Youngkin, Molly. Feminist Realism at the Fin de Siecle: The Influence of the Late-Victorian Woman's Press on the Development of the Novel.
In Feminist Realism at the Fin De Siecle, Molly Youngkin explores the ways in which late nineteenth-century women's magazines redefined realism according to a distinctly feminist agenda. Youngkin argues that Shafts and The Woman's Herald (which subsumed two other periodicals, The Woman's Signal and Women's Penny Paper) articulated a feminist realist aesthetic. This conception of realism assumed that literary representations of women should provide a model for social change. In their book reviews, these journals emphasized a range of acceptable feminist realist tenets that provided a positive representation of woman's agency, including the use of internal perspective to demonstrate developing consciousness, dialogue to indicate an articulation of self-awareness, and concrete action to show how women worked to change their own conditions. Youngkin claims that the depictions of women's agency deemed most successful "balanced all of these narrative strategies, and, when authors managed to combine all three, the result was a decidedly feminist heroine" (7). Youngkin does an excellent job of surveying discussions of these narrative techniques in the works of eight fin de siecle authors: Thomas Hardy, Sarah Grand, George Gissing, Mona Caird, George Meredith, Menie Dowie, George Moore, and Henrietta Stannard. She concludes that these writers' ultimate privileging of consciousness over both spoken word and action "anticipated the centrality of subjective experience in the modernist novel" (8).
Youngkin situates her claims within the realm of liberal feminism because the analysis of women's issues and literary representations in these periodicals is based on "the equality doctrine" (8), which eliminates separate spheres ideology, rather than on the difference-based doctrines of the conservative and radical feminists, which both focus in their own way on sexual morality. After carefully defining her terms, she goes on to explain how her study intervenes in current critical conversations. Youngkin argues that the term realism has been too narrowly defined and has typically excluded feminist perspectives. In an effort to combat this oversight, she unites the New Woman novelists with the New Realist novelists, arguing that the similarities between them "help clarify the degree to which both male and female authors contributed to the debate over realism, as well as the transition from Victorianism to modernism" (16). This breakdown of the barrier between New Woman and New Realist writers is, indeed, one of Youngkin's central contributions to fin de siecle studies in the novel. She effectively argues that these writers must be studied as part of a single novelistic movement rather than as parallel sub-genres and provides convincing support for this from feminist press reviews that treat these novels similarly. She states that "New Realists had an interest in retaining the feminine audience that bad ensured the success of the mid-Victorian novel, and they recognized that New Woman writers appealed to this audience.... Likewise, the New Woman novelists recognized that the New Realists employed narrative strategies that held authority with critics who had denigrated the work of women writers" (15). As a result, the two groups came to share many traits as they attempted to appeal to women readers as well as critics.
Each chapter of the book considers a pair of novelists, one from each tradition, demonstrating that Shafts and The Woman's Herald classified their works together under the category of feminist realism. Chapter 1 analyzes the ways in which Sarah Grand and Thomas Hardy incorporate feminist consciousness into their novels by depicting the internal perspectives of female characters in The Heavenly Twins (1893), The Beth Book (1898), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). Youngkin argues that while Grand's novels are more overtly feminist, Hardy was given credit for his efforts in part as a way to pull a mainstream male writer into the feminist realist fold, thereby lending credibility to the form. Chapter 2 focuses on the expression of agency through the spoken word in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) and Mona Caird's Daughters of Danaus (1894). While the feminist press seems to have praised Gissing more than the mainstream press, he was not judged to be as successful in his depiction of feminist agency as Caird. In chapter 3, Youngkin discusses the importance of feminist action in George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (1885) and The Amazing Marriage (1895) and Menie Dowie's A Girl in the Karpathians (1891), Women Adventurers (1893), and Gallia (1895). Here, Youngkin demonstrates how the feminist realist aesthetic could sometimes lead reviewers to favor a male writer as Shafts and The Woman's Herald consistently praised Meredith for depicting women characters who were social activists, but were less comfortable with Dowie's depictions of extreme feminist acts such as cross-dressing, smoking, and Eugenecist breeding. Chapter 4 argues that in Esther Waters (1894), George Moore's combination of all three approaches delineated in the previous chapters-feminist consciousness, voice, and action--ensured his reputation in the feminist press and his literary legacy despite the controversy the novel stirred up elsewhere. Alternatively, Henrietta Stannard's neglect of the feminist realist standard in favor of sentiment and sensation in A Blameless Woman (1894) condemned her novel to relative obscurity. Despite Stannard's stronger feminist nonfiction writing, her lack of positive alternatives for women in her fiction and her "choices about which causes to support [in her nonfiction] may not have pleased liberal feminists" (164) whose neglect of her work in their reviews likely sealed her fate. Youngkin concludes that while many of the novels she discusses served as prototypes for the modernist novel, the move from late-century feminist realism to modernism did not necessarily result in "more fully feminist representations in the modernist period ... because modernist writers focus so thoroughly on consciousness that the three-step process of asserting agency seen in the feminist realist ideal is left behind" (182).
Some of the most engaging parts of the book are the introductions to each chapter in which Youngkin uses articles from the feminist magazines to frame the issues she analyzes in the book reviews. For example, her brief discussion of "What the Girl Says," an essay from Shafts that emphasizes a prototypical girl's articulation of her shifting ideas about her place in society, left me wanting to know more about what features the magazines contain beyond the book reviews and how these features accord with the feminist agenda advocated in the reviews. The book would have been enriched by a more complete exploration of the magazine context of the reviews that are Youngkin's primary concern. Despite this caveat, Youngkin has added much to our understanding of how the feminist press transformed expectations for and shaped the production of the fin de siecle novel. In particular, her delineation of a neglected form of realism based on a feminist agenda complicates conventional conceptions of realism and revises the history of the development of the novel from the Victorian period to the modernist era. Youngkin has written a clear and convincing book that is a pleasure to read.
JENNIFER PHEGLEY, University of Missouri-Kansas City
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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