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Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism. Burlington, VT. and Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2009. 201 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6510-6.

Reviewed by Joellen Masters, Boston University.

Christine Kortsch’s engrossing, albeit uneven, book explores what she labels Victorian women’s ‘dual literacy‘ in print and in textiles, questioning how they understood and used the relationship between stitching and writing (2). Despite the many reforms in women’s education, plain and/or fancy needlework remained key in any girl’s schooling. In a time that belittled and idealized women’s talents with a needle, dress culture literacy, simultaneously mainstream and subversive, challenged Victorian gender ideology.

Chapter 1, ‘Writing in Fabric, Working in Print,’ confidently reviews a dazzling array of sources to support her claim that Victorian ‘textile culture embodied the complexity of women’s multiple literacies’ and to establish Geertz’s ‘thick description’ as her methodology (20). Although New Women novelists’ dual literacy could elide the different ‘conditions under which Victorian women learned to sew’ (18), Kortsch contends the ways their fiction incorporated the traditional female activity illuminates their goals to revise literary convention and gender stereotypes (24). Close readings reinforce New Women authors’ interest in the kunstlerroman and explicate the ‘cross-currents that alternately enlivened and compromised’ an ‘imagined [female] community’ (10-11).

Chapter 2, ‘The Needle Dipped in Blood,’ surveys changes in women’s education and in nineteenth-century textile culture (the mass production of the sewing machine; the rise of commercial dress patterns; the ready-made clothing industry; and the department store). These social and technological advancements complicated the already complex views regarding women’s skill with the needle, which was regarded as the creative work of the middle- and upper-class female artist or, alternatively, as the labour of an oppressed working-class woman worker. Kortsch analyzes Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man (begun in 1873; published posthumously in 1926) to illustrate profoundly contradictory attitudes about dual literacy’s own language systems. Victorian women readers would understand how the female characters’ ability with the semiotics of clothing lets them ‘understand female disgrace and character’ and ‘educate their daughters to read and monitor each other’ with their costume choices (47). Schreiner contrasts the communal activity of sewing, a site in which women’s gossip–another fabrication–constructs and reconstructs female character with a woman’s solitary sewing that ‘provides a quiet space for philosophical reflection’ (50). The binaries of women’s self-expression appear in the story’s two sisters: Bertie, passionate about fashion and her artistry with the needle; and her sister, Rebekah, intellectually inspired and bookish. Both women sew, but while Bertie becomes the fallen woman Victorian social discourse about sewing condemned, Rebekah discovers domestic needlework cultivates an ‘active inactivity’ for her own thoughts (50). Rebekah can ‘communicate in more than one language, in more than one art form’; she portrays an ‘embodied multiplicity’ not unlike Schreiner herself (53). However, From Man to Man’s sewing motif faults a society in which the ‘traditional elements of Victorian womanly education–good looks, proper manners, docility, expert needleworking [that] neither protect nor advance’ the well-being of a woman like Bertie nor acknowledge and support the intellectual pursuits of those like Rebekah. As a cultural artefact, this forty-seven-year text-in-progress by the ‘so-called first New Woman author’ (18) testifies to Schreiner’s dedication to women’s issues; however, Kortsch s motivation for threading it throughout Dress Culture warrants a stronger clarifying statement justifying its centrality.  

Chapter 3, ‘Fashioning Women: The Victorian Corset,’ argues that we cannot understand fully ‘why New Women writers dressed their protagonists as they did’ (58), without the history of this ‘highly contentious item of Victorian women’s underwear’ (19). Kortsch’s scholarly energy is at its best in this chapter, the book’s longest and most fascinating. Abundant evidence from dress styles, advertising, periodicals, photographs, sexology and medicine prove the ‘Corset Question’s’ prominence in Victorian discussions about gender. The garment’s heavy semiotic weight regarding woman’s respectability and desirability made it a fraught locus in dress reform movements: The Rational (or Hygienic or Reform) Dress movement advocated costume appropriate for women’s intellectual and physical freedoms; the Aesthetic (or Artistic) Dress movement countered mainstream fashion’s worship of machine- and mass-produced garments; the 1903 Women’s Political and Social Union relied on traditionally feminine costume to promote their radical cause at a time when, despite suffragist and dress reform activism, the tiny waist’s erotic power still dominated and tight-lacing prevailed at its most extreme. The Corset Controversy’s longevity meant that Victorian readers of New Women novels had to ‘negotiate a minefield of opinion’ (57) and authors like Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner often modified their politics to ensure commercial popularity with a middle-class female audience. A member of the Rational Dress Society, Grand believed the handmade alternative costume associated with the Pre-Raphaelites created a careless image detrimental to women’s causes. However, women’s clothing in her novel The Heavenly Twins (1893) applauds the ‘artistic taste’ (96) in the ‘sensible [dress of] progressive, intelligent, upper-class people’ (97). Similarly, Grand reworks her suffragist critique that tight-lacing symbolized women’s subjection into a practice associated with the “low classes and mass consumerism” (97). Schreiner’s From Man to Man displays similar ambivalences in Rebekah, whose secure position as an upper-class white woman sanctions her decision to stop wearing a corset, versus the ‘coloured’ South African servant women for whom the undergarment ensures both physical beauty and social respectability. Kortsch maintains corsets in New Woman novels reveal that reveal that ‘class distinctions dictate dress choices just as they determine how radical one can afford to be’ (99).

