Writing for their lives : women applicants to the Royal Literary Fund, 1840-80
Mumm, Susan E. D.
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While a very few female writers in the Victorian age have received careful attention from historians of both literature and culture, the great mass of women authors has largely been ignored. This neglect has come about for a number of reasons. Included among them are a tendency to assume that the forgotten are not significant, a belief that an understanding of the second rank is unnecessary, and probably most importantly, the lack of even the most basic biographical information for many of these women. Because minor writers, described by Elaine Showalter as "the links in the chain that [binds] one generation to the next", have been lost sight of, it has been difficult to gain any reliable sense of the relationship between the lives of women writers and the economic and social status of that "singular anomaly", the authoress. The traditional focus on great writers is probably justifiable when considering times in which reading was confined largely to a well-educated and wealthy minority. However, with the Victorian age in question, it is necessary to expand the examination of authors to include those who, as more people began to read, provided the newly literate classes with their reading material, and through it, with an important part of their cultural education. Three important attempts to place Victorian authors in a socioeconomic and cultural context have been made in recent years. The earliest of these was R. D. Altick's study "The Sociology of Authorship", published in 1961. Altick's examination of Victorian authors, both male and female, is based entirely upon the information included in the third volume of the Cambridge Biography of English Literature. Important and useful as this analysis is, there are three troubling flaws in the work from the point of view of those concerned with the condition of all women writers in this period. First, Altick's sweeping assumption that the CBEL includes "all but the very lowest stratum of hacks" is open, at the very least, to serious question. Another limitation is the restricted range of inquiry undertaken by Altick --concerned primarily with social class and education, his study contains no information on questions such as writers' marital status, publication record, or income. A third problem is that women, except in the area of education, are not treated by Altick as a separate group. With the rather rigid sex-role expectations typical of the Victorian age, it may not be justifiable to assume that male and female writers shared a completely common experience as professionals. In the mid seventies Elaine Showalter published a study focused exclusively on women writers, from Brontë to Lessing. Based on her doctoral thesis in literary history, it is provocative and able, but from the viewpoint of the historian the work suffers from a surfeit of theory and a paucity of fact. Although Showalter obviously did a great deal of biographical research, it is only referred to in passing in her discussion of these writers. Showalter's book also suffers from the perennial tendency of much literary history to focus on the great names in the Victorian corpus. This failing is largely unavoidable due to the span of time, extending for over a century, covered in the work. The latest study of the condition of the Victorian writer is the work of Nigel Cross with the archives of the Royal Literary Fund, a charity which gave money to impoverished writers. Cross's work is unique in that it deals with the great mass of the second rank of writers to a greater extent than it does with the literary stars. He devotes one chapter of his book to women writers in New Grub Street, but his conclusion that women in the literary world received the same treatment as men does not seem to be borne out by his own research. Moreover, Cross's discussion of women is necessarily somewhat general, leaving unanswered many of the same questions as Altick's. Perhaps the justification for a study of this sort is best summed up by Richard Altick's comment on the question of the socio-economic background of Victorian authors: "In a debate as important and complicated as this one is, it is always useful to have some dependable facts, however prosaic, to refer to". It is the purpose of the following study to provide some facts, many of them prosaic, pertaining to the literary experience, economic status, and social condition of Victorian women writers.