“She fought for Women: yet with women fought.” In this extract from his obituary of conservative Victorian novelist Eliza Lynn Linton (Queen, July 23, 1898), Walter Besant encapsulates profound contradictions in the lives and careers of Victorian women novelists regarding what the Victorians called the “woman question,” the ongoing Victorian discussion about woman's nature and societal role. This same duality is now evident among contemporary feminist critics working to reclaim forgotten Victorian female novelists. In effect fighting both for and with Victorian women writers, they often instead actually hinder their entrance into the canon.
Women writers dominated the vast novel market in Victorian England. Yet from the hundreds of women novelists popularly and critically admired in the nineteenth century, twentieth-century critical conversations have revolved around the canonical few: George Eliot, Emily and Charlotte Bronté, and, more recently, Elizabeth Gaskell. Here I argue that Victorian women novelists' inherently complicated and conflicted positions on the “woman question,” in conjunction with the evolving horizon of expectations toward what we now call feminism, are responsible for their noncanonical status. By recognizing unconscious prejudices, we may now give renewed and sustained critical attention to neglected novels by Victorian women.
We might expect Victorian novels by women to benefit from the interest of feminist critics in the Victorian period in general and Victorian women in particular. Studies by critics such as Nancy Armstrong and Mary Poovey have provided important perspectives on conventionally acclaimed women novelists such as the Brontés.