Chapter 4, ‘Art’s Labor Lost: Haunting the Dress Shop,’ argues that despite New Women novelists’ ‘innovative designs’ (140), mid-century suspicions about seamstresses remained deeply entrenched in their fiction. Margaret Oliphant confronts those attitudes in Kirsteen (1890), set in the years characterized by the ‘contentious public debate over the abuses of the sewing trade’ she had addressed in her 1858 article ‘The Condition of Women’ (105). Kirsteen’s sewing literacy evolves from embroidery that ‘communicate[s] personal desire’ to artistic dress design that lets her economically ‘thrive’ in the world (110). Oliphant highlights Kirsteen’s professional ‘autonomy and her propriety’ (113); her heroine’s successful dress shop provides a ‘female utopia in which women take leadership roles’ (134). Kirsteen’s ‘vision of professional labor’ (120) valorises a woman’s commercially successful art, a reminder of Oliphant’s own struggles with the literary trade. The chapter iterates familiar materials about the Victorian seamstress’s representations in mid-century sociology, literature and visual arts which, in addition to an overdependence on plot description, paradoxically diminishes Kortsch’s claim that Oliphant romanticizes the needlewoman to ‘extricate dressmaking from the material culture in which it was historically grounded’ (139). The chapter also summarizes Egerton’s ‘Wedlock’ and Ella Hepworth Dixon’s single novel The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) to highlight writing heroines whose semiotic acuity observing working-class women’s costume provides guilty inspiration for their literary efforts and ensures their financial (and artistic) independence.

‘Beautiful Revolution: New Women Sew a New World,’ compares Grand’s The Beth Book (1897) with Gertrude Dix’s The Image-Breakers (1900), maintaining New Woman and socialist fiction show the inseparable impulses ‘between beauty and social justice’ to be the ‘particular work of women’ (19-20). Overpowered by plot description, this fifth chapter more than justifies Grand and Dix express their political and artistic activism by portraying ‘sewing and dress culture as . . . rich, meaningful activities [that] assert the revolutionary potential of dress culture’ (141-142). Costume liberates Grand’s heroine Beth, whether it is her youthful cross-dressing or the beautiful clothes she sews in an oppressive marriage. Beth’s needlework gives her a ‘continual exaltation of spirit’ (qtd. 152), and leads to a literary calling. Grand, sceptical about aestheticism, nonetheless portrays Beth’s sewing as a rarefied craft that rejects ‘conventional embroidery patterns’ so artistic taste foreshadows when her heroine ‘rejects prevailing literary forms [and devises] her own theories regarding the novel’ (160). Kortsch augments this chapter with details in the competing roles popular Berlin needlework and art embroidery occupied in late-century material, political, and aesthetic culture. While Grand’s story lets the community of women responsible for social change be ‘progressive, well-read, artistic – and, above all, upper-class’ (169), Dix’s, with its two unmarried female protagonists, shows that the dual literacy that unites all women and makes sewing the ‘only real way of changing the world’ (176) cannot erase the ‘wide spectrum of class-based perspectives on the relationship between beauty and social activism’ (177). Artistic clothing in The Image-Breakers may suggest the ‘fashioning of a stable, independent self” (p. 171), but Dix accentuates the ‘fraught relationships’ (178) within a female community that ignored the lower class woman’s ‘need and desire to work professionally’ (172).

