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Part I - Victorian women writers’ careers

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2015

Linda H. Peterson
Yale University, Connecticut


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

1 Making a debut

Alexis Easley
In Calamities of Authors (1812), Isaac Disraeli writes, “Of all the sorrows in which the female character may participate, there are few more affecting than that of an Authoress.”1 Throughout the century, it was challenging for women to find success in a male-dominated literary marketplace. Women who chose the literary life often faced social censure, received substandard pay, and fell subject to a critical double standard. As a result ofseparate spheres ideology, it was difficult for women to gain access to masculine social and professional networks. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, women’s opportunities in the literary marketplace seemed to have improved. Between 1871 and 1891, the number of women listing themselves as authors on the census increased from 255 to 660.2 As a writer for All the Year Round put it in 1889,

Do but think how, with the spread of elementary education, and the growth of the press, the field for writers has been enlarged since Isaac Disraeli’s time. … And in no particular is the revolution more strongly foreshadowed than in the prevailing multitude of women who, by means of their pens, disseminate the influence of their minds over all the civilised parts of the globe.3

Many Victorian women writers began their careers by publishing a novel or poetry collection in book form. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61), for example, began her literary career at age eleven by writing a Homeric epic, The Battle of Marathon, a poem privately printed by her father three years later. Likewise, Christina Rossetti (1830–94) wrote her first poem at age twelve, and her first collection, Verses: Dedicated to Her Mother, was privately published by her grandfather when she was just seventeen. Both poets’ entry into the literary field was made possible by their precocious, exceptional talent, which was then authorized and enabled by patriarchal authority. Supportive family contexts enabled both writers to define themselves as writers during a time when few middle-class women were encouraged to pursue work beyond the domestic sphere.

The publication of privately printed collections had the effect of nurturing youthful talent, but it did not provide an opportunity for either poet to write for a public audience. As Margaret Forster puts it, Barrett Browning at age twenty-one found herself “stuck in Hope End in out-of-the-way Herefordshire [where] she had no chance of coming into contact with any poets of her generation. … It was through publication in London literary magazines and newspapers that she knew she could catch the eye of other poets and those appreciative of ‘true’ poetry.”4 The appearance of her first poems in the New Monthly Magazine in 1821 provided much-needed affirmation. Likewise, Rossetti found a public voice as a contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite journal the Germ, founded by her brother Gabriel and his artistic collaborators. Although Barrett Browning published her first poems anonymously and Rossetti adopted a pseudonym, their entry into the public world of print represented an important first step in their careers as writers, leading ultimately, in both cases, to their high-profile status as celebrity poets.

Margaret Oliphant (1828–97) also began writing at a young age, composing her first novel Christian Melville at age sixteen. Unlike Barrett Browning and Rossetti, she claimed to have fallen into writing almost by accident, taking up the craft merely because she “had no liking then for needlework” and had to “secure some amusement and occupation” while tending her mother during an illness.5 Such a self-effacing explanation does not square with the facts of Oliphant’s early career, which demonstrate her seriousness and ambition as a writer. At age twenty-one, she published her first novel, Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland (1849); after placing several additional novels with London publishers, she sold Katie Stewart (1852), a serial novel, to Blackwood’s Magazine. This eventually led to her influential role as a regular reviewer for the magazine, a career that spanned forty-five years. For Oliphant, as for many other women writers, networking was essential for gaining a foothold in the literary marketplace.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s (1810–65) entry into the world of print vividly illustrates the benefit of networking for a novice woman writer. In 1838, Gaskell sent an unsolicited travel sketch, “Clopton Hall,” to William and Mary Howitt, who accepted it for publication in Visits to Remarkable Places (1840). Seven years later, the Howitts published Gaskell’s first work of fiction, “Life in Manchester: Libby Marsh’s Three Eras,” in Howitt’s Journal. Once the manuscript of Mary Barton, Gaskell’s first novel, was complete, she submitted it to a variety of publishers without success. The manuscript finally found a home when William Howitt presented it to John Forster, a reader for Chapman and Hall. Such intermediaries performed an important function for women writers, especially those, like Gaskell, who lived outside of London publishing networks.

Women who were single or otherwise free to relocate often moved to London to seek literary opportunities. For example, in 1845 Eliza Lynn Linton (1822–98), age twenty-three, persuaded her father to provide her with the funds necessary to spend a year in London writing her first novel. Later reflecting on her departure from home, Linton remarked,

My choice was made. Selfish, or only self-respecting, I took my place with Mr. Loaden in the coach which was to carry us to the railway station; and thus and for ever broke down my dependence on the old home and set my face towards the Promised Land—the land where I was to find work, fame, liberty, and happiness.6

Before departing, Linton had published two poems in Ainsworth’s Magazine, but in the city she was able to give her literary ambitions full reign. She wrote Azeth, the Egyptian (1847) and arranged to have the book published by Thomas Newby at her own expense. “London,” she later wrote, “is my Home, and there are all my best friends, my work, my Ambition, my surrounding.”7 At the termination of her year in the city, she returned home but soon made her way back to the capital, where she wrote a second novel, Amymone: A Romance in the Days of Pericles (1848), which she sold to Bentley for £100.8

As these examples illustrate, publication in periodicals and newspapers played an important role in many women’s literary careers. The expansion of the press during the nineteenth century – brought about by the spread of literacy, advances in printing technology, and the gradual elimination of taxes on print – provided a host of new venues for women writers that were often more accessible than the conventional book trade. Periodicals aimed at women and children provided particularly welcoming outlets for women’s writing. Kathryn Ledbetter notes that “while many titles confirm stereotypical domestic roles … they also aggressively examined topics such as women’s work, philanthropy, education, equality, and social issues.”9 Women further expanded their literary range by contributing to other niche-market periodicals, such as religious, philanthropic, family, and juvenile magazines.

During the early and mid-Victorian era, the convention of anonymous or pseudonymous publication adopted by most periodicals enabled many women to begin their writing careers without having to assume “feminine” identities. By contributing their work anonymously to major quarterlies and monthlies – for example, the Westminster Review, the Quarterly Review, or Blackwood’s Magazine – women could write on politics, economics, and other conventionally masculine topics, thereby extending their scope beyond traditional domains of feminine writing. George Eliot’s first prose publications, for example, appeared in a local paper, the Coventry Herald and Observer. As Fionnuala Dillane points out, writing anonymously for a newspaper owned by mentor Charles Bray provided Eliot (then Marian Evans) with a “comfortable first entry into the world of publishing” where she could experiment with narrative styles and negotiate the “relationship with her audience and her editor through her journalistic personae.”10

Anonymouspublication was also useful for women novelists because it enabled them to situate their work outside a narrowly defined feminine literary tradition. In her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856), Eliot draws attention to the critical double standard faced by women writers: “By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman’s talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point.”11 Eliot’s awareness of this double standard partly explains why she chose to assume a pseudonym when negotiating publication of her first stories in Blackwood’s Magazine and why she maintained this persona even after her identity as Marian Evans was revealed to the public.

Even though women writers employed pseudonyms defensively as a means of avoiding stereotypes associated with female authorship, some did so with a degree of playfulness. For example, when seeking a publisher for their poetry collection in 1846, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë assumed gender-neutral names – Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell – so that they could negotiate with publishers without fear of falling subject to a critical double standard. They maintained these pseudonyms when placing their novel manuscripts with publishers Thomas Newby and Smith, Elder. After the appearance of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey in 1847, there was some speculation in the press that the novels had been written by a single author. To correct this mistaken assumption, Charlotte and Anne traveled to London where they presented themselves to George Smith, publisher of Jane Eyre. In a letter to her friend Mary Taylor, Charlotte recounts the exchange that unfolded. Smith walked into the waiting room, asking,

“Did you wish to see me, Ma’am?”

“Is it Mr. Smith?” I said, looking up through my spectacles at a young, tall, gentlemanly man.

“It is.”

I then put his own letter into his hand directed to “Currer Bell.” He looked at it—then at me—again—yet again—I laughed at his queer perplexity—A recognition took place—

I gave my real name—“Miss Brontë—.”12

Such lighthearted accounts of having passed as a man but being acknowledged privately as a woman pervade many women’s autobiographical writings. In her Autobiography (1877), Harriet Martineau similarly recounts the moment when she revealed her authorial identity to her brother. In 1829, she published her first article in the Monthly Repository signed only with the letter “V.” Her elder brother soon came across the essay, reading it aloud to her and exclaiming over the work of a “new hand.” When Martineau finally admitted that she was the author of the article, her brother put his hand on her shoulder, saying, “Now, dear, leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings; and do you devote yourself to this.” Martineau later remembered how she “went home in a sort of dream, so that the squares of the pavement seemed to float before my eyes. That evening made me an authoress.”13 The sense of triumph – of being recognized as a talented author and being endorsed by benign patriarchal authority – characterizes many women’s accounts of the genesis of their writing careers.

Working-class women writers

Because working-class women writers lacked the networking opportunities available to middle- and upper-class women, they were often forced to rely on middle- and upper-class editors and patrons. As Martha Vicinus has shown, they also formed clubs and nurtured friendships with fellow working-class authors.14 Women writers benefited from the rapid expansion of cheap periodicals and newspapers aimed at a working-class audience. Magazines of popular progress such as the People’s Journal (1846–49), Howitt’s Journal (1847–49), Eliza Cook’s Journal (1849–54), and the Working-Man’s Friend and Family Instructor (1850–53) were important early outlets for working-class women writers. As Brian Maidment notes, these periodicals were “essentially literary magazines with interests in the intellectual and social progress of ‘the people,’ and in humanitarian and progressive causes.” The editors of these magazines, he adds, “saw themselves as patrons and cultural entrepreneurs of artisan literary values” yet published examples of working-class poetry and prose that “favoured the literary traditions of middle-class writing.”15

Even though magazines of popular progress may have played a censoring role, they nevertheless served as significant venues for amateur working-class writing. For example, in her mid-fiftiesScottish poet Janet Hamilton (1795–1873), wife of a shoemaker, published her first essay, “Counteracting Influences” (1850), in the Working-Man’s Friend, published by John Cassell. She had originally submitted this pro-temperance essay to a competition sponsored by the magazine, which offered prizes to working-class entrants whose works were selected for publication. However, as an editorial note appended to the essay made clear, the contribution “from a Working Man’s Wife, was intended to have been inserted in our Supplementary Number; but our communications for that number were so numerous from WORKING MEN themselves, that in conformity with our design, were compelled to make it give way.”16 Clearly, the magazine’s essay competition privileged male over female compositions. Nevertheless, Cassell “found a place” for Hamilton’s essay in the April issue.17 As Florence Boos points out, six of Hamilton’s essays were subsequently published in Cassell’s Literature of Working Men, making her the most frequent contributor to the series.18 Cassell also published her poems and essays in the Working-Man’s Friend and the Quiver.19 She went on to publish three volumes of poetry and prose, including Poems and Essays of a Miscellaneous Character (1863).

As Hamilton’s example illustrates, working-class women writers depended on the sponsorship of editors dedicated to the “improvement” of the working classes. Cassell, like many other editors of popular education periodicals, believed that creative writing was a healthy intellectual pursuit for working-class operatives. When introducing his “Literature of Working Men” competition, Cassell noted that an “opportunity will thus be afforded to the working classes for furnishing hints and suggestions as to the improvement of their own order, whether physically, socially, or morally.”20 Unlike Cassell, who came from humble roots, most sponsors of working-class poetry were middle class. For example, in 1837 middle-class editor Christian Johnstone instituted an annual anthology of working-class poetry in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1832–61) called the “Feast of the Poets.” In her introduction to the series, Johnstone asserted that her aim was to provide space for the “modest Muse,” where the poet “may niche herself, and sing at freedom”; although most poems published in the series were signed with initials, the inclusion of the occasional female pen name – “Inez” or “Lavinia” – suggests that Johnstone’s “unpatronized genius” was sometimes a woman.21 The People’s Journal (later the People’s and Howitt’s Journal) also became an important venue for amateur working-class women poets. For example, “Marie,” a factory dye-worker, published twenty-six poems in the journal from 1846 to 1850.22 In addition, as Kirstie Blair has shown, the People’s Journal (1858–1986) and other Scottish weeklies published poetry correspondence columns that offered advice to working-class poets. These columns “functioned as a venue for the discussion of poetry submissions, regularly proffering advice on the appropriate subject matter, language, form, and style that poets should adopt if they wished their poems to be published.”23

Newspapers, like magazines of popular progress, were particularly accessible venues for aspiring working-class writers. Eliza Cook published a book of poems, Lays of a Wild Harp, in 1835, but it was not until she published her work in the Weekly Dispatch that her poetry began to receive notice. Beginning in 1836, her poems regularly appeared in the newspaper’s “Facts and Scraps” column under the initial “C” and later under the moniker “E. C.” The popularity of poems such as “The Old Armchair” led to demands for her identity to be revealed. In 1837, the “Answers to Correspondents” column released Eliza Cook’s name “in reply to a great many inquiries” and pronounced that she was a poet “destined to occupy a distinguished station among the metrical writers of our country.”24 As a contemporary biographer put it, this praise provided a catalyst for her career as a poet, giving purpose to her “burning desire to pour out [her] soul’s measure of music.”25 The fact that Cook’s poems were initially published in the “Facts and Scraps” column of the Weekly Dispatch suggests the low status often afforded to working-class poetry in newspapers; indeed, the work of most amateur poets was viewed more as filler than as valuable literary content. However, the broad circulation of newspapers like the Weekly Dispatch, which achieved a circulation of more than sixty thousand by 1840, sometimes made it possible for a poet to break out of the anonymous ranks and establish herself as a literary celebrity. Indeed, after her successful run in the Weekly Dispatch, Cook went on to produce two popular volumes, Melaia and Other Poems (1838) and Poems, Second Series (1845). After she founded her own periodical in 1849, she became a mentor to other working-class women poets such as “Marie,” who published nine poems in Eliza Cook’s Journal from 1850 to 1852.

Women and social reform

Magazines of popular progress were not only important venues for working-class women writers but for middle-class women writers as well. Three of the most significant of these periodicals – Howitt’s Journal, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, and Eliza Cook’s Journal – were edited by women and regularly included female contributors. During the early to mid-Victorian period, magazines of popular progress were thus vitally important in opening up the literary field to women. They not only incorporated conventionally feminine content such as sentimental poetry and domestic fiction but also featured articles describing women’s activism on behalf of the poor, thus providing opportunities for middle-class women to translate their philanthropic work into print. For example, the first volume of Howitt’s Journal featured “Life in Manchester: Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras” by Elizabeth Gaskell, signed poems by Mary Howitt and Anne Bartholomew, an article on working-class housing by Mary Gillies, and a short story by Mrs. Hodgson.

Eliza Meteyard (1816–79) got her start writing for magazines of popular progress. Her first publication was a novel, Scenes in the Life of an Authoress, which was serialized in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1843–44. After her father died in 1842, Meteyard relocated from Shrewsbury to London, where she met Douglas Jerrold, who suggested her pseudonym “Silverpen.” By 1845, she was publishing her work in Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper and was an active member of the Whittington Club, a self-improvement society founded in 1846 that offered educational and social opportunities to a largely lower-middle-class constituency. One of the most striking features of the club was its active incorporation of women among its membership; this provided Meteyard with valuable opportunities to network with prominent women writers such as Mary Howitt and Eliza Cook.26

Meteyard would go on to publish several books and a variety of short stories and essays, but in these early days of her career, Mary Howitt remembered her as a “poor dear soul,” who struggled to support her family by her pen:

She is sitting by me at this moment with her lips compressed, a look of abstraction in her clever but singular face, and her hair pushed back from her forehead, while she is busy over a story … Indeed, she is both father and mother to her family; yet she is only seven-and-twenty, and a fragile and delicate woman, who in ordinary circumstances would require brothers and friends to help her. How many instances one sees almost daily of the marvelous energy and high principle and self-sacrifice of woman! I am always thankful to see it, for it is in this way that women will emancipate themselves.27

For Meteyard, as for many women writers who came of age at mid-century, writing was a form of self-expression and a means of financial support. Authorship was one of very few fields of employment open to middle-class women, yet the vagaries of the literary life made it a difficult profession for women who had no other source of funding. Nevertheless, Meteyard, like many other middle-class radicals, was fueled by a passion for social reform. Magazines of popular progress thus provided both the motivation and the means for many women to enter the literary profession.

