Biographies of women, particularly biographies of exceptional women, seem especially prone to being something akin to a female martyrology. Perhaps this is how it should be: that the extraordinary achievements and profoundly inspiring examples of these eclipsed heroines (the superlatives come with extravagant ease) deserve meticulous reappraisal. But clearly feminist hagiography makes a virtue of exceptions - as does any hagiography - and is liable to write biography and cultural history under the dogmatic ideological terms of current orthodoxies. All biography is, in any case, teleological, and so women's lives often become chapters in "the cause", prefigurings of suffrage and equality: significant only because of what has succeeded them.
But to read the life of a Charlotte Smith or a Fanny Trollope is not simply to understand how a Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon might arise, and neither does a Bodichon simply mould her inheritance of emergent radical identity into public and social works. Any notion of inheritance implies patriarchal order and succession, legal definitions of identity and place, and linear models of history - and so needs to be treated with caution. It so happens that one facet of this problem is tackled by Monica Cohen in Professional Domesticity, who deconstructs the narrative of domesticity, showing how it arises from imperial models of space and is guided by dominant discourses of labour and professionalism. If the home is imagined as a workplace or an economy to be managed and financed, women's writing may become indistinguishable from other household tasks of unpaid work. Mrs Oliphant, for example (who wrote no fewer than 98 novels), described her writing: "I had no table even to myself, much less a room to work in, but sat at the corner of the family table with my writing-book, with everything going on as if I had been making a shirt instead of writing a book."
These three biographies do, however, nimbly resist the progressive meta-narrative of a women's movement. Personal histories are examined as personal entanglements as much as they are woven into the oppressive context of the time - with the consequence that surprising affinities emerge from a woman's work of fiction-making and home-making, centering on the shift in meaning of key concepts. Over the course of a century, between two writers and one social reformer, one is struck by the shared experience of ceaseless domestic toil, of incessant and precarious travel, of terrible encounters with slavery and the inspiring company and cooperation of radical society. It is in such areas that these women find their bearings and identities; and it is within these coordinates that women's history is redefining itself. These biographies express a process of continuing engagement with the structuring languages of bread-and-butter novels, wedlock and slavery, rather than triumphally anticipating imminent emancipation.
In her gripping account of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), Loraine Fletcher describes a woman who at 38 left her husband and became the most popular novelist of her time. She published 63 volumes of novels, poetry, children's books, was arguably the first Romantic poet, and also the first novelist to Gothicise the domestic space. Smith was driven by a feckless husband and impending poverty to write to support herself and her dozen children, simultaneously fighting a grindingly protracted Court of Chancery case to secure trust money for her children, in a suit that became the model for Jarndyce & Jarndyce. "My situation is extremely terrible," she told the publisher John Nichols, "(I am) liable every hour to imprisonment." Meanwhile, her husband continued to threaten and cajole, and stole the manuscripts of her unpublished poems, correctly (in legal terms) claiming them as his property.
Charlotte was married to Ben Smith at 15. For many years she raised his children and forgave his faults, even following him to France where he was hiding from creditors in a derelict chteau and rebuilding his fortunes by breeding canaries. Significantly, canary-farming was not merely some hare-brained money-making scheme: it was also a pathetic shadow of Ben Smith's own family business of slaving, a trade that provided the family with its whole rhetoric and the family's children with its profits. In her first extant letter, Smith complained that her husband's stepmother was lecturing her: "There are no women, she says, so well qualified for mistresses of families as the ladies of Barbados, whose knowledge of housewifery she is perpetually contrasting with my ignorance."
Slave management was the key to domestic economy, a ghastly comparison. Ben Smith blandly described to Charlotte the horrific conditions on the slave ships, where crewmen were encouraged to rape the slave women, who would be worth more at auction if they were pregnant. The enslavement narrative therefore became one articulation of woman's place, and gave Charlotte Smith a voice. She bitterly described her condition as a teenage wife:
"sold, a legal prostitute", and at the end of her career she created the character of Ella Sedley, a West Indian girl, to introduce questions of slavery into a children's book.
The career of Charlotte Smith suggests that the working women's experience of writing was at best a necessary evil, at worst a sisyphean labour - a description that would have been endorsed by Fanny Trollope (1779-1863). Pamela Neville-Sington's biography of Trollope is a wonderfully detailed, loving and vivacious account of a sparky and tireless life - as gruelling but not as desperate as Smith's. Trollope (like Byron) awoke one morning to find herself famous, having written The Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), an arch critique of transatlantic society. Her visit to America, which followed the collapse of her husband's farm, was a triumph of optimism and invention. She ran a fortune-telling show called the "Invisible Girl" and established the "Infernal Regions", a mechanical waxwork museum and phantasmagoria based on Dante's Inferno, with mannequins modelled by a young Hiram Powers. The family invested in building and stocking a vast bazaar in Cincinnati, and once this had spectacularly failed, plunging the family profoundly into debt, she published her American travels and at the age of 50 embarked on a career as a novelist. She rose at dawn every morning, and wrote five more travel books and 35 novels. The patriotic success of The Domestic Manners of the Americans was due to her accounts of everyday American behaviour in parks and parlours, in saloons rather than in salons, and helped to explode the utopian myth of the West. European settlers who expected to find idyllic communities populated by philosophers, poets, and pantisocrats, usually arrived, were handed an axe, and told to start chopping.
