The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England.
Aestheticism is one of the most slippery terms in Victorian studies. It denotes both a set of conventions and a literary movement, albeit one which also stubbornly refuses to separate itself from the concurrent movements of naturalism and decadence. Aesthesticism seems at times to be defined by critics' unwillingness to define it. Despite the varying claims critics have made about aestheticism over the years, they have, however, stressed one thing consistently and repeatedly: aestheticism is a genre and a movement centered around The Yellow Book and the writings of Wilde, Dowson, Johnson, Yeats and other authors associated with "The Tragic Generation." In short, the aesthetic movement is a movement of men.
Not so, says Talia Schaffer in her fascinating The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England. Schaffer argues that the years 1870-1910, a period she marks as both the heyday of aesthetic writing and the transition to modernism, were a time when women authors used aesthetic literary conventions in their writing to great critical and popular acclaim. Posterity, she claims, has not been kind to women like Ouida, Lucas Malet, Alice Meynell and Rosamund Marriott Watson, all of whom were considered in their day to be the equal of the male writers now more commonly associated with aestheticism. Schaffer's view on the disappearance of the female aesthetes from the canon is twofold. On the one hand, she argues that the female aesthetes' overt concern with women's domestic, cultural and social issues made their writing incompatible with the male aesthetes' seemingly more apolitical works. On the other hand, the female aesthetes' elaborate use of aesthetic conventions made their often-political messages seem obscure when compared to the New Woman's more overt polemics against women's oppression. The problem both Victorianists and feminist critics have had with the female aesthetic writer, Schaffer claims, is that she does not fit unproblematically into the established categories. But rather than leaving these writers at the margins of literary scholarship, she uses the female aesthetes to reconsider what constitutes both aestheticism and women's writing in the late nineteenth century.
Schaffer begins The Forgotten Female Aesthetes by positioning female aesthetic writers within the traditional history of aestheticism. Chapter 1 discusses the two most famous examples of aestheticism, The Yellow Book and Oscar Wilde, and the female aesthetes' relationship to both. She argues against the idea that The Yellow Book was in fact the central journal of the aesthetic movement, claiming that it "constructs, not chronicles aestheticism" (p. 1). Moreover, despite the contributions of women writers such as Ella D'Arcy and John Oliver Hobbes, The Yellow Book's brand of aestheticism deliberately excluded so-called "feminine" subjects such as marriage, children and domesticity. Schaffer locates two strands of aestheticism operating in late Victorian culture, one which presents itself as high culture (philosophical, elite literature) and one which is considered to be popular art (tracts on fashion and decorating and the "bestseller"). The female aesthetes' preoccupation with popular aestheticism puts them philosophically at odds with The Yellow Book's mandate.
Schaffer argues that The Woman's World, which Wilde edited from 1887 to 1889, offers us an alternative strain to the common idea of aestheticism as a male-centered high-culture movement, even though she treats Wilde as the emblem of the male aesthete. Based in material culture and interested in alternative gender practices, The Woman's World is an aesthetic manifesto centered on women's concerns.
In Chapter 2, Schaffer expands upon the genres used by the female aesthetes. Aesthetic writing in general was a response to realism and Schaffer codes the various responses along gender lines. She describes decadence, for instance, as a masculine-coded permutation of aestheticism and allies it to the equally masculine, although not necessarily aesthetic, form of naturalist writing. Because both decadent and naturalist writers included misogynistic elements in their texts (although she points out that several women wrote naturalist books), female aesthetes concentrated largely upon purer aesthetic forms, especially since aestheticism provided women with alternative models for writing. Furthermore, aestheticism allowed women to write outside of their own experiences by appropriating some of the more fantastic topics used by male aesthetes. Aestheticism, for Schaffer, gives these women authorial distance, a genre in which women writers can evade the autobiographical trap of their critics. Because the two common forms of aesthetic writing, the fantasia with its archaic language and the drawing-room comedy with its use of epigrams, call attention to the language used while diminishing the importance of the subject chosen, the female aesthetes, unlike the New Women writers, more readily show their ambivalence about sexual freedom and emancipation.
Chapter 3 discusses the different forms within aestheticism which were employed by women. Schaffer argues that, with the rise of the aesthetic movement, male aesthetes began to exalt domestic work, such as furniture-buying and flower-arranging, as forms of art. They claimed authority over domestic work, stating the need for a cultivation of the aesthetic sensibilities and often training in art appreciation. They thus positioned themselves as connoisseurs, experts in art, market economy and museum culture; domestic work's female practitioners were relegated to amateur status. The female aesthetes wrote articles and essays, most notably in the "Wares of Autolycus" column in the Pall Mall Gazette, working to reclaim domestic authority. By doing so, according to Schaffer, "they constructed a new model of womanhood" (p. 73).
In Chapter 4, Schaffer discusses the novelist Ouida as a neglected founding figure of aestheticism. In her reading of Ouida's aesthetic language, Schaffer argues that Ouida develops the model for the aesthetic novel that was subsequently used by Meredith, Huysmans and Wilde. She categorizes Ouida's work into three periods: the novels about male subjectivity, especially the subjectivity of artists and dandies (1859-1879), the novels about aesthetic connoisseurship which use epigrams extensively and those which transform Gothic discourses (1880-1890), and the diatribes against aristocratic corruption (1890-1897). All of these topics, she claims, were developed further by male aesthetes. Indeed, Schaffer claims, "Much of the later history of aesthetic fiction can be read as an attempt to cover, contest, or accommodate this supposedly shameful origin [in Ouida's novels]" (p. 124).
