“Putting things in their proper places”: Victorian Women Editor-Critics and the Problem of Authority

Solveig Robinson
Pacific Lutheran University, Washington

In Uneven Developments (1988), her classic study of the Victorian literature and gender, Mary Poovey suggests that Victorian men of letters and domestic angels performed the same ideological work:

Like a good housekeeper, the good writer works invisibly, quietly, without calling attention to his labor; both master dirt and misery by putting things in their proper places; both create a sphere to which one can retreat—a literal or imaginative hearth where anxiety and competition subside, where one’s motives do not appear as something other than what they are because self-interest and self-denial really are the same.

As Poovey explains, the cultural authority of both literary men and housekeeping women derived from a distinct sense of place, whether that place was the ivory towers of art, the ivy-covered halls of scholarship, or the ivory-filled and doily-covered parlors of the Victorian middle-class home.

But what happened to Victorian cultural authority when the literary and the housekeeping roles were conflated? Specifically, what happened when the “man of letters” was a “woman of letters”—when the public work of periodical editing and literary criticism occurred in the private confines of the home? What happened, in fact, when such work was not conducted in its “proper” place?

This paper explores the ways in which Victorian women went about the task of establishing themselves in the world of literary and social criticism in mid- to late-nineteenth-century British journalism. These “critical women” assumed a variety of influential roles in nineteenth-century periodicals, from behind-the-scenes editors and unnamed manuscript readers to more prominent positions as signed reviewers, leader-writers, columnists, and even publisher-proprietors. However, becoming a critical woman meant assuming a position of power with relation to the material being criticized—of assuming a stance from which one could look at and comment on—and it also meant establishing a credible, authoritative voice that would enable the critic to impact public perceptions of value.

By looking at the work of women engaged in journalism across a range of nineteenth-century periodicals—from those intended for general audiences, to those aimed particularly at women readers all along the spectrum from traditional domesticity to political and social radicalism—this paper will highlight how Victorian critical women countered and overcame institutional and ideological resistance and shaped both the Victorian publishing world and British literary heritage.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900