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.

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