Reassessing Women's Writing of the 1880s and 1890s

The ICVWW’s five-year project From Brontë to Bloomsbury: Realism, Sensation and the New in Women’s Writing from the 1840s to the 1930s aims to trace and reassess, decade by decade, how women’s writing develops in the cultural context of the 1840s to the 1930s: a transformative period in women’s private, public and literary lives.

Monday 25th and Tuesday 26th July 2016

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor Ann Heilmann (University of Cardiff)
  • Dr Catherine Pope (Victorian Secrets)

Our third international conference was a huge success! You can read reports from some of the Postgraduate students involved below. 


Alyson Hunt is a part-time PhD candidate in the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. Her current research explores the concept of Victorian crime short fiction as a vehicle for social anxieties and considers how dress and clothing illuminates and encrypts these anxieties. She also works as a Research Associate for the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers and is currently working on a series of enterprises as part of a project entitled: From Brontë to Bloomsbury: Realism, Sensation and the New in Women’s Writing from the 1840s to the 1920s. In May 2013 she curated a successful exhibition, Wild Woman to New Woman: Sex and Suffrage on the Victorian Stage and has also coproduced a number of other exhibitions and conferences. 

"With more than fifty papers lined up for the third ICVWW international conference, this year’s event, Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1880s and 1890s certainly looked to be our biggest yet, but would it be our best? Early signs were promising, with delegates arriving early organising an impromptu pre-conference meal, re-establishing old acquaintances and forging new ones in the beautiful surroundings of medieval Canterbury. Monday morning dawned bright and sunny as more than sixty delegates descended on Old Sessions House for Ann Heilmann’s keynote lecture discussing the gender bending exploits of James Barry, a British Army surgeon considered to be the first qualified female British doctor and the subject of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1882 novel Madeline’s Mystery. The scarcity of the novel and the critical disagreement over its subject only lends intrigue to the tale, set against a backdrop of cross-dressing pirates and amazons from the mid eighteenth century and perceived in the light of fin de siècle scientific discourses.

Several cups of tea and biscuits later, delegates selected their preferred panel from three parallel sessions: ‘Man and Woman Both’‘Literary Tradition and Genre’ and ‘Literary Encounters’ discussing writers including George Eliot, Eliza Lynn Linton, Michael Field (the pseudonym of aunt and niece Catherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) and Amy Levy. Each paper offered an intriguing insight into the literary marketplace of the late nineteenth century, introducing authors previously unknown to many of the delegates and showcasing texts long since forgotten. Discussion continued over lunch, with lively debate taking place and twangs of research envy as researchers shared their archival tales and current research projects. After lunch another diverse range of panels were on offer considering politics, the natural and the supernatural and the construction of the woman’s voice to consider contextual motivations, social influences and to ponder authorial intentions in the works of Vernon Lee, Baroness Orczy, Mary Eliza Haweis and Florence Marryat amongst others.

The arrival of the long anticipated lemon torte (something of an excess of torte in fact) generated almost as much excitement as the papers in the refreshment break following a small catering mix-up in previous years, nicknamed ‘Tortegate’ by our regular attendees! With the sugar rush paving the way for lively afternoon panels discussing ‘Approaches to Amy Levy’‘Journalism and the Periodical Press’ and ‘Women of Science’, it became increasingly clear that many of these forgotten or under-studied Victorian women were vivacious, independent and determined individuals whose struggles to survive deserve further research and recognition. Many of the assumptions of domesticity and docility which belie the image of Victorian women were exploded by the stories told in the research papers, recalling the stunt journalism of wannabe London socialite Elizabeth Banks, the scientific exploits of Frances Power Cobbe and the social and political autonomy of Amy Levy, who died tragically young by her own hand.

A well-deserved glass of wine followed the day’s academic musings with a drinks reception in the grounds of historic St Martins Priory. As ever, ICVWW upheld the accidental conference tradition with surprise entertainment in the form of Tom Carradine, Cockney sing-a-long entertainer who regaled us with well-known songs from the fin de siècle music hall tradition, a fun end to a thought-provoking day and a great way of experiencing the same frivolities as our conference subjects, though perhaps with less gin!

Day two began early with an engaging and funny keynote address from Catherine Pope, known to many delegates as the director of publishing house Victorian Secrets and to whom many Victorianist scholars are indebted for critical editions of previously out of print novels. Using Helen Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day as the starting point of her paper, Pope considered which authors made Black’s shortlist and why, citing Black’s own agenda and middle-class readership as possible reasons for the inclusion of now forgotten authors such as Edna Lyall, Mrs Edward Kennard and Mrs Henry Chetwynd, many of whom were reviewed by Black as wives and mothers first, seemingly becoming authors by mere accident. Pope’s witty discussion showcased modern problems with digitising such texts and the difficulties of identifying which female authors should be recovered and why, using her own research into Florence Marryat as case in point, pointing out that some of the 68 novels that Marryat wrote are so badly written and constructed that they can hardly warrant reprint whilst others remain utterly beguiling.

