‘Missed Vocation? The Failed Writer in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction.’

Oulton, C. (2014) ‘Missed Vocation? The Failed Writer in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction.’. In: International Conference on Women and Vocation, 5-7 June 2014, l’université Catholique de Lille.

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The difficulties of self-presentation for Victorian women writers, and the troubled history of their literary standing, have been well documented. To take just one example, Helen Black’s Ladies Pictorial interviews with Notable Women Authors of the Day (1893, updated 1906) is perhaps most notable for the obscurity of virtually all its subjects. But as Catherine Pope points out in her introduction to the Victorian Secrets edition, while most ‘present themselves as women first, and writers second’, this self-deprecation is hardly consistent with their professionalism and sustained output. While one of the featured authors (Marie Corelli) does present a highly successful female author in her best known novel The Sorrows of Satan, it is Sarah Grand who has come to symbolise a generation of women authors, not least through her depiction of female characters of prodigious ability whose ambitions are undermined or deliberately discouraged.
The appeal of the failed writer as a trope appears on the face of it to militate against women’s claims to literary self-expression and ambition. Paradoxically however, the very real achievements of late Victorian women authors are often predicated on the failure of their writer heroines. Fin de siècle fiction features a plethora of manuscripts which are ‘burned alive’ either by the writers themselves or by intrusive readers, as well as fictional women writers driven to collapse and even death by the thwarting of their ambition. Mary Cholmondeley uses this trope in Red Pottage (one of the bestselling novels of 1899) to mythologise her younger sister, an aspiring writer who had died at twenty two. In a related memoir published in 1918, Cholmondeley celebrates the work that her sister never lived to write.
Their niece the modernist writer Stella Benson commented dismissively on the collecting of ‘amateurish’ artistic interests as ‘apparently the only thing to do in their generation’. But such stories about the clash between vocation and opportunity have much to tell us. Crucially, these stories of unfulfilled potential and misunderstood vocation gesture towards the unwritten stories of numerous women who did not publish in the expanding market of the fin de siècle. Perhaps the final irony is the way in which many of these books have themselves fallen into neglect.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions: pre Nov-2014 > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > English and Language Studies
Depositing User: Prof Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton
Date Deposited: 24 Nov 2014 16:19
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2014 14:12
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/12937

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00