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Emma Frances Brooke. A Superfluous Woman. Ed. Barbara Tilley. Brighton, UK: Victorian Secrets, 2015. 260 pp., ISBN 978-1-906469-56-6, GBP£12 Pbk.

Reviewed by Valerie Fehlbaum.

Initially published anonymously, although some critics immediately guessed the gender if not the name of the author, A Superfluous Woman was one of the first novels to appear in that annus mirabilis of New Woman fiction, 1894. Within a few months readers were treated to, most famously, Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus, Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman, George Egerton’s Discords, Annie S. Holdsworth’s Joanna Trail, Spinster, Edith Johnstone's A Sunless Heart, and Iota's A Yellow Aster. The previous year had already seen the publication of Egerton’s Keynotes, George Gissing’s The Odd Women and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins.

In such a context, Emma Frances Brooke’s title, described as "grotesquely inaccurate" (242) by W. T. Stead in his review (reprinted in its entirety in Appendix B which comprises a useful selection of contemporary reviews) requires a little explanation. For most of Brooke’s reading public the term ‘superfluous’ would have been an unpleasant epithet employed for the many unmarried women in Victorian times, estimated at about half a million in the 1890s, for whom there was no hope of finding a husband, thereby leaving them "odd" or un-paired, un-needed, in short: redundant. However, without giving too much away, during the course of the novel Jessamine Halliday, Brooke’s protagonist, receives more than one offer of marriage and does indeed accept one of them, marries and has children, and so is, in fact, not a superfluous woman in the usual sense. Subsequently Brooke felt a need to respond to complaints about her title and so added an explanatory note in her Preface to the fifth edition published in June 1894 (included as Appendix A in this edition). For Brooke, "superfluous" had a much wider definition, designating "persons who fail, from whatever cause, to find and fulfil the function nature has intended them to perform in life" (241). Surely, "then comes the rub" (37), for, besides raising burning questions about what constitutes nature itself, what possible function could women of Jessamine’s elevated class and limited education perform besides being "a breeder of sinners" (34)? In the opening pages she is described rather shockingly as "a pretty piece of sexuality" who; "never thought of herself save as a dainty bit of flesh which some great man would buy" (32). An astute reader will immediately recognise some of the principal problematic ingredients of New Woman fiction, from the inevitable debates about what became known as the "Woman Question" to its subsidiaries: the marriage market, loveless marriages, moral double-standards, and ultimately the search for women to find meaningful alternatives to a life beyond domesticity and motherhood, much as Olive Schreiner’s protagonist Lyndall had done in The Story of an African Farm published over a decade earlier.

At the beginning of the novel Jessamine Halliday, "the most beautiful woman in England, and one of the richest" (26), is wasting away, rather like the un-named heroine in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s earlier short story, "The Yellow Wall-paper" (1892). Fortunately in Jessamine’s case the medical practitioner called in as a last resort, Dr. Cornerstone, is unconventional and sympathetic to his patient’s real ailment. He is immediately introduced as "not a West-End doctor" (25; my italics), i.e. not a typical society physician pampering the privileged, but a man who succours the poor, and whose methods are "unusual and unorthodox" (27). His diagnosis is that Jessamine is an "idle lady," suffering from "a splenetic seizure brought on by ennui and excessive high-breeding" for which the remedy is "Reality"(32). He therefore introduces her to real life, provides instructive reading matter and inculcates in her a desire "to do good" (48, original italics). Duly inspired by her "savage Mentor," early in Part 1 Jessamine escapes from her debilitating, decadent life in London and a lucrative, but distasteful marriage to Lord Heriot, "the biggest catch in Europe," and disappears to the Highlands of Scotland where she lives amongst hard-working farmers actively participating in the day-to-day grind of a simpler, more authentic existence (42, 45). Here, too, she meets a very different kind of man to the sophisticated socialites of her urban life who awakens in her hitherto unknown feelings, to some extent pre-figuring Constance Chatterley.

Judging by the reviews included in this edition what ensues produced diametrically opposed reactions, and I suspect the novel will continue to divide readers. Stead, for example, writes of "primal passion," but praises Brooke’s "simplicity and directness unequalled in recent English fiction" (242), whereas the un-named critic in The Lancaster Examiner complements her "on a wonderful power of emotional analysis" (245), and the critic in The West Australian writes of "delightful incidents in the tale of their ripening love" producing "a pastoral in prose" (243). The Atheneaum reviewer, however, is perhaps not altogether surprisingly, less enthusiastic, describing Jessamine as a "turbulent and hysterical young woman" who "faintly recalls Miss Schreiner’s immortal heroine at times, but she has neither the strength nor the poetry of that extravagant little spirit" (244). I invite readers to make up their own minds about Brooke’s text and her protagonist, and the reviewers’ comments.

Part II, Volume III in the original format of the novel, begins ten years later, leaving readers to fill in the gaps with the continued assistance of Dr. Cornerstone, aptly-named as it turns out for, in many ways, he frames the entire story. I would recommend that readers new to the text read the ‘Introduction’ only after having completed the novel as it contains serious plot-spoilers (which I will refrain from revealing here). Suffice to say, Brooke is a fine story-teller who, in spite of some rather lengthy theoretical sections, perhaps typical of New Woman writing, maintained my interest from beginning to end. I would, nevertheless, suggest that parts of the novel remain disturbing, even to twenty-first-century readers. In his review Stead recognised that, "the questions of morality and of women’s position that it raises are ripe for solution" (242). He continues, somewhat optimistically, "their treatment in a manner so courageous cannot but be productive of good" (242). Many of these questions remain relevant; the debates over nature versus nurture, for example, still rage today, as do questions of eugenics, already such a contentious topic.

Having said that, to my mind the novel could not be described as entirely pessimistic, nor does it fit neatly into the Anti-marriage League or the Purity School. In fact, Dr. Cornerstone, who one might think of as Brooke’s mouthpiece throughout, is obviously happily married to a woman, the mother of his children, and whom he treats as an equal. Some of the most interesting passages in the text consist of discussions between the doctor and his wife and/or his friend Carteret, especially Chapter VII of Part II, suggesting that "real comradeship" between men and women, which Jessamine had found with a man in Scotland, were not only possible but could be sustained (73). In like manner, Brooke’s earlier essay "Women and their Sphere," published under the pseudonym E. Fairfax Byrrne in 1888, included very pertinently here in Appendix C, ends on a similarly optimistic note.

Barbara Tilley’s Introduction carefully situates the novel both in its historical context, very useful for anyone interested in the New Woman phenomenon and fin-de-siècle debates in general, and in the context of Brooke’s own prolific career. She disproves the suppositions of The Athenaeum critic that Brooke was "very young, and certainly very inexperienced" (243) when she wrote A Superfluous Woman. She was in fact nearly fifty years old and had already published several novels and political articles besides an epic poem in blank verse. I, for one, look forward to Tilley’s forthcoming critical biography of Emma Frances Brooke and to reading more of this radical writer’s work.

Long overdue for a reprint, A Superfluous Woman, could not have found a better publisher and Emma Frances Brooke a more sympathetic editor. At this point I must also comment on the material quality of this edition and again quote from The Athenaeum Reviewer, although he was naturally referring to a different edition,and "bestow hearty praise on the binding with which the publisher has clothed the book" (244). In these difficult days for publishers and with a growing e-reading public, this book makes readers happy not only to read but also to own hard copies, like all the publications from Victorian Secrets.

Valerie Fehlbaum is a Faculty member of the English Department at the University of Geneva and generally teaches all things Victorian and Shakespeare. Her main research interests are the New Woman, Victorian periodicals and the theatre.