Not Just Jane by Shelley DeWees

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The blurb claims that Not Just Jane  is a ‘witty, fascinating and feminist history of literary Britain’. The slightly breathless subtitle ‘Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature’ and its  chick lit-ish cover art suggests that the book is intended to appeal to readers not usually interested in literary history,  impression enhanced by the reference to the author’s ‘several tattoos’ before her literary credentials.  Shelley DeWees argues that the dominance of Austen and the Brontës in literary and popular culture has obscured far more radical writers, who are ‘languishing in obscurity’ (p. 19).  DeWees comes to realise that Austen’s novels represent a ‘land of sugary perfection’ (p. 3) and that Austen and Charlotte and Emily Brontë were ‘purveyors of a certain English “sentiment”, a malleable construct that appealed to our nostalgic (and aspirational) desires’ (p. 5); I almost stopped reading at this point.  This reading of Austen and the Brontës’ work indicates an understanding so limited that it undermines any confidence in DeWees’ arguments in the rest of the book.  She goes on to claim that Austen and  Emily and Charlotte Brontë constructed an ‘England whose Arcadian heart endures through turmoil’ (p. 28), unlike her seven selected writers, who ‘do not attempt to portray a romanticized England that doesn’t exist’ (p. 28).  DeWees selects seven female writers ‘worthy of my attention’ (p. 17) that ‘deserve recognition’ (p. 17); however, her criteria are not literary: ‘her aptitude for blowing my mind, that finally hooked me onto each of my seven British women writers’ (p. 19). Her first three subjects (Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams and Mary Robinson) were not primarily known as novelists even in their lifetimes.   Although DeWees claims that ‘these seven authoresses [have] been all but completely lost to us’ (p. 22) – a claim that wilfully disregards thirty years of scholarship –  the women that the book champions are by no means unknown, even outside academia. Mary Robinson, has been the subject of a best-selling biography (Paula Byrne’s excellent Perdita (2012)). Sara Coleridge is described as being confined to obscurity when she has long been recognised as one her father’s finest critics and responsible for his literary legacy.  Along with Dora Wordsworth, she was the subject of a well-reviewed biography as recently as The Poets’ Daughters (2014).   Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret was serialised on BBC Radio 4 in 2009 (and repeated on Radio 4 Extra in 2015).  Dinah Mulock Craik’s most popular novel, John Halifax, Gentleman (1857) was serialised by the BBC in 1974.  Bizarrely, DeWees claims that ‘[t]he very few biographies that exist on them are often fifty or a hundred years out of date’ (p. 23). DeWees is also hampered by her own unfamiliarity with the history of English literature.  She claims that ‘[t]he first clear sign of a burgeoning female literary scene was Fanny Burnley’s Evelina, in 1778′ (p. 34).  At one point she refers to Sara Coleridge’s ‘uncanny, and unprecedented, attention to worldbuilding’ (p. 196) in her novel Phantasmion (1837), apparently unaware of earlier Utopian writing such as Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666),  which often featured detailed and highly imaginative descriptions of other worlds and societies; furthermore, Coleridge’s novel had, by DeWees’ own admission ‘[a] tiny print run of just two hundred fifty [sic] copies [and so] had little chance to strike it big’ (p. 193) before vanishing without a trace – where is the evidence here for a transformative influence?  DeWees notes that Mulock Craik’s last full length novel, Young Mrs Jardine ‘entertained the idea that certain problems in marriage made a separation absolutely obligatory: “Drunkenness, dissoluteness, anything by which a man degrades himself and destroys his children, gives his wife the right to save them and herself from him”‘(p. 235-6) – sentiments published in 1879, thirty one years after Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) addressed the subject.  Discussing Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, DeWees’ repeatedly references to Lady Audley’s husband as ‘Sir Audley’ (p. 257) suggests that she has not read the book carefully enough. Does it matter? It suggests to me a lack of attention to detail and implies a lack of engagement with the books themselves.  DeWees never shows how her chosen authors (I can’t bring myself to call them authoresses) ‘transformed’ British literature. Literary analysis is almost entirely absent as the book focuses on the melodrama of its subjects personal lives – Charlotte Smith’s unhappy marriage, Sara Coleridge’s opium addition and frustration with the constraints of nineteenth-century marriage, Catherine Crowe’s public breakdown and so on, rather than the quality of their writing.  The book might have worked as a sort of collective biography had it been written by an author with a proper understanding of the history of British women’s writing and willing to engage in some literary analysis. However, DeWees’ unwillingness to engage in either does her subjects no favours and undermines her central argument entirely.  There are many better books available that engage with the history of women’s writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them written for the general reader.

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