Making a debut after 1860

Beginning in the 1860s, the movement toward signed publication in the periodical press to some extent constrained the range of topics women could pursue, yet it also provided opportunities for women to engage in strategic self-marketing. For example, while early on in her career Christina Rossetti used a pseudonym or initials when publishing her work, it was not until 1861 when she began publishing signed poetry in Macmillan’s Magazine that she was able to achieve literary fame. As Jennifer Phegley has shown, Macmillan’s and other literary magazines founded in the late 1850s and 1860s were particularly supportive venues for women’s writing. These periodicals located women “firmly in the center of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace as participants in a cultural debate rather than as subjects to be debated.”28 Even though women made great strides as periodical journalists, men still outnumbered women throughout the final decades of the century. The Cornhill Magazine was particularly welcoming to women writers, yet, as Janice Harris has shown, from 1860 to 1900 women contributed only about 20 percent of its content.29 The rates of pay for journalists also tended to be lower for women than for men. Indeed, in 1891 editor W. T. Stead created a stir when he announced that the female staff of his weekly periodical, the Review of Reviews, would be paid at the same rate as male journalists.

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, women were increasingly defined as important consumers of novels, periodicals, and newspapers as well as the commercial goods featured in advertising pages. As a result, women writers were recruited in increasing numbers as producers of “feminine” content. Yet, through strategic networking, some women journalists were able to enter into traditional masculine domains. For example, with the encouragement of John Ruskin, Flora Shaw (1852–1929) began her career as a fiction writer; in the 1880s, another male mentor, George Meredith, introduced her to W. T. Stead, who employed her as a staff writer for the Pall Mall Gazette, a position that eventually led to a prestigious assignment as colonial editor of the Times, a position she held from 1893 to 1900. For the lucky few, an initiation into the workaday world of journalism sometimes led to a long-lasting and successful career.

Even though by the second half of the nineteenth century the literary field seemed more open to women than ever before, it presented a host of new challenges, especially for women novelists. As Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin demonstrate in their analysis of the Macmillan publishing archive, from 1867 to 1917 women were “edged out” of the high-culture marketplace for fiction, with men enjoying higher acceptance rates and securing more advantageous publishing contracts. They further reveal that “by the 1880s Macmillan paid men more than women—even for novels that sold as well and, within the confines of the critical double standard, were as well received.”30 When pursuing book publication, amateur women novelists first had to get past readers who provided advice to publishers on manuscript submissions. Through an analysis of publishers’ archives, John Sutherland has shown that the odds of making it beyond this first hurdle were poor. Between 1868 and 1870, Macmillan received 143 unsolicited novel manuscripts, eighty of which were explicitly known to have been written by women.31 Out of this slush pile, only six novel manuscripts were selected for publication: terrible odds indeed. Unsolicited manuscripts were the most difficult to place; women with contacts in the literary world had a much better chance of success.

On one hand, the literary marketplace at century’s end promised financial and creative freedom. As novelist Marie Corelli (1855–1924) put it, “Chiefest among the joys of the Life Literary are its splendid independence, its right of free opinion, and its ability to express that opinion.”32 On the otherhand,the publishing world was a fiercely competitive marketplace where only the most talented and stalwart could survive. Corelli warned the young woman writer to expect to “fight like the rest, unless she prefers to lie down and be walked over.”33 In the early years of her career, Corelli certainly demonstrated her willingness to fight for a place in the literary marketplace. Born Mary Mackay, in 1883 she assumed the stage name “Marie Corelli” and moved to London intent on pursuing a career as a concert pianist. She soon turned to journalism, publishing her first signed article, “One of the World’s Wonders,” in Temple Bar in 1885. As Annette Federico points out, Corelli consciously invented a fictional persona, presenting herself to George Bentley as a “Venetian” lady temporarily residing with the Mackays who “could trace her lineage back to Arcangelo Corelli.”34 Just two months after Bentley published this novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, she urged him to place an advertisement “prominently before the public, with a judicious selection of one line from the press notices.”35 As Federico demonstrates, this advanced form of self-marketing was made possible by the widespread celebrity culture at the fin de siècle, which relied on women as print consumers and as sensationalized objects of public interest.

Of course, most women writers at the fin de siècle had more difficulty finding their way in the literary marketplace. Marian Yule, a character in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), expresses the angst felt by many women writers of the period. As she sits in the British Museum Reading Room,

Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study. … She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market. What unspeakable folly!36

Gissing depicts the reading room as an oppressive atmosphere where literary work is both solitary and ineffectual. Such cynicism was to be expected during a time when mass-market publishing was viewed as being both grossly commercial and increasingly feminine. Yet, as Susan David Bernstein has shown, the British Library Reading Room was a vitally important location for women writers “to experience kinds of exteriority that proved absolutely crucial to their writing.” Here “they met and created networks of friendship, found mentors and publishers, [and] inspired and encouraged one another in their literary careers.”37 From 1875 to 1884, women made up approximately 10 to 20 percent of library users.38

Women’s literary clubs and associations provided even more structured occasions for professional development. At the fin de siècle, women were admitted as members of the Society of Authors, the Institute of Journalists, and the Society of Women Journalists, founded in 1884, 1890, and 1894, respectively. By 1888, the number of clubs for women had increased so significantly that Amy Levy pronounced, “The female club must be regarded as no isolated and ludicrous phenomenon, but as the natural outcome of the spirit of an age which demands excellence in work from women no less than from men, and as one of the many steps towards the attainment of that excellence.”39 The formation of the Literary Ladies dining club in 1889 brought together prominent women writers of the day, including L. T. Meade, Matilde Blind, and Sarah Grand. As Linda Hughes has shown, the “founding of the Literary Ladies was on one hand a claim to equal status and privileges enjoyed by male authors, and on the other part of the larger entrance of women into the public spaces of London.”40

In addition to networking in libraries and clubs, aspiring women writers sought advice on how to succeed in the literary marketplace through print sources. With the expansion of employment opportunity during the 1880s, “how-to” employment guides proliferated along with periodical essays providing advice to novice authors. Literary careers were featured in vocational guidebooks such as Phillis Browne’s What Girls Can Do (1880) and Mercy Grogan’s How Women May Earn a Living (1883). Such guides offered encouragement and practical advice but also admonished women not to set their literary sights too high. For example, in Press Work for Women (1904), Frances Low introduces the writing profession in sobering terms:

If, then, I were asked to sum up my advice to the beginner, it would be as follows: Take up one or more expert subjects. Dress, employments, complexion, what you will (so long as it is in demand), and make your name known as an authority thereon; but, at the same time, refuse nothing which you can do without dishonour. I do not pretend that this is consistent with elevated taste and culture; but I am here addressing the woman who must make a fair income if she is to live in any degree of comfort and refinement, and who sensibly acknowledges to herself, maybe not without a pang, that she cannot afford to reform the “journalistic stable.”41

Following on this dose of practical advice, Low provides tips on proof correction, the locations and membership fees of various literary clubs, and rates of remuneration offered by major periodicals in Britain and the United States. Periodicals also published articles offering practical advice on entering the literary profession and held contests for novice writers. For example, Holden Pike, writing for the Girl’s Own Paper in 1891, provides some encouragement to women interested in pursuing a career in journalism, noting that a “great deal of the most effective work on our newspapers has been done by women”; however, he emphasizes that “journalism is an arena in which the disappointments greatly outnumber the successes.”42 A year later, W. T. Stead writes in the Young Woman that a woman journalist can “go about her business at all hours in English-speaking countries, without serious risk either of safety or reputation,” but he adds that women should not expect to “be judged more leniently than if [they] were only a man,” which includes being “admonished as freely as their male comrades.”43 This combination of encouragement and caution characterized much of the advice literature for women writers at the fin de siècle.

Regardless of the discouragement women sometimes received, they continued to write. As novelist Eliza Humphreys (1850–1938) put it,

I began to write … when I was fourteen years of age, and for the one and only reason that is possible—namely, because I felt I had to write. The first thing to be accepted and published was a newspaper article. Oh, the excitement and ecstasy of that first acceptance! I feel the thrill to this day, and no subsequent success that I had ever quite equaled that moment.”44

For Humphreys, as for so many other women writers, making a debut in the literary world was not only about seeking financial independence but also about the “excitement and ecstasy” of finding a public voice.

2 Becoming a professional writer

Joanne Shattock

Neither necessity, nor the unsatisfied solitude of a single life, nor, as I fancy, an irresistible impulse, threw her into the paths of literature. She wrote, as the birds sing, because she liked to write; and ceased writing when the fancy left her.

David Masson’s obituary for Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65), published shortly after her death in November 1865, struck a note that was echoed in other tributes. Gaskell had written, he suggested, not because she needed to earn her living or to fill a gap in her life, but because she enjoyed writing. That alone drove her creativity. Her works, he went, on possessed “a degree of perfection and completeness rare in these days, when successful authoresses pour out volume after volume without pause or waiting.”1

Writing in 1865, Masson’s “successful authoresses” could have referred to any number of women writers, but probably included Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915) and Ellen Wood (1814–87), both of whom were then celebrated as writers of “sensation” novels, and who were producing fiction at a prodigious rate. Other possibilities include Dinah Maria Craik (1826–87), Margaret Oliphant (1828–97), and Eliza Meteyard (1816–79), whose rates of publication in the 1860s were steady rather than relentless, but who had each achieved public recognition.

Masson was careful to make a distinction between Gaskell’s “complete” and “perfect” works, which were not produced by financial exigency, and those of her contemporaries, which he believed were. His use of the feminine “authoress” acknowledged their presence in the marketplace but implied a secondary status, which was also his point. Whether he thought of the successful authoresses as professionals because they earned a living and Gaskell as a gifted amateur by contrast is not clear. The mid-nineteenth-century’s perception of what constituted a professional writer and women writers’ increasing sense of their own professionalism are in part the subjects of this chapter.

Debates about the need for appropriate work for women, and middle-class women in particular, proliferated from the 1850s onward. Writing in the same year as Masson’s obituary, the feminist and journalist Bessie Rayner Parkes argued passionately for a range of new professions for women who needed to support themselves. In her Essays on Woman’s Work (1865), she acknowledged that literature already was a profession in which women had made their mark, particularly in the periodical press:

As periodicals have waxed numerous so has female authorship waxed strong. The magazines demanded short graphic papers, observation, wit, and moderate learning,—women demanded work such as they could perform at home, and ready pay upon performance; the two wants met, and the female sex has become a very important element in the fourth estate. If editors were ever known to disclose the dread secrets of their dens, they only could give the public an idea of the authoresses whose unsigned names are Legion; of their rolls of manuscripts, which are as the sands of the sea.2

Women writers’ contributions to the periodical press, she suggested, were indicative of a stage in their development, a process that eventually led to full professional status and recognition in a range of genres and subjects.

Writing for the periodical press conferred status and respectability, as the journalist G. H. Lewes declared in an influential article in 1847.3 It also encouraged variety and experiment. Writers of both sexes seized opportunities to write reviews and articles, thereby extending their repertoire, and at the same time securing an income or augmenting an existing one. This extended repertoire was, in part, what made them “professional” in the eyes of their contemporaries. By virtue of the range and variety of their literary production, they also qualified for the term “woman of letters,” one that Linda Peterson has shown came into use in the later nineteenth century as men and women writers sought personal and collective status as authors.4 In what follows, I propose to examine three nineteenth-century women writers whose careers spanned the 1840s through to the 1890s, each of whom regarded herself as a professional writer even if she did not use the term.

Eliza Meteyard (1816–79) was the Liverpool-born daughter of an army surgeon who grew up in Shropshire. Early in her life, she assumed responsibility for her siblings and moved to London in the 1840s to establish herself as a writer. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65) was born into a comfortable, well-connected Cheshire family with Unitarian affiliations; she spent her adult life in Manchester, the wife of a Unitarian minister and mother of four daughters. Margaret Oliphant (1828–97), born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh, grew up in Liverpool and Birkenhead, the daughter of a clerk in the Customs House. She moved to London in 1852 following her marriage to a stained-glass designer. Widowed at the age of thirty-one, she supported her two sons and later several of her close relations by her writing.

These three women were of the same writing generation, although eighteen years separated the oldest, Gaskell, from the youngest, Oliphant. They achieved success and recognition at different stages in their careers. Meteyard and Oliphant wrote, in Masson’s phrase, “of necessity,” to support themselves and their dependents. Money mattered to Gaskell as well, but her earnings contributed to the family budget and purchased luxuries such as holidays, rather than constituting the only source of income.

All three women took advantage of the periodical press. One of those advantages, as Parkes emphasized, was anonymity, which until the 1860s remained the norm in most publications. Another was the opportunity to work from home, which in the case of Gaskell and Oliphant was imperative, given their domestic responsibilities. For writers of both sexes, living in London, or within easy reach of it, was an advantage. A London base proved a key factor in the development of Meteyard’s career. It was less important to Gaskell, who overcame the disadvantage of living in a provincial city by her instinctive sociability and a penchant as well as the means for travel. Oliphant’s career was less dependent on metropolitan contacts, although she lived in London until 1865 and then settled in Windsor, within reach of the capital.

Women writers had fewer opportunities than their male colleagues to participate in the interlocking networks of writers, publishers, editors, and proprietors that operated in London. Publishers’ offices became meeting places for writers, and the wheels of literary London were oiled by publishers’ dinners and soirées from which women were largely excluded, as they were from the various literary clubs that sprang up in the 1840s.5 Networks that included women writers existed, nevertheless, from the 1830s onward. Eliza Meteyard was part of a circle of radical Unitarians emanating from W. J. Fox’s South Place Chapel at Finsbury.6 Through William and Mary Howitt, the proprietors of Howitt’s Journal who were on the fringes of this circle, she was introduced to a group of editors and writers with liberal sympathies that included Douglas Jerrold, editor of Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine and Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper. Possibly also through the Howitts, she met Christian Johnstone, editor of Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine and like Mary Howitt an active patron of women writers. It was through Mary Howitt that she met Eliza Cook, who in 1849 launched Eliza Cook’s Journal, which became Meteyard’s next periodical outlet. And so her literary career, precarious as it proved to be, was launched.

The Howitts proved influential patrons for Elizabeth Gaskell as well as Meteyard.7 It was through them that her first novel Mary Barton (1848) was placed with the publishers Chapman and Hall. That connection led to an introduction to Dickens, which in turn prompted an invitation to contribute to his new weekly magazine Household Words in 1850. These early contacts were crucial to Gaskell’s career.

By her own admission Margaret Oliphant was not a good networker. Her most important contact, with the firm of William Blackwood and Sons, was made before she moved to London. She became, in her words, the Blackwoods’ “general utility woman,” contributing “miscellaneous papers,” as she and John Blackwood referred to them, to Blackwood’s Magazine on a regular basis from 1854 until her death in 1897.8 It was a role she accepted gratefully, one that provided a steady income when she most needed it.

Meteyard, Gaskell, and Oliphant entered the literary marketplace within ten years of one another, between 1838 and 1849. In each case, the early contacts made and the contracts secured played a vital part in their professional writing lives and influenced the outcomes as much as their innate abilities.

Eliza Meteyard

Eliza Meteyard’s radical political beliefs shaped her early writing and were in turn shaped by her various personal associations. Much of her writing career was dependent on the periodical press. She published a series of novels, beginning with Struggles for Fame (1845), which was previewed as “Scenes in the Life of an Authoress” in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1843–44).9 Few of her novels made a positive impact, either on the reading public or on the critics. Consequently, she relied on the press to keep afloat financially. The periodicals for which she wrote in the 1840s, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine, Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper, Howitt’s Journal and its precursor the People’s Journal, paid little. Most of them were short lived. In the 1850s, she wrote for, among others, Eliza Cook’s Journal, Sharpe’s London Magazine, and Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, all of which were aimed at an artisan and lower-middle-class readership similar to Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine and Howitt’s Journal. Despite her productivity, she was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance on five separate occasions, the first as early as 1851.10

The subject matter of Meteyard’s stories and articles, which reflected the journals’ concerns as much as her own, included the cooperative movement, the regulation of working hours in shops and offices, women’s employment, women’s education, temperance, prostitution, reform of the poor laws, and women’s rights. She was one of the first women to serve on the council of the Whittington Club, a project promoted by Jerrold and others to provide the benefits of a London gentlemen’s club for shopmen and office workers of both sexes: meeting rooms, a library, and dining facilities. In “The Whittington Club and the Ladies” in Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper (October 24, 1846), she celebrated the “liberal spirit” that promoted equality of the sexes within the club. Writing as “Silverpen,” a pseudonym suggested by Jerrold, and with her gender scarcely concealed, she noted: “Necessity now enforces woman to earn her bread (and we think happily) by what were once considered the masculine prerogatives of the pen, the pencil, or the voice” (343). Women writers’ full participation in the facilities of the club, particularly the library and meeting rooms, would have the same humanizing effect as their presence in the reading room of the British Museum. It would enable them to participate in the reforming agenda of the age as intellectual equals. Women writers, the article implied, were acquiring an increasingly public role and voice.

