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‘Trained to Perfection in the Lax Morals and Prurient Literature of My Day’: The Metafictional New Woman and Her Readers

By Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton, Canterbury Christ Church University

When popular male writers such as Charles Dickens wanted to tell the story of their own lives, it was seen as natural enough for them to fictionalise their development through the use of first person narrators who themselves become writers. But David Copperfield (1850), to use Dickens’s most famous example, is primarily concerned with the personal development of the eponymous hero, rather than with what he actually writes towards the end of his fictional autobiography. In the final chapters, the determined rise of the central character to middle class respectability mirrors and propels his ultimate success as an inspired but painstaking man of letters.  While his writing itself is only discussed in the vaguest terms, the reader is left in no doubt as to the nature of his achievement. As a gratified David learns that his first book has been a hit with readers and reviewers alike, the reader is encouraged to interpret this triumph as a testament to his earnestness and determination. That he combines this success with marriage to Agnes in the final pages is presented as a fitting outcome to his story.

Women authors of the nineteenth century were necessarily in a different position. Not only was any attempt to combine marriage and a literary vocation open to question; they lived in a society that continued to problematise their desired identity as both respectable and artistically credible. Linda Peterson has recently complicated the assumption that female writers were unable to attain the full professional status of their male counterparts, arguing that ‘nineteenth-century women’s myths were more enabling than disabling, and that they allowed women writers to claim new territories of endeavour and high achievement for their work’ (Peterson 10). Nonetheless, she crucially notes that ‘[b]y the end of the nineteenth-century, a duality… splits not the “proper lady” from the “woman writer”… but the popular writer from the high-art woman of letters’ (11).

If contemporary criticism insisted on the polarity between popular and serious fiction, this judgement could itself be heavily informed by gender codes. By the 1890s, female writers were under inevitable pressure to place themselves in relation to the New Woman debate through their representation of both themselves and their characters. Sarah Grand’s Ideala (1888) satirises precisely such codification of women’s writing through the heroine’s rewriting of an erotic poem about a married woman’s love for a priest that finally leads to the suicide of the pair. Objecting to the immoral tone of ‘The Passion of Delysle,’ Ideala makes a bet that she can produce a more elevating version of the story, only to be confronted with a patronising dismissal of the feminine intellect from one of the men present, ‘though I don't think much of either of them, personally I prefer “Delysle.” The other is wholesomer, doubtless, for those who like a mild diet. Milk and water doesn't agree with me’ (Ideala 62). The irony of the incident hinges on the later revelation that Ideala herself is the author of both versions.

While male authors might struggle to define themselves as serious despite hefty sales (the humorous successes of Jerome K. Jerome in the 1880s and 90s left him particularly vulnerable to assumptions about the nature and value of his work), women writers faced a particularly difficult set of assumptions. The critical reception of mid-century sensation writers such as Mary Braddon shows that popularity with readers could all too easily lead the critics to dismiss even a non-humorous novel as ephemeral.  Conversely, politically motivated feminists were accused of ‘preaching’ at their readers rather than entertaining them. But the double-edged sword is nowhere more apparent than in the dilemma of a writer like Dorigen Gower, a character in Mary Linksill’s 1886 The Haven Under the Hill, who is set to become a credible woman of letters after the publication of her first volume of poetry, but turns to fiction (a lesser form, in her eyes) in order to support her demanding stepmother and her two daughters. Convinced that a sacrifice is demanded of her, she burns her masterpiece, a verse autobiography, because, the narrative suggests, to follow a recognised vocation is selfish for a woman in her position.

To produce commercial fiction, on the other hand, is of course equally unwomanly. As in male-authored novels, readers rarely gain direct access to a fictional writer’s text (Ideala stands as an exception, but is also an amateur), and so we cannot judge by standards other than the narrator’s own. Nonetheless, the real female author behind the fictional genius was subject to the often hostile judgements of a watchful press. Specifically, Marion Shaw and Lyssa Randolph note ‘the prevailing cultural equation of an inauthentic mass culture with women’ (Shaw and Randolph 22). Michelle Tusan has shown that in answer to this assumption, the first representation of the New Woman, in The Woman’s Herald in 1893, ‘represented feminists’ utopian vision of the model social reformer. Her interest in politics and social justice, however, were not represented as a challenge to her dedication to the home, but rather were depicted as an extension of her domestic duties’ (Tusan 170). Despite what seems in retrospect to have been a fairly modest stance, the figure of the modern or emancipated woman quickly splintered in the mainstream press into the now familiar images of the mannish harpy, the over-educated hysteric, and the anarchic would-be despoiler of the middle-class home. Creating a focus for these intersecting and competing interpretations, New Woman writers from the mid-1890s onwards inevitably work within the context of the 1894 debate between Sarah Grand and Ouida. They cannot escape the knowledge that they are a focus of literary controversy, specifically with regard to what they can write and why they might choose to do so.  As Tusan points out in her discussion of periodical debates in women’s and mainstream periodicals, ‘an identity for the New Woman emerged out of the negotiations that took place in such public exchanges’ (Tusan 172). Many of these exchanges focused specifically on the representation of the modern woman in fiction.

