A Year upon the Sofa

Dinah Birch

  • Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists by Valerie Sanders
    Macmillan, 249 pp, £42.50, September 1996, ISBN 0 333 59563 7

Anti-feminist women puzzle and infuriate their feminist sisters. How can a capable and rational woman persuade herself to oppose a cause from which she has gained so much? Is it self-hatred, or misguided self-interest? Craven subservience to men, or mean-minded jealousy of the success of other women? Understandably, feminist scholars have often preferred to focus on the onward march of liberation, rather than the perversities of female resistance to women’s advance. Yet the story of anti-feminism is a fascinating one, and we can scarcely understand the debates that have pushed feminist thinking forward without giving it some serious attention. Historians of Victorian women’s writing have found this a particularly unappealing task. George Eliot’s steady opposition to women’s suffrage is an embarrassment, and it is not encouraging to find Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell united in their distaste for the robust feminist arguments of John Stuart Mill. ‘In short, J.S. Mill’s head is, I dare say, very good, but I feel disposed to scorn his heart,’ sniffed Charlotte in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. ‘Woman must obey,’ Christina Rossetti wrote in 1879. ‘Her office is to be man’s helpmeet.’ These are not popular sentiments in the 1990s. Yet no one would wish to deny the intelligence, courage or reforming imagination of these women.

Valerie Sanders approaches her controversial subject with caution, sometimes almost with apology. She is painfully worried that she might be identified with the enemies of feminism. Guarding herself against any such misapprehension, she insists that binary division (feminism, anti-feminism) has insufficient intellectual foundation. Complication is both her primary defence and the substance of her argument. This leads to a rather muffled methodology, carefully lagged with qualification, accumulated detail and textual description. What Sanders emphasises throughout are the contradictions that Victorian ambivalence towards the ‘woman question’ involved, and the difficulty of categorising the changing positions of the women whose writing she analyses. The four novelists singled out here – Charlotte M. Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, Eliza Lynn Linton and Mary Augusta Ward (or Mrs Humphry Ward, as she characteristically called herself) – were all exceptionally productive, respected and widely read. Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) was a phenomenal bestseller, while Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888) has a good claim to be the greatest commercial success of the 19th century. But their reputations have not worn well, and this, too, helps to neutralise some of the hazards of Sanders’s territory. Since modern admiration and attention have not been heavily invested in their work, 20th-century self-esteem is less likely to be jarred by exploring their rejection of feminist thought.

Many of the contradictions she exposes in the anti-feminism of these relatively unfamiliar writers can, however, also be seen in the work of their more celebrated contemporaries. Chief among these is the disparity between theory and experience. No doubt Christina Rossetti was sincere in asserting that woman should serve man; but she persistently declined to marry, and the chief service of her own life was given to women (her mother, aunts and the fallen women of the St Mary Magdalene Penitentiary in Highgate). George Eliot’s novels advocate self-abnegating domesticity for women, while Marian Evans chose a stelwartly self-supporting life in intellectual London, devoted herself to her writing and earned substantial helpings of adulation and income. Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell were also resolutely independent and ambitious, and succeeded in hammering out public careers against considerable odds.

This split is equally marked in the novelists examined by Sanders. Charlotte Yonge came closest to consistency, dedicating herself to the interests of the Anglican Church throughout her life, donating her literary earnings to charity (she bought a schooner, the Southern Cross, to promote missionary endeavours in Melanesia) and largely confining her social life to family activities. Like Christina Rossetti, however, she chose not to marry. In 1851 she founded the Monthly Packet, a journal intended to form the characters of young women and make them loyal daughters of the Church of England, and was its editor for the next 39 years. Her journalism was far from radical, intended as it was to demonstrate ‘how to bring your religious principles to bear upon your daily life’. But it provided Yonge with a potent public role. She established a retinue of ‘Goslings’ – young girls who would exchange competition questions and answers organised by Yonge as ‘Mother Goose’. Mary Ward was for a while an unlikely Gosling. The goslings of Yonge’s fiction are consistently chastised and punished for their ambitions, most notably in The Clever Woman of the Family (1865). Rachel Curtis, the spirited heroine of the novel, makes mistakes which lead to a series of sensational catastrophes, including the death of a girl from diphtheria. In spite of these mishaps, she is courted by the heroic Alick, fresh from winning the Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny. The chastened Rachel at last renounces intelligence: ‘I am not fit to be anything but an ordinary married woman, with an Alick to take care of me.’

Margaret Oliphant’s stubborn adherence to the traditional marriage plot suggests the natural propriety of the patriarchal family, supported and protected by its male head. Her copious journalism is consistently sceptical about feminist protest: ‘Equality is the mightiest of humbugs ... God has ordained visibly, by all the arrangements of nature and of providence, one sphere and kind of work for a man and another for a woman.’ Despite this hectoring self-abasement, she made herself head of her own family throughout her life as a writer, providing for a succession of feckless and incapable men who could not earn a living for themselves, still less for anyone else. Eliza Lynn Linton, now notorious for her vituperative Saturday Review attacks on the vulgarly self-reliant ‘Girl of the Period’, found marriage intolerable, and lost little time in ridding herself of her untidy and generally bothersome husband. Her most intense emotional relationships were with other women. Mary Ward, the stoutest opponent of campaigns for a political role for women, founded the Anti-Suffrage Review in 1908, the mouthpiece of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She worked tirelessly to thwart ‘the rash and ruinous experiment of the Parliamentary vote for women’. Yet she was keenly interested in politics throughout her life, took a prominent part in the political establishment of the day and in her vigorous response to President Roosevelt’s request for an account of England’s labours in the Great War (England’s Effort, 1916) did much to convert America from its initial reluctance to involve itself in European conflict. Like Oliphant, she dominated and provided for the male members of her family, something her troubled and often defeated female characters are never allowed to attempt.

