Girls of the period : women critics and constructions of the feminine in the mid-Victorian novel
This thesis addresses women's agency in the mediation and reception of mid nineteenth-century fiction from the end of the 1840s until the beginning of the 1870s. It demonstrates how women participated in shaping an ideology of the feminine by utilising the platform of periodical reviewing to monitor constructions of womanhood in the novels of women writers. The notion of a feminine critical discourse about gender is a familiar one. There has been academic interest in the reactions of reviewers such as Margaret Oliphant and Geraldine Jewsbury to images of the feminine in sensation novels, but no study exists that brings together a body of women's criticism of this period, or examines the critical responses of women to a much wider spectrum of female representation, for example, in the field of domestic or religious fiction. This thesis explores the critical reaction, not simply to the transgressive or improper feminine, but to idealised images of the domestic angel. It points to a reshaping of the idea of the heroic which allowed women to take centre stage in fiction, and goes on to explore several constructions of the feminine that became a locus of concern for women commentators: the martyr to selfsacrifice; the injured wife; the governess; the religious heroine; the transgressor of sensation novels, and the assertive "Girl of the Period" in her various phases. Interrogating those texts and themes that preoccupied nineteenth-century women critics, the thesis retrieves a lost context to women's writing of the period and argues that the discourses surrounding forgotten novels by writers such as Harriet Parr and Charlotte Riddell provided a forum which allowed representations of gender to be contested, re-negotiated and re-defined. Bringing to light new critical material by reviewers such as Eleanor Eden and Jane Williams, the thesis examines many articles and reviews that have received no previous academic attention.