For these reasons women writers may focus on the nature of their fictional writers’ work in ways that male authors do not. Unquestionably, ‘[p]ortraits of female genius were important to counter the prevailing status reserved for literary men; in this way they marked themselves out as leaders and innovators in the society, a national contribution beyond their progenitive role’ (Shaw and Randolph 39). Nonetheless, the fictional woman genius inevitably confronts the cultural tradition that she is, in some sense, aberrant; she must either fail outright or justify her place in the professional world of contracts and well-placed reviews. For women writers the dilemma is pressing, as the accusations of inappropriate subject matter force them to place themselves in relation to the literary market – for male writers, success is to be celebrated; for New Woman writers, it is implicitly suspect and must be defended. This article seeks to examine the different ways in which late Victorian women writers negotiate the fractured model of domestic versus New Woman and commercial versus serious fiction through their metatextual depiction of women writers and readers.

Notably, many late Victorian novels continue to use the traditional strategy of splitting characteristics between female characters familiar to an audience brought up on sensation novels such as The Woman in White (1860).  This strategy may be either subversive, as in Collins’s work, or more conservative, as rebellious women characters are dismissed or awarded a fictional punishment. The highly popular Marie Corelli places herself firmly within this tradition of good versus bad woman, assimilating and responding to the literary tropes she ironically presents as forbidden for a woman to know. Tusan suggests that ‘[t]he New Woman debate peaked in the popular press in 1895’ (175), the year that saw the publication of The Sorrows of Satan (1895). In this conservative but titillating account, the corrupt Sybil Elton is found on her honeymoon to be a wanton, skilled in the arts of pleasing men, but her deathbed confession makes it clear that this sexual aptitude has been learned purely from the reading of scandalous literature. In this formulation, the female reader of advanced literature is both product and advertisement, in addition to fulfilling her more obvious function as consumer. Margaret D. Stetz notes that ‘women were featured prominently in campaigns to promote the sales of books and periodicals’ during the fin de siècle (Stetz 26), and throughout The Sorrows of Satan Sibyl is paraded to the reader as a beautiful and sexually alluring woman of the world. In one scene Geoffrey significantly admires her ‘points’ over breakfast much as he might gaze at the glamorous photographs of female authors in the literary journals.

Before her marriage, Sibyl confronts her astonished fiancé with the revelation that she is not a virtuous ingénue, demanding:

do you think a girl can read the books that are now freely published... and yet remain   unspoilt and innocent? Books that go into the details of the lives of outcasts? – that explain and analyse the secret vices of men? – that advocate almost as a sacred duty ‘free love’ and universal polygamy?  – that see no shame in introducing into the circles of good wives and pure-minded girls, a heroine who boldly seeks out a man, any man, in order that she may have a child by him, without the ‘degradation’ of marrying him? (The Sorrows of Satan 146)

In both Sybil’s and the narrator’s formulation all New Woman fiction can be categorised as promoting free love and polygamy, an assumption that slides somewhat wildly into what is presumably an attack on Grand’s social purity stance as simply an excuse to discuss ‘the secret vices of men.’ Describing herself in the familiar terms of the fallen woman, Sybil apparently sees herself as having metaphorically lost her virginity simply by her knowledge of a particular form of literature: ‘I am a contaminated creature, trained to perfection in the lax morals and prurient literature of my day’ (The Sorrows of Satan 147). Her own sole text in the novel will be a dying confession, expressing remorse for her pursuit of illicit knowledge, before she is dragged down to Hell in a climactic scene reminiscent of the Faust legend.

