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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2010

Galia Ofek*
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This essay examines the ways in which New Woman novelists and their critics negotiated and revised Victorian literary canons in the 1880s and 1890s in light of the controversial publications of the Higher and feminist critics of the Bible. It explores the relationship between nineteenth-century literary and religious canons and the ways in which New Woman writers both drew on and intensified contemporary debates on canonicity. While literary canons are often perceived as allowing the possibility of adding new or re-evaluated works whereas biblical canonization seems final and definitive, nineteenth- century discoveries of early, non-canonical Christian writings and fragmentary gospels such as Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary profoundly problematized late-Victorian understandings of the process of canonicity. The growing recognition of the historical significance of such fragments, as well as fierce theological debates in the leading magazines of the day, highlighted canonization as a political procedure which enforced internal coherence and unity at the expense of cultural diversity. Many writers suggested that canonization involved a repression of ideological controversies and a marginalization of competing narratives, a process which was both dramatized and redressed in New Woman fiction. The scholarship that turned to the era before the biblical canon had been sealed explored the conditions which made it final and unassailable, enabling feminist novelists to examine canonicity imaginatively and critically. By drawing attention to the essentially historical and political forces that governed processes of canon formation, New Woman writers sought to expose the narrowness and the limitations of the literary canon within and against which they worked.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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