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A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the 1890s

ISBN: 1551112957

By Carolyn Christensen Nelson, Editor
Review by: Melissa Purdue


Literature by New Women authors of the fin de siècle has, unfortunately, been neglected by many nineteenth-century British literature scholars. Only a handful of critics like Sally Ledger, Ann Ardis, Lyn Pykett, Ann Heilmann and Elaine Showalter have devoted serious scholarship to this important body of literature. New Women writers have often been viewed as interesting for their politics (they fought for marriage reform, further education for women, and more opportunities in the workplace); however, their literature has been criticized as too feminist and didactic. This is why Carolyn Christensen Nelson’s A New Woman Reader: Fiction, Articles, and Drama of the 1890s is such an important and welcome text. Nelson’s reader is a comprehensive introduction to the field that can be appreciated by both students and scholars alike interested in Women’s Studies, British history and nineteenth-century literature.

The reader contains fiction by New Woman writers, and an array of articles from late-nineteenth century periodicals that comment upon both the New Woman’s literature and the New Woman herself. Part I is a sampling of short stories by New Women authors. These range from more well-known authors like Sarah Grand and George Egerton, to lesser-known New Women’s texts like Ada Radford’s “Lot 99,” Netta Syrett’s “Thy Heart’s Desire,” and Mabel E. Wotton’s “The Hour of Her Life.” Although these New Women authors do not always agree on the type of change needed for women, these stories do all engage in some way the themes of marriage, education, motherhood and work. Egerton’s stories push the bounds of conventional morality, Grand’s “The Undefinable” describes a male character’s awakening to the realization that emancipation will benefit both men and women, and Syrett’s “Thy Heart’s Desire” details the struggles of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage.

Part II provides historical grounding with articles about Sarah Grand and her work, the debate over women’s suffrage, “The Marriage Question,” and “Revolting Daughters.” This section also contains an interesting collection of articles, along with sketches from Punch, that demonstrate the backlash against New Woman writers. Just as later feminists of the second wave have been stereotyped and attacked by contemporary media, so too were the New Women of the fin de siècle not always well received. A sketch titled “Donna Quixote” from an April 1894 issue of Punch is included in the reader and it depicts a severe, studious, bespectacled woman in black whose feet are surrounded by books by authors like Ibsen, Mona Caird and Tolstoy. Likewise, Nelsen has included Hugh E.M. Stutfield’s “Tommyrotics” from an 1895 issue of Blackwood’s—an article that characterizes the New Woman’s fiction as humorless, neurotic sermons in disguise.

Finally, Part III is devoted to drama and includes Sidney Grundy’s The New Woman: An Original Comedy, in Four Acts. The play is one that satirizes New Women and, according to Nelsen, depicts male and female characters who affect a belief in advanced ideas about new sexual roles “while retaining traditional ideas about love, marriage, and relationships” in the end (296). This section works together with the previous ones to give the reader a well-rounded picture of the New Woman and her contemporaries. On the whole, Nelson’ A New Woman Reader is an interesting and balanced resource for those who would like to learn more about the New Women of the late nineteenth century. The book is an important one in sparking interest in these fascinating, forgotten writers.

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