If the widely different positions of New Woman novels can be merged in this rhetorical attack, a metatextual space is created for the type of fiction Corelli does value to stand as a corrective. Mavis Clare, whose unmarried state and insistence on the importance of her work leaves her in imminent peril of being dubbed a New Woman, is carefully quarantined from Sibyl’s usual fiction by Sybil herself: ‘You wonder at my fanaticism for Mavis Clare, - it is only because for a time her books give me back my self-respect’(146). Significantly, Mavis is the only character in the novel to reject Rimanez/Satan from the outset, thus signalling her own status as an angel on earth and gesturing towards his final redemption. Of course, this is the womanly model also deployed by openly feminist writers such as Grand. As Tusan argues, ‘[i]t is important to note that the domestic ideal of the New Woman was not just created for feminist consumption by the periodical press, but was the product of both reader response and reader opinion.’ (178). This is a point that Corelli ignores altogether in her binary model of independent but domestic, versus depraved and new, womanhood.

Moreover, this location of literary virtue in the ‘womanly’ Mavis Clare is itself disingenuous. As Philip Waller notes of Corelli’s strategy elsewhere, ‘[w]hile deploring what she called the modern sex novel, Corelli saturated her own with a copious romanticism and emotional intensity which sanctified the erotic’ (Waller 806-7). Corelli was notoriously aware of, and determined to, exploit her eminent position in the literary marketplace. One strategy in The Sorrows of Satan designed to appeal to the reader of modern literature is precisely the redeployment of the very tropes the narrator openly condemns. As Chris Willis tellingly observes,

People who would not normally buy New Woman fiction bought ... romantic novels which featured New Woman protagonists. These novels were not necessarily written by supporters of the women’s movement; the New Woman had become a marketable novelty figure whose presence in a story increased its chance of good sales. ... By taking her positive attributes of physical and mental health, and allying these with the traditional heroine’s attributes of youth and beauty, authors were able to create an attractive heroine who was thoroughly modern and topical. (Willis 64)

This description of the New Woman heroine of commercial fiction is an accurate characterisation of Mavis Clare in all but name. Pretty without being seductively beautiful, Mavis notably devotes her mornings to work and her afternoons to her garden and other pursuits because she refuses to sacrifice either her physical or her mental well-being to literary success.

Netta Syrett’s Nobody’s Fault (1896) likewise features the woman writer as a key moral figure, but of precisely the type to which Corelli objects. Syrett is aware of the dubious status of women writers as well as their struggle to live, having herself combined teaching with a literary career, as she shows Bridget is planning to do. Stetz observes that women were far less likely to obtain paid work as publishers’ readers, and Syrett’s was therefore

a divided life, split between the conventional and respectable role for middle-class ladies of the schoolteacher and the more suspect identity of female author. It was also a physically taxing and demanding existence, requiring her constantly to shift gears and to travel across London, as she fulfilled her many obligations to pupils at several different institutions, while still turning out manuscripts and doing the socialising required of an author who wished to stay connected to literary circles. (Stetz 124)

In her fictional account of social alienation and economic necessity, Syrett subtly deploys and complicates binary oppositions in the portrayal of women through the friendship of a liberal but respectable middle-class woman, Helen Mansfield, for the maverick Bridget Ruan, the agnostic daughter of a wealthy publican. Withstanding the pressure to define herself exclusively in terms of recognisable images of the New Woman as intellectual, sexually emancipated or a devotee of her art, Bridget consciously inhabits or rejects all of these subject positions at different times. Notably, she insists on the value of experience even over the kind of education that her real-life feminist counterparts had fought so hard to attain. Bridget is decidedly intellectual, reading higher criticism and advanced literature. But in response to her friend Miss Miles’s advocacy of a Girton education and the society of advanced women such as Miss Fawcett, she protests, ‘I like my work; but it isn’t all my life. ... Because I’m a teacher, am I to cease to be a woman?’ (Nobody’s Fault 109). Refusing to ally herself with what she sees as the arid learning of the ‘Girton Girl,’ Bridget nonetheless combatively defines herself as both a writer and a (new) woman, in the tradition effortlessly referenced by David Copperfield in his own case.

In keeping with this insistence on the right to complex and fluid identity, the central female characters in the novel are different but complementary rather than oppositional. While Helen’s fiancé Trelawney expresses relief that despite Helen’s liberal attitudes she is ‘not one of the sisterhood... thank heaven!’, his more perceptive friend Carey corrects him, ‘She is – and a particularly engaging member’ (167). When Bridget separates from her insupportable husband, who has been repeatedly unfaithful and, more serious yet, crushed her writing career, she turns to Carey, who had been one of the first to encourage her writing before her disastrous marriage.