Writers and publishers appear in Meteyard’s fiction in both major and minor roles. Barbara, the author heroine of Struggles for Fame, is an orphan who after brutal treatment in early life and many improbable adventures is befriended by Adam Leafdale, a kindly book dealer by whom she is educated. Leafdale advocates the importance of “eating the bread of independence” (vol. 2, chap. 1). At the end of the novel, when her fortunes have gone through three volumes’ worth of peaks and troughs, Barbara has to choose between an advantageous marriage and her writing; she sacrifices the former for the latter. “Miss Byron,” the silver-fork novelist in “Time versus Malthus” (Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine 1846, vol. 3, no. 17) is rescued from her lonely life by marriage to “the moralist,” a reformed Malthusian who now endorses parenthood. “The Works of John Ironshaft” (Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine, 1847, vol. 6, no. 35) is the story of a self-educated working man who rises to become a nationally famed industrialist and philanthropist. A writer with an “iron pen” as well as a blacksmith, he seeks out a London publisher, “Mr Proof,” who condescends and then dismisses his efforts while his underling fawns over “her ladyship,” a fashionable novelist. At the end of his life, Ironshaft is celebrated, not only for his success as an industrialist but for his other “Works,” which have influenced the lives of working people for the better.11 None of the author subjects is transparently a self-portrait, but many of them show the price, in terms of drudgery and exploitation, of pursuing a literary career.

The transition to a more stable professional status came in the 1860s when Meteyard seized an opportunity to write the biography of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous Staffordshire potter. The raw materials for the biography had been acquired by her friend Joseph Mayer, who was unable to carry out the project. Mary Howitt claimed to have been instrumental in securing a thousand pound advance for the biography from the publishers Hurst & Blackett,12 but the end product, the two-volume Life of Josiah Wedgwood from his private correspondence and family papers (1865–66), was a triumph for Meteyard alone. She found her subject, a man of talent and abilities who had risen from humble origins by his own exertions, immensely sympathetic. He was a real-life version of the heroes of several of her stories. The biography demonstrated her command of a wide range of source materials and her ability to write not only a compelling narrative but also an authoritative history of pottery making.

Yet success, when it came, was short lived. Despite the popularity of the biography, Meteyard’s financial position seems never to have been secure. In 1869, Gladstone’s government awarded her a Civil List pension of £100. Her reputation quickly waned after her death in 1879. Meteyard was eminently qualified for the title of a “woman of letters” by her competence in many genres: novels, short stories, biography, history, and children’s books as well as her extensive journalism. The Dictionary of National Biography designates her as an “author,” an acknowledgment of her professional status and the range of her writing. What the entry does not convey is the uphill struggle her professional writing life had been. Like her heroine Barbara in Struggles for Fame, she had “eaten the bread of independence,” but it had proved a meager diet, bringing neither lasting success nor financial security.

Elizabeth Gaskell

The publication of Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848), brought a mixed response from readers and reviewers, but in terms of her professional writing life it opened new doors and established her securely in the literary marketplace. From 1849 onward, she was in receipt of invitations from the editors and proprietors of weekly and monthly magazines directed at a wide spectrum of readers. Dickens’s fulsome invitation to write for Household Words in 1850 – “I do honestly know that there is no living English writer whose aid I would desire to enlist, in preference to the authoress of Mary Barton”13 – was undoubtedly the most flattering, but it was preceded and followed by a stream of similar solicitations from other editors.

Through Mary Howitt, she was introduced to John Sartain, the proprietor of Sartain’s Union Magazine, an illustrated monthly published in Philadelphia, to which she contributed her stories “The Last Generation in England” (July 1849) and “Martha Preston” (July 1850), the latter later expanded into “Half a Life-time Ago” (Household Words, October 6–20, 1855). It was probably also through Mary Howitt that she was introduced to Eliza Cook, who urged her to contribute to her newly established Eliza Cook’s Journal, an invitation she did not accept. William and Robert Chambers were reported to be in pursuit of the author of Mary Barton as a potential contributor to Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, although there is no record of her having written for their weekly. An approach in 1853 by the novelist Fanny Mayne, the editor of the True Briton, was politely refused.14

The steady flow of invitations must have been encouraging to a young writer who was only just finding her way into metropolitan literary circles. Gaskell’s choice of publishing outlets was seemingly fortuitous, although initially she inclined to publications with a wide range of readers rather than more elite journals intended for the educated reading public. The invitation to write for Household Words was an opportunity to be grasped, and she did so; her three-part story “Lizzie Leigh” followed Dickens’s “A Preliminary Word” in the opening number of March 30, 1850. Cranford, one of her best-known works, began as a sketch in Household Words and grew into a nine-part series (1851–53), republished in volume format in 1853. Her novel North and South, which, like Mary Barton, tackled the tensions between working people and their employers in mid-century Manchester, was serialized in weekly parts in Household Words in 1854, following Dickens’s own Hard Times. Despite an at times fraught relationship with its hands-on “Conductor,” as Dickens called himself, she wrote for Household Words until it came to an end in 1858 and continued to write for the “new Dickensy periodical,”15 as she described All the Year Round, which succeeded it.

Gaskell’s commitment to mass-market journalism, or at least a desire for her stories to reach as wide a readership as possible, is emphasized by her willingness to write two stories, “Hand and Heart” and “Bessy’s Troubles at Home,” for her friend Travers Madge’s Sunday School Penny Magazine in 1849 and 1852 and to allow her story “Christmas Storms and Sunshine” (1848) to be reprinted in the penny weekly Christian Socialist in 1851.16

Elizabeth Haldane, one of her early twentieth-century biographers, lamented that Gaskell’s “journalism” had been an error of judgment, and that had she resisted contributing short stories and articles to periodicals, she would have had more time to write the full-length novels on which her reputation rested.17 This judgment, it could be argued, misinterprets Gaskell’s view of her writing life. At no point did she demonstrate the single-mindedness of George Eliot, who determined to forgo reviewing and concentrate on writing novels once Scenes of Clerical Life became successful.18 To the contrary, Gaskell seemed to thrive on a mixture of short-term projects such as stories and articles that ran alongside more ambitious book projects, no doubt attracted by the extra income they provided. Angus Easson notes that when she was at her busiest and most preoccupied, notably at the height of the furor surrounding the publication of her Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, she was nevertheless willing to undertake some well-paid literary chores. On that occasion, she agreed to contribute a preface to an English edition of Mabel Vaughan (1857), a little-known novel by the American novelist Maria S. Cummins, and a short story in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.19

One aspect of Gaskell’s work that attests to her professionalism and adds to an understanding of the range of her talents is her book reviewing. Her anonymous review of Longfellow’s long poem The Golden Legend (1850) was the lead review in the Athenaeum for December 13, 1851. A brief notice of Margaret Sandbach née Roscoe’s novel Spiritual Alchemy (1849) appeared in the “New Novels” section of the same issue.20 Like many writers, she found that the process of reviewing the works of others acted as a stimulus to her own writing and provided an opportunity to reflect on her own creative process. The cross-fertilization between her well-judged and knowledgeable review of Longfellow’s poem and the plot of her novel Ruth (1853), on which she was working at the same time, is clear. Both contain a weak hero, an innocent heroine, and a story that turns on, among other things, whether the heroine can be saved by marriage and whether she lives or dies. In her notice of Sandbach’s Spiritual Alchemy, Gaskell commented on “the folly exhibited by many an author of a moderately successful novel who hurries forward a second on the reputation of the first,”21 a possible reflection of her own anxiety about laying herself open to another onslaught from the critics, this time with a controversial story of a working-class woman seduced and betrayed by an upper-class lover.

One unexpected outlet for her reviewing talents was Household Words, in which on two occasions she chose a book around which to weave one of her characteristically inventive articles. “Modern Greek Songs” (February 25, 1854) was ostensibly a review of Jean Claude Fauriel’s Chants Populaires de la Grèce Moderne (1824–25). The prompt for “Company Manners” (May 20, 1854) was an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes on Madame de Sablé (1599–1678), the eminent seventeenth-century salon hostess, by the French philosopher Victor Cousin, which was later published as a book. In the Household Words tradition, her deftly pitched review-essays combined information and serious thought with entertainment without making unrealistic assumptions about what her readers may have read.

Gaskell’s last known book review, of W. T. M. Torrens’s Lancashire’s Lesson; or the Need of a Settled Policy in Times of Exceptional Distress (1864), was written for Alexander Macmillan’s weekly review the Reader (March 25, 1865) at the same time as her last and most ambitious novel Wives and Daughters (1866) was being serialized in the Cornhill Magazine. The review demonstrates an ability to enter the political fray and to argue her case with a toughness and precision she had not shown until then. The issues raised in her review are those she had articulated in Mary Barton and North and South – the dignity of workers and the responsibility of employers and now of the state to provide employment for those thrown out of work by causes beyond their control, in this instance, the Lancashire cotton famine of 1862, an indirect consequence of the U. S. Civil War.

As well as demonstrating a new dimension to Gaskell’s talents and competencies, her book reviews endorse the point that she was a professional woman of letters in the Victorian mold, writing across many genres – novels, biography, poems, short stories, articles, and reviews – and contributing to a range of publications from penny and two-penny weeklies to literary weeklies such as the Athenaeum and the Reader and middle-class magazines such as Fraser’s and the Cornhill. She had no hierarchy of publishing outlets but responded to invitations and opportunities as they arose. She was an assiduous “book maker,” collecting her short stories and articles into volumes at regular intervals. She planned another biography – of Madame de Sévigné, the celebrated seventeenth-century French intellectual and letter writer – which was not completed. Professor A. W. Ward, who wrote her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, designated her a novelist, a designation he later reinforced by the structure of his 1906 Knutsford edition of her works, which omitted the Life of Charlotte Brontë and consisted of eight volumes of her five full-length novels and three novellas. The memorializing of Elizabeth Gaskell by her obituarists and her early editors and biographers seriously obscured the range of her literary production and her many professional talents, which are only now being fully acknowledged.

Margaret Oliphant
“I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children,” Margaret Oliphant wrote candidly in her fragmentary autobiography in 1885. She went on:

When people comment on the number of books I have written, and I say that I am so far from being proud of that fact that I should like at least half of them forgotten, they stare—and yet it is quite true … They are my work, which I like in the doing, which is my natural way of occupying myself, which are never so good as I meant them to be.22

One of the attractive features of Oliphant’s Autobiography is the honesty of her self-assessment and the complex tension between her insistence that she had to write to support her family set against her obvious pleasure in her work, the way her writing structured and gave meaning to her life. The writing, as she says at one point, “ran through everything.”23 Also running through the Autobiography is the question whether, if she had written less, if she had not felt pressured to write incessantly to support her family, she might have done better work, written “a fine novel” as she calls it, and have earned “nearly as much for half the production.”24 It was a question she could not resolve.

The anxiety of overproduction was not Oliphant’s alone – it haunted many writers of both sexes in the second half of the nineteenth century, enabled and encouraged as they were by a diversified literary market to earn a reasonable living, driven by personal circumstances, anxious too about their legacy, and as the century progressed, pursued by a celebrity culture. For Oliphant, however, the sense of being driven to write and an awareness of the consequences seem to have been borne in on her at an early stage. Recalling a happy time in the 1850s when she and her husband were just making ends meet, she wrote, “I was, of course, writing steadily all the time, getting about £400 for a novel, and already, of course, being told that I was working too fast and producing too much.”25 An anonymous review of her novel The Quiet Heart (1854) in the Athenaeum echoed this perception, noting the similarities between the novel and its predecessor: “the author seems to have written herself quite out, for the present at least.”26 The shrewd reviewer – it was Geraldine Jewsbury – had put her finger on an issue that would characterize Oliphant’s entire career.

Oliphant was in no doubt that she was a professional writer. Recalling her various workplaces, from the family dining room to the back sitting room in the houses in Harrington Square and Ulster Place, she noted that the first time she had ever secluded herself for her work was “years after it had become my profession and sole dependence.”27 Like many writers of her generation, she had several projects on the go at once and secured multiple contracts with publishers. Henry Blackett of the firm Hurst & Blackett, who published her books from 1853 onward, became a friend as well as a professional colleague. Alexander Macmillan, with whom she initiated her first contract in 1859, regularly received requests for advances on books still to be written, as did John Blackwood, for whom she then worked off her debt.

As betokened her professionalism, the reviews and articles for Blackwood’s Magazine ran in tandem with her novels, biographies, literary histories, and whatever else she was contracted for. The early reviews focused primarily on contemporary fiction, but she also reviewed poetry, history, biography, books of travel, and occasionally books on art and theology. Her “miscellaneous pieces” included articles on the Scottish church, accounts of her travels at home and abroad, and reviews of current exhibitions. She wrote on issues affecting women, including divorce and later the vote, some of her views disquieting to a modern sensibility, although these were moderated toward the end of her life. She became sufficiently fluent in French and Italian to review books in both languages, concentrating on contemporary literature and culture. German, too, she tackled although less easily.

Regular reviewing provided an income stream, but she was also energized by it. Her voracious reading of the works of others fed her own creativity, often in direct ways. Her reviews of two novels by F. W. Robinson, a little-known novelist, influenced the plot and characters of The Perpetual Curate, one of the acclaimed “Chronicles of Carlingford.”28 Critics have suggested that the research and writing of her biography of the Scottish preacher Edward Irving (1862) fueled an interest in a religious vocation that found its way into several of the Carlingford novels.29 So many of her articles were biographical sketches that one could also see her journalism at this point as a training ground for the full-scale biographies she later wrote. But it would be wrong to see Oliphant’s reviewing as an apprenticeship for something else. Her critical judgments in these early years were sure footed. She could be opinionated, wrong headed at times, but she was also perceptive and shrewd. If she was in training for anything in these reviews, it was to become the influential critical voice of her generation, an achievement signaled by her obituarists – memorably in Henry James’s double-edged comment that “no woman had ever, for half a century, had her personal ‘say’ so publicly and irresponsibly.”30

Oliphant constantly sought larger projects that would provide a steady income rather than the hand-to-mouth existence of article writing. Blackwood proposed a series of biographical sketches of eighteenth-century figures that became Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II, serialized first in Blackwood’s and then published in two volumes in 1869. Other series followed in the magazine, but disappointingly none turned into books. In 1876, Blackwood proposed that she edit a book series, “Foreign Classics for English Readers,” to which she contributed three volumes herself.

David Finkelstein, the modern historian of the House of Blackwood, notes that from 1870 onward, the firm began to move away from three-volume novels to concentrate on biography, general history, and books of travel. After 1870, Blackwood published only seven of Oliphant’s remaining novels. Instead, she was contracted by them for biographies, for short stories, and eventually for Annals of a Publishing House (1897), the official history of the firm, all of which made a profit. For her novels after 1870, she turned to Macmillan; to Hurst & Blackett; and to periodicals such as Good Words, the Cornhill, the Graphic, St Paul’s Magazine, and Longman’s Magazine; and to Tillotson’s fiction agency through which her novels were serialized in newspapers.

In the late 1880s, Oliphant attempted to adapt to new journalistic practices with columns of short articles on topical subjects, including social and political concerns. The titles, “A Fireside Commentary” in the daily St James’s Gazette (1888), “A Commentary from an Easy Chair” in the weekly Spectator (1889–90), and “Things in General” in the monthly Atalanta (1893–94), convey the more relaxed tone and fluid format of the new ventures. They were only moderately successful. Her work for Blackwood’s Magazine continued, as did the steady stream of novels, some from 1894 adopting a one-volume format in the wake of the demise of the circulating libraries. “I am a wonder to myself, a sort of machine so little out of order, able to endure all things, always fit for work whatever has happened to me,” she wrote in 1890 at the age of sixty-two.31 She became increasingly conscious, though, that newer writers were overtaking her and, in the analogy she used in a poignant preface to a collection of stories, aware that her career was on its “ebb tide.”32

Oliphant’s reflection on Trollope’s career in her obituary for the novelist might have served as a justification for her own writing life:

It would be vain to calculate what Mr Trollope might have done had he … left us only the half-dozen stories which embody the History of Barset … Our own opinion is that every artist finds the natural conditions of his working, and that in doing what he has to do according to his natural lights he is doing the best which can be got from him. But it is hopeless to expect from the reader either the same attention or the same faith for twenty or thirty literary productions which he gives to four or five. The instinct of nature is against the prolific worker. In this way a short life, a limited period of activity are much the best for art; and a long period of labour, occupied by an active mind and fertile faculties, tell against, and not for, the writer.33

Her reflection might also have served as an epitaph for many professional women writers, driven by necessity and perhaps urged on by the need to keep their name before the public, into writing too quickly and producing too much.


