Reviews 2009

A Victorian Quartet: Four Forgotten Women Writers

A Victorian Quartet: Four Forgotten Women Writers. Liz Thiel, Elaine Lomax, Bridget Carrington and Mary Sebag-Montefiore. Lichfield: Pied Piper Press, 2008. vi + 296 pages. £18.00 (paperback).

A Victorian Quartet is divided into four sections and includes an introduction by Kimberley Reynolds. Each section has a different author: Elaine Lomax writes on Hesba Stretton, Mary Sebag-Montefiore on Mrs Molesworth, Liz Thiel on Georgina Castle Smith (who published under the pseudonym of Brenda), and Bridget Carrington on Flora Shaw. The chapters contain biographical material, contextual information and critical analyses. Strong arguments are made for the reclamation of these women’s texts—especially those written specifically for children—by aligning them politically and thematically with critically acclaimed writers such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell. It is also suggested that they may have influenced the work of other better-known writers for children, including Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kenneth Grahame and Edith Nesbit.

As Elaine Lomax notes, it was not uncommon for popular texts to have a varied readership during the Victorian period, and that the “relatively fluid categorisation” of literature readily conflated “‘children’ and ‘the poor’ highlighting a process of subordination and infantilisation relating not only to chronological age, but also social status” (14-15). This fluidity appears to have worked against the longevity of all of these writers, debarring them from retrospective collections and anthologies of children’s literature. If searching for a precursor to Burnett and Grahame, the most notable text discussed would seem to be Castle Smith’s The Pilot’s House (1885), which depicts a recognizably happy and stable middle-class family, based on the writer’s own children. However, like Stretton, Castle Smith is primarily remembered as “a writer of street arab stories” (Thiel 175). The predominant link between these four writers, then, is their engagement with the ever-changing “[c]oncepts of ‘the child’, childhood and family” (24).

Lomax notes that Stretton’s work abounds with images of “the orphan, urchin or poor child from a deprived or dysfunctional family” (26-27), whilst Sebag-Montefiore observes that Molesworth is concerned with “family fragility” (91). What is most interesting is the latter’s exploration of flawed and inadequate parenting. Sebag-Montefiore suggests that “Molesworth’s parents are not ‘better’ than their children, making their authoritative status, as she often notes, an onerous responsibility” (93). There is scope for comparisons to be made between these texts and the novels for children published since the 1960s that address the problems of familial dysfunction and diversity, for example, those discussed in Nicholas Tucker and Nikki Gamble’s Family Fictions (2001). Such a project might strengthen the claim made by Carrington that these four writers contributed significantly to “the development of independence in child characters” (213), a notion still evident today in the best-selling works of popular writers, such as Jacqueline Wilson. Indeed, Tucker and Gamble suggest that during the nineteenth century British children’s literature depicted only affectionate, middle-class families and that Nesbit was the first British author to write about childhood experiences from the child’s perspective—a misconception addressed briefly by Carrington (275-276).

The four authors have quite different styles of writing, so that some sections of the text are more engaging than others. Given that the analysed texts are all out of print (with the exception of Shaw’s Castle Blair) and readers are not likely to be familiar with them, the longer primary quotations in the sections by Sebag-Montefiore, Thiel and Carrington are very helpful. To their credit, all the authors include chapters of historical contextualisation without becoming repetitive. Although many readers will have some knowledge of Victorian Britain, the section by Sebag-Montefiore is particularly illuminating because of her careful research into etiquette books and ladies’ magazines.

Carrington provides the greatest depth of analysis, focusing on just two novels by Shaw, Castle Blair (1877) and Hector (1881). Her contextualisation of “the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland” (243) is accessible and informs her persuasive postcolonial reading of Castle Blair in Chapter Sixteen. The Blair children, neglected by their father, “operate with an autonomy largely denied to child characters before” (243). This innovation nevertheless entails further exploration of the issues of family dynamics and inadequate parenting. Shaw’s next novel, Hector, depicts a boy sent away from England to France by “uncles who act only in their own self interest” (256), suggesting that substitute parents are likely to be even more inadequate than biological parents and, in this case, deserve Hector’s “disregard for [their] authority” (258). Whereas Sebag-Montefiore notes that Molesworth “explains poor parenting” (92) and encourages the child reader to be empathic and to understand their parents’ needs as well as their faults, Carrington suggests that Shaw is judgmental, “wreak[ing] vengeance on the uncles, in best Victorian tradition, by killing them off at the end” (256). Although it is Castle Blair that is likened “to a fairy tale” (Carrington 268), the cruel and unfair treatment of orphans by substitute parents (like that by stepparents) is similarly intertextual.

Reynolds’ introduction acknowledges the painstaking research involved in reconstructing the lives of these four writers. Whilst she argues that they all prefigure “modernist” sensibilities in their evocation of “the way children experience the world” (v), there is no corresponding sense of coherence between the sections that follow. What is missing from this text is a conclusion. Readers are left to form their own connections between the writers discussed, having negotiated four rather disparate sections. However, the lack of any sense of closure might be seen as encouraging further research to be inspired by the rediscovery of these undoubtedly significant—and fascinating—writers.

Andrea Peterson
University of Birmingham, England