What emerges from this fictional representation is a deliberate refusal to categorise the New Woman in terms of the available stereotypes being peddled by either side. Rather, the novel’s readers are encouraged to engage with the possibilities and contradictoriness of late-century feminist thought (the orthodox Christian Helen is prepared to countenance Bridget’s proposed elopement with Carey, a position abandoned by Bridget herself only from a sense of responsibility to her mother). Where Syrett differs from Dickens is in her realisation that the very ideals she promotes are subject to opposition and repression simply because her writer heroine is a woman. At the end of the novel, Bridget’s success is predicted by the loyal Helen, but not seen by the reader. In the final line of the book she signals her readiness to return to a life of domestic misery, in which the room of her own will become a prison, ‘rooms for mother and me’ (Nobody’s Fault 254). This bleak anti-climax understandably leads Ann Heilmann to conclude, ‘[h]er life is punctuated by a sequence of spatial expansions followed by setbacks which lead to an ever more rigid confinement to conventionally defined feminine spaces’ (Heilmann 181). In this interpretation, the novel argues for the emancipation of its heroine only to register her ultimate failure.

In Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage, the narrative is, at first sight, more conservative, adhering to the convention that follows either the personal experience of the heroine or her identity as a writer, but not both at once. In the year that Cholmondeley was finishing Red Pottage, the writer Gertrude Atherton affirmed that

[i]f a woman deliberately goes in for a career, and her gifts and her ambitions are both above the average, she certainly should make up her mind to stand alone. Women are still too concentrative to do two things well. ...when one mounts to the plane of Art the questions of sex and of the ego cease to exist, and if a woman has made up her mind to train her gifts to the highest perfection, and to rise to the first rank, then she must leave personal happiness to other people, and concentrate every faculty upon the extreme development of the one which carries ambition with it. (202)

In the dual focus of the novel, the writer Hester Gresley is imaginative and remains unmarried, while her counterpart Rachel West is essentially practical and driven by her love for a series of male suitors. While Hester, like Rachel, has been the object of numerous marriage proposals in her youth, ‘one so brilliant that no woman ever believed that it was really made’ (Red Pottage 32), each character has her designated role in the novel and neither impinges on the special province of the other. However, in a significant link with Nobody’s Fault, both characters are identifiable as New Women and are themselves connected, both through their friendship and through parallel moral trials. For instance, Rachel must resist the attempted seduction of her lover, the would-be writer Mr Tristram, just as Hester must reject the public demand for salacious plotlines in her writing.

It is through Rachel that the reader first sees the value of Hester’s debut novel, An Idyll of East London, inspired by her observation of Rachel’s impoverished existence in Museum Buildings. Like Corelli, Cholmondeley offers a debate on the nature and quality of women’s writing through a dinner party discussion between a society hostess, a stereotypical New Woman, 1 and a male writer of presumably titillating fiction– Mr. Harvey is the author of a novel called Unashamed and ‘does not spare the reader anything, he thinks it wrong to leave out anything’ (Red Pottage 144). It is the identification with this type of writing that Hester repeatedly disavows, as her clergyman brother James tells his wife:

I told her that I well knew that to meet the public taste it was necessary to interlard fiction with risqué things in order to make it sell, but that it was my earnest hope she would in future resist this temptation. She only said that if she introduced improprieties into her book in order to make money, in her opinion she deserved to be whipped in the public streets. She was very angry, I remember, and became as white as a sheet. (Red Pottage 263-4)

Stetz confirms that pressure was put on women to write less intellectual books than Hester has clearly perpetrated, ‘In the sphere of fiction-writing, women were much more likely than men to be relegated to less prestigious niche markets and, in particular, urged to target their efforts to the lists of juvenile literature.’ (Stetz 125) Sure enough, in Red Pottage, the liberal-minded Bishop remarks wryly that Gresley and his set would be quite happy to accept Hester’s genius if she would only write ‘goody goody books,’ thus allying current publishing practices with parochial narrow-mindedness (Red Pottage 87).