Despite her disastrous American investments, Trollope's prodigious energy kept her solvent. She rivalled Charles Dickens both in popularity and in her ability to write two novels in monthly serialisation simultaneously. She also had a generous taste for frequent fashionable "little dinners", parties and seances. The seances, she cheerfully admitted, served a double purpose: "Of course I draw from life - but I always pulp my acquaintances long before serving them up. You would never recognise a pig in a sausage." This remark allows Neville-Sington to glean autobiographical material from Trollope's novels, and she deploys these sources with great deftness.
The other Trollope, Fanny's son Anthony, is also dispatched with aplomb. Any risk that Fanny's life and works might become a prelude to the Barsetshire novels is briskly dealt with. Telling parallels are drawn, proving, like nearly all the men in these biographies, that Anthony existed in a state of indebtedness - owing mood, tone and wit to Fanny: he was his mother's son. He was also a peevish, moody little snob, stiffly contemptuous of his mother's success, ungenerously claiming in his autobiography that "she was neither clear-sighted nor accurate; and in her attempts to describe morals, manners and even facts, was unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration". As Neville-Sington shows throughout her book, these hurtful remarks are simply irritating nonsense - but if anything, they might embody the patriarchal voice when faced with matriarchal supremacy. The sentiments perhaps derive from Thomas Anthony, Fanny's husband, whose self-administered doses of medicinal calomel left him irritable, irrational and brain-damaged.
Of these three women, however, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (18-91) is the discovery and revelation: a painter, pamphleteer, travel writer and journalist; the co-founder of Girton College and a radical reformer; Florence Nightingale's cousin, George Eliot's closest friend and Pre-Raphaelite model for Boudicca. "I am one of the cracked people of the world," she once said, "and I like to herd with the cracked such asI queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angelsI I long always to be off on some wild adventure."
She emerges from a thriving intellectual and artistic scene, and a startlingly tangled web of illegitimacy and multiple families - and so family politics make up an important and significant thread in Pam Hirsch's book. In this weaving of domestic and social narratives, Bodichon's life makes the most considerable contribution of the three for understanding feminist politics in the 19th century, though it lacks the grinding intensity of Smith or the runaway verve of Trollope.
Slavery is endemic here. Bodichon visited the United States and attended horrific slave auctions in Louisiana. She had also witnessed similar practices closer to home, in Algiers, where she had broken down at the arranged marriage of an 11-year-old girl: "I renewed every vow I ever made over wretched women to do all in my short life with all my strength to help them."
She had an early ambition to create a women's college, believing that "giving education, the very means of self-help, is the safest way of being charitable", and in a sense fulfilling Mary Wollstonecraft's and Charlotte Smith's earlier hopes of freeing women. Indeed, the chapters on the founding of Girton are the most interesting, combining university, family and personal politics, describing Girton's competition with Henry Sidgwick's Newnham foundation and the initial establishment at Hitchin, and Bodichon's turbulent relationship with the force de nature Emily Davies. And although one feels the excitement of the first Girton students, and particularly "Scott of Girton", their first major undergraduate success, the place did look like prison. Bodichon incarcerated her girls in a windswept Gothic Revival hall, policed by a small dog patrolling the corridors.
Despite her insistence on a gymnasium (imagined by a friend in the most excitable of terms: "How charming it would be to organise a regiment of stay-less, free-breathing, free-stepping girls! I school-girls like Grecian water-carriers"), there is a shadow of Charlotte Smith's dark and dismal castles.
The Gothic revived in colleges such as Girton is, however, an expression of national architectural idealism rather than a dungeon of enslavement, and the shift in women's opportunities over the century since Smith is embodied in the semantic shift of Gothic.
Indeed, to return to Monica Cohen, Professional Domesticity analyses the organisation and representation of interiors into a reading of home and nation, arguing that it is "possible to see Victorian domesticity as a varying and often contested discourse about the portability of national identity", and questioning the "authenticity" of families and homes against institutional or professional establishments (seen for example in Villette or Great Expectations).
Professional Domesticity is an intelligent book, but it surprisingly lacks a full account of the colonial aspect of national identity, and particularly the developing conditions of confinement and enslavement that seem so striking in women's lives of this period. As Virginia Woolf said, it is unpleasant to be locked out, but it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.
Nick Groom is lecturer in English, University of Exeter.
Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography
Author - Loraine Fletcher
ISBN - 0 333 67845 1
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 408