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Women and British Aestheticism.

Women and British Aestheticism. Edited by Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia. 2000. ix + 304 pp. $68.50 (paperbound $19.50).

This timely and ably edited collection makes a welcome contribution to reconsideration of British aestheticism and the Victorian fin de siecle. In their useful introduction Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades explain how recent scholarship has begun to recover women's part in the literary and cultural movements of the later nineteenth century and challenge the still prevalent assumption that there were no significant literary works produced by women during this period. While the `New Women' writers have already experienced something of a renaissance, Schaffer and Psomiades are anxious to show that these writers represent only one specific type of women's writing and that other women writers with more pronounced aesthetic interests were also important. The fourteen essays in this collection split into four groups: fin-de-siecle women's fiction, aesthetic poetry, non-fictional aesthetic prose, and the influence of aestheticism on modernism. Within this a wide range of authors is covered ranging from little-known figures such as Lucas Malet (Mary St Leger Kingsley Harrison) Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson), and Netta Syrett, the well-known but little-read Marie Corelli, and the canonically important Christina Rossetti and Virginia Woolf. Topics tackled include the complex relations between male and female aesthetes of the period, degeneration, suburbia, `Eastern' exoticism, garden writing, and aesthetic colour pigments. Of the fourteen contributors two are men and all are American. This insularity seems somewhat surprising in view of the subject matter and the fact that there are some important British scholars working in this period. It also seems misjudged to have included Regenia Gagnier's essay on aesthetic epistemologies of which large portions had already appeared in the very recent collection Victorian Sexual Dissidence edited by Richard Dellamora (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999). That said, most of the contributions in this collection are of a high standard and play a valuable role in introducing the reader to many neglected, often fascinating works.

A good example of this work of recovery is Talia Schaffer's essay on Lucas Malet's The History of Richard Calmady (1901), `the female aesthetic version of the monster narrative' (p. 59), in which the physically deformed hero is redeemed rather than rejected. Margaret Debelius contributes an interesting piece on Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde's `Sphinx'. In Leverson's amusing parodies of Wilde, Debelius sees her as defining herself as `sympathetic to aspects of aestheticism while still critiquing its codes' (p. 193). Edward Marx provides a thoughtful and well-researched assessment of decadent exoticism in the work of the Indian poet Sarojini Naidu, who was lionized by the male London literary establishment in the 1890s, juxtaposing her with Laurence Hope (Adela Nicolson), an English poet in India and author of the famous song `Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar'. Ann Ardis considers how in the twentieth century Netta Syrett's novelistic evocation of the 1890s in Strange Marriage (1930) and Anne Page (1909) manages to dissociate aestheticism from its more scandalous characteristics such as effeminacy to show how it can be partially assimilated with forms of bourgeois culture to protect and camouflage women's greater sexual and personal freedom. Essays on cultural themes such as female perspectives on male aestheticism (Margaret D. Stetz) and male effeminacy as degeneration (Lisa K. Hamilton) contain useful insights, but the essay I enjoyed most was Alison Victoria Matthews's well-informed and engaging study of the `politics of pigment in Victorian art, criticism and fashion', which explains how the impact of vivid and affordable aniline dyes on late Victorian culture induce a fashion change from bright to subdued `aesthetic' colour.

Strangely, the figure that haunts this book and yet fails to receive adequate attention in her own right is Vernon Lee. Although mentioned by many contributors and supposedly a focus in two essays, Lee's important contribution to British aestheticism is never properly assessed and this collection cries out for fresh evaluations of her `anti-aesthetic' novel Miss Brown (1884). Denis Denisoff makes a rather feeble attempt to compare Lee's `Oke of Okehurst' with Woolf's Orlando. There is much to be said about the relation between these authors, most importantly one might have thought in terms of style, but this essay is a missed opportunity. Diana Maltz's essay on the shared aesthetic programme of Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson should have been better. Maltz draws on that under-used resource, the Colby College archive of Lee's papers, but her essay is an exercise in hypothesis and wishful thinking. It is mischievously tendentious to describe Thomson as Lee's `lesbian lover' without carefully explaining the context of Lee's romantic female friendships which were almost certainly non-physical. This is not to say that these friendships might not have had an eroticism of their own, but that subtle eroticism is not well served by Maltz's attempt to map a conscious twentieth-century sexuality onto the late nineteenth century. Towards the end of her essay (p. 224) Maltz actually admits that she has little evidence for her claims that Kit Anstruther-Thomson's gallery tours provided some sort of lesbian performance for upper-class women.

However, with these exceptions, this is an informative and attractive collection which will be of interest to anyone working on British aestheticism.
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Author:Maxwell, Catherine
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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