After their deaths, Meteyard, Gaskell, and Oliphant suffered the sharp decline in their reputations common to many Victorian writers at the turn of the twentieth century. By any objective measure, Meteyard’s was the least successful career of the three. Her writing life, with its unremitting struggle to earn an adequate living, was more common in the nineteenth century than has been acknowledged.34 In her obituaries, Gaskell was routinely compared with her more famous writing sisters, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, to her disadvantage. It was Margaret Oliphant who in 1887 declared that “Mrs Gaskell has fallen into that respectful oblivion which is the fate of a writer who reaches a sort of secondary classical rank and survives, but not effectually, as the greater classics do.”35 Oliphant’s obituarists respectfully acknowledged her achievements across a wide range of publications including the novel and her impact as a critic, but there was a general sense that she had outlived her time. The writing lives of all three confirm Parkes’s sense that by 1865, literature had become an acknowledged profession for women. But the collective experience of these three women of letters also demonstrates that it remained a precarious one, that success, when it came, could be short lived, and that the judgment of posterity could be harsh.

3 Working with publishers

Linda H. Peterson

Perhaps it goes without saying that a Victorian writer could not become a professional author without securing a publisher to issue her work. Today, the crucial figure in an author’s career may be her agent or editor, as the acknowledgments in many books attest; the modern publisher represents an imprint, sometimes with a distinguished history of book production, but often is just a subsidiary of a national or international conglomerate. In the Victorian period, however, publishing houses were smaller, and most publishers engaged actively in soliciting, reading, and evaluating manuscripts. Some – such as William Blackwood and Sons – were family-run businesses with several generations conducting personal and professional affairs directly with their authors; others – such as Hurst and Blackett – were businessmen who bought a failing firm (in this case Henry Colburn) and grew to become international powerhouses with offices in London, New York, and Melbourne. Whatever their origins or destinations, most Victorian publishers knew their authors personally, supported their professional careers, and helped advance their status in the literary realm. Although the relations between authors and publishers changed over the course of the century, as the last section of this chapter suggests, they remained for the most part cordial and even intimate.

Launching a career

The career of Charlotte Brontë provides a well-documented example of a publisher’s role in launching an authorial career – just as her sisters’ counter-experiences provide a negative case. All three sisters sent the manuscripts of their first novels – The Professor by Currer Bell, Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell, and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell – to London firms known for publishing popular fiction. An unsuccessful inquiry went to Henry Colburn in July 1846; another went to Thomas Newby, who declined The Professor but accepted Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey on terms “somewhat impoverishing to the two authors.”1 In her biographical account of her sisters’ lives and works, Charlotte recalled that the three “MSS. were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.” Eventually, Charlotte found a sympathetic reader in William S. Williams of Smith, Elder, who in consultation with George Smith, the young proprietor of the firm, sent a letter declining The Professor “for business reasons” but encouraging its author to submit a three-volume work of a more striking character. Charlotte was pleased that this publisher and his literary advisor “discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened, that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly-expressed acceptance would have done.”2 Within two months, Brontë sent the manuscript of Jane Eyre, which Smith, Elder promptly accepted and published with phenomenal success in 1847.

Although she initially received only £100 for copyright and another £400 for subsequent editions, Brontë valued her publisher for more than financial reasons. Almost immediately, she and Williams began a correspondence about contemporary novels – her own, her sisters’, Thackeray’s, as well as lesser, ephemeral works – that allowed her to analyze the achievements (and demerits) of English fiction and articulate her ars poetica. George Smith sent parcels of books his firm had published, thus giving access to recent novels and major prose such Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Hazlitt’s Essays, and Emerson’s Representative Men.3 If the correspondence with Smith remained businesslike for the first year or two, the letters to Williams soon became personal, with Charlotte offering advice about his daughters’ future careers as governesses and Williams offering medical information when Emily became seriously ill, and then solace when Emily and then Anne died. Charlotte’s publisher truly sustained her career, not only providing needed intellectual stimuli but also prodding her to write when she seemed depressed or discouraged.

Emily’s and Anne’s dealings with Thomas Newby offer a different case of author-publisher relations. Newby accepted their first novels on terms that reflected their amateur status: the sisters were required to pay £50 in advance, with the promise that the money would be refunded if their novels sold enough copies to cover expenses. Although they promptly paid the fee, Newby was dilatory in bringing out their work. As their biographer Juliet Barker notes, “While Jane Eyre was completed, typeset, bound, published, and getting its earliest reviews, [their novels] still languished at Mr Newby’s.”4 Newby’s shoddy practices resulted, moreover, in books that had not been proofread and thus were riddled with printing errors. Even after the novels met with a modest commercial success, he failed to live up to his contract. After their deaths, when pressed for a financial account by Charlotte, Newby asserted that “he realized no profit” and had “sustained actual loss,” further claiming that any profits from sales had gone toward advertisements, as the authors had wished.5 Charlotte wryly observed to George Smith that no ads had ever been seen. Only when Smith intervened and brought out a new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in 1850, with a biographical preface composed by Charlotte, did these novels gain a secure future. Indeed, both might have sunk into oblivion without Smith, Elder’s intervention.

Although the Brontë sisters provide the best-known cases of positive and negative relations with publishers, the contrasts recur in the biographies of other Victorian women, sometimes within the career of a single author. In her autobiographical novel A Struggle for Fame (1883), for instance, Charlotte Riddell (1832–1906) describes the mentoring she received as a young novelist from an old-fashioned publisher, Mr. Vassett, modeled on Charles Skeet of King William Street. When her heroine Glen asks for advice, Vassett claims that he cannot give her a formula for a successful novel: “If I could publish a key to the problem you want to solve[,] it would sell so well, I should never need to bring out another book. The land you want to enter has no itinerary—no finger posts—no guides” (I, 123). Despite the lack of professional tips, Riddell later praised Skeet for his early support and enduring friendship, noting in an interview for the Lady’s Pictorial that he had published her youthful fiction The Rich Husband (1858), Too Much Alone (1860), and The World and the Church (1862), and thus launched her career. She also praised George Bentley, “though he, like everyone else, refused my work; still I left his office not unhappy, but thinking much more about how courteous and nice he was.” Riddell even commented favorably on Thomas Newby, who accepted her first novel, Zuriel’s Child (1856): “I could always, when the day was frightfully cold … turn into Mr. Newby’s office in Welbeck Street, and have a talk with him and his ‘woman of business,’ Miss Springett.”6

In Riddell’s view, these early Victorian publishers were closer to amateurs than professional businessmen. In A Struggle for Fame, she contrasts an amateur “then” with a professional “now,” the former an era when “in the literary world females still retained some reticence, and males the traditions at least of self-respect” (I, 103), the latter a professionalized era when authors became more businesslike and market conscious, if also more “pushing” and “hopelessly impecunious” (I, 103). Like Riddell, her heroine leaves the old-fashioned, gentlemanly Vassett for the trendy firm of Felton and Laplash (based on the Tinsley Brothers). Once she moves, she achieves great popular success – as Riddell did with George Geith of Fen Court (1864). But now male authors and reviewers treat her as a professional rival, using periodical reviews to damn or downgrade her work. Even her publisher gives little support in sustaining her career and eventually throws her over when her novels fail to sell. Thus, in negotiating with commercial publishers like Tinsley Brothers, Riddell left behind the gentler, kinder world of early Victorian publishing, where relations between author and publisher were cordial, if sometimes also paternal, and entered a new publishing world of market-driven choices, industrialized production, and commercial profit over literary product. This brave new world dominated, in Riddell’s view, the late Victorian literary scene.

Developing a career

If publishers were essential to launching a woman writer’s career, they also played an important role in its development. The literary successes of Margaret Oliphant (1828–97), novelist, biographer, and reviewer; of Christina Rossetti (1830–94), poet and devotional writer; and of Alice Meynell (1847–1922), poet and essayist, show this role in different ways.

Oliphant launched her career more or less on her own, using her brother Willie to negotiate with London publishers and place her work with firms known for popular fiction, Henry Colburn and Hurst & Blackett. When she wrote Katie Stewart (1852), a Scottish historical novel based on family tales, she turned to the Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood and Sons. With Blackwood, she found a publisher who would support her during hard times, assign book reviews and columns to supplement income, and eventually make her “general utility woman” to the house organ, Blackwood’s Magazine. After the success of Katie Stewart, Oliphant serialized other novels in Blackwood’s Magazine and added columns about past and recent fiction to her dossier; throughout the 1850s, she anonymously reviewed Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer, and other modern novelists in “Maga,” as William Blackwood called it. In 1859, when her husband became ill with tuberculosis, the family traveled to Italy for the warmer climate, with Blackwood accepting travel pieces, offering translation work, and sending financial advances to aid the family. As Oliphant’s biographer Elisabeth Jay notes, “John Blackwood undoubtedly became her banker, reviewer, literary adviser, and friend.”7

When her husband died and left her a widow with three young children, Oliphant hit a low point, unable to write articles or stories that the Blackwoods would accept. In her Autobiography (1899), she tells of summoning up the courage to visit the firm’s Edinburgh office and offer a novel face-to-face to John Blackwood and “Major” Blackwood, “both very kind and truly sorry for me,” but shaking their heads and saying “it would not be possible to take such a story.”8 In fact, this encounter marked the turning point in her career and her relations with the firm. Oliphant returned home that night to compose “The Executor” (1861), the first story of her Carlingford series, “which made a considerable stir at the time, and almost made me one of the popularities of literature” (70). Thereafter, she published more than twenty volumes of fiction, biography, and history with Blackwoods and typically placed half a dozen articles in “Maga” each year, including regular columns, “The Old Saloon” and “The Looker-on,” during the last decade of her life. Yet, as Jay notes, this close relationship “remained essentially one of patronage” and perhaps hindered Oliphant’s career,9 if only because she never felt she could negotiate prices with a publisher to whom she was in debt. Nonetheless, during this period, 1860–95, she also sustained cordial friendships and publishing relations with George Craik of Macmillans and Henry Blackett of Hurst & Blackett, with whom she published roughly thirty books each. Oliphant’s friendships with these men and their families, especially with Isabella Blackwood and Ellen Blackett, became the core of her social life, giving her much pleasure and stability – not just commercial outlets for her work.

Christina Rossetti never developed this sort of intimate relationship with her publisher, Alexander Macmillan, but when his editor David Masson accepted several lyrics for Macmillan’s Magazine, Macmillan himself wrote to encourage a collection that became Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) – and thus helped launch her adult career. As an adolescent, Rossetti had published verse under the pseudonym “Ellen Allyne” in The Germ, the periodical of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood edited by her brother William Michael Rossetti. When the short-lived Germ folded after three issues, Christina lost an outlet for her poetry. She reverted to contributing to a ladies’ magazine, The Bouquet from Marlybone Gardens, funded by subscription, and to placing occasional poems in minor literary annuals. The appearance of “Uphill” and “A Birthday” in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1861 changed all this – including Rossetti’s psychological state. Initially deferential, she soon was writing enthusiastically to Macmillan about the projected collection, happily acknowledging her desire “to attain fame(!) and guineas by means of the Magazine.”10 Macmillan, in turn, worked to promote a poet whose excellence he recognized. He asked for a photograph to include in his magazine, urged a second volume after the success of Goblin Market, and served as primary publisher of her poetry, issuing The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems (1866), New Poems (1896), and the posthumous Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti (1904), edited by William Michael. This relationship with a distinguished publisher allowed Rossetti to develop her skills and status as a leading Victorian poet.

Alice Meynell (née Thompson), a poet of the late nineteenth century who admired Rossetti’s work and composed love lyrics in her strain, started her own literary career with Preludes (1875), a collection published by Henry S. King. Although Meynell’s father most likely financed the volume, it was a coup in that Meynell placed her work with a firm known for literary excellence, especially in poetry. With Preludes, Meynell garnered private praise from Alfred Tennyson, Coventry Patmore, Aubrey de Vere, and John Ruskin, as well as positive reviews in such periodicals as the Pall Mall Gazette. Unfortunately, as Meynell recounts the story, the poems disappeared from public view when King’s warehouse burned to the ground and the volumes were lost. Fortunately, Meynell’s poetry was rediscovered fifteen years later when an editor and a publisher – William Henley of the Scots Observer and John Lane of the Bodley Head Press – recognized the high quality of Meynell’s work.

By then, the early 1890s, Meynell had established a professional reputation as an art critic and essayist; she wrote regular reviews for the Magazine of Art and Art Journal, occasional pieces for the Spectator, Saturday Review, Illustrated London News, and others, and she edited Merry England and the Weekly Register with her husband Wilfrid.11 Yet it was the appearance of her brief essays in the Observer – all stylishly polished, despite their spontaneous, almost breathless effect – that brought her to the attention of John Lane and secured her fame. Via Henley, Lane asked if he might publish a volume of essays drawn from Meynell’s Observer columns. The result was The Rhythm of Life and Other Essays (1893), with its title taken from one of her most famous pieces, and Poems (1893), a reissue of verses from Preludes with the addition of some new lyrics. Although Meynell’s relationship with Lane was always polite and professional, never deeply personal or intimate, it was crucial to her career. Lane’s role as the leading publisher of aesthetic and decadent writers enabled her to make a transition from professional journalist to prominent woman of letters in fin-de-siècle literary culture. His continuing support – from 1892 with Poems and The Rhythm of Life to 1901 with Later Poems – stamped Meynell’s work as top flight. Lane’s shrewd eye for advertising, moreover, kept her poetry in the public view – as in his 1895 interview for The Sketch, in which he presents Meynell as a modern Sappho and lists her first among the “five great women poets of the day.”12 As we shall see in the next section, maintaining an ongoing relationship with a publisher was crucial to sustaining literary status and a professional career.

Consolidating a career

Novelists like Oliphant and poets like Rossetti and Meynell could count on their publishers to regularly accept and issue their submissions. This assurance enabled them to place work in their signature genres, develop skills in others, and consolidate their literary reputations. In no cases was the publisher more crucial (positively) than in the career of George Eliot (1819–80) and (negatively) in the experience of her admirer, the novelist Mary Cholmondeley (1859–1925).

