During the Victorian period, women writers were measured against a social rather than a literary ideal. Hence, it was widely thought that novels by women should be modest, religious, sensitive, guileless, and chaste, like their authors. Many Victorian women writers took exception to this belief, however, resisting the imposition of nonliterary restrictions on their work. Publishers soon discovered that the gentlest and most iddylike female novelists were tough-minded and relentless when their professional integrity was at stake. Keenly aware of their artistic responsibilities, these women writers would not make concessions to secure commercial success.
The Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and their lesser-known contemporaries repudiated, in their professional lives, the courtesy that Victorian ladies might exact from Victorian gentlemen. Desiring rigorous and impartial criticism, most women writers did not wish reviewers to be kind to them if kindness meant overlooking their literary weaknesses or flattering them on their accomplishments simply because of their sex. They had expected derisive reviews; instead, they found themselves confronted with generous criticism, which they considered condescending. Elizabeth Barrett Browning labeled it “the comparative respect which means... absolute scorn.”
For their part, Victorian critics were virtually obsessed with finding the place of the woman writer so as to judge her appropriately. Many bluntly admitted that they thought Jane Eyre a masterpiece if written by a man, shocking or disgusting if written by a woman. Moreover, reactionary reviewers were quick to associate an independent heroine with carefully concealed revolutionary doctrine; several considered Jane Eyre a radical feminist document, as indeed it was. To Charlotte Bronte, who had demanded dignity and independence without any revolutionary intent and who considered herself politically conservative, their criticism was an affront. Such criticism bunched all women writers together rather than treating them as individual artists.
Charlotte Bronte’s experience served as a warning to other women writers about the prejudices that immediately associated them with feminists and others thought to be political radicals. Irritated, and anxious to detach themselves from a group stereotype, many expressed relatively conservative views on the emancipation of women (except on the subject of women’s education) and stressed their own domestic accomplishments. However, in identifying themselves with women who had chosen the traditional career path of marriage and motherhood, these writers encountered still another threat to their creativity. Victorian prudery rendered virtually all experience that was uniquely feminine unprintable. No nineteenth-century woman dared to describe childbirth, much less her sexual passion. Men could not write about their sexual experiences either, but they could write about sport, business, crime, and war—all activities from which women were barred. Small wonder no woman produced a novel like War and Peace. What is amazing is the sheer volume of first-rate prose and poetry that Victorian women did write.
1. The primary purpose of the passage is to
(A) refute the contention that no Victorian woman writer produced a novel like War and Peace
(B) trace the historical relationship between radical feminist politics and the Victorian novels written by women
(C) show how three Victorian women writers responded to criticism of their novels
(D) resolve the apparent contradiction between Victorian women writers’ literary innovativeness and their rather conservative social views
(E) describe the discrepancy between Victorian society’s expectations of women writers and the expectations of the women writers themselves
2. According to the passage, Victorian women writers “would not make concessions” (line 13) to publishers primarily because they felt that such concessions would
(A) require them to limit descriptions of uniquely feminine experiences
(B) compromise their artistic integrity
(C) make them vulnerable to stereotyping by critics
(D) provide no guarantee that their works would enjoy commercial success
(E) go against the traditions of English letters
3. The passage suggests that Victorian criticism of works by women writers was
4. The author of the passage quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning (lines 28-29) in order to demonstrate that Victorian women writers
(A) possessed both talent and literary creativity
(B) felt that their works were misunderstood
(C) refused to make artistic concessions
(D) feared derisive criticism
(E) resented condescending criticism
5. It can be inferred from the passage that Charlotte Bronte considered the criticisms leveled at Jane Eyre by reactionary reviewers “an affront” (line 43) primarily because such criticism
(A) exposed her carefully concealed revolutionary doctrine to public scrutiny
(B) assessed the literary merit of the novel on the basis of its author’s sex
(C) assumed that her portrayal of an independent woman represented revolutionary ideas
(D) labeled the novel shocking and disgusting without just cause
(E) denied that the novel was a literary masterpiece
6. Which of the following statements best describes the “threat” mentioned in line 57 of the passage?
(A) Critics demanded to know the sex of the author before passing judgment on the literary quality of a novel.
(B) Women writers were prevented from describing in print experiences about which they had special knowledge.
(C) The reading public tended to prefer historical novels to novels describing contemporary London society.
(D) Publishers were urging Victorian women writers to publish under their own names rather than under pseudonyms.
(E) Women writers’ domestic responsibilities tended to take time away from their writing.
7. The passage suggests that the attitude of Victorian women writers toward being grouped together by critics was most probably one of
8. It can be inferred from the passage that a Victorian woman writer who did not consider herself a feminist would most probably have approved of women’s
(A) entering the noncombat military
(B) entering the publishing business
(C) entering a university
(D) joining the stock exchange
(E) joining a tennis club
9. The passage suggests that the literary creativity of Victorian women writers could have been enhanced if
(A) women had been allowed to write about a broader range of subjects
(B) novels of the period had been characterized by greater stylistic and structural ingenuity
(C) a reserved and decorous style had been a more highly valued literary ideal
(D) publishers had sponsored more new women novelists
(E) critics had been kinder in reviewing the works of women novelists