Commercial pressures clearly played a part in these discrepancies. In giving extended space to the journalism produced in abundance by these novelists, Sanders reminds us of the settled male domination of the major periodicals throughout the 19th century and beyond. Even George Eliot, who became in effect the editor of the Westminster Review, was more or less unpaid for her work, and could only function under the cover of John Chapman’s nominal headship. Needing the income generated by journalism for themselves and their dependants, Oliphant, Linton and Ward could not afford to alienate the men who commissioned their articles, read them and paid for them. Vehement feminism would not put food on the table. The money that flowed from the sensation caused by ‘The Girl of the Period’ (GOP, as she soon became known – there was even a GOP magazine) was vitally important to Linton, just as the sales of The Heir of Redclyffe and Robert Elsmere established the literary position and earning power of their authors. All of these writers are more explicitly anti-feminist in their journalism than in their fiction. The nuances of a lengthy novel can allow for uncertainty and a broader range of questions than are appropriate or possible in the bluff and hasty world of polemical journalism. Even in their fiction, however, these women wanted and needed to reach a wide family readership, and could hardly hope to prosper in the marketplace on the basis of feminist radicalism. Entry into the avant garde tends to be accompanied by small audiences in formative years, and guaranteed private incomes. Yonge’s determination to function as Anglican missionary to her sex ruled out ideological experiment; financial necessity made it impractical for Oliphant, Linton and Ward.

It is not an accident that these four women all confined their writing to forms that could secure a broad appeal: journalism and the novel. They were in no position to be aesthetic or political innovators. Nor is it coincidental that they each accomplished a great deal, far more than could have been expected in their often unpropitious early years. Their fame and fortune might be hard-won and unnervingly precarious, but their exertions (each was a formidably disciplined worker) had enabled them to scale remarkable heights. Success leads to conservatism. They had taken charge of their own lives and, whatever the iniquities of the system, it had yielded them status, wealth and power. ‘What are these tremendous grievances women are still labouring under, and for which the present Parliament is not likely to give them redress?’ mused Mary Ward. Whatever they were, she had not allowed them to get in the way of her own remorseless progress. It should hardly surprise us that she was not eager to overturn a social order that had proved so compliant to her demands.

Yet neither Ward nor her anti-feminist contemporaries were nearly as complacent, or simple-minded, as some of their public pronouncements can make them sound. In novel after novel, they voice the frustrations of women. Limited choices entrap their young heroines, and their search for fulfilment results in a variety of compromised and often unsatisfactory outcomes. The inadequacy of women’s education was a recurrent grievance. Mary Ward, whose campaign for the furtherance of women’s higher education predates her work against their enfranchisement and had more lasting results (she was one of the founders of Somerville College in Oxford), expresses again and again a sense of injustice at the unequal education given to boys and girls. ‘Girls took their chance. With a boy, of course, one plans ahead.’ If women were unfit for anything more than domesticity, Mary Ward’s novels often suggest that erratic education, rather than a deficient female nature, was largely to blame.

Whatever the untrained foolishness or frivolity of Victorian women, these fictions make it clear that they could not depend on strong and sensible men to rescue them. Oddly enough, the books are consistently preoccupied with the weakness of men. Even Charlotte Yonge, closest to unequivocal support for the status quo, tends to present a rather drooping and enervated brand of hero, disconcertingly ready to succumb to sickness, injury and untimely death. As ready to nurse as to be nursed, they often seem more feminine than masculine. The worthy Sir Guy Morville of The Heir of Redclyffe is especially approved for his expertise in the sickroom, ‘with his tender hand, modulated voice, quick eye and quiet authority’. His own pious deathbed was the emotional high-point of the novel. Dashing Alick has been quite worn out by his military exploits, and spends a good part of The Clever Woman of the Family in a state of exhaustion. Like Guy, he turns out to be an outstanding nurse, and it is this rather than his war record that eventually wins Rachel’s hand: ‘It was not for nothing that he had spent a year upon the sofa ...’ The blurred boundaries of gender in Yonge’s fiction show how her Tractarian position confuses her anti-feminism. For both men and women, Christian virtue (there was no other kind, in her view) meant patience, submission and self-sacrifice. These were qualities traditionally associated with femininity. Women may be vanquished in her novels, but the feminine is triumphantly vindicated.

Her varied and prolonged experience of male incompetence made Margaret Oliphant especially reluctant to cast men in the role of saviours. Her heroes (hardly the right word for the male protagonists who worry and waver through her pages) are often allowed to be charming. But predatory Byronism is beyond them, and they require ‘a vast deal of propping up and stimulating, to keep them with their front to the world’. Neither wicked nor dangerous, they were just too feeble to cope with the New Woman. Oliphant became convinced that man, not woman, was ‘the suffering member; and he is generally a good and contented creature, satisfied with very little, almost too kind and compliant with the endless requirements of the woman who is never satisfied whatever happens’. Like Yonge, she sounds as though she is describing women, not men. Oliphant feared that the victory of feminism could well finish males off altogether; and since, in spite of their disappointing frailty, she was rather fond of men, this made her wary of the whole project.

Such perplexities have not disappeared. The repudiation of feminism in these powerful Victorian writers is readily observable in many successful women today. In public and in private, they are inclined to express contempt for feminist complaint, as if to disclose any sympathy would prejudice their own strength. More domesticated types suspect that the doubtful prospects of less than heroic husbands and sons might evaporate entirely if feminism has its way. The ‘confused allegiances’ tentatively traced by Sanders make dispiriting reading, but they are still inextricably bound into the fabric of women’s lives.