celebration of free union and more on the “attack on fin-de-siècle feminism, social purity reform and Christian moral values” (124-125).  Despite the radical critique Allen’s novels offer, Patterson ends the chapter by claiming that Allen simply redefines reductive binaries by imposing eugenic biological tenets, such as the mother’s reproductive duty to benefit the race. Thus, as with most of the other authors Patterson includes, Allen’s challenge to the status quo is limited in scope.

Chapter 4, “Making Mrs. Grundy’s Flesh Creep: The New Woman Assault on Late Victorian Censorship,” will be of most interest to Latchkey readers. Patterson immediately begins by explaining that no one has yet explored New Woman fiction within the context of literary censorship, and doing so once again proves that Modernists were not starting something new but were simply joining an already established conversation about censorship. Patterson discusses George Egerton, Ella Hepworth Dixon, Mary Cholmondeley and George Paston, and effectively responds to current scholarship of New Woman fiction. The first section focuses on Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright), and Patterson spends nearly twice as long exploring her writing as the other authors in this chapter, resulting in the chapter seeming uneven. Egerton’s short story collection Keynotes and Discords (1893) provoked outrage as a result of her portrayals of sexually transgressive women and Patterson asserts that she, like her male contemporaries discussed in this book, positioned herself as a defender of artistic freedom. Unlike Moore, Hardy, and Allen, however, Egerton does not blame Mrs. Grundy and the feminisation of literature; rather she puts the blame on men and the male construction of censorship. According to Patterson, Egerton reveals the complexity of women’s sexuality in her novels and exposes how restrictive gender expectations were in a patriarchal society. For example, the first story in the collection, “A Cross Line,” “celebrates assertive female sexual power” with Gypsy finding pleasure and freedom in dancing for the male gaze (147). With Hepworth Dixon, Patterson focuses on The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) and how it demonstrates the hypocrisy of the male publishing industry which allowed newspapers to publish salacious details of real divorces but condemned serious fiction, especially fiction by women writers, which explored the realities of marriage. Similarly, Patterson analyses how Paston (Emily Morse Symonds) wrote about the constraints women artists face in depicting the real, complex lives of women in her novel A Writer of Books (1899).  In particular, Paston’s protagonist Cosima struggles to create an aesthetic that resists the romantic happy endings demanded of women writers as well as denies the focus on the senses emphasized by French Naturalism. Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage (1899), Patterson contends, has the most obvious example in New Woman fiction of the censorship theme. In the story, James Gresley burns his sister’s novel, because he believes it is deliberately gratuitous like the French novels she reads. As with the three other New Woman writers Patterson discusses, Cholmondeley presents the limitations that women writers face by showing “how patriarchy limits women’s potential as creative artists through figuring them as immoral, incompetent or reductively dogmatic” (176). Cholmondeley’s novel did not offend the reading public nearly as much as Egerton’s stories though because she avoided the threatening sexual representations of women that Egerton portrayed in her fiction.  

Patterson’s last chapter, “Burying Mrs. Grundy Alive: Censorship, Morality and the Edwardian Sex Novel,” examines Edwardian novels by Hubert Wales, Hermann Sudermann, and H.G. Wells. As with the Realist and New Woman writers he discusses in the previous chapters, Patterson explains that these texts reveal how scientific ideologies of natural sexual instinct simply reinforce traditional power hierarchies, especially regarding female sexuality. For example, he argues that Wales’s book The Yoke (1909), which portrays the sensational topic of a woman having (enjoyable) sex with her stepson, is not transgressing lines of incest but rather demonstrating how Angelica fulfills her destiny as a woman by saving her stepson from contracting a venereal disease, thus ensuring national and imperial health through the British male. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909) created a furor because it portrays female sexual desire and free love; however, while Wells seems to champion women choosing their own sexual partners, he guarantees the titular heroine ends up a dutiful wife in the end.  Sudermann’s controversial The Song of Songs/Das Hohe Lied (1910) differs in that its heroine does not suffer a terrible fate as a result of her sexual desire, a fact that separates the novel from the other Edwardian novels as well as earlier Naturalist fiction, such as Zola’s Nana. Sudermann’s novel was banned for much the same reason Zola’s novel thirty years before was condemned; Naturalist novels were dangerous foreign imports that could weaken the moral superiority of England.  Nonetheless, Patterson claims that Sudermann satirizes both Naturalism and censorship regarding sexual morality. Instead of embracing the pessimism of the Naturalist decline plot, Sudermann’s Lilly recognizes how unrealistic romantic fiction is and pragmatically accepts her fate by marrying her long-time lover.

Many of Anthony Patterson’s claims about gender, sexuality, race, and class in these texts come as no surprise, but focusing on censorship as both a cultural phenomenon and as a plot theme provides a valuable perspective to scholarship in late Victorian, New Woman, and Edwardian literature. I particularly appreciate that Patterson clearly states that the censorship debate “should not be simplified into a conflict of progressive writers and conservative critics,” that the writers’ politics were much more complex and often divided along gender lines (220). His book is well-researched, using both primary and secondary sources, and revises current understandings of censorship as solely a Modernist problem. While it is inevitable that a book-length project sometimes seems repetitive, Patterson has chosen a good representative sample of texts to examine.

Stacey Kikendall is an Assistant Professor of English at Park University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century British literature and the intersections of gender, empire, and vision. She has published on Charles Dickens, Maria Edgeworth, the film Bride & Prejudice, and using graphic novels in the composition classroom.