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Review of Muireann O’Cinneide, Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1832-1867

2011 June 21
by rmcwilliam

Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1832-1867 by Muireann O’Cinneide, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, vii + 241 pp., ₤45 (hardback), ISBN 0-230-54670-6

What would Victorian fiction be without the aristocratic woman? Everyone loves to hate her. Although more trendy recent criticism has spotlighted the wild colonial woman as foil for the Victorian heroine, the aristocratic woman has a longer villainous pedigree. As far back as Richardson’s Pamela, she did her best to wreck the heroine’s happiness. Beautiful, willful, selfish, and clever, her machinations kept plots going that otherwise would have stopped cold in the face of meekly heroine-like repressions. An interesting puzzle of Victorian fiction is her durability, especially in the face of radical shifts in the behaviors of real aristocratic women in Britain. Genuine aristocrats had (moral) makeovers; fictional ones did not.
Although the aristocratic woman’s villainy is familiar, Muireann O’Cinneide’s Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1832-1867 reminds us that aristocratic women were not just targets: they also wrote. Beyond that, they permeated what O’Cinneide calls the “literary nation” as editors, reviewers, organizers of literary salons, and patrons of aspiring writers. Admittedly, this is not news. Although twenty-five years ago, the chief figures in the book—Marguerite, Countess of Blessington; Caroline Norton; and Rosina Bulwer-Lytton—were unknown, the rise of feminist studies has rescued them from neglect. Caroline Norton has received the most attention, catalyzed by Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments and continued in the work of such scholars as Karen Chase and Michael Levenson, and Harriet Jump; the other two have not had quite such high-profile treatments, but a bibliography is growing. Pickering and Chatto has republished work by all three, complete with scholarly apparatus. As of this writing, their complete works have not quite been GoogleBooked, but in time, they should be easily accessible.
O’Cinneide wants to find something new to say about these not quite obscure writers by grouping them under the rubric of “aristocratic women.” Simple as this rubric looks, its components multiply. Is the “aristocratic” side or the “women” side more important? Each has many internal subdivisions: for “aristocratic,” there are Whig vs. Tory; old wealth vs. new; agricultural vs. mercantile; Northern vs. Southern; English vs. Celtic; for “women,” there are old vs. young; married vs. unmarried vs. separated; fertile vs. childless; educated vs. uneducated; property-owning vs. unpropertied. O’Cinneide knows about these subdivisions, though more for the “aristocratic” side than for the “women” side: “An important aspect of my work is the often-bewildering fluidity of Victorian definitions of aristocracy” (7). O’Cinneide’s acknowledgement led me to expect that she would engage the multiple, competing paradigms for aristocracy and femininity that came and went during the Victorian period, as well as moments of unexpected overlap. Instead, O’Cinneide bypasses this fluidity in favor of a quasi-categorical trait: aristocratic women “shared a sense of themselves as representatives of the circles of upper-class society, members of a privileged elite” (9).
This decision has serious methodological repercussions because it elevates the interior over the exterior. It positions a psychological “sense” as the core of a self-construct and looks for its “expression” in all subsequent writing. It therefore makes autobiography the key to interpretation—but only autobiography of a certain kind, one that possesses distinctively aristocratic outlines. Other aspects of autobiography that may be less relevant to class identity become problematic: are they relevant or not? Moments when aristocratic women do not foreground autobiography lose focus; many interesting aspects of their work end up undiscussed. Moreover, the question of autobiographical representation in literature raises thorny theoretical issues: to what extent is the self prior to writing? how does autobiography vary with audience? what fictions need to be imposed to allow autobiography to cohere into narrative?
As if recognizing problems with her definition, O’Cinneide offers another lens for aristocratic authorship from the reader’s perspective rather than the author’s: “The titles and honorifics inseparable from aristocratic names in the public view gave women writers of high social standing an immediate claim on a readership’s attention” (10). Here, aristocratic writing becomes aristocratic not from the author’s sense of herself, but from the special interest that readers were supposed to take in writing by those of rank and title. As O’Cinneide notes, this attention was not necessarily a good thing because it could confine expectations of aristocratic women’s writing to the “silly novels” of George Eliot’s famous attack. O’Cinneide never quite reconciles the double focus on the aristocratic woman’s self-perception and the public’s perception of her, and the book moves among generalizations about aristocratic women, specific case studies, and reception history.
In O’Cinneide’s actual analyses, it turns out that the real autobiographies of aristocratic women (the subject of the books’ first chapter) do not necessarily dwell on their sense of elitism; the books that do dwell on this elitism (the silver-fork novels and their reception that are the subjects of the second and third chapters) do not necessarily come from aristocratic women authors. Autobiographical writings by aristocratic women mention their family connections to rank, but of the genres in which they write (spiritual autobiography, domestic memoir, and scandalous memoir), only the last requires the presence of rank (because no one wanted to read scandal about unimportant people). Only in the small handful of deliberately polemical autobiographies, like Lady Morgan’s Letter to Cardinal Wiseman (1851), is self-construct inherently tied to a woman’s sense of herself as the representative of an elite. Yet such cases are something of an exception. Women entering a polemical context assume that they need to defend their public character. Their discussion of their family and access to good society mark that their subject position is not marginal or isolated, even though their role as polemicist may have been. Their emphasis on class matters less because it is fundamental to aristocratic women’s writing than because it is a useful rhetorical tool in a specific argumentative context.
