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The Forgotten Female Aesthetes

Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England
Talia Schaffer

BUY Cloth · 312 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813919362 · $69.50 · Apr 2000
BUY Paper · 312 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813919379 · $35.00 · Apr 2000

Most critics of aestheticism focus on the Yellow Book, the glossy Victorian journal with the shocking yellow cover that counted among its contributors Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm. But one of the best-known aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, launched his own magazine, the Woman's World. The audience for Wilde's magazine reveals another side of the aesthetic movement that has been largely forgotten.

Every now-canonical male aesthete once competed with what Talia Schaffer calls the female aesthetes, whose critical and popular success made them formidable contemporaries. Not only did these women make significant contributions to the development of feminist ideologies; they pioneered new literary strategies that were incorporated by their canonical successors.

Schaffer analyzes writers who have never been considered together, including Lucas Malet (Mary Harrison), Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée), Alice Meynell, Rosamund Marriott Watson, Una Ashworth Taylor, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Mary and Jane Findlater, and John Oliver Hobbes (Pearl Craigie). These women used aestheticism to forge a compromise between the two models of female identity available to them--the New Woman and the Angel in the House. They developed plots, ideas, and styles that would later be adopted, parodied, or revised by canonical writers such as Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. They used the "pretty" language of aestheticism as a strategic cover behind which they could attempt radical experiments, many of which prefigure modernist innovations.

Recovering the lost work of the female aesthetes forces us to reconsider the central tenets of late-Victorian literary history.


Absorbing and provocative, Schaffer's 'mapping' of female aestheticism enhances and, indeed, transforms our comprehension of the fin de siecle. Her valuable recuperation of the work of aesthetic women reveals a rich material and literary culture integral to the aesthetic movement. Ranging from poetry to textiles and from Alice Meynell to Thomas Hardy, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes is attentive to the delightful and exasperating complexities of artistic production in this fertile and little-understood period.

Pamela Gilbert, University of Florida

About the Author(s): 

Talia Schaffer is Assistant Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. She is the editor, with Kathy Alexis Psomiades, of Women and British Aestheticism (Virginia).

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