Of what interest are the late 19th-century "new woman" writers like Olive Schreiner and George Egerton? They were not great artists, nor was their output prolific. Their feminism was necessarily shaped by Victorian values: they glorified chastity and maternal love, and, taking the moral high ground, sought to transform a "degenerate" male society. Yet in their insistence on exploring and defining womanhood, in their rejection of self-sacrifice, in their outspoken hostility towards men, they represent an important stage in the female literary tradition.
Elaine Showalter has called Schreiner's character, Lyndall, in her 1883 novel The Story of an African Farm, "the first wholly serious feminist heroine". George Egerton's stories are skilful renderings of women's psychological oppression: the suppressed anger and rage of her female characters speak to us still.
Yet one would not derive much sense of this from Sally Ledger's The New Woman, because the relationship between female consciousness and the novel is of less importance to her than the narrow project of scrutinising new woman fiction for its late-20th century socialist-feminist credentials. Ledger concentrates on popular feminist novelists like Sarah Grand, Mona Caird, Schreiner and Egerton, not so much for their literary significance but because she is anxious to associate the new woman with mass culture. She is equally anxious to disassociate her from anything so elitist as modernism, maintaining that realism offered a vehicle for feminist expression almost unparalleled in literary history.
And it is feminism above all that Ledger is interested in. Her intention is to "widen" the parameters of the analysis of gender relations at the fin de siecle and to examine the links between the new woman and feminist activism; between the new woman and decadence, socialism, imperialism and emergent homosexual identities.
Ledger's study is impeccably researched, but theoretically constricted, and carries with it a bemusement that the Victorian New Woman is not quite as progressive as she would like her to be. She was an emphatically "modern" figure with strong links to socialist politics - Ledger makes much of Eleanor Marx's 1886 political tract The Woman Question, and devotes much space to Margaret Harkness's 1887 socialist novel A City Girl, even if the novel is to be finally dismissed for its descent into naturalism, rendering its working-class characters ultimately passive and helpless. But the new woman was also lamentably middle-class, she was a stalwart supporter of heterosexual marriage, and - most surprising of all - she had no concept of lesbian sexual desire and failed to break out of the limits circumscribed by the discourse of romantic female friendship. Ledger is further dismayed to discover that a good deal of feminist writing, in common with imperialism, was preoccupied with race preservation and racial purity.
Ledger's textual analysis is dispiriting. For example, Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm is found wanting, not simply for its traces of imperialism, but because of its "near-deification of motherhood", and for the astonishing fact that Schreiner "is entirely complicit with the dominant ideology of the time". Egerton is castigated for an absence of feminist politics, hailed for being one of the very few to explore the erotic nature of women, yet rejected for the recurrent narrative manoeuvre of sublimating the heroine's sexuality into maternal devotion.
We cannot see much of the relationship between fin-de-siecle fiction and feminism through the lens of such narrow gender analysis. By the end of this diligent but exasperating study, we have learnt more about what the new woman was not than what she was.
Mary Tomlinson is a fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.
The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle
Author - Sally Ledger
ISBN - 0 7190 4092 2 and 4093 0
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 216