Inspired by the keynote address and fuelled by coffee, delegates attended panels which considered gender and genre, looking at short stories, novels and journalism written by authors on both sides of the Atlantic. The panel devoted to Margaret Harkness is evidence on recent critical engagements with lesser-known authors and the impact of collaborative research on bringing such writers to the forefront of contemporary research. Discussions around the short story centred on the million-dollar question – just how short is a short story and their perceived value, particularly those written by authors more readily associated with the novel form.

With two more sets of panels to go, delegates made the most of lunchtime to reconnect and discuss future plans, trade CFPs and invite research proposals before heading off to the penultimate set of panels, covering travel, nature vs the city and life writing. The scope of the panels neatly illustrated the range of women’s writing from all over the world and gave recognition to women who fought for the causes in which they believed, with Kirsty Bunting’s enthusiastic portrayal of the political activist Ada Chew providing a shining example. The unpublished diaries of Mary Seyton Watts and the poetry of Alice Meynall provided further evidence of the variety and purposes of writing on offer at the conference and with delegates travelling from as far afield as Bangladesh, America and Hungary it’s evident that Victorian women’s writing still holds intrigue and appeal for modern scholars worldwide.

The final panels of the conference, focussing on Marie Corelli and the figure of the New Woman respectively, saw an energetic discussion of Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins and Marie Corelli’s Sorrows of Satan, perhaps some of the best known texts featured at the conference, alongside Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds and Netta Syrett’s Nobody’s Fault once again proving how much more we still have to discover as readers as well as scholars. Sporting a burgeoning reading list and a still greater network of colleagues and friends, the delegates dispersed back to their offices, archives and libraries to contemplate the legacy of literature we are so fortunate to have. Congratulations and thank you to all participants for chairing panels, delivering papers, tweeting updates, asking questions, singing cockney tunes and eating cake – what an inspiring, friendly and supportive crowd you are!

A small army of tweeters helped to showcase the main themes of the panels to absent friends and to allow delegates present to see what they were missing, the difficulties of choosing the best panel seeming almost an impossible task at times. The conference proved so popular that #ICVWW2016 was tending on Twitter throughout both days of the event."

Alyson Hunt

Lois Burke is currently in her first year of a funded PhD at Edinburgh Napier University. Her thesis examines the representation of girlhood and sexual development in Victorian and neo-Victorian texts. Her MA dissertation at Durham University focused on queer narratology in fin de siecle fiction and she has had book reviews published in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies and Nineteenth Century Gender Studies.

"The third ICVWW conference got off to a tremendous start on Monday 25th July, 2016. The first keynote, from Professor Ann Heilmann, set the tone for the two-day event, as she focused on James Barry, the British Army military surgeon who was found, after his death, to be assigned female at birth. Ann revisited Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s quashing of some of the more sexualised passages in her edition of Madeleine’s Mystery (1882), based on Barry’s life. Ann asked the delegates outright if we were disappointed that Braddon had not seized the opportunity to do something more radical with the ‘Barry myth.’ Even in twentieth-century editions, Ann argued, Barry was discussed as a woman, and not as a transgender person.

The keynote’s theme of revisiting late Victorian gender and sexuality segued neatly into the first panel of the conference: ‘Man and Woman Both.’ Nathalie Saudo-Welby’s paper introduced the epicene voice in Eliza Lynn Linton’s three-volume memoir, The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland (1885). This was complemented by papers on Michael Field’s poetic voice, and queer transgression in Ellen Williams’s Anna Marsden’s Experiment (1899).

While parallel panels were elsewhere discussing Amy Levy and genre, in ‘Constructing the Woman’s Voice’ Zsuzsa Török discussed the collaborative authorship of Baroness Emma Orczy and her husband Montague Barstow on an edited collection of Hungarian fairy tales, and Peter Merchant provided a fascinating glimpse into the personal life and writing of Mary Eliza Haweis. Although a supporter of women’s employment and the anti-vivisection movement, Haweis despised Oscar Wilde’s influence on young people, and in her 1897 novel A Flame of Fire, in which she re-works Arthur and Helen’s relationship in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Haweis’ female protagonist makes some rather shocking promotions of domestic violence as a mode of maintaining female submission.

The lunch break allowed for further discussions with delegates, a chance to stroll around fair Canterbury, and sample the notorious ICVWW lemon torte.