As for silver-fork novels that tantalized readers with glimpses of high life, some were written by aristocrats, but many were written at a fast clip by middle-class men and women eager to cash in on a short-lived craze. These novels perfected a particular brand of narrator, who created a powerful fantasy of being on the inside of a charmed circle that readers were privileged to view. Yet this was a pose that in many cases stemmed from little or no participation in such charmed circles. Consequently, the silver-fork novels dissociated from real aristocrats the sense of elitism that O’Cinneide associates with aristocratic women. Any author could take on this privileged knowingness, and an interesting investigation would be to examine how it migrated to other modes of representation that had little to do with fashionable society. O’Cinneide never quite grapples fully with the challenge that a sense of exclusivity and belonging to a privileged elite had acquired cross-class mobility by the mid-Victorian period, and was no longer the exclusive position of those in the actual social elite.
Instead, O’Cinneide turns to specific case studies, especially Rosina Bulwer-Lytton and Caroline Norton. Bulwer-Lytton’s first novel Chevely aimed to demolish the reputation of her husband, whose mistreatment of her deserved, in her opinion, to be broadcast everywhere. Bulwer-Lytton’s later work, while drawing on her autobiographical experiences, ranges much more widely; O’Cinneide notes, for example, a sustained intertextual engagement with both Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s work and with the specter of Byron’s marriage. One might imagine that a scholar interested in Rosina Bulwer-Lytton would praise her effort to move beyond autobiography, but O’Cinneide’s privileging of self-expression leads her to view Bulwer-Lytton as something of a failure: she “cannot wholly free herself from the social position that she exploits” (134), she is “unable to forge rhetorical alliances with other women writers” (135), and her work “remains hampered by its status as fiction” (137) in its attempts to attack her husband. Implicitly, O’Cinneide suggests that Bulwer-Lytton ought to have been more like Caroline Norton, the hero of the book, whose autobiography features more prominently in her polemical writing. Even here, however, O’Cinneide’s recognition that Norton saved the brunt of her personal polemics for pamphlets leaves her uncertain exactly how to treat Norton’s poetry and fiction, especially when these do not focus on a sense of exclusivity.
The other trap that the focus on autobiography poses for O’Cinneide is that the women who used autobiography most explicitly, like Bulwer-Lytton and Norton, were not representative of the general class of Victorian aristocratic women. Both would have much preferred not to be dragged into the kind of authorship that O’Cinneide describes. While the scandal of their lives, which centered on the institution of marriage, makes them especially interesting to later readers, it is problematic for an analysis of what O’Cinneide calls the “literary nation.” It would have been useful to have counterpoised to Bulwer-Lytton and Norton an aristocratic author whose life was not marked by the unfair and painful circumstances that drove the other two into certain kinds of writing.
Given the amount of space that O’Cinneide devotes to the hostility that aristocratic women faced in the literary sphere because of their association with frivolous leisure and dilettantism, it would have been worth acknowledging that aristocratic women were not merely the subject of attack, but could also be attackers themselves. One of the most notorious of such attacks, not discussed in this book, is Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake’s scorching but highly perceptive criticism of Jane Eyre. In general, we hear little about aristocratic women as consumers of Victorian literature, even though it was one of their most important roles in the “literary nation” because they could buy more books than most (though such consumption always depended on individual circumstances).
The topic of the role of aristocratic women in the Victorian literary sphere is an important one. It offers possibilities for investigations into just how personality and charisma could combine to forge influence; into the peculiar in-group dynamics that create a ton; into the sociolinguistic habits that mark off good speaking from bad; into the simultaneously fascinating and grating personae that Norton and Bulwer-Lytton create for themselves. O’Cinneide analyzes these issues, but does so in terms of familiar categories of analysis: public/private; autobiographical self-revelation; the constraints of gender roles. For a book about outrageous women who broke taboos, it fits too snugly within the conventions of a discipline. Although Alison Adburgham’s Silver-Fork Society is not an academic book and lacks the sophisticated literary framework of O’Cinneide, it remains not only a better read but a more vivid guide to the peculiar swirl of glamour and hack writing that constituted the silver-fork moment. As for the aristocratic women who continued to write after the death of the silver-fork novel, their work requires a defter conceptual framework than one that privileges autobiography as the dominant hermeneutic.
Andrew Elfenbein
University of Minnesota—Twin Cities
elfen001@umn.edu

Andrew Elfenbein is Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. He is the author of Byron and the Victorians (1995); Romantic Genius (1999); and Romanticism and the Rise of English (2009); and the editor for Longman of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (2007) and Stoker’s Dracula (forthcoming).

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