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Dinah Birch, 12 May 1994

Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Inter-war Britain 
by Susan Kingsley Kent.
Princeton, 182 pp., £18.95, March 1994, 0 691 03140 1
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... Do women want equality? To the militant suffragettes campaigning before August 1914, the answer was self-evident. They wanted equality badly, and were ready to do battle for it. The aggressive action which backed their polemical crusade was designed to demonstrate possession of virtues previously considered to be essentially masculine: the capacity for public action and rational argument, physical courage, a ruthless drive for justice ...

Situations Vacant

Dinah Birch, 20 October 1994

The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below 
by Bruce Robbins.
Duke, 261 pp., £13.95, June 1993, 0 8223 1397 9
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... It must be many years since any girl spoke of going into service. The language of labour has changed. Farm workers are now described as full-time agricultural technicians; kitchen maids have turned into catering assistants. Thinking about what service was like, and how it was represented in language and literature, is a way of thinking about deep transformations in our culture ...

Old Lecturer of Incalculable Age

Dinah Birch: John Ruskin, 10 August 2000

John Ruskin: The Later Years 
by Tim Hilton.
Yale, 656 pp., £20, March 2000, 0 300 08311 4
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... Tim Hilton’s foreword to the concluding volume of his biography of Ruskin is intimate and magisterial in a way that would seem presumptuous in anyone else. But Hilton has worked with Ruskin since the early 1960s and no one has a deeper understanding of either him or his writing. In the first volume, published in 1985, Hilton made it clear that the later life was to be the real focus of his biography: ‘I believe that Ruskin was a finer writer and, if I dare say so, a better man, in the years after 1860 and especially in the years after 1870 ...

Out of the house

Dinah Birch, 30 August 1990

The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 
by Janet Todd.
Virago, 328 pp., £12.99, April 1989, 0 86068 576 4
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Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian Britain 
by Mary Poovey.
Virago, 282 pp., £12.99, February 1989, 1 85381 035 5
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The Woman Question. Society and Literature In Britain and America, 1837-1883: Vols I-III 
edited by Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets and William Veeder.
Chicago, 146 pp., £7.95, February 1989, 0 226 32666 7
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Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood 
by Cynthia Eagle Russett.
Harvard, 245 pp., £15.95, June 1989, 9780674802902
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... How can women come to a better understanding of their cultural situation? What needs to be changed, and why? The questions are as urgent as ever, despite wishful rumours to the contrary. Numerous books about women continue to appear, offering diverse models of thought to those looking for counsel. Psychoanalytical and deconstructionist critics have been among the most glamorous figures in the crowd, encouraging women to examine the complex linguistic processes that compose feminine subjectivity ...

Feminist Perplexities

Dinah Birch, 11 October 1990

Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture 
by Jane Miller.
Virago, 194 pp., £14.99, September 1990, 0 86068 943 3
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... Not so long ago, the most prestigious intellectual work, in the arts as in the sciences, was supposed to be impersonal. The convention was that the circumstances in which such work was produced – the age, gender, class, race or education of its producer, the institutional life which fostered it – all disappeared under a cloak of learned neutrality once it was published ...

Grubbling

Dinah Birch: Anne Lister, 21 January 1999

Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority. The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings 1833-36 
edited by Jill Liddington.
Rivers Oram, 298 pp., £30, September 1998, 1 85489 088 3
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... Anne Lister was undoubtedly one of the most unorthodox women of the early 19th century. She was an active and entirely unashamed lesbian, a scholar, a dauntless traveller and a resourceful businesswoman. As an example of what female tenacity could achieve in the pre-Victorian period, she might be seen as a fortifying ideal. But she was also manipulative and snobbish, often careless of the welfare of her tenants and labourers, and a belligerent ultra-Tory ...

One of the Cracked

Dinah Birch: Barbara Bodichon, 1 October 1998

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel 
by Pam Hirsch.
Chatto, 390 pp., £20, July 1998, 0 7011 6797 1
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... Like many forceful Victorian women, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon had a strong father and an obscure mother. Benjamin Smith, known in the family as ‘the Pater’, came from a formidable line of radical activists who had campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, and fostered projects for educational and political reform. Capable and self-assured, he combined progressive liberalism with a sharp eye for business ...

