Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing

That’s the title of my book. Catchy, isn’t it? But the reason it’s the title of a post here is that I have been revving up another essay project and realizing that many of the same issues I address in the book are going to be central. I’ve been looking back at some of my old historical fiction about Richard III (long story short: read The Daughter of Time in 6th grade, became dedicated Ricardian, joined Richard III Society, did several school projects on the topic, and collected quite an array of Ricardian fiction–which, just by the way, is still a flourishing genre). I didn’t really know what I would find when I went back to this material, which was part of the appeal: as I learned from working on my Gone with the Wind essay, rereading after many years means you bring a lot of different ideas to things. In this case what is immediately standing out for me is how embroiled the materials are in issues of genre, and how much those issues are (as they pretty much always are) gendered. Here’s just one example, from a fairly well respected late 20th-century biography of Richard (by Charles Ross, a real historian, which as you’ll see, is important):

There developed about this time [late 19thC] an unfortunate divide between the specialist and the popular views of Richard, which is almost the same as saying between the amateur and the professional. Markham was the philosophical progenitive ancestor of Richard’s modern defenders. His offspring have included an Oxford professor of English law, a headmaster of Eton, several peers of the realm and a number of historical novelists and writers of detective stories. Apart from some with serous pretensions to be writing history, notably the late Paul Murray Kendall (himself an American professor of English literature), the writers of fiction are the most prominent, among them Philip Lindsay, whose zeal for Richard matched that of Markham himself, Josephine Tey, whose best-selling Daughter of Time (1951) concerning the fate of the princes was described by that fount of historical authority, the Daily Mail, as ‘a serious contribution to historical knowledge,’ Rosemary Hawley Jarman, author of Speak No Treason [it’s actually We Speak No Treason–I have it], and a number of others, nearly all women writers, for whom the rehabilitation of the reputation of a long-dead king holds a strange and unexplained fascination. . .

It’s true that every one of the many Ricardian novels I have is by a woman writer, but the sheer gratuitousness of that line about their “strange and unexplained fascination”with their subject is perversely delightful–it sets my critical faculties humming. I also love the way that dig at the Daily Mail is also a swipe at Tey’s claim to have contributed anything of historiographical significance.

One of the early pro-Richard sources often cited is Caroline Halsted’s 1844 work Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England. Here’s Ross’s comment:

As a child of the Romantic age she wrote in affecting, indeed melting prose. But there was also some whalebone behind the outer garment of sensibility. Her work contains 82 appendices covering 128 pages drawn from record sources, including the important manuscript known as Harleian 433.

Biography Paul Murray Kendall (himself, as Ross notes, a mere English professor) is not particular impressed by this archival work, however:

Though Miss Halsted did some valuable digging in Harleian MS. 433, the registry of King Richard’s grants and writs, and printed a number of the principal entries as well as other important source materials, her work is conceived rather in the vein of the Victorian gift-book, and to this rude age is almost unreadable.

That’s OK. “Miss Halsted” knew she wasn’t really invited to the party anyway, so like so many of her female contemporaries, she set her work apart from that of the “general” historians, deftly turning their research failures into her apologia:

After many and lengthened discussions from writers of acknowledged ability, the boundaries of the historical and the poetical in the received popular version of the history of Richard the Third remains as indefinite as ever. If the author of the present work had imagined that the course pursued by the zealous inquirers to whom she has alluded was that by which the truth might be discovered, she would have deemed her interference to be in the highest degree presumptuous. If the questions in dispute were to be determined, or could possibly be determined, by acute reasoning or profound philosophical inquiry, she would have shrunk from attempting to exhibit powers to the possession of which she is well aware she cannot pretend; but, it appearing to her that mere argument and discussion were unsatisfactory modes of attempting to determine a doubtful question in history, and that the humble seeker of authorities might in a case like this do better service than the most brilliant or philosophical of speculators, she resolved on collecting from every available source all existing authentic notices, however trivial, of the defamed prince and monarch. Many of them were found in MSS., many were gathered from recent publications bearing on the events of this period, … and many were so widely scattered, or were deposited in places so unlikely to afford materials for such a purpose, that it is by no means astonishing that they have occasionally escaped the notice of general historians.

. . . [S]trong in the power of the evidences she has analysed, and in the belief that no prejudice can withstand the truth when fairly and simply displayed, she indulges the hope that, her unwearied research having fortified her with facts, and her own views being supported by those who rank high in literary fame, she may be shielded from the charge either of defective judgment or of presumption in her bold undertaking.

As I observed in my earlier work, 19th-century women historians “faced, even more than other nineteenth-century women writers, problems of self-presentation and self-authorization:”

How should they write? What voice should they use? What relationship to their readers should they cultivate? What kinds of stories should they tell? Could they fulfill their obligations as historians without violating expectations of them as women? And what exactly were their obligations as (women) historians anyway?

One of the first enabling strategies I identify is a “rhetoric of differentiation and subordination,” a kind of “don’t bother about little me, I’m just puttering away here in your shadow, not trying to encroach on your territory” attitude–even as, of course, just as Halsted does, they proceed quite merrily to encroach: “These gestures allow the women writers at once to distance themselves from ‘historians’ and to appropriate their authority.” Acknowledging that her work might be seen as presumptious, Halsted preemptively, and surely disingenuously, defends herself while pressing on with her scholarly project just the same.

This is going to be fun.


4 thoughts on “Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing

  1. JoVE June 16, 2011 / 10:56 am

    sounds very interesting; a nice pairing to go with gender and genre would be authorship and authority (which seems to be at stake here). I’m looking forward to following along with this.

  2. JoVE June 16, 2011 / 10:56 am

    Oh, also given your interest in gender, genre and Richard III it would be a shame to miss this year’s Stratford production in which a woman actor has been cast in the lead role.

  3. Rohan June 16, 2011 / 10:25 pm

    Jo: yes, and also amateur / professional (also often gendered, for obvious reasons, in the 19thC, and tied to genre). A woman actor, eh? Odds are against my getting to see that, but what an interesting choice.

  4. Ali June 20, 2011 / 8:56 am

    I am looking forward to this as well. (And I will also let you know what I think of In the Eye of the Sun along the way–though I have had a hard time following along with some of the political history of the book and tend to find those parts somewhat boring.) On the Victorian front, I just finished Jane Eyre, which I first read in ninth grade but which made a greater impression on me this time around. I even cried at the end! Apparently, I am a 13 year old girl inhabiting the body of a 40 year old woman! Up next is The Woman in White, and after that ,I am going to read Daniel Deronda–which I didn’t know existed until I read your blog–and some of Dickens (probably A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House).

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