Without question, Dress Culture unifies and enriches an extensive scholarship on textile history, fashion, the Victorian seamstress and the New Woman novel, complicating the ‘tendency to binarise women’s experiences’ (20). Unfortunately, repetitions, overstated factual basics, and a prose whose figurative charm becomes overstuffed, often mar Dress Culture’s scholarly stringency and tone. A study this compelling deserves more meticulous copyediting since, ultimately, in reinforcing how the Victorian novel in all its variations regularly sought to address dual literacy’s centrality, Kortsch has designed a vibrant study that—like its Victorian counterpart, the crazy quilt—makes a lavish and engaging text.

Regenia Gagnier. Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859-1920. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 219 pp. ISBN: 9780230247437.

Review by Lena Wånggren, University of Edinburgh.

Regenia Gagnier’s new book Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole, 1859-1920 proves an almost overwhelming reading experience. Similar in scope to her earlier monographs Subjectivities (1991) and The Insatiability of Human Wants (2000), it offers a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary odyssey through Victorian culture to the modern day, complicating and historicising individual ideas and concepts, while still retaining a distinct focus. It is an impressive piece of academic brilliance, delightful through and through.

Gagnier takes as her starting point a quote by Havelock Ellis, who, in 1889, defined Decadence as the individuation of parts leading to the disintegration of the whole.  This relationship of part to whole, or rather the sacrifice of the whole to the development of the parts (specifically the sacrifice of the individual to the benefit of larger social units), constitutes the key tension at the end of the nineteenth century, Gagnier argues, expressing the anxiety of liberalism after a century of development.  Gagnier calls the book a ‘genealogy of liberalism’ leading from the individual in the abstract to the individual in concrete situations within the family, in communities, the state, and the world (1-2). Such a broad, simultaneously conceptualising and historicising project is made possible through Gagnier’s interdisciplinary methodology and her impressive range of primary material. Through the lens of recent scholarship in philosophy and history of science, which offers models of cooperation and altruism that are different from competitive neoliberal models, she proposes a new and more historically grounded way of studying Victorian liberalism. She follows nineteenth-century formulations of the relationship of part to whole in both science and literature, thus bridging the two disciplines without generalising or distorting ‘the speculative orgy’ of the late nineteenth century (28). In doing so, she uncovers a focus on organic interdependence and mutual relations, and also shows how the same types of ideas were present in various fields. With this ‘revolutionary understanding of evolution’ (12), Gagnier opens up a new perspective on Victorian and contemporary issues alike.

The book is divided into seven parts: an introduction, five chapters, and an appendix. In the introduction (‘Individuals-in-Relation’), Gagnier presents certain social, aesthetic, and scientific models of individualism and globalisation, and shows how these evolved from different conceptions of parts to whole. The first chapter (‘The Ironies of Western Individualism’) examines the main Victorian models of liberalism, stressing the refinement of these accounts, and functions as a basis for the rest of the book’s argument. Through attentive and nuanced close readings of primary sources, Gagnier shows how Victorian literature and biography approached the problem of the individual in social relations pluralistically, via rational, psychological, evolutionary, ethical, and political models. Having thus, in the first chapter, clarified distinctive contexts for the conceptual development of individualism, the remaining chapters discuss in more detail the specific social environments in which the individual evolved. The second chapter (‘New Women, Female Aesthetes, and Socialist Individualists: the Literature of Separateness and Solubility’) considers the Victorian models of individualism through questions of gender. The third chapter (‘Decadent Interiority and the Will’) examines Decadent individuation, interiority, and the will, exploring Decadence as entailing a falling away or a rejection that could as well be a creative repudiation.  Decadence and progress become interchangeable terms, or differently imagined relations to the whole. The fourth chapter (‘The Unclassed and the Non-Christian Roots of Philantropy’) explores Victorian cultural philanthropy through the literature of George Gissing and the case of Charles Godfrey Leland’s relation with the Gypsies. The fifth and final chapter (‘Good Europeans and Neo-liberal Cosmopolitans: Ethics and Politics in Late Victorian Cosmopolitanism’) returns to the relation between globalisation and decadence. Here Gagnier concludes with Europe as a functional relation rather than an identity, and cosmopolitanism as an inevitable progress rather than an ideal state. Gagnier here expands the fin de siècle to a global context, calling for a new cosmopolitanism that represents ‘autonomy within relationship, with mutual influence’ (137). Lastly, the appendix presents Joris-Karl Huysmans’s meditations on part and whole.

