A Victorian Quartet
Four Forgotten Women Writers
This publication is a very useful title for anyone with an interest in Victorian women writers. The quartet under scrutiny comprises Hesba Stretton (1832–1911), Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839–1921), Georgina Castle Smith or ‘Brenda’ (1845–1934) and Flora Louisa Shaw (1852–1929). Within children’s literature circles, these are by no means ‘forgotten’ writers. Numerous post-1980 references in the impressive bibliographies for each writer would clearly counterbalance this claim, but they no longer enjoy anything like the critical acclaim of their era. The authors provide scholarly assessments of their subjects and through discussions of class, gender, family and religion, they acknowledge Victorian ideology at play. Too frequently, standard dictionary entries neatly categorise a writer’s best-known work without engaging with their wider oeuvre. Stretton’s Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), Shaw’s Castle Blair (1877) and Brenda’s Froggy’s Little Brother (1875) are referenced widely, giving the impression that they were one-hit wonders for their authors. This book redresses these imbalances with plausible arguments.
Each author provides a biographical overview of her subject, followed by several chapters detailing domestic, professional or political concerns. Elaine Lomax convincingly portrays the more playful, irreverent side to Stretton’s complex character and outlines an underlying interest (expressed by all the authors) in the overlap between what was considered suitable for adult-child audiences, the crossover fiction of the 19th century. Sebag-Montefiore examines the dynamics of the Victorian household through a close study of Mrs Molesworth’s books. Carrington’s account of the publishing history of Flora Shaw’s work and the colonial zeal underpinning Shaw’s story of an Anglo-Irish family in Castle Blair are particularly illuminating, as is Liz Thiel’s discussion of Brenda’s later stories depicting middle-class Victorian childhood. These were a world apart from the street arab genre, for which she is chiefly remembered.
Kimberley Reynolds’ introduction draws perceptive analogies with AS Byatt’s novel Possession but I would like to have heard more about the context and gestation of this admirable publication. For greater clarity, it would be helpful to include the names of the 19th-century writers on the front cover or at least the title page. Brief notes on the contributors and their other publications would also be appreciated so as to avoid suffering the same fate as their 19th-century subjects!