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Joanne Wilkes, Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot

Claire Bazin
p. 197-201
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Joanne Wilkes, Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain. The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, Farnham, Ashgate, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7546-6336-2

Texte intégral

1The title of the book is self-explanatory. The study focuses on female criticism of novels written by the three most prominent writers of the period. The eight critics, with whom Joanne Wilkes is concerned here, appear in chronological order: Maria Jane Jewsbury (1800–1833), Sara Coleridge (1802–1852), Hannah Lawrance (1795–1875), Jane Williams (1806–1885), Julia Kavanagh (1824–1877), Anne Mozley (1809–1891), Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897) and Mary Augusta Ward (1851–1920). Some of them were also writers themselves. In this in-depth, extensive and pioneering study, Wilkes defines a sort of common ground for women writers whose predicament was more or less the same, i.e. writing when you were a woman, as it was seen as a transgression, a breach of the most sacred duties of womanhood. Wilkes quotes Southey’s notorious advice to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life” (63).

2Hence the frequent adoption of male or neutral pseudonyms, such as Currer Bell for Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot for Mary Ann Evans, or anonymity for some of the critics (Jewsbury for example) lest they may be judged too harshly by their male counterparts. Mozley and Oliphant “adopted overtly male personae” (159). What Joanne Wilkes excels at is pinpointing the subtle differences and distinctions in women’s fiction. She stresses not only the authors’ but also the critics’ obvious differences, through their personal approaches and representations of the authors they write about, depending on their (level of) education and personal lives.

3In a substantial, twenty-page introduction that constitutes the first chapter, the author explains the interest and aim of her study: “how nineteenth century women critics responded to women’s fiction” (14). She justifies her choice of the authors and of the critics under study, as they have been, in some cases, almost forgotten. So hers is an enterprise of reinstatement, a tribute to those women whose vision of the authors they wrote about was usually very different from the one presented by their male counterparts, even if, in some cases, they were not guiltless of prejudice against women writers either.

4As testified by the 13-page bibliography, Wilkes’s knowledge of the period, its writers, and the related contemporary and modern criticism is impressive. The four chapters following the introduction all end on illuminating synthetic conclusions. Each of these chapters focuses on the individual cases of the eight above mentioned critics, their common and distinctive attitudes towards the three authors under study, their work and their lives. Wilkes widens her scope by including a few other authors too, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily and Ann Brontë (in relation to their sister), Elizabeth Gaskell (through her biography of Charlotte Brontë), Maria Edgeworth, Aphra Behn, Dinah Mulock Craig and even Trollope and Hardy.

5What emerges from the study is the construction of the individual authors by the critics. Each of them constructs a Jane Austen, a Charlotte Brontë and a George Eliot of her own, who is usually very different from the representation given by male friends or critics, the best example being perhaps the Memoir on Jane Austen published in 1869 by her nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, where Jane Austen’s writing was perceived as harmless for her family and the general public, whereas the female critics view her fiction as far more subversive than it appears, and as an ideal ground to display her acute wit and irony. The female critics denounced the usually condescending or patronising attitudes of their male counterparts—women’s approach is practical, men’s is conceptual—while underlining the double-bind women writers were caught in: they were either despised because they had insufficient knowledge of the world, or feared if they knew too much and stood as a threat to the order of society. Wilkes’s aim is to reinstate women critics who were caught in a predicament similar to that of the female authors they wrote about.

6Chapter two focuses on Maria Jane Jewsbury and Sara Coleridge, daughter of the famous poet and thus more favoured than Jewsbury: the latter had to struggle in her private life, as a motherless girl looking after her younger siblings, and found it hard to reconcile her literary aspirations with the demands of domestic life. Though she died very young, Jewsbury had herself published a number of poems, articles and short-stories. She published extensively and anonymously for the Athenaeum and her article on Jane Austen was the first published critical commentary. According to her, Austen used her fiction as the basis for her criticism, whereas in her social life she behaved very properly. Though Jewsbury had internalized the traditional image of woman, she nevertheless deplored the “damaging effects of assuming strong demarcations between the capacities of the sexes” (37).

