Communications and Publications
Princeton, New Jersey 08544-5264
TEL 609/258-3600 FAX 609/258-1301
Release: Sept. 18, 1995
Contact: Margaret Sherry (609/258-3174)
Library Exhibit Focuses on
Victorian Women Writers
Princeton, N.J.--The exhibition "Telling Her Story: British Women
of Letters of the Victorian Era" will open to the public on Oct. 2
and will run through Jan. 7, 1996, in the Main Gallery of
Princeton University's Firestone Library. This exhibition will
focus on the life and work of 31 Victorian women, including
novelists, poets, children's book writers, travelogue writers and
essayists, and it will span the decades from the 1830s until the
turn of the century.
As Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities
and Professor of English at Princeton, writes, "English women
writers have never suffered from lack of a reading audience, nor
have they wanted for attention from scholars and critics. Yet we
have never been sure what unites them as women, or, indeed,
whether they share a common heritage connected to their womanhood
at all." That sentence begins Showalter's landmark book on English
women writers, _A Literature of their Own,_ which develops the
thesis of a common heritage, beginning with the Victorian era. Her
lecture, "The Victorian Era: The Golden Age of Women Writers," on
Sunday, Oct. 1 at 4:00 p.m. in 101 McCormick will frame the
opening of the exhibition.
"This 'gendered' tradition did not evolve without a struggle
against prejudice, guilt and inhibition," the exhibition's curator
Margaret Sherry notes. "The double standard forced writers such as
George Eliot and the Bronte sisters to assume male pen names
because they feared that society could not reconcile their
femininity with their art. But these women were able to write
about the powerlessness of the women they saw around them - a
plight due to the lack of opportunity for education and employment
- precisely because they had outgrown that plight in search of new
roles and new selves."
The aspirations of many a Victorian women indeed changed from the
1830s to the 1890s from domesticity to feminism, according to
Sherry. Part of the exhibition is a timeline that traces the
events which represent the gradual progress of women's rights,
especially in the latter half of the 19th century.
The "sensation" novelists of the 1860s and '70s, such as Mary
Elizabeth Braddon, were perhaps the most liberated of the first
three generations of women novelists. Their heroines defied the
repressive givens of their lives in stories that sold so well that
their authors became wealthy businesswomen. As one of the most
striking of the letters in the exhibition illustrates, Braddon
became accustomed to being paid 2,500 per novel! (In those days
one could live comfortably on 250 for an entire year.)
The exhibition represents eight women poets, ranging from
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti to Mathilde
Blind and Michael Field.
"Their work embodies their own struggle to reinvent the self in
the poetic mode, a struggle against the age-old habits of self-
denial and self-sacrifice," says Sherry. "These poets also tried
to capture for public scrutiny the harsher side-effects of the
technological progress that accompanied the Industrial Revolution
in Britain. Some of them raised money with their publications for
the benefit of the poor and the homeless. To my mind," says
Sherry, "all the women represented in the exhibition are heroines
in their own right."
Other items of special note in the exhibition are the manuscript
poems of Emily Bronte, written in the miniscule handwriting which
was typical of her earlist work. Other miniatures include a 2 x 3-
inch note from novelist Dinah Craik to editor Mary Howitt,
reacting to her reading of Mrs. Gaskell's most famous novel, _Mary
Barton._ Also in this category of treasures are Kate Greenaway's
tiny illustrated almanacs, produced for each new Christmas season.
At the other end of the spectrum of size is the bold purple
handwriting of novelist Ouida in a letter to the editor of a local
newspaper, protesting the killing of a stray Newfoundland dog.
Ouida, even when almost penniless herself, was known to suffer
eviction and starvation for her beloved dogs.
Poet Dora Greenwell's commonplace book has been given a bay case
all to itself to display its lovely watercolors and musical
scores. Greenwell compiled this volume as part of her
apprenticeship to writing poetry. There is also the notebook
novelist George Eliot kept as a "quarry" to mine while preparing
to write her great historical novel _Romola._ Finally, there are
also the lovely decorative bindings of which the Victorians were
so fond on the novels they read so voraciously.
A related exhibit in the Firestone Library main lobby entitled
"This Is Where I Fell Asleep" focuses on Victorian bookmarks from
the Collection of Lois Densky-Wolff.
Admission to the exhibition is without charge. Gallery hours are:
weekdays from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and weekends from noon
until 5:00 p.m. For more information, call the Department of Rare
Books and Special Collections - (609) 258-3184 - between the hours
of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. weekdays. Class tours and group visits