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Foreword

Catherine Delyfer
p. 13-16

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  • 1 On the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism in the visual arts, see Elizabeth Prettejohn’s After the Pre-R (...)
  • 2 On British Aestheticism’s investment in commodity culture, see Regenia Gagnier’s Idylls of the Mark (...)
  • 3 See Nicola Diane Thompson ed., Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question (Cambridge: Cambridge (...)
  • 4 See Antonia Losano, The Woman Painter in Victorian Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Pres (...)
  • 5 In fiction alone, Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis remind us that between 1883 and 1900 over a (...)

1In the second half of the nineteenth century British art and literature were largely shaped by the prismatic influence of Pre-Raphaelitism.1 To a certain extent, fin-de-siècle Aestheticism can be seen as an outgrowth of Pre-Raphaelitism as it was reworked and inflected by artists and writers reacting both to experimental continental trends—such as French l’art pour l’art, Impressionism, Naturalism, Decadence and Symbolism—and to an increasingly commodified British cultural market which they denounced yet at the same time enacted.2 Even though only a handful of female artists and writers of this period are remembered today, women actually dominated the novel market in Victorian England, where they were popularly and critically acclaimed,3 while the number of professional female artists more than doubled in the second half of the century.4 Even as the Victorian debate on the “Woman Question” reached a peak in the last two decades of the century, the increasing relevance of women artists and writers to the new cultural sphere came to the fore with greatest force in the late-1880s and the 1890s, crystallizing around the controversial figure of the “New Woman” in the mid-1890s and leading to a proliferation of images and texts exposing the ideology which enabled Victorian women’s oppression.5

  • 6 Sally Ledger, in G. Marshall ed., “The New Woman and Feminist Fiction”, The Cambridge Companion to (...)
  • 7 Lyn Pykett, “Foreword”, in Richardson and Willis eds., The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact, p. xi- (...)
  • 8 Focusing on the major spokeswomen of the New Woman debates, Ann B. Heilmann’s New Woman Strategies: (...)

2In Sally Ledger’s estimation, New Woman writing is “a body of literature that remains one of the most remarkable features of fin de siècle culture”.6 But far from being homogenous, New Woman literature was as diverse and contradictory as the New Woman herself. In fact, one might argue with Lyn Pykett that “The New Woman did not exist: ‘New Woman’, both in fiction and in fact, was (and remains) a shifting and contested term. It was a mobile and contradictory figure or signifier”7 used to designate both feminists and anti-feminists; women who promoted sexual chastity and those advocating sexual freedom; authors who defended marriage and motherhood but also those who rejected both; women who campaigned for female suffrage and women who argued against it; those who published didactic and openly political texts as well as those producing subtle pieces primarily concerned with the aesthetics of writing.8

  • 9 See Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades (eds), Women and British Aestheticism (Charlottesvill (...)
  • 10 Schaffer and Psomiades, p. 16.
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Kathy Psomiades’s study, Beauty’s Body, demonstrates that British Aestheticism was predicated on th (...)

3While critics of New Woman writing in the 1990s tended to focus on the more overtly feminist, sometimes propagandist, prose of the period, this last decade, following Talia Schaffer’s ground-breaking The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, has turned to less vocal, more conflicted women artists, essayists, poets and novelists, whose works often broach New Woman themes but from an aloof, highly literary angle, foregrounding aesthetic issues and complex gendered perspectives on Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism and Decadence.9 It has been rightly argued that they often did so “because they could not face public outrage over plain speaking, because their politics were too embattled and intermingled to permit them to write from a clear platform”.10 But, more generally, they were attracted to Aestheticism because “it gave them a language complex enough to express their characteristically ambivalent, sophisticated, and intellectual views”.11 To varying degrees, they were also empowered by Paterian Aestheticisms controversial yet highly liberating emphasis on aesthetic pleasure, the autonomy of art and the necessity for a personal response in the viewing and interpreting of art—Walter Paters so-called “subjective” criticism. Leaving behind the idealism and morality of mid-century realism, female Aesthetic artists thus questioned conventional notions of beauty and/as femininity12 and explored daring themes, while experimenting with new forms capable of conveying their sense of the fragmented and the sombre. However, we need to bear in mind that female Aesthetes found themselves in a paradoxical position. As Linda K. Hughes has highlighted,

  • 13 Linda Hughes, “A Female Aesthete at the Helm: Sylvia’s Journal and “Graham R. Tomson”, 1893-1894”, (...)