Marian Evans, who adopted the nom-de-plume George Eliot, was a notoriously sensitive author. She entered the London literary world as assistant editor to John Chapman on the Westminster Review, eventually fulfilling most of the editorial duties and contributing original, but anonymous articles to the periodical. Although her contributions were known to insiders, the policy of anonymity shielded her from public scrutiny and assessment. After eloping with fellow writer George Henry Lewes, Eliot continued this periodical work but, at Lewes’s suggestion, in 1856 she turned her hand to writing fictional sketches, “Scenes of Clerical Life.” Lewes sent the first “Scene” to John Blackwood as the manuscript of “a friend who desires my good offices with you”; Lewes added, “I confess that before reading the m.s. I had considerable doubts of my friend’s power as a writer of fiction; but after reading it those doubts were changed into very high admiration.”13 Blackwood concurred with this judgment, writing that “this specimen of Amos Barton is unquestionably very pleasant reading” and asking to see more stories for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Typically but unwisely in this instance, Blackwood continued his letter of acceptance with an evaluation of Eliot’s submission, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.” He praised the death of Milly as “powerfully done” but called the “windup” the “lamest part of the story”; he admired the descriptions as “very humourous and good” but criticized “the error of trying too much to explain the characters.”14 In making these comments, Blackwood was following his usual practice with submissions: offering a balanced account from a typical, but shrewd reader. Eliot did not see the balance, however, only the critique. After receiving Blackwood’s letter, Lewes wrote that his “clerical friend” was “somewhat discouraged by it,” adding that he rated “the story much higher than you appear to do from certain expressions in your note.”15 When Blackwood continued sending his evaluations of strengths and weaknesses, Lewes had to explain that his friend was “unusually sensitive” and “afraid of failure though not afraid of obscurity”; at one point, after witnessing the depressing effect of a letter on Eliot, he advised outright: “Entre nous let me hint that unless you have any serious objection to make to Eliot’s stories, don’t make any.”16 Blackwood took the hint and became, as Gordon Haight notes, “next to Lewes,” the one who “did most to develop and sustain George Eliot’s genius as a novelist.”17

This sustenance included more than repeated reassurances and unstinting praise for Eliot’s fiction. After the publication of her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), Blackwood sent his cousin to search “in all the dog-fancying regions of London” for a pug – having heard that Eliot liked this breed and had recently lost an elder sister.18 The day after her sister’s funeral, Blackwood sent the manuscript of Adam Bede, “beautifully bound in red russia.”19 On a more practical level, Blackwood kept Eliot in the public eye with ample and frequent advertisements of her work. Taking the advice of his London manager, Joseph Langford – “George Eliots [sic] books sell more like Holloway Pills than like books and it pays to keep them before the public by advertising” – Blackwood agreed, writing to Langford: “By all means keep them before the public.”20

Even when she defected to another publisher who offered more money for her novel Romola (1863), Blackwood maintained cordial relations. To Langford, he privately wrote: “The going over to the enemy without giving me any warning and with a story on which from what they both said I was fully intitled [sic] to calculate upon, sticks in my throat but I shall not quarrel—quarrels especially literary ones are vulgar.”21 With Eliot, however, he adopted the principle of “not quarreling,” noting in a speech he later gave at the centenary of Scott’s birth that Sir Walter’s relations with publishers had been notably stormy but that, for him, “authors were among his dearest friends.”22 Eliot concurred. After her brief defection, she returned to Blackwoods with her next novel, Felix Holt (1866), and stayed with the firm for the rest of her career. In October 1876, when John Blackwood was seriously ill, Eliot wrote to thank him for all his encouragement throughout the years.23 On hearing of his approaching death, she commented: “He will be a heavy loss to me. He has been bound up with what I most cared for in my life for more than twenty years, and his good qualities have made many things easy to me that without him would often have been difficult.”24

Of course, John Blackwood and his nephew William, who joined the firm in 1857, had more than friendship at stake in their relationship with George Eliot. As David Finkelstein notes in The House of Blackwood, Eliot’s books represented a “tangible capital asset,” in that they became a “mainstay of the company profits between 1860 and 1900,” regularly generating more than £1000 per year.25 On the novelist’s side, the relationship was profitable too, in that Eliot moved from the relative poverty of periodical writing to the financial comfort that Blackwoods’ solid, if not extraordinary payments for fiction brought: from Adam Bede (£800 in 1858, another £800 in 1859) to Daniel Deronda (£4000 in 1873–76).

Such mutual benefit did not always pertain in author-publisher relations. Mary Cholmondeley, a writer who admired Eliot’s fiction and incorporated Eliot’s aphoristic style into her own novels, lacked the sustaining relationship with a publisher that her predecessor achieved. Cholmondeley’s career started well with George Bentley, of Richard Bentley & Son, whom she met in the mid-1880s via friend and fellow novelist Rhoda Broughton. Bentley accepted Cholmondeley’s first novel The Danvers Jewels (1887), praising “your bright and humorous story” in his acceptance letter and urging that she “continue to give me the benefit of such papers.”26 He accepted her next two novels for publication in periodical and book format, paying £50 for the copyright of Sir Charles Danvers (1889), increasing her royalties as her sales and reputation rose,27 and offering £400 for Diana Tempest (1893), then adding a £100 bonus after the novel went into a fifth edition.28 These rates fall below those paid to George Eliot by Blackwoods or by Bentley to Broughton, who often sold the copyright of her popular novels for £800, but they represent Bentley’s estimate of Cholmondeley’s solid worth.

Bentley soon became an intimate correspondent, offering medical advice and encouragement when Cholmondeley found herself seriously ill with asthma and addicted to morphine for relief. Perhaps because he too suffered from asthma, she found his letters sincere and helpful. Her biographer, Carolyn Oulton, suggests that empathy with Bentley as a fellow asthmatic and an ongoing struggle to meet his deadlines “led her to confide in him about the details of her illness in ways that are not paralleled elsewhere in her correspondence.” Oulton adds that Cholmondeley may not have continued her writing career without this personal support.29

When George Bentley died in 1895, however, and his son Richard sold the business to Macmillan, Cholmondeley lost a steady, reliable outlet for her fiction. The publisher’s archive does not make clear if Macmillan wished to drop this woman author, known for writing sensational fiction, a genre that was going out of fashion, or if he simply did not keep up with the correspondence required by the business transition. In any case, Cholmondeley felt neglected and unwanted. When Macmillan did not inquire about her new work, she took her next novel A Devotée (1897) and the plan for Red Pottage (1899), her most famous, to Edward Arnold. After Red Pottages phenomenal success (it went into a fifth edition within a year), Macmillan wrote to ask why she had left the firm. She responded that she supposed “you would have written to me had you wished for the new book on which Mr. Bentley knew I was engaged,” admitting that she was “disappointed that I only heard from you when several months had elapsed, and when I was in treaty with another publisher.” In a subsequent letter, written after Macmillan apologized for his lapse, Cholmondeley added:

I was a very small writer and you are a very great publisher. It never entered my head to write to you. But I will frankly own I was deeply disappointed at not hearing from you … Until I received your letter of June 24th [1900] I had remained under the impression that the firm did not value my books.30

Cholmondeley’s impression – that Macmillan had quietly dropped her and resumed correspondence only after she published a best seller – seems accurate, given the five-year hiatus in the correspondence. Whether Macmillan had initially intended to “edge out” this particular woman writer, as Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin suggest that the firm systematically did to other women,31 remains unknown, but it raises a larger question of how gender aided or disabled Victorian women in their relations with publishers.

Gender variants in author-publisher relations

Analyzing the Macmillan publishing archive of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Tuchman and Fortin argue that 1840–79 saw male authors in “a period of invasion,” challenging women’s dominance in “the novel as a cultural form”; they posit that a “period of redefinition,” 1880–99, followed this invasion, “when men of letters, including critics, actively redefined the nature of a good novel” and demoted women’s fiction to the status of popular (low) culture.32 These insights into late-Victorian publishing have sometimes led scholars to assume that women authors tended always to be edged out or that publishers routinely valued their work less than that of their male counterparts. Such assumptions are troublesome because, as Tuchman and Fortin carefully note, some publishers (e.g., Tinsley) “viewed themselves as specialists in popular fare” and thus, unlike Macmillan, which began as an academic publishing house, actively sought and even preferred women’s fiction.33 Furthermore, such assumptions are troublesome because they fail to account for different genres, different publishing media, and changing literary norms across the century – factors that affected both male and female authors.

If we turn to the 1830s and consider two famous illustrations of prominent authors – “The Fraserians” and “Regina’s Maids of Honour,” published in Fraser’s Magazine in January 1835 and January 1836, respectively – we might conclude that a gender division similarly dominates the early Victorian literary field, promoting male authors and demoting women (see Figures 1 and 2). “The Fraserians” depicts twenty-six male authors and their publisher seated around a table, lifting their glasses in toast of the magazine, its editor, and their recently deceased comrade Edward Irving.34 “Regina’s Maids of Honour,” in contrast, depicts eight women – poets, novelists, and editors of literary annuals – drinking tea and engaging in conversation, “with volant tongue and chatty cheer,” as the text explains, “welcoming in, by prattle good, or witty phrase, or comment shrewd, the opening of the gay new year.”35 Notably, the illustration of male authors includes a publisher – James Fraser, who took an active interest in the magazine and its contributors – whereas the women authors appear publisher-less. Is this absence the result of women’s actual lack of close relations with publishers, or does it rather represent a careful minimizing of certain professional aspects of authorship that might harm a woman’s social status? Probably both. Some women writers depicted in “Regina’s Maids” had no well-established relationship with a publisher; others had productive, often long-standing relations with publishers and their firms, though they may not have foregrounded these relations in their public self-presentations.

Figure 1. “The Fraserians,” Fraser’s Magazine 11 (January 1835), 2–3.

Figure 2. “Regina’s Maids of Honour,” Fraser’s Magazine 13 (January 1836), 80.

For example, Mary Mitford (1787–1855), one of the women authors in “Regina’s Maids,” had a regular publisher for her drama, George Whittaker – though, unfortunately for her, she sold him the copyright of most of her plays and of Dramatic Scenes, Sketches, and Other Poems (1827) and never realized the significant profits of their commercial success.36 Later, after the enormous popularity of her prose sketches Our Village, published serially in the Lady’s Magazine between 1822 and 1824, Mitford easily placed her work with various popular publishers such as Saunders and Otley, Colburn and Bentley, and Hurst & Blackett. In contrast, the poetess Laetitia Landon (1802–38) bounced from publisher to publisher with the early volumes of her verse: J. Warren for The Fate of Adelaide in 1821; Hurst and Robinson for The Improvisatrice in 1824 and The Troubadour in 1825; Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans for The Golden Violet in 1827. Ironically, her most reliable publisher was the American firm Carey and Hart of Philadelphia, which regularly pirated her books (paying no royalties, needless to say). Harriet Martineau (1802–76), Landon’s contemporary, found a steady outlet for her early essays and reviews in the Unitarian magazine Monthly Repository, and for her juvenile tales with the religious publisher Houlston and Son. But when she attempted to place Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34), a series of didactic prose tales, with a London publisher, she encountered repeated refusals. At a time of economic slump, with cholera in London and the first Reform Bill in Parliament, they feared readers would never pay ready money for such tales. Martineau had to settle for demeaning terms with Charles Fox, who nonetheless profited from the Illustrations’ enormous success. By 1836, when Fraser’s published “Regina’s Maids,” in which Martineau was included, she was an acknowledged successful author for whose books publishers competed.

The varying experiences of women authors in the 1820s and 1830s are not so different from those of their male counterparts in that they reflect the slump in book publishing, the downturn in markets for poetry, and a rising interest in prose. Coleridge (1772–1834), included in “The Fraserians” but dead by the time it appeared in print, used various printers to issue his poetry and prose, though by the 1820s the London firm, W. Pickering, became the regular publisher of his verse. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), a young author in 1835, had placed articles in London and Edinburgh periodicals but faced almost insurmountable obstacles in securing a book publisher for his satirical masterpiece Sartor Resartus and initially settled for serialization in Fraser’s Magazine. In 1835, William Thackeray (1811–63) did not even have a publisher to turn to; as Peter L. Shillingsburg quips, “During the years of struggle to establish himself as a writer, Thackeray can hardly be said to have ‘had a publisher.’”37 Once Thackeray established a relationship with Smith, Elder at mid-century, he could count on dual publication of his fiction in the Cornhill Magazine and in three-volume (triple-decker) format. The experiences of these male authors, like those of their female counterparts, confirm the volatility of the publishing world in the early Victorian period – in contrast to the relative stability that mid-Victorian authors such as Brontë, Oliphant, and Eliot enjoyed with their steady relationships with Smith, Elder and Blackwood.

Stability does not mean that author-publisher relations were gender neutral. As “The Fraserian” hints, male authors enjoyed an easy conviviality with publishers, the latter often hosting dinners on their premises for leading contributors. Moreover, as Joanne Shattock observes, male authors could join London clubs at which they might meet other authors, editors, and publishers.38 Women did not receive invitations to such publishers’ dinners, nor were they able to join London clubs for most of the century. Like male authors, women could attend literary salons, large evening parties, and small “at homes.” And some, like Oliphant, had personal relationships with publishers that extended to informal suppers, holiday visits, and even travel abroad.

Yet Oliphant, who had such friendships with the Blackwoods and the Blacketts, complained that the paternalistic relationship she fell into with the elder Blackwoods, fueled by a constant need for funds to sustain her household, meant she could never bargain for high payments. Such paternalism certainly had a gender component: “I took what was given me and was very grateful,” she comments in her Autobiography.39 Even so, in terms of successful financial negotiations with publishers, Oliphant compared herself not to male counterparts but to Dinah Mulock (later Craig). Mulock, whom Oliphant introduced to Hurst and Blackett, negotiated successfully over payments for John Halifax, a best-selling novel, and her subsequent fiction; “she made a spring thus quite over my head with the helping hand of my particular friend, leaving me a little rueful.” Mulock was a publisher’s terror, however: “it was Henry Blackett who turned pale at Miss Mulock’s sturdy business-like stand for her money”40 – a masculine trait Oliphant presumably chose not to acquire.

Thus, when we raise the question of publishers’ impact on Victorian women’s writing, we must consider various factors: the period in which women published and its economic realities, the generic preferences of the firm and its readers, the personalities of both author and publisher, and the changing literary forms that enabled (or disabled) both men and women to place their work advantageously. Women writers often faced obstacles, as both Alexis Easley (“Making a Debut,” ch. 1) and Joanne Shattock (“Becoming a Professional Writer,” ch. 2) document, but those of high achievement usually found the ways and means to establish productive author-publisher relations.

4 Assuming the role of editor

Beth Palmer

From soliciting articles, managing a magazine’s finances and employees, and overseeing production, to maintaining a house style, proof-reading articles, providing contributions, and corresponding with readers, an editor’s responsibilities were complex and varied across different sectors of the press. The term “editor” itself only came to imply what this chapter addresses as its primary meaning – the conducting of a newspaper or periodical – early in the nineteenth century. Before 1800, an editor was someone who published or prepared the work of other writers, and such work is, of course, part of a newspaper or magazine editor’s remit. After 1800, the meaning of editorship, always elastic, might encompass roles that included financial investment, social networking, and the use of business skills as well as literary acumen.

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, many of the qualities of good editorship were characterized as masculine. Books and articles advising young women journalists how to succeed in the industry almost universally assume that the editor of periodicals (and other publications) will be a man. In Journalism for Women: A Practical Guide (1898), Arnold Bennett suggests that young women writers should “resolve to see your editor face to face” because it will be more difficult for him to say no “especially to a woman.”1 Even the female writer Frances Power Cobbe, while encouraging women to take up journalism, makes the same assumption. She cautions that “the disappointment and worry to an editor of erratic attendance and imperfect work must be enough to disgust a man with female contributors once and forever.”2

Even so, editing was in many ways well suited to the careers of women of letters in the Victorian period. Editing a magazine, unlike practicing a traditional profession – for instance, law and medicine, from which women were still chiefly excluded – could be carried out in domestic spaces or alongside familial duties. Rachel Beer (1858–1927), for example, often edited the Sunday Times (1821– ) newspaper from her home in Mayfair in the mid-1890s, and Ellen Wood (1814–87) edited and wrote much of the Argosy (1865–1901) confined to her invalid setting. Editing could also be combined with other jobs, and working methods could be tailored to an individual woman’s needs. One contributor was surprised at being summoned to see Charlotte Riddell (1832–1906) at her husband’s shop where she was “engaged in making out invoices” for his business while conducting her editorial work for St James’s Magazine (1861–1900).3 Some female editors adopted more professional spaces for their work. Henrietta Stannard (1856–1911) produced Golden Gates (1892–95, renamed Winter’s Weekly) from her office in Fleet Street, and the Langham Place Group had its own lively central London offices, which included a reading room and meeting spaces. Thinking about female editorship requires a relatively fluid understanding of professionalism in which the commercial and the social are interwoven.

If editors carried out multiple and shifting roles, how might we begin to further investigate female editorship in the Victorian period? What motivated women writers to assume editorial positions? How did women make and maintain networks of contributors – in the same way as men or differently – through family, friendship, and professional connections? Was the female editor, sometimes called an “editress,” exposed to different expectations from her male counterparts? Was she more likely to work in a niche market of the press than to edit a magazine or newspaper aimed at a general readership? Perhaps most problematic for the scholar is a question that applies both to male and female editorships: how to uncover editorial practices that are often concealed beneath the finish of a published magazine or newspaper. Publisher’s archives, editorial correspondence, and the visible work of editors (opening remarks, editorials, reviews, and answers to correspondents) all help the modern scholar reconstitute the work of the editor, but such sources are not always available. The editorial correspondence of a canonical male author such as Charles Dickens is much more likely to have been kept and catalogued than that of a little remembered female editor working in a specialist area of the press, such as Mary Anne Hearne (1834–1909) of the evangelical weekly Sunday School Times (1860–1925). Despite these difficulties, piecing together editorial activities, policies, and methods is worthwhile as it helps modern scholars understand a periodical’s goals and ideological position, for which the editor is ultimately responsible. In attempting to address these questions, this chapter introduces some classifications of editorship – celebrity, political, and collaborative – that aim to give a sense of the multiple ways in which women navigated this significant and complex role in the literary landscape of nineteenth-century Britain.