At the end of the novel, the manuscript of Hester’s second book is catastrophically burned by her censorious brother, whose arrogation of moral judgement has been repeatedly undermined by the narrator in the preceding chapters. Like Bridget Ruan, Hester is a writer by temperament whose initial success is frustrated by a repressive male figure; while the narrator predicts that she will go on to write further novels, the reader never has the satisfaction of seeing this.

In both Nobody’s Fault and Red Pottage, the lack of certainty about the writer heroine’s literary career would initially imply a certain veiled pessimism on the part of the narrators themselves. While each fictional writer is the subject of much speculation on the part of other characters, who in each case predict an enormous future success, the actual plots of these novels hinge on the hindrance or destruction of the women’s writing. Heilmann suggests:

It seems that once her creativity has materialized into a visible product, the woman artist fades into nothingness; and conversely, that her continued presence results in the loss of her work. Since ‘woman’ and ‘art’ cannot coexist, either she herself or her work must disappear. Thus, while they were successfully creating artistic space for themselves, feminist writers frequently saw the essence of the woman artist’s position in the world as residing in her very absence from it. (157)

Such records of loss, however, also may serve a more positive, if less obvious, end in the presentation of the New Woman writer. As I have argued elsewhere, the burning of Hester’s novel both distracts the reader’s attention from her transgressive imperative to self-destruction (the vampiristic book is literally killing her); it also justifies an otherwise unwarranted expression of her frustration in her attack on Regie. 2 Paradoxically, the very failure of Bridget and Hester to produce a bestselling novel also links them to Corelli’s presentation of the pure-minded Mavis Clare. In each case, the fictional writer heroine is presented as having a quasi-religious or intensely felt literary vocation that justifies her pursuit of a writing career. However, all three novels face the same dilemma: if public success is arguably the province of ‘shocking’ or lascivious fiction, how else can a writer’s credibility be ascertained?

All too often women writers found themselves the focus of a debate in which they had limited power to intervene. As Stetz observes,

[g]reat ironies attended the situation of the fin de siècle woman writer. ... The contradiction was clear and unarguable: women authors frequently were excluded or marginalised in the upper echelons of print production, particularly at the decision-making level, at the same time that they were welcomed everywhere as a topic of controversy. (Stetz 25-26)

In Corelli’s account, critical hostility is a sign of jealousy rather than discernment. Despite her enormous popularity with readers, Mavis is continually attacked in the press, a situation that the narrator uses to ‘prove’ the instinctive appreciation of the public for great art, as opposed to the incompetence of the professional critic. That the same could also be said of New Woman fiction is an irony that Corelli chooses to ignore. A paradox that she does insist on is the distance of her ideal author from the lure of financial reward. While Mavis is a bestselling author, she does not earn more than enough to live on comfortably, suggesting that her consciousness of filling a public need is not compromised by too much awareness of her place in a commercial market. Mavis’s unworldliness and humility are at odds with Corelli’s own ‘self-belief amounting to mania’ (Waller 812); again, where the fictional writer wins unaided success in the face of Geoffrey’s much ‘puffed’ novel, Corelli herself was not taking any chances. Waller notes that in 1904 Methuen would use precisely the strategies to promote her new novel that she had so heavily satirised in The Sorrows of Satan nine years earlier (Waller 774).

Netta Syrett’s stance, like Corelli’s, is based on difference from a group with whom her work might otherwise be associated. Despite her own association with decadence (Aubrey Beardsley actually provided the cover illustration for the first edition), Nobody’s Fault systematically distances itself from decadent literature. Sally Ledger explains that

‘[a]lthough ideologically they had surprisingly little in common, ... the New Woman and the decadents of the fin de siècle were repeatedly lumped together in the flourishing periodical press of the 1890s’ (Ledger 94). Or, as Linda Dowling pithily expresses it, ‘[t]o most late Victorians the decadent was new and the New Woman decadent’ (Dowling 436). Specifically, both groups were associated with the rejection of sexual and cultural control.

Like the decadent, the heroine of New Woman fiction expressed her quarrel with Victorian culture chiefly through sexual means – by heightening sexual consciousness, candor, and expressiveness. It was this fundamental kinship that suggested all the other similarities so frequently described by late-Victorian critics of literary decadence and New Woman fiction. (Dowling 441)

This was not an association the New Woman would necessarily welcome. In fact, by the 1890s, such a decadent stance could prove immensely useful to the woman writer for defining what the notoriously slippery New Woman was not. Shaw and Randolph point out that a number of New Woman writers (including Sarah Grand) were self-consciously opposed to the influence of decadence and naturalism on modern literature, as ‘[t]he cultural invasion of these forms in the English literary marketplace constitutes a threat of contamination to the purity of the English novel promised by feminist writers’ (Shaw and Randolph 28).

