Women and Literary Celebrity in the Nineteenth Century: The Transatlantic Production of Fame and Gender

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

An image entitled “Husband of Popular Author” from a 1904 Life magazine, which Brenda Weber includes in her new book (Fig. C.1), unpacks the tensions in the role of the famous woman writer. Echoing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the woman’s husband, standing in the doorway with a doctor, is relieved to hear the diagnosis that his wife is not insane but merely “foolish.” The woman author, hard at work in a dressing gown at her paper-strewn desk, represents the un-sexed woman who is marginalized from the fame that writing might bring her and her husband. The vexed relationship between gender and fame – as women’s writing forged roads into the popular, public, and creative spheres – is the territory of Weber’s book. Weber’s thorough study shows that women writers use the governing gender paradigms and values of nineteenth century Britain and America to rework tropes such as silence, moral purity, and power to female advantage. The end result of both Weber’s text and the texts she considers is to imagine new possibilities for women’s work, creativity, and social status.

Weber focuses her project on the textual representation, production or adaptation of women who use fame to complicate gender norms and literary identities. The study is a fascinating look at the relationship between author and subject, specifically as Weber considers the ways in which a woman writer might find her voice and agency through the creation of a protagonist (potentially drawn from real life) who is also a writer or formidable female figure. As the book is in the Ashgate series in Nineteenth Century Transatlantic Studies, Weber considers a wide range of texts from British and American writers of varying race, class, and fame. Some representative texts include Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, Margaret Oliphant’s The Autobiography, novels by African American writers such as Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes and Eliza Potter’s A Hair-dresser’s Experience in High Life, as well as works by fin-de-siècle writers including Mary Cholmondeley, Rhoda Broughton, and Elizabeth Robins. Weber incorporates images, newspaper, and journal excerpts as well.

Much of Weber’s approach reworks the Victorian paradox of public and private identities, considering the “ramifications for what it meant to be public, professional, intelligent, and publicly known” (p. 5). Drawing from a range of feminist theorists and literary scholars (Richard Brodhead, Mary Poovey, Nancy Armstrong) as well as critical work on gender performance and fame (Laura Mulvey, Judith Butler, Caroline Levine), Weber carefully explicates the ways in which the woman writer reconfigures femininity under the guise of respectability, financial independence, and intellectual prowess. Authors mask their representations of power in rhetorical nuance (what Weber terms a kind of literary “guerrilla warfare” [p. 9]), portraying literary celebrities as delicate, passive, and modest in order to subvert the notion that women literary professionals are compromised by fame. With great dexterity, Weber draws out the fundamental irony of fame for the women writers considered: men were encouraged to strive towards greatness, which affirms their masculinity, while women with a similar ambition would be disparaged. Victorian women writers, then, and their fictional author-characters, exploit the trappings of fame to rework gender norms and power structures.

The first half of the book examines writers and their textual literary personae who legitimate women’s status in the public sphere without blemish or corruption. Weber’s first chapter, on Gaskell’s Life, comprehensively addresses the many critical assessments of both Gaskell’s work and Bronte’s life from the Victorian period to the present. The chapter situates Gaskell’s representation of Bronte’s physical body next to the conceptual body of Currer Bell, managing the textual crossings of author (Gaskell), subject (Bronte) and meta-subject (Bell) to argue for fame’s ‘transformative’ power over Charlotte Bronte as literary subject. In this way, Gaskell rehabilitates Bronte’s genius and literary acumen in a more palatable way for Victorian readers. In so doing, Gaskell reconstructs the notion of literary celebrity (a category she herself inhabits) and creates a transatlantic sensation, the first reification of ‘Charlotte Bronte’. Weber returns frequently to Gaskell’s Bronte as benchmark for literary celebrity and its changes throughout the century.

The next two chapters – considering work by Fanny Fern and Margaret Oliphant – together constitute the most convincing analysis for Weber’s argument. Fern, overly popular and sensational in her time, “widened the cultural sense of what the famous author could be and do” (p. 75). For anyone who studies feminist history or nineteenth century gender studies, Weber convincingly represents Fern as a forceful and creative voice in the making of new gender categories. Fern’s writing is slippery, creating images of female weakness to demonstrate developing strength, using satire and parody to reveal the women writers’ elusive categorization. Oliphant’s self-representation continues this ironic portrayal of women’s weakness by women writers. Weber reveals how this widely read female author (whose work spanned a half century) “created terms for her own celebrity by constructing herself as undeserving of it” (p. 103). Indeed, Oliphant distances herself from Bronte and Eliot, marking each by their radical intellectualism or desire, and in so doing courts a reading (paying) public who wanted a particular kind of gender narrative that features a passive, self-deprecating woman author.

Weber takes the argument in an interesting direction with the discussion of Elizabeth Keckley’s representation of Mary Todd Lincoln and Eliza Potter’s representation of high-society white female clients. While this chapter seems at times tangential, it also represents a fascinating change in the definition of celebrity. Keckley and Potter both ‘author’ women’s image – literally in their careers as dressmaker and hairdresser, as well as in their written projection of famous women. They thereby author their own fame and rework gender and race codes. Finally, Weber turns to the recurring motif of female author figures sacrificing their ‘text-as children’ as a disruption of traditional possibilities for female reproduction. Women writers discuss female subjectivity through the creation of a ‘monstrous’ child – conceived independently and potentially threatening to a woman’s role as biological mother.

This book is guided by notions of expansion – particularly in the way Weber expands our conception of female public appearance and its fluidity. Furthermore, she expands the notion of the way gender codes are dislocated repeatedly across literary works, collectively displaying women’s fame as writers or public figures as self-fashioned by author and subject. Weber’s expansive list of authors and texts contributes to a growing body of knowledge in nineteenth century studies which collapses the dichotomies of white/black, public/private, British/American and recreates a culture in which the circulation of famous women writers, their books, and their characters was much more dynamic than the gendered codes of fame allowed.