The final panel undoubtedly closed the first day on a high, with fascinating insights into ‘Journalism and the Periodical Press’ from enthusiastic speakers. Following her key note at ICVWW’s last conference, Clare Horrocks returned to discuss Ada Leverson’s contributions to Punch, urging a study of the writer which does not evoke Leverson’s ties to Wilde as a linchpin reference. Next, Jane Gabin spoke adoringly of Elizabeth Banks, an American journalist who moved to London to pursue her career in investigative journalism. Known initially as a ‘stunt girl’ because of these endeavours, Banks rose to become one of the city’s best-liked columnists. Concluding the panel, Laura Vorachek drew our attention to Mary Frances Billington, the first female journalist to write for a daily newspaper. Billington’s anti-feminist attitudes towards other women in the profession was noteworthy, as she saw herself as a ‘gatekeeper’ of women’s journalism in 1890s London.

Our ‘surprise entertainment’ for the evening was a sing-a-long in the style of a Cockney music hall knees-up in the delightful garden of St Martin’s Priory, the oldest church in the English-speaking world. The sun shone as more wine was consumed and our renditions of ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’ increased in volume and temerity.

The second day of the conference began with a galvanizing key note from Victorian Secrets’ Catherine Pope, who guided us through her wider recovery project on forgotten women writers. Referring to Helen C. Black’s 1893 publication Notable Women Authors of the Day, Catherine called for a revising of the canon, by questioning why some Victorian women writers have been siphoned off and accepted, while many others are still yet to receive this treatment.

During the opening panel, ‘Suitable Occupations for a Woman?’ Amara Thornton whisked us into the fields of Archaeology and Egyptology, two subjects which were incredibly popular with female students at University College London in the 1890s. Following this, Carolyn Oulton pondered the upper-class woman writer, and metafictional issues around gendered authorship in the work of Rhoda Broughton, Mary Cholmondeley and Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler. The next session revolved around women’s life writing, with Mary Smith speaking on religious acceptance through life writing and Lucy Ella Rose on the manuscript diaries of the ‘devilish’ artist and writer Mary Seton Watts.

The conference was rounded off by competing panels on Marie Corelli and the New Girl / New Man. A tough choice, but the latter panel proved very popular; many were keen to hear from Maria Granic-White, Beth Rodgers, and Crescent Rainwater. Maria revisited Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) to explore the companionship and compatibility of the New Man and the New Woman. Beth explored Grand’s adolescent girl ‘borderlands’ in The Heavenly Twins, The Beth Book (1897), and Babs the Impossible (1901). Crescent completed the trio of papers with an exploration of the Yellow Book writer Netta Syrett. During question time Ann Heilmann remarked that the panel, and the conference overall, had truly met its goals of reassessing women’s writing of the 1880s and 1890s. And so with full stomachs, and many more ‘trailblazing’ Victorian women writers added to our reading lists, we departed on various courses, inspired to go forth with our re-assessing projects, and looking forward to next year’s conference which promises to plunder and promote the formative years of twentieth-century women’s writing."

Lois Burke

Clare Stainthorp is in the third year of her AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis is an intellectual biography of Victorian polymath Constance Naden (1858-89), which considers how Naden’s interdisciplinary approach to poetry, philosophy, and science sought to unify these disciplines. In addition, she has forthcoming article in Victorian Literature and Culture, which reads the case study of a nineteenth-century artificial hand through the lens of gender and class (appearing in 2017). Clare is the postgraduate committee member of both the Commission on Science and Literature and the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar, as well as editorial assistant for the journal Modernist Cultures.

"We were greeted in Canterbury by blue skies and quite possibly the best conference pack ever assembled, including fantastic calendars marked with many Victorian women writers’ birthdays. Buoyed by this warm welcome delegates congregated in the lecture theatre for Ann Heilmann’s opening keynote address. Heilmann traced the figure of James Barry through the late nineteenth century by focusing on Major E. Rogers’ fictionalisation of this story in ‘Madeline’s Mystery’, which Mary Braddon edited in 1882; in this inversion of the usual gender dynamic of these two roles in the nineteenth century, Braddon undertook cutting the three-decker novel down to one volume and improving the quality of the writing without making radical narrative changes. Heilmann also presented an intriguing extract from Florence Nightingale’s writings about Barry, which expressed her disapproval of the ‘blackguard’ while employing strikingly fluid gender pronouns.

I then gave a paper on Constance Naden’s views on the function of poetry and how her engagement with Wordsworth’s poems demonstrates her desire to communicate universal truths rather than her own subjectivity. I shared this panel with two excellent papers that showed Mathilde Blind’s construction of her place in literary tradition: Maija Kuharenoka discussed Blind’s writings on George Eliot and the ways their approaches converged and diverged, while Luigia di Nisio talked about Blind’s poetic attachment to the aesthetic movement, with which she had a complex relationship. The discussion that followed came to centre upon how women writers’ legacies can be shaped as much by their deaths as their lives.