Celebrity and author-editors

The Victorian period saw many celebrity writers take on editorships: Frederick Marryat with the Metropolitan (1831–50), Charles Dickens with Household Words (1850–59) and All the Year Round (1859–95), W. M. Thackeray with the Cornhill (1860–1975), and women such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835–1915) with Belgravia (1867–99), Anna Maria Hall (1800–81) with St James’s Magazine (1861–1900), and Florence Marryat (Frederick’s daughter, 1833–99) with London Society (1872–98). In different ways, author-editors such as these bolstered their literary profile, decided what material would best complement their own work, and usually gained monetarily either directly through an editorial salary or by boosting the earnings from the serial (and later volume) editions of their novels.

The longest-serving novelist-editor of the nineteenth century was Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901), a woman who was not interested in celebrity for its own sake but for what it could do to help promote her Tractarian belief in the importance of the established Protestant church. She launched her Monthly Packet in 1851 and stayed in the editorial chair for thirty-nine years. When Yonge’s early novel became a best seller on publication in 1853, she soon capitalized on her newfound fame by asserting that the Packet was edited by “the author of The Heir of Redclyffe” (Yonge officially revealed her name as editor in 1881, but readers would have known her identity much earlier). Yonge’s celebrity was characterized by the creation of a direct and even intimate relationship between herself and her readers. Unlike many literary celebrities, she did not move to London or attend fashionable parties. Her life revolved around her writing and her parish duties, and she used her magazine to reach out to girls and young women across the country living similar lives. This sympathetic principle comes through clearly in the editorial introduction to the Monthly Packet:

It has been said that every one forms their own character between the ages of fifteen and five-and-twenty, and this Magazine is meant to be in some degree a help to those who are thus forming it, not as a guide, since that is the part of deeper and graver books, but as a companion in times of recreation, which may help you to perceive how to bring your religious principles to bear upon your daily life, may show you the examples, both good and evil, of historical persons, and may tell you of the workings of God’s providence both here and in other lands.4

By framing this highly companionate prefatory piece as an “Introductory Letter,” Yonge encourages a sense of dialogue between reader and editor, a sense that would be confirmed by the “Notices to Correspondents” on the last page of each issue, which offers a monthly reminder that correspondence is valued and responded to. Features such as the long-running “Conversations on the Catechism” or “Aunt Louisa’s Travels” continue the dialogic tone of a friend, mentor, or female relation. The first features a “Miss O” guiding, questioning, answering, and encouraging her pupils Helena, Audrey, and Mary in their religious enquiries; it is easy to imagine Yonge drawing on her own role as Sunday-school teacher while writing these features.

Within a short time of taking up her editorship, Yonge also assumed the role of literary mentor to many young women ambitious to become women of letters like her. She fostered a generation of contributors to the Monthly Packet by acting as “Mother Goose” for a young women’s writing society and helping them produce their own manuscript magazine entitled The Barnacle. Christabel Coleridge was one of the “goslings” who developed into Yonge’s protégée and later coeditor. She summarizes Yonge’s qualities as an editor:

I think her relation to us precisely exemplified that in which she stood to numberless other girls and young women who only knew her through her writings. The pleasure she took in all that pleased us, the guidance she gave without seeming to preach, the enthusiasm with which we regarded her, also inspired her readers and made them all her life a circle of friends.5

Key to her longevity was this sense that readers of the Monthly Packet felt as if they knew Yonge personally and were encouraged by the moral guidance and educational direction she offered. Aligning the magazine so closely with her own moral values and religious persuasions meant that the magazine, despite making some modernizing changes under new editorship, could survive only briefly without Yonge at the helm.

It was not just novelists but poets, too, who created celebrity through editorship or capitalized on their existing literary fame. Editorship of the expensive and lavishly illustrated early Victorian annuals was often reserved for literary celebrities, often female poets. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–38), Caroline Norton (1808–77), Louisa Henrietta Sheridan (?–1841), and the Countess of Blessington (1789–1849) are notable examples. The Countess of Blessington had become famous when her memoir Conversations with Lord Byron was released in 1834, capitalizing on his notoriety and bringing her into the social and literary spotlight. She edited both The Keepsake (1827–56) and The Book of Beauty (1833–47) for several years and contributed widely to other periodical publications. The first Book of Beauty she edited in 1834 featured her own portrait as its frontispiece. This clever move by Charles Heath, her publisher, created a strong link between the title, the new editor, and an image of beautiful, feminine gentility, which catered to the aspirations of its mostly female readers. But the Countess of Blessington was not just a figurehead editor; she contributed much poetry to the annuals she edited, and she relied on the remuneration she received as editor to alleviate financial difficulties. The Countess of Blessington’s celebrity status, along with her impeccable social skills, helped her acquire many sought-after writers. She entertained potential contributors personally at her dinners and soirées. The poet Thomas Moore found it hard to resist an invitation to contribute to one of her publications despite his horror of “Albumizing, Annualizing, and Periodicalizing”: “When persons like you condescend so to ask, how are poor poets to refuse?”6 Even when requesting contributors to make changes, she managed to soothe their egos. Frederick Marryat’s acquiescence equates her genteel femininity with her editorial expertise: “you may alter it [his story] in any way you think fit, as you have a nicer sense of what a lady will object to, than a rough animal like me.”7 Her editorial influence extended to female writers also; fellow editors Anna Maria Hall and Letitia Elizabeth Landon attest their willingness to produce their best work for an editor who balances high professional standards with elegant sociability.8

Several women writers used the currency of their well-known names to link to their own magazines. Mrs Ellis’ Morning Call (1850–52) provided further definition and exemplification of respectable female conduct, albeit in less didactic terms than publications such as The Women of England (1839) that had made Sarah Stickney Ellis (1799–1872) famous. Later in the century, the novelist Annie Swan (1859–1943) lent her name to the subtitle of Woman at Home: Annie S. Swan’s Magazine (1893–1920), although her publication reflects more visibly than Ellis’s the conflict inherent in a professional female editor advising women readers that domestic duties should surmount all others. The pulling power of an editor’s name might trouble social conventions, too. Eliza Cook capitalized on her enormous popularity as a poet to launch Eliza Cook’s Journal (1849–54) with the aim of educating and empowering men and women of the working classes. Henrietta Stannard, who served as the first president of the Society of Women Journalists, used her celebrity pseudonym as the writer John Strange Winter to raise issues of gender equality in Winter’s Weekly. Strong ideological convictions were often a prerequisite for female editors in a competitive publishing world in which periodicals might struggle to survive without a truly committed editor.

Political editorships

Membership in a political or activist group often presented opportunities for women to extend their personal convictions through editorship. Groups campaigning for sanitary reform, suffrage, and educational or employment opportunities often founded their own publications to promulgate their activities. Clementina Black (1853–1922), for example, worked for the Women’s Industrial Council, which in turn led her to become editor of its Women’s Industrial News (1895–1919), a magazine reporting on conditions in women’s work and campaigning for unionization, fair pay, and a minimum wage. Josephine Butler (1828–1906) took on several editorships associated with her reformist projects including the Shield (1870–1933) in connection with her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act and Dawn (1888–96), the publication of the General Federation for the Abolition of the State Regulation of Vice. Editors of these kinds of magazines often enjoyed the advantage of working with like-minded individuals for a target audience whose preferences in their reading material could, to some extent, be predicted by their political bent. But editors of specialized political magazines also faced the challenges of small circulation and could rarely attract prestigious contributors with high fees, having instead to rely on the variable talents of their colleagues and friends. The editors of political magazines seldom came from literary or publishing backgrounds; they had to learn the working practices of editorship on the job, and they worked with the reward of reform rather than remuneration in mind. Lydia Becker’s (1827–90) commitment to suffrage for women was expressed not only in her co-founding and editing of the Women’s Suffrage Journal (1870–90) but also her frequent subsidies that kept the publication afloat.

Eliza Sharples (1803–52), perhaps the earliest politically active woman editor, was committed to conveying her radical ideas to the widest possible audience. To that end, the “Discourse[s]” on subjects such as “A View of the Existing Human Mind” that opened each issue of her Isis (1832) were also delivered as lectures at the Rotunda, an important meeting place for freethinkers of all kinds in London. Sharples’s social, political, and religious reformism chimed precisely with those of her lover Richard Carlile, whose work she continued while he was imprisoned for publishing Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Another early political editor, Christian Isobel Johnstone (1781–1857), was much less likely to demonstrate her ideological commitments through ardent editorial polemics. Instead, when she took over editorship of the reformist Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1832–61) in 1834, she expressed her convictions on class reform and gender equality by encouraging contributions from the artisan classes and from female writers such as Mary Russell Mitford and Eliza Meteyard.

The Westminster Review (1824–1919), another distinguished reformist publication, similarly benefited from the hard work of a female editor, Marian Evans (1819–80), before her career as the novelist George Eliot began. Evans did the majority of the editorial work between late 1851 and 1854, although her friend and publisher John Chapman was the official editor at mid-century. Working on the review, Evans associated with reformers and intellectuals during the early 1850s and sought contributions from such stars as Harriet Martineau, J. S. Mill, and the Italian political exile Giuseppe Mazzini, writing to a friend in January 1852, “We are trying Mazzini on Freedom V. Despotism.”9 These writers, and others like them, were in sympathy with the Westminster’s political perspective; all could have sold their contributions for greater remuneration to other publications but chose the Westminster because of its political goals. Evans herself worked for nothing while staying in Chapman’s house on the Strand in London, something of a social hub for liberal intellectuals and women activists such as Barbara Leigh-Smith, who later helped found the Langham Place Group. Despite working without remuneration, Evans took the job very seriously, “stamping with rage” at typographical errors and offering Chapman detailed advice on all aspects of the periodical’s production from its prospectus onward.10 She did not, however, have control of the review’s finances and sometimes found Chapman’s disorganized business practices frustrating. Evans left the editorship in 1854 (to spend time in Germany with G. H. Lewes) but continued writing for the Westminster while her career as a novelist began to blossom. Editorship of a reformist magazine introduced the writer to people and ideas she may not otherwise have encountered.

Evans’s experience put her in a position to proffer advice when members of the Langham Place Group began their own periodical publications. She suggested to Bessie Parkes, editor of the English Woman’s Journal (1858–64), that “the more business you get into the Journal … and the less literature the better.”11 The English Woman’s Journal did contain some literary content, whereas its successors, the Englishwoman’s Review (initially edited by Jessie Boucherett, 1866–1910) and the Victoria Magazine (edited by Emily Davies and Emily Faithfull, 1863–80), took oppositional opinions on the compatibility of entertainment and serious-minded reformism. Although none of these publications was the official journal of a specific reform organization, the Langham Place Group had links with the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences, the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, and the Female Middle Class Emigration Society. Meetings and activities of these organizations were reported in Langham Place productions, particularly in the Englishwoman’s Review, and because they shared offices, opportunities for personal interactions between activist readers and editors arose. “A Woman’s Struggles: the True Account of an American Shorthand Writer” is prefaced by a headnote from the editor that gives a sense of an open and sympathetic editorial policy:

[Its writer] called at this office, and in the course of conversation gave a rapid sketch of her early difficulties. We urged our visitor to allow us to publish it in the Victoria Magazine, believing it impossible to estimate the good sometimes achieved by the simple narrative of another person’s persistent courage and ultimate success in some new business or profession.12

Emily Davies (1830–1921), at work on the English Woman’s Journal in the 1860s, however, found it less easy to find contributions. Letters to colleagues express her anxieties about the journal’s financial situation, which forced her to find a large percentage of the magazine’s content from contributors willing to write without remuneration. Other such financial difficulties pressed on the editorial team of the English Woman’s Journal; when it ceased publication, Davies worked instead on the Victoria Magazine, a vehicle that she and Emily Faithfull conceived as more likely to make a profit by giving its readers popular literature, as did the shilling monthlies with which they were competing.

This activist route had, by the end of the century, become a relatively well-trodden pathway into editorship for politicized women of the middle and upper classes – representing a trend of increasing importance for professional women. When Annie Besant (1847–1933) wrote to Charles Bradlaugh’s National Reformer (1860–91) seeking further information on the National Secular Society after losing her Christian faith, she set herself on a trajectory toward political editorship. On their first meeting, Bradlaugh saw that Besant was a committed reformer and encouraged her writing for the magazine. In her autobiography, she tells us that from 1877 until Bradlaugh’s death in 1891, she subedited “so as to free him from all the technical trouble and the weary reading of copy, and for part of this period was also co-editor.”13 Both Bradlaugh and Besant tied their publishing work to a dynamic activism that involved relentless speaking at institutions and lecture halls around the country. The two strands of her political career, she believed, worked together: “The written and the spoken word start forces none may measure, set working brain after brain, influence numbers unknown to the forthgiver of the word, work for good or for evil all down the stream of time.”14

When Besant became a socialist in 1887, however, she created an ideological rift between herself and her coeditor and recognized that she would need to sacrifice her editorial role for the Reformer to avoid the “inconvenience and uncertainty that result from the divided editorial policy of this paper on the question of Socialism.”15 Besant continued to write for the National Reformer, but she developed another editorial outlet that, although published from the same offices, was under her sole charge and could therefore more fully reflect her changing political convictions. In its early issues, Our Corner, a 6d magazine, was less radical in tone than audiences might have expected from Besant. Its sixty or so pages of content and illustrations contained much that was similar to many of the nonpolitical family monthly magazines available in the 1880s; it even set out a series of domestic features such as the “Gardening Corner,” “Chess Corner,” and “Young Folks Corner,” which addressed themselves to special interests within the family group. By the last two or three years of publication, however, Besant’s socialism had crystallized, and this commitment comes across much more strongly as the editorial underpinning of the magazine. The general interest and domestic features disappear to be replaced by verbatim reports of socialist lectures by activists such as Sidney Webb, articles such as “Comtism from a Secularist Point of View” and “The Transition to Social Democracy,” and prospectuses for the Fabian Society. The five-year run of the magazine tracks its editor’s shifting political convictions, although Bradlaugh himself remained a stalwart contributor.

Collaborative editors

In many ways, any and every editor is a collaborative worker. Thinking about editorship (and the production of periodicals more generally) as a collaborative process enables us to reconsider the sense of hierarchy that is often implied by the idea of single editors and their stable of contributors. Yet marital and maternal relationships were the basis for many strong editorial partnerships during the nineteenth century. Margaret Gatty (1809–73) was editor of the juvenile periodical Aunt Judy’s Magazine (1866–85), and her children, Juliana and Horatia, acted as contributors before assuming joint editorship at her death. Their first issue is touchingly prefaced by an endorsement of their mother’s editorial principles, which they “have endeavoured to follow … throughout these pages, in the service of those young readers whom she delighted to teach and to amuse.”16 Margaret and Beatrice de Courcy were another mother and daughter editorial partnership behind the Ladies Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance (1832–70), of which they were also the main contributors. One of the best-known editing teams of the nineteenth century was Samuel and Isabella Beeton (1836–65) who coedited the very successful Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1852–79) alongside their other publishing enterprises.

