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Linda H. Peterson, Becoming a Woman of Letters. Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market.

Linda H. Peterson, Becoming a Woman of Letters. Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. xv + 289, 19.95 [pounds sterling].

Linda H. Peterson begins her study of the Victorian 'woman of letters' by citing the 'Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters' in Fraser's Magazine (founded in 1830) that promoted the personalities of both male and female contributors. Group portraits of males seated clubbably around a large round table (females at a long rectangular table having tea and coffee) served to distinguish middle-class literary men from previous effeminate dandies. Fraserians not of sufficient independent means were excluded, however, revealing that the professionalism of authorship had not quite been recognized. Yet the higher status and earnings of British versus continental writers can be attributed to periodicals like Fraser's. The smaller number of women who forged careers for themselves as professional writers are Peterson's concern. Harriet Martineau, her first example, set out to support herself by her pen for personal and financial reasons (she was deaf and the family business had failed in the 1820s). Conscientiously serving an apprenticeship under the Unitarian editor William Johnstone Fox, Martineau showed in her writings a trajectory from early religious tracts, through political economy tales (aimed at working-class readers), sociological studies, works of comparative religion and history, translation and finally a high standard of journalism. Proof of her reputation in the 1830s was that fellow British authors asked her to organize a petition in favour of international copyright. Unlike Martineau, Peterson's second example, Mary Howitt, began her career in a collaborative effort with her husband, William (and later her daughter, Anna Mary). Howitt viewed authorship as an extension of the maternal role, a model carried over into women's associations like the Langham Place Group (Charlotte Bronte, a true literary genius, was portrayed by her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, as a devoted sister and daughter).

In her kunstlerroman, A Struggle for Fame, Charlotte Riddell--Peterson's next example-retails her personal pilgrimage to London to find a publisher. 'By the 1880's, when A Struggle appeared, the woman of letters was a common figure on the literary scene--from Eliza Lynn Linton ... to Frances Power Cobbe ... to Margaret Oliphant ... to Anne Thackeray Ritchie.' Yet Riddell's failure to show her heroine as a 'full-fledged woman of letters' stems from her Brontean model associating women's achievement with the novel. Marian Evans had in fact risen from literary drudgery on the Westminster Review to the acclaimed authorship of Adam Bede.

Alice Thompson Meynell, afin-de-siecle Englishwoman of letters, began as a promising young poet. She became a Roman Catholic, married and with her husband wrote for and edited Catholic publications. Meynell's prose was highly esteemed by William Ernest Henley, editor of the National Observer, who encouraged literary or 'creative journalism' from his contributors. Following her early Sapphic poetry and her journalism in the Observer and the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1896 Meynell published both a book of collected essays, The Children, and a volume of poems casting herself in the traditionally feminine role of a shepherdess. Her publisher, John Lane (implicated in the scandal over Oscar Wilde) publicized reviews that lauded her as a feminine writer, thereby diminishing irrevocably her 'long-term status as English-woman of letters.'

In spite of their achievements, English women writers lost ground in the 1890s. Mary Cholmondeley, Peterson's last example, failed to negotiate the divide between popular success and critical esteem. The writer heroine of her radical novel, Red Pottage (praised by the Spectator), conquers family put-downs to gain distinction, but Cholmondeley's failure like that of other New Woman writers was partly owing, Peterson believes, to the shift away from long-running serials in periodicals, not on her talent or efforts. Indeed, 'the rise and fall of [the] woman author was dependent on the literary field in which she produced her work.

Elisabeth Sanders Arbuckle

University of Puerto Rico
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Author:Arbuckle, Elisabeth Sanders
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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