Much fruitful discussion spilled out into the lunch break, during which we were treated to the ICVWW’s legendary homemade lemon torte – it did not disappoint. I then attended an engaging panel on women writing politics, which focused upon the fraught dialogue between feminist and anti-feminist rhetorics. May Witwit began by telling us about Janet Hogarth-Courtney who sided with anti-suffrage supporters but later admitted that she had ‘backed the wrong horse’. Naomi Hetherington then spoke persuasively about the need to interrogate which women writers are being recovered by current scholarship, and discussed how to approach progressive women who do not fully meet our expectations of the new woman, using the conservative ending of Kathleen Mannington Caffyn’s The Yellow Aster as a case in point.

The final panel of the day satisfied my interest in nineteenth-century science. The first paper focused on the pioneering Mary Kingsley who Joanne Knowles discussed in relation to the traversing of borders (generic, national, and professional), demonstrating how pigeon-holing Kingsley as a travel writer undersells her scientific endeavours. Ann Loveridge the spoke about Frances Power Cobbe’s anti-vivisectionist writings and how the pairing of images and texts in her pamphlets often sacrificed authenticity for spectacle. The third speaker was Alison Moulds, who related the reception of Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892), a novel by Scottish medical student Margaret Todd. Moulds explored how and why the work was well received, despite the quite radical subject matter. Underlying all three cases were fraught questions about the authenticity and professionalism society expected of women.

After this incredibly stimulating first day delegates were led to the very picturesque St Martin’s Priory for a wine reception with a difference. We were treated to an (increasingly raucous) Cockney and music hall sing-a-long, and this was followed by a very jovial conference dinner.

The second day began with a rousing keynote from Catherine Pope, founder of Victorian Secrets, which centred upon the individuals in Helen Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day. Pope asked us to consider which previously marginalised writers have been recovered, and which texts languish in the doldrums, suggesting that Black’s focus on domesticity over radicalism may have shaped our current neglect of authors such as Edna Lyall and Mrs Edward Kennard. Closing with a discussion of Florence Marryat, Pope provocatively called upon us to consider what we are to do with writers who articulate important ideas but are not, perhaps, particularly good artists.

A captivating panel on short stories followed, the generic grouping stimulating tricky but worthwhile questions about defining the short story and understanding women’s rationale for writing in this mode. We heard from Barbara Tilley on Emma Brooke’s quite incredible supernatural narrative ‘The Weird Story of Estella Grove’, Laura Nixon on E. Nesbit’s fascinating ‘moderate’ short stories for adults that engage with the Woman Question, and Alyson Hunt on Mary Wilkins Freeman’s crime story ‘The Long Arm’ that subverts the downtrodden seamstress narrative.

After another lovely lunch was a panel that offered a more global perspective on Victorian women’s writing. It began with Priyali Ghosh’s paper on the poet Toru Dutt’s short but cosmopolitan life in India, France, and Britain, which was read in absentia. Peter Sjølyst-Jackson then spoke engagingly on the connections between George Egerton and Knut Hamsun, teasing out the sexual politics of early Anglo-Scandinavian modernism and suggesting that Egerton’s view of the new woman was drew upon Hamsun’s shaping of the new man. Ceylan Kosker then gave a wonderfully rich paper on Violet Fane’s poems written in response to the 1896 Armenian massacres in Constantinople, which highlighted the importance of publication contexts when analysing politicised writings.

The day was rounded off with an enjoyable pair of papers on the indomitable Marie Correlli. Pat Beesley began by speaking about A Romance of Two Worlds, a rather trippy-sounding novel that reflected Corelli’s interest in theosophy and beliefs about female divinity and selfhood. Richard Menke’s paper on The Sorrows of Satan then considered how Corelli manipulated her public image and the market for her works, and discussed the figure of Mavis Clare as a thinly veiled self-portrait of the author.

A thematic thread of the conference was hard to pin down due to the sheer diversity of women’s writing during the 1880s and 1890s, as reflected in the breadth of research being undertaken in this area and the repeated calls to interrogate whose life and works had not yet received scholarly attention. There was a clear desire to move away from essentialist notions of the New Woman, for example, and instead speakers demonstrated how women took on the roles of poet, journalist, novelist, and editor in the hope of expressing their own individual perspective on the society in which they lived. All this amounted to a conference distinguished by great intellectual generosity, which I’m sure left us all with markedly longer reading lists and several exciting new connections to pursue."

Clare Stainthorp




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Last edited: 04/12/2017 23:57:00