Mrs Grundy's Enemies by Anthony PattersonAlthough originally a character in Thomas Morton’s play Speed the Plough (1798), Mrs Grundy has enjoyed greater fame as the arbiter of nineteenth-century moral standards. In Mrs Grundy’s Enemies, Anthony Patterson selects for his study a range of authors – including Emile Zola, H G Wells, and George Egerton – who courted controversy with their frank portrayal of sexuality. He discusses how the culture of censorship shaped fiction, and examines the ways in which novelists challenged the dominant conservative ideology. Ultimately, Patterson makes a convincing argument that it was the Realists of the late Victorian era who faced resistance to literary innovation, long before the Modernists of the next century. Indeed, Mrs Grundy’s Enemies was also the title of a novel by George Gissing that remained unpublished after his publisher decided it was morally dubious.

In his introduction, Patterson establishes the context of the literary marketplace in which these authors were operating. As he observes, the all-powerful circulating libraries such as Mudie’s “provided one of the most effective means of regulating literature in middle-class Victorian society,” (13) and authors upset them at their peril. The 1857 Obscene Publications Act also posed the threat of legal sanction, as Henry Vizetelly discovered. The publisher was tried twice for his English translations of French novels, and on the second occasion he was imprisoned for three months.

Zola, as we discover in Chapter 1, was the (low) standard against which British authors were judged. Nana (1880), in particular, offered the terrifying image of a sexually incontinent woman who might serve as a bad example for wholesome English women and imperil the nation’s moral health. La Terre (1887) was even worse, with scenes of rape, incest, and bull bothering. As Patterson argues, Zola’s Naturalism “signifies a watershed for sexual representation in English fiction,” (28) and anything that frightened Mrs Grundy was condemned as Zolaesque.

George Moore was one of the authors heavily influenced by Zola’s Naturalism, and he dominates Chapter 2. Moore fell foul of Mudie’s Circulating Library and eventually persuaded the redoubtable Vizetelly to publish a cheap edition of his novel A Mummer’s Wife (1885). Not content with this coup, Moore also published Literature at Nurse, or Circulating Morals, a pamphlet in which he launches a blistering attack on Mudie, who he accuses of infantilising the reading public by exercising unwarranted censorship. Moore certainly saw himself as a crusader, “posing as a defender of artistic freedom against the forces of prudery and philistinism” (66). However, as Patterson points out, Moore was simply trying to replace one form of chauvinism with another. While he liked to think of himself as progressive, his heroines faced thoroughly conventional fates and his writing “did little to disturb the hegemony of middle-class men” (95).

In Chapter 3, Grant Allen faces similar criticism. While he depicts an emancipated woman in his notorious novel The Woman Who Did (1895), he ensures she meets with an ignominious end. “In Allen’s bright eugenic future,” Patterson observes, “the position of women remains subservient to men and their ultimate function remains to bear children for the benefit of the race.” (141) Allen was trying to shock, rather than make a radical argument. All gong and no dinner, one might say. Both Moore and Allen railed against censorship, specifically claiming that it ‘feminised’ literature by ensuring that readers had access only to rubbishy romantic novels by women authors. In A Mummer’s Wife, Moore attributes his heroine’s downfall to her love of inflammatory fiction by the likes of Florence Marryat and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. For Moore, women’s popular fiction suggests a morally ambiguous universe in which heroines err and are rewarded with the realisation of their unwholesome desires. Only male authors can be trusted to set a good example.

The women fight back in Chapter 4, with George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) pointing the finger at men and their desire to silence female voices. When her short story collection Keynotes and Discords (1893) provoked critical outrage, Egerton denounced this censorship as literally man-made. Patterson also considers Ella Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) and George Paston’s (Emily Morse Symonds) A Writer of Books (1899), with their exposé of hypocrisy in the publishing industry. Unsurprisingly, Mary Cholmondeley’s Red Pottage (1899) and its dramatic censorship scene are central to this chapter. Aspiring author Hester Gresley discovers that her brother has burned her manuscript, refusing to believe that the work of a woman could be of any literary merit. Patterson concludes that the novel “demonstrates how patriarchy limits women’s potential as creative artists through figuring them as immoral, incompetent or reductively dogmatic” (176).

In the final chapter, Patterson advances to the Edwardian period, showing how novels that appear superficially to champion female sexual freedom actually conform to normative models. H G Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909), for example, portrays a sexually liberated woman, but one who is transformed into a dutiful wife by the end of the narrative. There has been no perceptible progress since the publication of Allen’s The Woman Who Did, fourteen years earlier. Wells might have been thematically bold, but he was also keen to uphold the sexual double standard.

Patterson concludes that the censorship debate “should not be simplified into a conflict of progressive writers and conservative critics,” (220) as there were internecine wars, too, especially between male and female writers. While much has been written on gender and the Victorian novel, Patterson’s book presents a new and welcome perspective by focusing on the censorship that was ever present, yet seldom explicitly acknowledged. Mrs Grundy’s Enemies is lucidly written, compellingly argued, and frequently illuminating.

Anthony Patterson’s Mrs Grundy’s Enemies: Censorship, Realist Fiction and the Politics of Sexual Representation is published by Peter Lang, who kindly sent me a review copy.