The second chapter on individualism and gender is probably of most interest to scholars of New Woman literature and readers of The Latchkey. While the New Woman is typically distinguished from the Female Aesthete by political, economic, and aesthetic agenda, Gagnier instead suggests the different formulations of the part/whole problematic as the major characteristic. By reading this literature in conjunction with feminist economics, she develops an analytic of autonomy and independence and of social will. New Women, she argues, formulate a specific relation of part to whole in their writing; they assert not independence (separation) but autonomy (individuals in relation). This distinction, Gagnier states, emerges in New Woman literature; the tension between and psychological assessment of independence and autonomy, separation and solubility, lies at the heart of New Woman literature. This is a very interesting, and attractive, analysis. However, what I find problematic is Gagnier’s gendered division of New Woman literature in the argumentation. While she presents the New Woman as a ‘term applied to self-consciously modern women at the fin de siècle’ (61), and as largely constructed in and through literature, art, and the media, she does not problematise the term further. She refers to New Woman literature, but distinguishes ‘New Women writing’ from that of ‘men writing about new women’ (63). In fact, she sees the difference between independence and autonomy as characterising texts by authors of different sexes: ‘Women-created New Women were not so rigidly independent. They wanted autonomy, individual development, but they wanted it through relationship’ (63). She takes Grant Allen as her main example of ‘men writing about women’, seeing the heroine of his 1895 novel The Woman Who Did as a typical male-created New Woman shunning all relationships. This is an unfortunate example, since many of Allen’s New Woman heroines are very unlike Herminia Barton. Furthermore, the fact that Allen published his 1897 New Woman novel The Type-Writer Girl under a female pseudonym should complicate such reasoning. This neatly gendered division of the multifaceted genre of New Woman literature must prove reductive – here, for once, Gagnier does generalise.

Gagnier has the impressive ability to cover wide areas while still retaining a tight focus; she draws daring, unexpected parallels and makes overarching arguments without generalising or ignoring details. The first and last chapters are particularly strong in this respect; here she continually draws parallels to contemporary society and culture, while stressing the importance of historicising. Gagnier’s work is truly interdisciplinary; she brings together critical and cultural theory, the sciences, historical sources as well as contemporary scholarship, and her work stretches across both linguistic and geographic borders. This simultaneous width and depth of analysis at times complicates the reading.  Gagnier also has a specific style of writing that might take some time to get into. At times there is a sense of jumping too quickly from one idea to another, with quotes left hanging, and the reader not given sufficient clues of where to go next.  Coupled with the fact that many complex ideas are at stake simultaneously, her text can be quite dense and sometimes difficult to access. However, this density might actually benefit readers, keeping us alert throughout.

Two main projects underlie Individualism, Decadence and Globalization. The first is the re-evaluation of evolution as a process of mutual interdependence, not merely competition. This, Gagnier explains, ‘might liberate us from the rigidities of social Darwinism and competitive individualism and revive Victorian pluralism’ (15).  Her attentive re-reading of Darwinism and Victorian sciences, which leads to a critique of neo-liberal misconceptions of the same, is absolutely stunning. The second is a call for more global perspectives on Decadence, for exploring how non-western cultures perceived the problematic tensions between part and whole. These two projects are tied together neatly in the final chapter: through a new form of cosmopolitanism we could ‘give up modern market notions of individualism that see it as unimpeded personal sovereignty’ (150), notions structured around neo-liberal misreadings of Victorian formulations of the relationship of part to whole. Gagnier states that what began as a study of individualism indeed ‘ended as a study of relationship and environment’ (vii). With her study she wants to ‘keep alive models of freedom that are not confined to free markets, choice that is more than consumer choice, liberalism that is not neo-liberalism, and an individualism that is more than the maximization of self-interest’ (163). Gagnier’s latest book is thus not only an outstanding work of academic excellence, highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary and attentive intellectual research. I read it also as a sharp and inspiring insertion in a political debate.

While Individualism, Decadence, and Globalization focuses on the late nineteenth century, I have found myself recommending it to friends and colleagues working across various fields and in different periods. Gagnier’s interdisciplinary, impressively wide-ranging, and nuanced study of Victorian literature, culture, and science, with its implications in contemporary society, is an indispensable work for scholars across many disciplines.