The new woman and the new science
: feminist writing 1880-1900

  • Lyssa Randolph

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    In this thesis I contend that evolutionary scientific discourses were integral to the work of "New Woman" writers of late Victorian literary culture in Britain. In the cultural debates that raged over the new gender politics and their relationship to social and moral values at the fin de siècle, the questions raised about femininity, modernity and the "woman question" were also central to the "new sciences" of sexology, eugenics, psychology and anthropology.

    This thesis investigates the issue of whether the new sciences offered an enabling set of discourses to New Women through which to produce new artistic, professional and personal feminine identities and to campaign for feminist goals. An understanding of the field of cultural production informs this discussion; I argue that science functions as cultural and symbolic capital in literary production of the period, and consider the dynamics between constructs of value, status, and the feminine in the literary market-place and their relationship to scientific narratives.

    This analysis is developed through the illumination of the relationship between New Woman novelists and poets, female aesthetes, and other forces in the field, in discussion of the thematic concerns and literary strategies of those participating in these debates: amongst others, Mona Caird, "Iota" (Katherine Mannington Caffyn), Victoria Cross(e) (Annie Sophie Cory), Sarah Grand (Frances Elizabeth McFall), Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), Alice Meynell, May Kendall, Constance Naden, and the anti-New Woman male writer, Grant Allen. An examination of a variety of literary forms and genres, in addition to the novel — the principal focus for much scholarship on the New Woman — such as the feminist periodicals, poetry, journalism and the short story, is central to the thesis and enables identification of shared literary strategies and techniques as well as consideration of readers and critical contexts.

    The roles and representation of "woman" in this period were produced within biological determinist concepts of sex and Nature. The study concentrates on ways in which essentialist dichotomies of cultural and biological reproduction redefined notions of literary and artistic "genius", motherhood and female citizenship, as they intersect with "race" and sexuality in imperial contexts. Women's critique and construct of these subjectivities differed; study of the women's journals reveals a consumer culture saturated in discourses of health and hygiene, negotiated by a divided community of readers. Focus on theories and representation of the child in late Victorian culture finds that Alice Meynell's writing challenged evolutionary psychology, and relates Sarah Grand's child genius to emergent Galtonian eugenics. I argue that late nineteenth-century feminism was intimately involved in imperialism and eugenics, and suggest that current feminist scholarship must confront and analyse these investments.

    In this thesis I find that boundaries between the groups' identities are fluid; points of intercourse and affiliation are revealed, such as the ways in which scientific constructs of "race", as in Mona Caird's use of the Celtic, are deployed in order to comment on literary value. I have highlighted the ambivalences at work in these appropriations, and suggest that the New Woman text was not always polemical, nor did it reject "high art" values, and that the female aesthetes also express feminist convictions. I contend that for many feminist writers, participation in these late nineteenth-century debates was a necessary and productive critical intervention, with radical, if not always progressive, implications.
    Date of Award2001
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    • University College Worcester
    SupervisorRoger Ebbatson (Supervisor), Ruth Robbins (Supervisor) & Sally Ledger (Supervisor)


    • feminism
    • nineteenth century
    • victorian
    • literature

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