Some collaborations and networks seem rather nepotistic. For example, when Mary Cowden-Clark (1809–98) took up editorship of the Musical Times (1844– ) in 1853, she was taking control of a journal founded by her brother, J. Alfred Novello. Her work was also closely connected to that of her husband, Charles Cowden-Clarke, who briefly edited the Musical World, published by Mary’s father, the musician Vincent Novello. These sorts of familial arrangements were not unusual, and nepotism was a general feature of the press, regardless of gender. The long-running and influential Blackwood’s Magazine, for example, passed its editorship down the male line throughout the century, precluding the possibility that the prolific and loyal contributor Margaret Oliphant be given editorial responsibility for a major, general-readership magazine that she sought. For one unconnected writer in Blackwood’s Magazine, purporting to give “The Experiences of a Woman Journalist,” the insularity of the press debarred her entry entirely. Every editor she approached “had relatives and friends and fellow-workers of their own, ready and willing to take anything they had to offer. Why should they bother about outsiders?”17

But collaborative editorship could also be a valuable means by which women entered into editorial positions and wielded literary control. Looking back on their literary lives after his wife’s death, Samuel Carter Hall actively emphasizes the closely entwined nature of his work with Anna Maria Hall:

It is not easy for me to separate that which concerns her from that which belongs to me. We were so thoroughly one in all our pursuits, occupations, pleasures, and labours … producing our books not in the same room, but always under the same roof, communicating one with the other as to what should be or should not be done … It is no wonder that I find it difficult to separate her from me or me from her.18

Both husband and wife held several editorial roles: they coedited the Spirit and Manners of the Age (1826–29, continuing as the British Magazine, 1830), and Anna Maria Hall controlled a number of annuals and periodicals as solo editor, including Finden’s Tableaux (1837), the Juvenile Forget Me Not (1826–34), Sharpe’s London Magazine (1845–70) in the 1850s, and St James’s Magazine in the 1860s. Nonetheless, in his memoir Samuel Carter Hall somewhat patronizingly credits himself for finding his wife’s talent and providing her with an outlet for much of her early writing in his many editorial projects. He also places himself as her ultimate editor, suggesting that “whatever she wrote she rarely read after it was written, leaving it entirely for me to prepare it for the printer and revise proofs, never thinking to question my judgement as to any erasure or addition I might make.”19 Anna Maria Hall’s own writing often seeks to place her husband as a significant authority at the expense of her own fame, although we do get the occasional glimpse of disharmony between the two. She tells us,

I can also remember, how fearful my husband was that literature—its care, its claims, and its fame—would unfit me for the duties which every woman is bound to consider only next to those she owes her Maker. I daresay I was a little puffed up at first, but happily for myself, and for those who had near and dear claims upon my love and labour, I very soon held my responsibilities as an author second to my duties as a woman; they ‘dovetailed’ charmingly, and I have never found the necessary change to domestic from literary care, though sometimes laborious, not only heartfelt, but pleasant.20

Anna Maria Hall’s emphasis on her domesticity was not just a sop to please a husband anxious to assert his authority over their marital and professional lives. It was a strategic tactic in the publishing industry that highlighted her domesticity to readers to reassure them that her editorial priorities were compatible with those of wife and mother. In the introduction to the first volume of Sharpe’s London Magazine, she not only affirms the excellence of the contributions and the magazine’s good value but also states: “The Editor would entreat the attention of Parents to the fact that she watches every page with minute care, so that nothing can creep in that may not be read aloud in the domestic circle.”21 Here, and elsewhere in her editorial introductions, Anna Maria Hall places herself in a network of cooperative relations (with coeditors, contributors, publishers, and crucially readers). She does not wish to be seen as an editor functioning alone from the top.

Although Anna Maria Hall was not a supporter of women’s rights, the content of her journals frequently undermines any anxiety we might notice about professional female authority. She frequently sought to represent female capability and cooperation in her magazines. For example, in her own novel Can Wrong be Right?, (serialized in St James’s Magazine, 1861–62) the young heroine is beautiful, but her poor schoolmaster father refuses to let her rely on her feminine attractions, arguing,

I would give every girl a trade, a pursuit—yes, I would to the highest lady give what she can proudly rest upon, and say, “By this I can live—this art can save me, if the world goes mad, as it has done often … by THIS I can stand, and save myself from the degradation of want or dependence.”22

This message is replicated in nonfiction pieces such as “Something of What Florence Nightingale Has Done and Is Doing,” which argues that for women, as for men, “The first great principle of nature is WORK.”23 Perhaps most importantly, Anna Maria Hall followed these principles in her encouragement of younger women authors and editors. She provided valuable training for Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who went on to edit the shilling monthly Belgravia, and for Charlotte Riddell, with whom she jointly edited St James’s for the final year of her editorship before Riddell took full control and proprietorship in 1868.

Mary Howitt (1799–1888) took collaborative editorship even further than the Halls, coediting Howitt’s Journal (1847–48) with her husband and involving their entire family in its production. Writing to her sister just before the first issue appeared, she describes the plurality of the magazine’s production and the harmonious familial excitement it has engendered: “We are very, very busy, as on the 1st January comes out our own Howitt’s Journal … we are all in high spirits; and it is perfectly cheering to see how warm and enthusiastic people are about our journal.”24 Husband and wife wrote and solicited contributions while also arranging production and distribution; their daughter Anna Mary provided some of the illustrations for Howitt’s; and Mary Howitt used her regular feature “The Child’s Corner” to chronicle the early lives of her own younger children. Linda Peterson sees these examples of collaboration as part of Howitt’s attempt to “re-envision collaborative work and create a new kind of writing project that could encompass every family member.”25


The historical evidence shows that it was, then, feasible for women of letters to inhabit the role of editor while shaping it to suit their own working practices, ethics, and ideological commitments. Women editors of the nineteenth century were strategic operators in a shifting landscape of annuals, periodicals, and newspapers. All competed for an expanding base of potential readers and needed to keep pace with developments in technology and communications that were changing the shape of the publishing industry. These women made choices about how best to use any status they had; how to express literary, political, or religious convictions to their readers; and how to go about the daily work of editing to ensure a publication’s success (whether we attempt to gauge success in terms of sales, longevity, or influence). Irrespective of such measures, an editor’s choices affected the ways in which texts and images in their publications were received and understood by their readers.

Editors used their magazines to help make abstract concepts or identities concrete to their readerships: what it was to be Tractarian in one’s religious beliefs, what it was to abandon religion altogether, how one might turn political convictions into actions, or what being a leisured lady of the middle classes involved. But even with a periodical that had a coherent editorial policy and a relatively homogeneous readership, as with Yonge and her Monthly Packet, the periodical editor was always working within an ultimately miscellaneous format. For the modern scholar, the tensions and inconsistencies that sometimes spring from an editor’s selections are as important as any attempts at uniformity; indeed, such ideological tensions are part of what makes periodicals interesting and worthy objects of study. As we have seen, editors always worked in networks and often occupied other literary positions, and the content they were editing linked outward from serial novels or individual poems to volume editions, from reviews to the books reviewed, and from the current issue to the next week’s, month’s, or year’s. Exploring the work of a female editor will always open up new connections within the Victorian literary landscape and lead to unexpected avenues of research. As Besant suggested, editors spark interests and ideas; the best of them feed and shape those interests for their readers over periods of months and years, while simultaneously listening to what readers themselves want from the Victorian press.

5 Achieving fame and canonicity

Alison Chapman

The literary canon was (and indeed is) not static but rather a series of uneven formations that retell the literary past using a variety of sources. Literary excellence was established, for example, by publications that asserted, directly or indirectly, the significance and worth of the author: biographies, memoirs, and correspondence; elegies and obituaries; anthologies and collected editions of literary works. Literary criticism also assessed excellence, whether in periodical reviews or books of literary criticism. Other cultural indicators of esteem included prizes, honors, memorials, and monuments. Determining exactly which women authors were considered canonical by the Victorians is difficult, but the process by which authors were canonized uncovers important information about what the Victorians prized about both literature and gender.

The Victorians deployed the term “canonical” to denote an “admitted” and “accepted” standard of literary value (O.E.D. 4). These values were not just those of aesthetics; rather, literary value accrued through other factors, such as appropriate politics, genre status, gender decorum, class affiliation, geographical identification, and national affiliation and patriotism. Increasingly, as the century progressed, canonical status for women was contingent on representations of personality, as the cult of celebrity was fueled through the explosion of print media and an insatiable appetite for access to the lives of famous writers. Victorian women certainly became acclaimed authors during their lifetimes, but often this acclaim was contingent on the writer’s popular reception rather than her own significant interventions in literary culture. Professionalism and professional success, as with popularity in general, did not necessarily translate into lasting canonical status; indeed, canonization (as the term suggests) was ultimately a posthumous achievement. Thus for women writers, as for men, achieving literary status was often contingent on factors outside their control, including the posthumous assessment of biographers and critics mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, women writing as critics, reviewers, and biographers were invested in shaping a female literary tradition, and their efforts helped establish the canonicity of the prominent women writers who achieved status in the last fifty years of the century: Charlotte Brontë (1816–55), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61), George Eliot (1819–80), and Christina Rossetti (1830–94).

The Victorian marketplace and canon formation

What it meant to achieve acclaim was closely wrapped up in the production, circulation, and reception of literature, a business more hospitable to men than to women, based as it was in the public masculine sphere. Certainly, women’s authorship increased with the expansion of the book trade, and many women successfully negotiated this masculine sphere in terms of literary professionalism, as Joanne Shattock’s chapter (ch. 2) on “Becoming Professional” reveals. Yet achieving status in literary culture involved an accrual of value from external sources – through successful book publication, acclaim in literary reviews and criticism, and representation in high-profile anthologies and biographies – and, while women writers could often maximize their success in these modes in productive ways during their lifetimes, they could not control all the important markers of value.

For example, one of the distinctive markers of poetic status, the poet laureateship, was awarded on Wordsworth’s death in 1850 to Alfred Tennyson, and then after Tennyson’s death in 1892 to Alfred Austin (not considered a canonical poet even in his own day). Women poets were never serious contenders for this prestigious position, although Alice Meynell was nominated by Coventry Patmore in a Saturday Review column and Christina Rossetti was mooted as a possible successor to Tennyson. Jan Marsh, one of Rossetti’s recent biographers, terms her “the lost laureate.”1 It was only in 2009 that Carol Ann Duffy was appointed the first woman poet laureate, a fact that illustrates the long history of the exclusion of women from the literary canon, or at least this particular canon of official public acclaim.

The Victorian literary establishment, and the very business of publishing, privileged male writers. The most influential literary periodicals were published and edited by men; the chief publishing houses were owned by men (Alexander Macmillan, William Blackwood, John Murray, the Chambers brothers, and others); and many of the publishers’ readers of literature were male. Of course, there were exceptions. As Beth Palmer shows in ch. 4, women edited periodicals that helped shape literary taste, although often for a popular market (e.g., Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s editorship of the Belgravia from 1867 to 1876). Some women, such as Charlotte Brontë unofficially for George Smith and Geraldine Jewsbury officially for Richard Bentley, served as readers for publishing houses. And Emily Faithfull’s female-run and female-operated Victoria Press was founded in 1860. Thus, women had opportunities to participate in public literary culture as writers, reviewers, and editors, but their activity in the business of literature did not necessarily translate into the cultural capital of literary canonicity.

Because overt engagement in business of any kind was associated with the masculine sphere of public life, women writers’ superlative literary achievement often occluded acknowledgment of their professional activities. As Robert Southey famously advised Charlotte Brontë, “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation.”2 Thus for women, despite their advances in forging models of literary professionalism, achieving canonical status was represented in this period as a feature of their success as women writers – that is, as writers whose gender largely conformed to a middle-class ideology of femininity and domesticity. To put it differently, the status of women as writers in the period was unremarkable, so long as propriety was not flouted.

Linked to separate spheres ideology, Victorians assumed that certain kinds of writing were natural for women, such as affective, lyrical poetry and novel writing, because both genres were seen to draw on women’s apparently natural capacity for empathy. Victorians also acknowledged that writing itself was an activity open to all educated people; indeed, many popular periodicals (provincial newspapers and magazines such as Atalanta) relied on this belief to encourage and publish contributions from readers. But the notion of the “literary” – that is, an authoritative, acclaimed, and elevated standard of literature – was perceived as an entirely separate kind of writing, distinct from the amateur, ephemeral, or journalistic. Many of the genres in which women wrote did not meet this elevated standard.

There were some awkward moments when this evaluative distinction between writing and literature broke down – awkward in that they exposed the fragility of the distinction, despite energetic and voluminous attempts to assert the boundary of the literary. One case came in 1859 when the Burns Centenary prize of fifty guineas for the best poem on Robert Burns was awarded at a public celebration in the Crystal Palace in front of an audience of more than 14,000 people. A total of 621 poems had been submitted, within the stated length of 100 to 200 lines. The prize announcement was preceded by a concert, an unveiling of a new commemorative bust of Burns, and the display of relics associated with the poet. Implicitly, the winner of the best poem on Burns was associated with one of the most canonical poets of the previous generation, a venerated literary figure. The prize winner was announced, in front of an eager and rapt audience, as Isa Craig (1831–1903). After her poem on Burns was recited by an organizer of the event, as reported in The Scotsman for January 27, 1859, the audience called for the poet to reveal herself in person to receive acclaim (and her prize money), but no one appeared.3 In fact, according to The Scotsman, not only did Craig not appear that day, neither did she collect her check for fifty guineas, “from feelings either of timidity or poetic delicacy and pride.” One implication of this report is that Craig did not attend out of delicacy at popular associations of the canonical Burns with his reputation for sexual and other indiscretions, but looming even larger in this account is the indelicacy of a female poet accepting honors at such a public civic event.

At mid-century, when few women won any public literary honors or acclaim, the Burns Centenary Prize was a telling moment – and contrary to the myth of the acclaimed woman poet in Germaine de Staël’s 1807 novel Corinne, Or Italy. De Staël’s fictional poet-heroine Corinne receives public praise when crowned as laureate in the Forum at Rome. But in England, the separate spheres ideology that kept women in the domestic realm became more dominant in the early Victorian period, making Corinne’s own uncomfortable association of public acclaim and private unhappiness a more overt reason for disavowing public success. Women might win high-profile and lucrative literary prizes, but receiving acclaim in person and in public was indecorous. Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh (1856, date stamped 1857) registers this tension when the eponymous writer-heroine crowns herself privately in a garden with laurel leaves in a revision of Corinne’s Forum scene but is embarrassed when her male cousin catches her in the act.4 Later, when Aurora’s book of poems becomes a critical and commercial success in England, she receives the news of its acclaim in a letter sent to her in Italy (7: 551–71), but she denies that women care “for the crowns and goals / And compliments on writing our good books” (7: 742–43). In both cases, Barrett Browning underlines the discomfort that women writers feel with critical and popular success.

Isa Craig, winner of the Burns prize, was in fact one of the most prolific Victorian poets, publishing along with her 1856 collection Poems by Isa a huge quantity of periodical poetry, as well as novels and journalism. She was well connected in literary circles, prominent in the Langham Place Group, and an activist for women’s rights. Yet despite her official prize and her many publications in various print media and genres (including her editorship of The Argosy from its launch in 1865 and the prominent 1863 collection for the Victoria Press, Poems: An Offering to Lancashire), Craig was obviously not considered part of the Victorian literary canon. (Nor is she part of the teaching and research canon that we enjoy today.) Isa Craig, prolific, prizewinning, and successful as a professional writer, did not fit into the Parthenon of Victorian literary greats, partly because she was too much associated with mere professionalism and partly because her Scottish working-class origins made her hard to classify as a high-culture woman writer.

Beyond separate spheres ideology, another major feature of Victorian literary culture that affected women writers’ status was the medium of publication. The print media in which most Victorians read poetry – the newspaper and periodical press – featured a large proportion of women authors writing in their own names, pseudonymously, or anonymously. For example, in one of the longest-running periodicals that published poetry, the middle-class magazine Good Words, around a third of poems published between 1860 and 1899 are known to be written by women (and this does not include the pseudonymous and unsigned poems for which the gender of the author is currently unknown).5 Serial publication of fiction also dominated the periodical market as a prelude to book publication, often in three volumes for the circulating libraries. Yet publication in ephemeral print media was associated with lower-status, popular literature, whereas publication in book form was considered more distinguished. Nevertheless, serial and book print were closely related because many authors published in both forms and because the success of a book relied on the reviews and advertisements published in mass print media. Ironically, the process by which the canon was formed in the Victorian era involved, in large part, the popular periodical press, and yet the kinds of literary publications that were seen to be high status were invariably books.