Descent into Oddness

Dinah Birch: Peter Rushforth’s long-awaited second novel, 6 January 2005

Pinkerton’s Sister 
by Peter Rushforth.
Scribner, 729 pp., £18.99, September 2004, 0 7432 5235 7
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... Using literature as a way out of your life carries less of a stigma than lager or Grand Theft Auto. It’s understood as a mark of educated cultivation, not wilful indulgence or evasion. Yet reading, like every other exercise of the imagination, can be abused, can turn into an addiction. The connection between this and other kinds of abuse is something that Peter Rushforth has been thinking about for a long time ...

His Greatest Pretend

Dinah Birch: The man behind Pan, 1 September 2005

Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J.M. Barrie 
by Lisa Chaney.
Hutchinson, 402 pp., £20, June 2005, 0 09 179539 7
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... The notorious refusal of J.M Barrie to leave boyhood behind was perverse and, in the end, destructive. Yet it became the foundation of his success, as a widely celebrated playwright, a wealthy baronet, and a leading figure in literary London. The stories and plays that led to these grown-up dignities were, as he understood them, grounded in a child’s make-believe ...

Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch, 25 June 1992

Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance 
by Richard Jenkyns.
HarperCollins, 363 pp., £20, November 1991, 0 00 223843 8
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... There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose ...

Interdisciplinarity

Dinah Birch, 27 June 1991

The Desire of My Eyes: A Life of John Ruskin 
by Wolfgang Kemp, translated by Jan Van Huerck.
HarperCollins, 526 pp., £20, March 1991, 0 00 215166 9
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... It has never been easy to place Ruskin. In his own lifetime, his influence was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about. The dislocation has continued since his death. As far as the mainstream disciplines in Britain are concerned (his legacy in America is a separate story), he has always seemed tangential. The works have become a kind of multiple service industry, studied in part and for divergent reasons ...

Invalided home

Dinah Birch, 21 October 1993

The Eye in the Door 
by Pat Barker.
Viking, 280 pp., £14.99, September 1993, 0 670 84414 4
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... Working-class memory generated Pat Barker’s writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life’, Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker’s work than that ...

The Iron Way

Dinah Birch: Family History, 19 February 2015

Common People: The History of an English Family 
by Alison Light.
Penguin, 322 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 1 905490 38 7
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... Children​ often envy orphans. But the appeal of stories of parentless heroes who are free to make their own luck fades as the fluid possibilities of youth harden into adulthood. The quirks and prejudices of family life start to seem fascinating, or admirable. We hanker after a clearer picture of the vanished men and women who gave rise to our parents’ lives, and our own ...

Proper Ghosts

Dinah Birch: ‘The Monk’, 16 June 2016

The Monk 
by Matthew Lewis.
Oxford, 357 pp., £8.99, January 2016, 978 0 19 870445 4
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... In the early 1980s​ , before hitch-hikers disappeared from the roads, I gave a lift to a couple of teenage Goths on the way to Stratford-upon-Avon. Their cheerful conversation was reassuringly at odds with their get-up (black hair, white faces, silver skulls dangling from their ears). I wondered whether they might see a connection between Hamlet’s nighted colour and their own style, but, being natives of Stratford-upon-Avon, they had been force-fed Shakespeare all their lives and heartily wished he’d chosen some other birthplace ...

The Perfect Plot Device

Dinah Birch: Governesses, 17 July 2008

Other People’s Daughters: The Life and Times of the Governess 
by Ruth Brandon.
Weidenfeld, 303 pp., £20, March 2008, 978 0 297 85113 4
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... Governesses don’t wear ornaments. You had better get me a grey frieze livery and a straw poke, such as my aunt’s charity children wear.’ George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth is sour because it looks as though she will have to support her family by teaching the daughters of a bishop, but most would have shared her depression at the prospect. The efforts of the governess were exploited and undervalued ...

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