Where Corelli’s method was a deliberate exculpation of her own art at the expense of New Woman fiction, in Nobody’s Fault, Bridget’s writing is deliberately set against decadence rather than New Woman literature. She is first seen after her marriage deploying the cynical jargon of her husband’s dilettante circle as a defence against being known by them. Even here her language is satirical: ‘[g]o out, and show them the beauty of sinfulness – it used to be holiness, you know – but what’s in a name?’ (Nobody’s Fault 148). She is later seen as resuming her ‘true self’ with the shedding of this type of elegant but amoral language.

But this dilettantism is not purely the reserve of the male poseurs she meets through her husband. A few feet away from this conversation a disapproving Carey listens ‘to the confidences of a Miss Yorke-Woodville, who was confiding to him her burning desire to write a novel’ (Nobody’s Fault 148). Ironically, this moment echoes the initial meeting between Carey and Bridget, whom he had encouraged to write for the literary periodicals. Bridget is implicitly challenged to distance herself both from the empty phrase making of her decadent acquaintance and the gushing ineptitude of society women who take up writing purely as a new fashion. That the two conversations take place in tandem may not be coincidence. As Dowling points out,

many late Victorians felt that women readers, particularly young women, were especially vulnerable to the unwholesome influences found equally in New Woman fiction and literary decadence. At best only half educated, women would undoubtedly pursue the literary fashion... with the same heedless self-indulgence with which an earlier generation had followed Parisian bonnets. (Dowling 444)

The stakes are high, and Bridget cannot be allowed to write at all as long as she is moving in decadent circles.

In the first chapter, used by the narrator to frames these later scenes, a critic who had predicted great things of her as a girl is relieved to find that she has written ‘a book that interested me. ... It was a woman’s book, not the usual woman’s novel with a capital W, though, Heaven be praised’ (Nobody’s Fault 2). Precisely what a woman’s book ‘with a capital W’ might be is never clarified, leaving the reader to imagine either that this comment refers to mid-century domestic realism, or conversely that the capitalised letter represents a code for ‘New Woman.’ In fact, the critical terms used to discuss Bridget’s first stories suggest that they probably are identified in the press as being New Woman. Her husband’s cruel dismissal of her talent frames the quotation of her early reviews, thus deflecting their power and significance

from what I remember of them the stories were entirely free from any taint of literary quality whatever. But they were described, I think, as powerful and vital – full of human interest, weren’t they? (Nobody’s Fault 157)

More importantly, Bridget has first been seen writing realist satire while still at school, evidence that her drive to publication is based on genuine artistic imperatives and not on any desire to cash in on a new market. At the end of the novel, when she renounces a life with Carey in order to sustain her widowed mother, she tells him that she will teach in the mornings and write in the afternoons, a subtle indication that she does not expect her books alone to guarantee her an income. In other words, she will not write on order for the paying market.

Cholmondeley is also faced with this problem for Hester, whose payment for her work is carefully noted by her resentful brother (£100 for The Idyll and £1000 for the ill fated Husks, the contracted payment for Cholmondeley’s own Red Pottage). After her death, both Percy Lubbock and her agent Curtis Brown insisted that Cholmondeley was not motivated by fame or financial reward, a claim that reveals their protective attitude towards their old friend, but has little basis in fact. While Cholmondeley was primarily delighted with the wide readership she attained for the first time with Red Pottage, she was furious that her publisher had refused her request for a separate clause in the contract relating to the US rights, an omission that she estimated had cost her somewhere in the region of £5000 (MS diary, 24 October 1900). In the novel, Hester does not deny that she welcomes fame and success, although she says of her lost novel, ‘I loved it for itself, not for anything it was to bring me. ... It was part of myself. But it was the better part. The side of me which loves success ... had no hand in it. My one prayer was that I might be worthy to write it, that it might not suffer by contact with me’ (Red Pottage 335).