Certain kinds of books, though, were valued over others because genre was also part of the hierarchy of status and achievement. Books of single-authored original poetry and novels published in book form were prized more highly than genres such as biography, memoir, children’s fiction, travelogues, or popular forms of publication such as anthologies, even though these genres and other media helped shore up ideals of literary excellence. As print culture and the reading public continued to expand, poetry and fiction were increasingly categorized according to their status as literary objects. Poetry by women was frequently assessed as “poetess” poetry, a category that implied hyper-feminine lyric effusions and domestic affections, and a term often used interchangeably with “woman poet,” as Susan Brown has argued.6 Sensation fiction by prominent novelists such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood was dismissed as popular and journalistic, its emergence attributed to the “violent stimulation of serial publication.”7

Although women poets experimented in a wide variety of forms, as did their male counterparts, their oeuvre was often evaluated not in terms of their innovations but for their achievements in “feminine” genres. At the end of the Victorian period, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was hailed, often along with Christina Rossetti, as the period’s preeminent British woman poet. The poetry for which Barrett Browning was praised, however, in criticism, biographies, and reviews was her lyrical and semi-autobiographical Sonnets from the Portuguese, rather than her epic Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning’s political poetry (Casa Guidi Windows [1851] and Poems before Congress [1860]), which dominated the final decade of her career and garnered criticism for breaking the model of the poetess because of its outspoken support of a political cause, the Italian Risorgimento, was largely ignored in assessments of her status after her death – despite the fact that her revisions of what a woman poet could achieve were hugely influential on the poets who followed her. Moreover, a publication that helped cement her canonical status – Frederic G. Kenyon’s two-volume 1897 edition of her Letters – excises many references to politics that dominated her letters after her move to Italy (a fact obvious when the edition is compared with the typescript in the British Library); Kenyon explains away any remaining political opinions she opines as a “hysterical” aberration caused by her illness.8 In his introduction, Kenyon suggests that the correspondence illustrates her “character” rather than her “genius” (1: ix), and then goes on to assess her poetic worth as part of her biographical persona: “her best poetry is that which is most full of her personal emotions” (1: x). He includes her Italian poems as well as Aurora Leigh on these grounds, and of course also Sonnets from the Portuguese. Ironically, the canonical status of this sonnet cycle was created, in large part, by a forged edition that Henry Buxton Forman and Thomas Wise published after Barrett Browning’s and Robert Browning’s deaths, widely referred to as the “Reading” edition because of its purported private printing in Reading, England.

Women writers most commonly received acclaim posthumously, often as a worth enshrined in the language of homage and tribute and a value that, as with the case of Kenyon’s assessment of Barrett Browning, was closely tied to gender conventions. Another example is afforded by the first major biography of Charlotte Brontë, written by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65). Gaskell, for the first time, fleshed out the context of the Brontës’ family life and its multiple tragedies, drawing heavily on Charlotte’s unpublished correspondence. The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857 by Brontë’s own publisher George Smith, suppressed many nonconventional details of Brontë’s life that would have affronted middle-class Victorian morality (especially given the contemporary reviews of her work that accused her of coarseness); it aimed, as Gaskell explained to her publisher, to inspire readers to “honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer.” As Linda Peterson argues, Gaskell’s biography aimed to reevaluate Brontë’s genius within middle-class gender norms, in particular arguing that Brontë was not “unwomanly” (a charge flung at her from the critics) but rather that she possessed a genius compatible with her deep sense of feminine virtue, domesticity, and duty.9 This representation of Brontë’s literary value proved extremely attractive to contemporary readers.

Charlotte had herself deployed biography to secure her sisters’ posthumous literary status in her “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” that prefaced the 1850 edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. Charlotte’s biographical account was the first to confirm definitely the writers’ gender as female, as well as to attempt to absolve both women from the charge of coarseness – first by representing Emily as a strange, wild romantic figure inspired by the landscape of the moors, and then by presenting Anne as a dutiful, innocent, and sensitive Christian woman. Biographical representation of these women writers’ lives was critical in securing their literary accomplishments and posthumous status. This often involved the suppression or retelling of controversy to satisfy dominant gender norms. Thus, what many critics registered as the uncomfortable strangeness of Wuthering Heights, its refusal to fit neatly into generic conventions, was explained as a product of Emily’s romantic yet naïve character: “stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”10 By explaining Emily’s novel in terms of its writer’s personality and environment, Charlotte implies that her sister’s writing was a reflection of her persona, a position reinforced with Charlotte’s “Preface” to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights.

Biographies of George Eliot, another woman writer whom contemporaries praised for greatness, appeared shortly after her death, and these, too, made a bid to secure the writer’s personal character and literary achievement. Mathilde Blind’s account, in the Eminent Women series, appeared three years after Eliot’s death in 1880, followed by the 1885 biography by John Cross, Eliot’s husband, in George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals; the latter was especially influential in shaping her posthumous persona because of his intimate access to its subject and her papers. Making a bid for canonical status, posthumous biographies of women writers often molded the writer’s persona and her works into the form acceptable to Victorian literary culture. This came at a cost of full disclosure. Cross, in his pitch to confirm Eliot’s genius, was eager to suppress details of her unconventional life, such as her long affair with the married George Henry Lewes. Contemporary readers, however, noticed his omissions; William Gladstone, for example, termed the biography “reticence in 3 volumes.”11 Moreover, Cross’s dry account of George Eliot’s life may have kept safe her acclaimed and highly moral place in Victorian fiction, but one consequence was to make her deeply unappealing for the next century until revisionist biographies uncovered her radicalism.

In the case of Christina Rossetti, such a conjunction of canonical literary worth with biographical representation established her as “Santa Christina,” a great woman poet who was, as Tricia Lootens argues, sanctified even while living because of her self-abnegating retreat from the public sphere and her sage religious writing. Rossetti was represented as performing her canonicity – and, indeed, given the term’s underlying religious connotations, she appeared to be sanctified even while publishing some of her most powerful later poetry (such as her 1893 Verses).12 After Rossetti’s death, this representation of her literary greatness, an estimate contingent on her saintliness, was affirmed by the Irish poet Katherine Tynan’s hagiographical essay for The Bookman in January 1912, entitled “Santa Christina.”13 As Lorraine Janzen Kooistra points out, even the approach to producing books by Christina Rossetti changed after her death, when her portraits began to appear as frontispieces to signify her saintly beauty and to underscore the personal in her poetry.14

Rossetti’s canonical status was further affirmed by a flourishing of posthumous essays, editions, biographies, and other memorials. For example, Henry Mackenzie Bell, who had sent his book of poems to Rossetti in October 1893, wrote a memorial poem just after Rossetti’s death on December 29, 1894, “To Christina G. Rossetti (Greater as a Woman than even as a Poet),” and sent it to the Literary World for publication on January 4, 1895. Having smoothed the way and proved his hagiographical credentials, on February 8, 1895, Bell offered to write Christina’s biography, and her brother William Michael accepted swiftly. With William Michael’s help and approval, Bell’s Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study (1898) effectively became the official biography. This was just one of the biographical accounts that flooded the market with praise of Rossetti’s piety and poetic achievements, but the speed with which Bell acted to memorialize her and his setting of womanly greatness above poetic genius represent a pattern intrinsic to the canonization of women writers. Literary status, conceived in this period as dependent on a writer’s genius but given only to women whose lives could be taken to demonstrate their exemplarity, was nonetheless produced and sustained by the book market.

How Victorian women writers shaped the canon

From the middle of the nineteenth century, women writers became more prominent in contributing to the discourse of canon formation. To begin with, women wrote biographies and literary studies of other women writers, and publishers developed book series designed specifically to assess and promote literature by women. One example, the Eminent Women series, edited by John H. Ingram and published by W. H. Allen, matched a contemporary biographer with a deceased woman writer, and women frequently contributed to the series: Mathilde Blind wrote on George Eliot (1883), A. Mary F. Robinson on Emily Brontë (1889), Charlotte Yonge on Hannah More (1888), and Lucy Madox Brown Rossetti on Mary Shelley (1890). In her introduction to the Brontë volume, Robinson self-consciously refers to the process of deciding what books are worthy of attention. She begins her biographical study by declaring that contemporary popularity does not often predict literary greatness: “there are, perhaps, few tests of excellence so sure as the popular verdict on a work of art a hundred years after its accomplishment.”15 For more recent authors, however, battles must be fought and reputations staked: “these we reserve to them for whom the future is not yet secure, for whom a timely word may still be spoken, for whom we yet may feel that lancing out of enthusiasm only possible when the cast of fate is still unknown, and, as we fight, we fancy that the glory of our hero is in our hands.”16 Robinson pitches her book as a fight to secure the victory of recognition for her subject, whom she admits is not popular and has untypical writer’s qualities. Brontë’s claim to canonical status is made by virtue of her “different class,” her “imagination of the rarest power” that is “fearless” and “passionate,” “narrower, but more intense” than that of other writers.”17 Even for Robinson, however, the logic of canonical inclusion is gendered: Brontë’s power as a writer depends on her exceptional difference, yet this artistic genius is nonetheless a product of her “high noble character” and her faithful record of her own experience. Indeed, Emily Brontë’s character and writing are so intermeshed that the claim to achieving literary status in this biography depends overtly on conveying accurately her persona: “to represent her as she was would be her noblest and most fitting monument.”18

Robinson’s biography partly depended on her access to previously unpublished material, including Ellen Nussey’s notes on Emily and Charlotte, as well as the Brontë family correspondence and literary manuscripts. Similarly, Blind’s biography of George Eliot and Lucy Rossetti’s on Mary Shelley in the same series drew overtly on unpublished material. Reaching the subjects through their papers was important at this time before letters and full editions were published. When Christina Rossetti was approached in April 1883 by Ingram to write a biography of Ann Radcliffe, Rossetti decided to decline after hunting fruitlessly for biographical material; she had already rejected a proposed volume on Elizabeth Barrett Browning (her preferred subject) because Robert Browning refused to give permission to view family documents. (Ingram himself wrote the volume on Barrett Browning.) The Eminent Women series suggests, by its very title, that a claim to literary distinctiveness and status is connected to gender. But the series also associates the women who wrote biographies with their precursors, and suggests that they were writing themselves into the canon when they participated in the formation of literary knowledge and women’s literary history. Robinson identified herself with Brontë’s Romanticism, Blind with Eliot’s Darwinism, and Rossetti with Mary Shelley’s place in a male artistic circle.

Other literary criticism, biographies, and histories that placed women writers in a prominent literary position similarly identified and categorized the writers primarily through their gender. Eva Hope’s Queens of Literature of the Victorian Era (1886) offers chapters on Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Felicia Hemans as varied examples of “queenly” writers, or paragons of their gender, in relationship with the queenly example of Victoria herself. While this rhetorical move might seem deeply conventional and even patronizing, Hope in fact deployed the queenly metaphor to argue for her women writers’ power and influence. For example, she concludes the chapter on Martineau by stating that “no woman, either before or since, has done so much for the people of England … She made it possible for women to fill more exalted positions and do nobler work than before.”19 Thus, rather than merely illustrating gender ideals, the women writers’ lives and works magnify and amplify the sphere of the woman writer.

Some books of criticism further implied that the claim for canonicity redefined the cultural expectations of women’s writing. At the end of her introduction to the anthology Women Poets of the Victorian Era (1890), Elizabeth Sharp declares: “who shall predict what women shall do in the future? Daily, yearly, prejudices are being broken down, fetters are falling off; women are being ushered into knowledge and to experiences of life through wider doors.”20 The attested aim of Sharp’s anthology is to “further emphasise the value of women’s work in poetry” and to prove “a steady development of intellectual power, certainly not unaccompanied by artistic faculty – a fact which gives further sanction to the belief that finer still work will be produced in future by women writers.”21 Sharp dedicated the volume to the feminist writer and campaigner Mona Caird (1854–1932), “the most loyal and devoted advocate of the cause of woman” – a dedication that underlines the cultural work the volume does in promoting the excellence of a body of women’s poetry defined by gender, and yet that aims to prove that the limitations of gender are being progressively dismantled.

Sharp’s critical appraisal of women’s poetry at the end of the century indicates the importance of anthologies in promoting a canon of Victorian women’s writing, as well as the importance of women in their role as editors. Indeed, women had a long tradition of editing literature, beginning with the prolific editing of literary annuals by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Mary Mitford, the Countess of Blessington, and others in the early Victorian period. Toward the end of the century, several anthologies defined the field as part of a wider attempt to articulate the achievement of poetry in the Victorian age – exemplified by Edmund Clarence Stedman’s Victorian Poets, which had a generous selection of women poets, and Alfred H. Miles’s The Poets and the Poetry of the Century, Charles Kingsley to James Thomson, which did not.22 Women novelists, too, produced anthologies that consolidated their achievements in fiction – as in Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign (1897), a collection of “appreciations” written by living novelists about the achievement of earlier women. The “Publishers’ Note” underscores the aim of the collection to commemorate and canonize: “the eminence and permanence of the Brontës, George Eliot, and Mrs. Gaskell”; “the popularity of Mrs. Craik and Mrs. Henry Wood”; “Mrs. Crowe and Mrs. Clive [as] pioneers in domestic and ‘sensational’ ficton”; and so on.23

In addition, women played an active role as literary reviewers in periodicals and newspapers, an activity that often evaluated criteria for establishing literature’s value and worth. Important examples include the unsigned essays by George Eliot for the Westminster Review (most famously her 1856 “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”) and Geraldine Jewsbury’s and later Augusta Webster’s reviews for the Athenaeum (see Joanne Wilkes’s chapter [ch. 16] on reviewing for other examples).24 The practice of anonymity in the press meant that women could write with the same authority as male reviewers, although it also meant that the capacity of women as literary critics, able publicly to evaluate and shape value and taste, was hidden. After the 1860s, the practice of anonymity, which had privileged the personality of the periodical above the identity of the writer, became less common. Nonetheless, women writers continued to publish reviews and essays about female contributions to the canon, often claiming the authority of their own gender to adjudicate the achievements of women’s writing. Amy Levy’s influential signed essay on Christina Rossetti for Woman’s World (1888) was part of the magazine’s promotion and publication under editor Oscar Wilde of contemporary women’s poetry to demonstrate its artistry and spirit of the age to a middle- and upper-class female audience. Levy, who published five of her own poems in Woman’s World, judges the artistry of Rossetti’s poetry as “not great” but “good” but again asserts Rossetti’s uniqueness as a poet, overtly aligning her with the poetry of her brother Dante Rossetti.25 Levy’s critique of Christina Rossetti seems to be heavily qualified, yet the fact that her precursor’s poetry is given serious literary evaluation in comparison to other literary greats such as her brother (as well as the male poets Shelley and Coleridge) should be juxtaposed to the tendency (as the scholarship of Alexis Easley demonstrates) to celebrate women writers in the popular press as celebrities whose value rests on transient popularity.26 As this chapter has noted, literary status and contemporary popularity are not the same. Wilde pointed to this irony when he termed the series “Men of Letters” (published by Macmillan) and “Great Writers” (published by Walter Scott) as “cheap criticisms” in “cheap books.”27

The prominent activity in the last decades of the century to produce a literary canon of the age included the evaluative capacity of women as editors and critics, but this must be understood in the context of a mass of critical studies and anthologies that attempted to define the status of the literary. Some of those attempts, such as Miles’s Poets and the Poetry of the Century (1891–97), which he terms “an Encyclopædia of Modern Poetry” (1: iii), devote only one out of ten volumes specifically to women poets (volume 7, “Joanna Baillie to Mathilde Blind”). One of the most ambitious projects to define literary worth, the voluminous series “English Men of Letters” edited by John Morley, and published from 1879 to 1942, issued the vast majority of its volumes on male writers throughout English literary history. Morley included three women writers: George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Christina Rossetti. Although women did not fit easily into the category “Men of Letters,” a distinctly masculine term for the literary canon, they did achieve canonicity and recognition in this series. Nonetheless, in most Victorian discourses of literary acclaim, women writers were evaluated primarily in terms of their gender.

Women writers were well aware of the gender ideology that defined their work within norms of femininity and middle-class decorum. Since the feminist recovery of a canon of women’s writing in the last decades of the twentieth century, critics have identified strategies by which women writers were able to achieve success by negotiating gender conventions and sometimes subverting them. Victorian women writers themselves registered the logic of gender and writing, by which women were assumed to write as women; for example, Barrett Browning termed Aurora Leigh “an autobiography of a poetess—(not me)”; Augusta Webster’s essay “Poets and Personal Pronouns” asserts “as a rule, I does not mean I.”28 Pseudonyms that implied a male writer (George Eliot) or that were ambiguously gendered (Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell) aimed to protect women writers from judgments of literary worth based on gender. One of the ironies of the digital revolution, which has made out-of-copyright Victorian texts widely available on the web, is a new reckoning of literary value that comes with this recovery, which now must take into account the fact that many women writers concealed or disguised their identities in ways that make a quantitative reassessment of Victorian women’s writing extremely challenging, if not impossible. In the current critical reformations of Victorian literary histories, negotiating gender conventions continues to play a crucial if problematic role.


1 Making a debut

2 Becoming a professional writer

3 Working with publishers

4 Assuming the role of editor

5 Achieving fame and canonicity

Figure 0

Figure 1. “The Fraserians,” Fraser’s Magazine 11 (January 1835), 2–3.

Figure 1

Figure 2. “Regina’s Maids of Honour,” Fraser’s Magazine 13 (January 1836), 80.

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