chapter  15
11 Pages

The New Woman writing and some marriage questions

Nineteenth-century definitions of femininity and of female sexuality were inextricably linked to contemporary definitions of marriage and to the social and political functions it served.

As the dominant definitions of femininity were more and more fiercely contested in the latter half of the century, the Marriage Question not only appeared to be increasingly problematic, it also became more polarised. At one extreme marriage was seen (by both feminists and anti-feminists) as woman's highest and most natural calling. At the other it was a form of slavery or legalised prostitution. Many, perhaps most, reviewers saw the New Woman fiction as part of a general attack on marriage by fiction writers who, according to Margaret Oliphant (1896), constituted 'The Anti-Marriage League'. Although for Oliphant this league included both male and female writers (Thomas Hardy was singled out for particularly hostile treatment), one of the strongest objections to the anti-marriage fiction (as to the sensation novel) was the prominence of women in its production and mediation. Oliphant clearly saw the New Woman writers as founder-members of the league, and also attacked the part played by women readers in creating a market for anti-marriage fiction. Hugh Stutfield, whose oneman campaign against the 'degeneracy' of contemporary fiction has already been described, was also exercised by the prominence of women writers and the female perspective in the fictional critique of marriage.