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Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Life in the Victorian Asylum by Mark Stevens

by catherine on February 14, 2015

Life in the Victorian Asylum by Mark StevensThe mention of Victorian asylums often evokes images of despairing souls, incarcerated by sadistic wardens. While we might sigh with relief at our good fortune at living in more enlightened times, archivist Mark Stevens’s insightful new book offers a completely different perspective. Cleverly written in the style of a handbook for new arrivals, Stevens deftly adopts a Victorian tone, but with twenty-first-century sensibilities.

The reader is invited to join the guide on a virtual tour of a typical nineteenth-century asylum – a composite based mostly on the model of Moulsford Asylum in Berkshire. We learn about the architecture, the daily routine, and treatments offered through what is described as “the very latest in lunatic healthcare”. The guide calmly explains the possible reasons for admission, which might include “wandering aimlessly”, exhibiting “unusual facial expressions”, or “a belief that you can predict high tides”. Everything is carefully designed to provide a sanctuary from the outside world, with thoughtfully designed surroundings and professional staff. Well, not all the staff behave professionally. The guide reluctantly relates the story of the chaplain who eloped to Uxbridge with the local schoolmistress, and the porter who couldn’t resist dropping nuts down the dresses of younger colleagues.

It’s clear that the patient is treated as someone who ought to be helped, rather than a burden on the state. As our guide explains, three times the weekly allowance for a pauper in the workhouse is spent on the asylum inmate. This is in recognition that they are not responsible for their condition: they are the deserving poor. The contrast is keenly apparent in the architecture. With generously proportioned windows, elaborate brickwork, and plentiful fireplaces, the asylum presents a welcoming edifice, unlike the minatory appearance of the workhouse. And there’s no pointless labour. Instead, the patients are provided with plenty of reading material and stodgy food – a regime thought to promote well-being and an amenable temperament (it would certainly work for me).

The second half of the book includes a real-life history of Moulsford Asylum, accompanied by an illuminating discussion of Broadmoor – perhaps the most famous institution of its type. Stevens is also the author of Broadmoor Revealed, which explores the lives of its more notorious inmates. The book concludes with some compelling thoughts on the legacy of the Victorian asylum. Stevens acknowledges the views of those who believe the asylum system was simply another instrument of poor law oppression, but urges us to reconsider these institutions as the embodiment of an altruistic belief in the possibility of a better life for those suffering from mental health problems. As he argues, the current provision in the UK is woefully adequate in comparison. While none of us would want to be swaddled in cold flannels or medicated with toxic substances, such treatment was based on imperfect understanding, rather than on deliberate sadism. Victorianists will rejoice in the absorbing detail, acuity, and compassion of this book.

Life in the Victorian Asylum: The World of Nineteenth-Century Mental Health Care by Mark Stevens is published by Pen & Sword Books and currently available in hardback and ebook editions. The publisher kindly sent me a review copy.

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Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Sowing the Wind by Eliza Lynn Linton

February 8, 2015

Eliza Lynn Linton is an unlikely heroine for me, given she is best known for her anti-feminist articles ‘The Girl of the Period’ for the Saturday Review. While her journalism alerted readers to the dangers of the New Woman in all her guises, Linton’s novels – quite literally – tell a different story. First published […]

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Elizabeth Gaskell and the Meanings of Home

January 13, 2015

Imagine if your house was given a £2.5m makeover and you weren’t around to enjoy it? Well, that’s what’s happened to Elizabeth Gaskell. Her home at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester has just reopened to the public after extensive renovations. The Grade II* listed villa had been languishing in a state of disrepair since the death […]

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End of Year Book Meme 2014

December 31, 2014

Twenty-fourteen is almost behind us, so it’s time for me to account for my reading activities over the past year. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of my visitors a very happy and bookish 2015. How many books read in 2013? Only 92 this year, which is probably the fewest since […]

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Life According to Literature 2014

December 24, 2014

The festive season is upon us once more, so it is time for the annual Life According to Literature blog meme. I’ve been rather slack with my reading this year – only 86 rather than the usual 100+ books – but there’s still a week to go. Wishing you a merry and book-filled Yuletide. THE […]

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Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger

November 15, 2014

One of the many joys of delving into the nineteenth century is meeting the numerous vibrant characters who inhabited it. I first encountered ‘Lord’ George Sanger when researching the Hyde Park celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s accession. Over nine days in June 1838, Sanger and his circus family thrilled the crowds with learned pigs and […]

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The Year of the Trollope

October 25, 2014

If you thought 2012 was exciting, hold on to your hat, as 2015 is the year of the Trollope. Yes, next spring marks Trollope’s bicentenary and the anticipation is palpable. Radio 4 has already started celebrating with dramatisations of some of his more popular novels, including The Eustace Diamonds. OUP republished handsome editions of the Palliser […]

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Introducing The Digital Researcher

July 1, 2014

In an interruption to the usual broadcast, I bring you news from the 21st century. When I’m not running Victorian Secrets, I spend quite a bit of time delivering digital skills workshops for researchers. I show them software that will make their lives easier, teach them how to create blogs, and explain the mysteries of Twitter. […]

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George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

June 5, 2014

Although George Eliot declared biography to be “a disease of English literature,” it hasn’t yet been eradicated, and there have been almost 20 attempts to tell the story of her life and career. The number of Victorian women writers who enjoyed both critical and commercial success can be counted on the fingers of one hand, […]

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