Chapter 5 begins with a comparison of Ouida to aesthetic poet Alice Meynell. Whereas Ouida, in Schaffer's view, over-performs her femininity, thereby satirizing it:
Meynell, on the other hand, inhabited the female sphere so fully that her own personality faded away, and she thereby achieved the severe self-discipline, the complete subjection to one's public persona, that forms the climactic desire of dandyism. (P. 160)
Schaffer argues that Meynell offered her readers a model for female behavior by writing progressive texts about women's issues in the guise of a Victorian lady writing "precious effusions about the state of her soul" (p. 161). Meynell furthermore was proof to her contemporaries that female aesthetes could combine the content of New Woman writing with traditional femininity. Her traditional persona, according to Schaffer, is at odds with the fact that Meynell decorated her house aesthetically, was friends with some of the leading male and female aesthetes, and contributed to the "Wares of Autolycus" column. Meynell's precious descriptions distract readers from her poems' subversive subject matter and play with the autobiographical imperative so many critics attribute to women's writing. What is most interesting about this chapter is that Schaffer focuses as much attention on Meynell as a cultural product as she does on Meynell as a writer. She discusses Meynell's many admirers, among whom Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson and George Meredith are numbered, and their need to frame Meynell's body in heavenly terms in their poems to her. In addition, Meynell's works are marked by her struggle to maintain her privacy (hence her resistance to an autobiographical reading of her works) and her attempts to publicize herself.
In Chapter 6, Schaffer turns her attention to Lucas Malet, nee Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison. Schaffer points out that Malet's importance as a late Victorian woman writer has been forgotten. Reinserting her into the canon might bring about a different view of the 1890s as a period dominated by women novelists. Schaffer argues that Malet was an instrumental figure in the transition from Victorian romance novels to modernism's more experimental works and that the use of aesthetic devices was a significant indicator of this transition. She claims that Malet's novels, most notably The Wages of Sin (1891) and The History of Sir Richard Calmady (1901), demonstrate a new use of aestheticism: instead of using aesthetic language to conceal subversive ideas, Malet's aesthetic techniques become a "semiotic for depicting the forbidden" (p. 199). Possibly Schaffer's most stunning argument in this chapter is her contention that Malet's The Wages of Sin was Thomas Hardy's influence for Jude the Obscure. Through Hardy's own letters and in a close comparison of the two novels, Schaffer argues that Jude is a rewriting of The Wages of Sin as a parody of Wages' New Woman project.
It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what Schaffer means by "aestheticism" in certain contexts. Her definition of the term includes not only the Aesthetic Movement and the aesthetic mode of writing, but also an acquaintanceship with what she terms the "masculine aesthetic" world: friendship with Wilde, contributions to The Yellow Book, and publication by John Lane. Fulfilling these criteria does not necessarily make for an aesthetic text. The Yellow Book, for example, also published conservative writers in order to stake its claim as a serious journal. Lane's "aesthetic" publications were so called because of his volumes' lavish ornamentation. George Egerton, the New Woman writer and a woman writer whom Schaffer does not include in her pantheon of female aesthetes, is but one example of Lane's authors. Wilde's own texts belie Schaffer's classification of him as a "masculine" aesthete. Wilde may indeed operate in the world of the male aesthete, but his perfection of the epigram, his editing of The Woman's World, and especially his fairy tales (which are stories about children and nature) demonstrate amply his use of the aesthetic devices Schaffer attributes solely to women writers.
Schaffer also collapses the distinctions between "aestheticism" as a set of literary conventions and "aestheticism" as a literary movement. She correctly points out that aesthetic techniques are used in other genres, such as realism, or in texts prior to 1870, her seminal date for aestheticism. But how, then, does one tell the difference between the technique and the philosophy? Part of the problem is that it is often unclear how Schaffer defines several key terms. How, for example, does aestheticism differ from decadence? In Chapter 2, Schaffer describes decadence as a variation of aestheticism and of naturalism. In Chapter 1, she maintains that decadence and aestheticism are separate categories. Considering that she argues that women writers used aestheticism to counteract decadence's misogynistic tendencies, clarification of these terms is needed.
Aestheticism is the literary mode which made the transition from the Victorian style to the modernist style possible. Schaffer's book is an often-fascinating argument that, not only were women writers active contributors to aesthetic writing, but that they were indeed instrumental in the transition to modernism. Schaffer at times uses her multiple definitions of aestheticism in a confusing manner; one isn't certain at times whether she means aestheticism to signify the movement or the mode. At other times, despite reiterating the distinction between aestheticism, decadence and naturalism, she conflates these terms when applying them to a particular author. However, these points underscore her attempt to reconfigure the definition of aestheticism to include the women writers mentioned in her book. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes is an important contribution to both nineteenth-century studies and to women's studies. It forces us to reconsider our view of late-nineteenth-century literary production and specifically of women writers' contribution to the literary field.
HEATHER MARCOVITCH, University of Florida
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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