In their metafictional response to the literary climate in which they find themselves following the Grand/Ouida showdown of 1894, Corelli, Syrett and Cholmondeley create startlingly different images of the ideal woman writer. For Corelli, only a modest cottage with a suitably tended garden is sufficient safeguard against a loss of femininity, although Mavis Clare is somewhat cagey in her assurance that she can wait to find her soul mate in heaven (as an orthodox Christian she would be familiar with the idea that there is no giving in marriage in Heaven). Such subtle questioning of the domestic role of women brings Mavis close to the ethereal but determinedly single status of Hester Gresley, and it is worth bearing in mind the caveat of Philip Waller.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of feminism within which an independent woman such as Corelli snugly settles. On the franchise question, one litmus test, she excluded herself from the reckoning .... On other points of philosophy she differed too; yet she was no self-effacing female of the conventional kind, and in her criticisms of contemporary marriage customs or her protests against the double standards and legal disabilities inhibiting women’s full development, she evinced many similarities with feminist activists of the period. (809-10)

Syrett gives Bridget Ruan precisely the sort of fictional existence that Corelli denigrates in the imagined reading of Sybil Elton. She leaves her deeply unpleasant husband in a bid to preserve her self-respect, and only refuses to elope with a more suitable lover to avoid hurting what she sees as her mother’s social prejudice.

In contrast, Cholmondeley’s Hester Gresley is a social purist who reacts with fury to her brother’s accusation that she has put improper scenes into her work to make it sell. The purity of her own work is implicitly contrasted to the cynical eroticism of Mr Harvey’s Unashamed. Nor is she a prude, however, considering that Mr Tristram’s betrayal of Rachel has made her more sympathetic rather than compromising her innocence.

But principled differences notwithstanding, all three writers have to negotiate the tension between the inner assurance of a literary vocation and the public success that would simultaneously justify and undermine it. Highly conservative while also famously populist, Corelli deals with this dilemma through the traditional strategy of splitting, making the ‘good’ writer Mavis Clare a corrective to the supposed immorality and commercialism of New Woman literature, and so making sure that Corelli herself is not associated with it. For Syrett and Cholmondeley, on the other hand, any attack on contemporary women writers is seen as damaging to their own cause. Even though both openly blame male decadent writers (Trelawney and Mr Harvey respectively) for a betrayal of the literary vocation, neither is prepared to exculpate her woman writer heroine by directly attacking New Woman fiction. In Cholmondeley’s dramatic account, indeed, she would rather see a feminist masterpiece burned than let its author disavow it.

 Works Cited

Atherton, Gertrude. ‘Does Marriage Hinder a Woman’s Self-Development?’.  A New Woman Reader. Ed. Carolyn Christensen Nelson. Hertfordshire: Broadview, 2001.  202-3.
Cholmondeley, Mary. Red Pottage. London: Virago, 1985.
Corelli, Marie. The Sorrows of Satan. Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008.
Dowling, Linda. ‘The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890s’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33 (1979): 434-53.
Grand, Sarah. Ideala. Kansas City: Valancourt, 2008.
Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997.
Linda Peterson. Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2009.
Shaw, Marion and Lyssa Randolph. New Woman Writers of the Late Nineteenth Century. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2007.
Shefrin, Jill. ‘Syrett, Janet (Netta).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP. 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2010
Stetz, Margaret D. ‘Publishing industries and practices.’ The Cambridge Companion to The Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.113-30.
Syrett, Netta. Nobody’s Fault. London: John Lane, 1896.
Tusan, Michelle Elizabeth. ‘Inventing the New Woman: Print Culture and Identity Politics during the Fin-de-Siecle.’ Victorian Periodicals Review 31 (1998): 169-82.
Waller, Philip. Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870  – 1918. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
Willis, Chris. ‘Heaven defend me from political or highly-educated women!’: Packaging the New Woman for Mass Consumption.’ The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin de Siècle Feminisms. Ed. Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.


1 For a discussion of Miss Barker as a representative of the ‘wrong’ kind of New Woman, see SueAnn Schatz, ‘How to be a Feminist without Saying So: The New Woman and the New Man in Red Pottage,’ Mary Cholmondeley Reconsidered, ed. Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton and SueAnn Schatz (London: Pickering & Chatto 2009), 25-36.

2 For my discussion of these alternative functions of the bonfire, see ‘”The Shadow Which I Call Pain”: Mary Cholmondeley and the Dilemma of Bodily Weakness,’ Life Writing 7 (2009): 303-312;  also ‘Child Sacrifice and the Crisis of Gender in Mary Cholmondeley’s Major Fiction,’ English Literature in Transition 1880 – 1920 53 (2010): 204-218.