Widening the Sphere: Mid-to-late Victorian Popular Fiction, Gender Representation, and Canonicity

Anna J Brecke, University of Rhode Island

Abstract

When Victorian fiction entered academic study in the mid-twentieth century, the texts that were considered essential had been influenced by a small group of scholars primarily concerned with studying the novel form across periods rather than studying literature of the Victorian Era. The collection of authors that became "the" Victorian canon included Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, the Brontës, Trollope, Henry James and George Eliot, limiting the Victorian novel to realist fiction. The choices of these critics did not accurately represent the diverse range of authors and genres in fiction published during the period. Particularly absent from this canon are the popular works produced by women writers in the subgenres of Sensation fiction, New Woman fiction, and Supernatural or Speculative fiction. Their absence helped the realist novel to reinforce assumptions about gender roles and gendered space in Victorian literature and culture, by upholding tropes like the "angel in the house" and the doctrine of separate spheres. This study examines the history of work on the Victorian novel and texts by women writers in popular novelistic subgenres featuring transgressive female characters and hybrid public/private spaces. ^ A history of criticism on the Victorian novel from 1881 through to contemporary scholarship reveals that before the mid-century period, works on the Victorian novel included a broader range of writers than works produced when the canon took form. Since the last third of the twentieth century, scholars have worked to redress this thinning out of the genre by recuperating popular writers and genres. I examine women's behavior and gendered space in three popular genres where female characters transgress norms associated with the separate spheres and angel in the house. Female characters like Sensation fiction's pretty horsebreakers, New Woman novels' working women, and the women affected by supernatural influences in supernatural texts, challenge supposed norms of Victorian femininity in ways that would have been apparent to scholars sooner had they considered genres other than the realist novel. Additionally, gender and space interact differently in popular genres where the separate public and private spheres of domestic and economic life are frequently intertwined in the home-shop and the country house. In supernatural fiction, normative femininity is undermined when female characters disrupt rather than create safe home-spaces. I trace these trends in gender representation in popular novels and short stories by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Marie Corelli, Rhoda Broughton, Florence Marryat, Amy Levy and Eliza Lynn Linton.^

Subject Area

British & Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Anna J Brecke, "Widening the Sphere: Mid-to-late Victorian Popular Fiction, Gender Representation, and Canonicity" (2018). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI10786605.
https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/dissertations/AAI10786605

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