[i]f “aesthete” implies a commitment to the unity of the arts, cultural authority (in the form of taste), and, as with Wilde, “advanced” political and artistic views superior to those of the bourgeois herd, “female” invokes domestic duties and cultural marginality, as well as the internal contradictions that constituted Victorian feminine subjectivity.13

Talia Schaffer further elaborates:

  • 14 Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, p. 4–5.

The female aesthetes were constantly trying to reconcile competing notions of identity—being female yet being aesthetic; living like New Women while admiring Pre-Raphaelite maidens; trying to be mondaines (Ouida’s term for cosmopolitan female dandies) but also emulating Angels in the House. The conflicting roles were staged in their novels and manifested in their public reputations. The female aesthetes’ anxiety about their own femininity led them to develop self-defensive literary techniques designed to baffle the intrusively curious reader. In that respect, their gender politics motivated their literary productions, and . . . some of these deliberately oblique styles were direct precursors of modernist innovations.14

4The works of the poets, essayists, novelists and painters discussed in this volume—Alice Meynell, Mary F. Robinson, “Michael Field” (Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper), “Elizabeth von Arnim” (Mary Russell), “Marie Corelli” (Mary McKay), “Victoria Cross” (Annie Sophie Cory), Louise Jopling, Margaret Murray Cookesley, Isobel Gloag, Constance Halford, Thea Proctor—all bear witness to the contradictions and struggle incumbent on the Aesthetic artist who happened to be female. But the essays that follow equally demonstrate the rich variety and powerful orginality of female engagements with all aspects of British Aestheticism both as a literary and artistic movement bridging the 19th and 20th centuries and as a form of cultural critique of the commodification and professionalization of the newly defined aesthetic sphere. One can only wonder at the long erasure of such a large group of talented artists and writers from the canon of British Aestheticism, whose historiography has tended to focus exclusively on its male practitioners, and hope that this volume will encourage new research into unexplored aspects of female Aestheticism and under-studied women Aesthetes.

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Notes

1 On the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism in the visual arts, see Elizabeth Prettejohn’s After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). On the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism in literature, see Kathy Psomiades, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Sophia Andres, The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004).

2 On British Aestheticism’s investment in commodity culture, see Regenia Gagnier’s Idylls of the Marketplace (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986) and Jonathan Freedman’s Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

3 See Nicola Diane Thompson ed., Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

4 See Antonia Losano, The Woman Painter in Victorian Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), p. 2.

5 In fiction alone, Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis remind us that between 1883 and 1900 over a hundred novels were written about the New Woman (The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, p. 1). The term “New Woman” itself was popularized by Ouida and Sarah Grand, in the articles they published in the North American Review of 1894 (Talia Schaffer, “‘Nothing but Foolscap and Ink’: Inventing the New Woman” in Richardson and Willis eds, The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact, p. 40).

6 Sally Ledger, in G. Marshall ed., “The New Woman and Feminist Fiction”, The Cambridge Companion to The Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 167.

7 Lyn Pykett, “Foreword”, in Richardson and Willis eds., The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact, p. xi-xii.

8 Focusing on the major spokeswomen of the New Woman debates, Ann B. Heilmann’s New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) analyzes the differences and contradictions between these three authors and even within the work of each, demonstrating both “the genre’s fluid politics” (p. 3) and the “multiplicity of femininities” (p. 5) New Woman writing explored.

9 See Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades (eds), Women and British Aestheticism (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999) and Talia Schaffer’s The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000). On female Aesthetic poets, see Ana Parejo Vadillo’s Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Monographs on single authors have also flourished: for example, on “Michael Field” see Marion Thain’s “Michael Field”: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); on “Vernon Lee”, see Patricia Pulham and Catherine Maxwell, Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), Christa Zorn, Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003); see also the recent collection of essays on Amy Levy edited by Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman, Amy Levy: Critical Essays (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010).

10 Schaffer and Psomiades, p. 16.

11 Ibid.

12 Kathy Psomiades’s study, Beauty’s Body, demonstrates that British Aestheticism was predicated on the conflation of beauty and femininity. To a certain extent then, questioning notions of the beautiful also involved challenging assumptions about the feminine.

13 Linda Hughes, “A Female Aesthete at the Helm: Sylvia’s Journal and “Graham R. Tomson”, 1893-1894”, Victorian Periodicals Review, 29: 2 (Summer 1996), p. 173.

14 Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, p. 4–5.

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Catherine Delyfer, « Foreword », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 13-16.

Référence électronique

Catherine Delyfer, « Foreword », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2014, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1039 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1039

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Auteur

Catherine Delyfer

University of Montpellier III.

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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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