7Sara Coleridge’s criticism, which usually took the form of letters, was extensive as it covered poetry, fiction and drama, both European and British. One of her correspondents was Maria Jane Jewsbury. Sara Coleridge was very sensitive to what is feminine in women’s writing. Hence her praise of Jane Austen, whom she saw as modest and self-effacing. She was ambivalent about Barrett Browning whose poems she sometimes found arrogant and unwoman-like. Also, and not unlike Elizabeth Rigby, she denounced the coarseness of Jane Eyre, while praising its strength. Wilkes sees Sara Coleridge’s ambivalence towards these authors as possibly “a way of reassuring herself and others that she was still herself ‘thoroughly feminine’” (55).

8In the following chapter devoted to Hannah Lawrance, Jane Williams and Julia Kavanagh, Wilkes shows how the first, in her Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England from the Commencement of the Twelfth Century, published in 1838, presents a totally different image of the stereotyped one, denouncing what she saw as retrogressive history (65) as she opposes the far more tolerant Middle-Ages to the 19th century. Hannah Lawrance, concludes Wilkes, “unites the fields of male history and female memoir” (68).

9Jane Williams, who was from Welsh origin, was interested in poetry, considered as a more elevated genre than the novel. She tried to produce an autobiography of a Welsh working-class woman. Williams’s early life resembled the Brontës’ (the shared games between brothers and sisters) but she was convinced there was a typically feminine, i.e. inferior character. Wilkes’s conviction is that Williams was “just trying to accommodate contemporary notions of women” (73), painting them in less threatening colours.

10Julia Kavanah had read French authors—Mme de Scudéry, Mme de la Fayette—whom she saw as having an obvious influence on their English counterparts. She was a prolific writer herself. Kavanah denounces women’s standardization while valorizing specifically feminine qualities, which enable women writers to have insight into women’s inner lives but also to paint convincing male portraits. For her, Austen is a seer and her legendary delicacy is more of a powerful asset than a mere ornament. At the end of this chapter, Wilkes concludes by echoing the three critics that literary achievements are not incompatible with domestic duties.

11Chapter four concentrates on Anne Mozley and George Eliot. Like Eliot, and unlike Margaret Oliphant, Mozley was an intellectual woman who came from a well-read family, with a broad knowledge of poetry (she edited Newman’s works). Mozley stresses the differences between Austen, Brontë and Eliot, seeing Jane Eyre as a dangerous book, whereas in her discussion of Villette, she compares it favourably with Lady Fullerton’s inferior Lady Bird. If hers is a rather conservative approach, it is again, according to Wilkes, due to the need to accommodate the public taste and in particular Blackwood’s for whom she had written a review of Mill’s “offensive” The Subjection of Women.

12The fifth and last chapter deals with Margaret Oliphant, author of Miss Marjorie Banks (1866), and Mary Augusta Ward. The first was also a reviewer for Blackwood’s Magazine. Oliphant complained about the lack of respect, even contempt for women and denounced Hardy’s portrayal of women (especially Arabella Donn and Sue Bridehead). She makes two exceptions with Trollope and Richardson, “for their perceptive representations of female figures” (159). For Oliphant, the heroine of 19th century fiction was Jane Eyre. She praises Brontë’s visionary talent, though she regrets that she may have influenced sensation novel writers who are far inferior to their model. Oliphant was as suspicious of Eliot’s husband’s portrait of his wife as she was of Austen Leigh’s portrait of Jane Austen. She trusted female biographers more.

13Mary Augusta Ward rates Austen as a second rank novelist compared to Brontë and Eliot and sees the latter as a precursor, with her own novels combining the strengths of both. The chapter ends on a brief study of Emily and Ann Brontë, where Ward voices her admiration for the first and her very moderate enthusiasm for the second, who, she says, would not have been known but for her sisters.

14The general 9-page conclusion is effective in making its points. It appears that George Eliot comes first in the ratings, due to the combination of remarkable feminine and masculine qualities. Though she tends to exonerate the women critics from too traditional views which she—convincingly—blames on the publishers or on the public’s tastes, Wilkes has successfully taken up the challenge she had set for herself, bringing to light some literary figures who had almost been forgotten, in a very nuanced, subtle, sometimes humorous style. This is a fascinating book.

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Claire Bazin, « Joanne Wilkes, Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 197-201.

Référence électronique

Claire Bazin, « Joanne Wilkes, Women Reviewing Women in Nineteenth-Century Britain The Critical Reception of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2014, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Claire Bazin

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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