Brian Corman. Women Novelists before Jane Austen: The Critics and Their Canons

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Brian Corman. Women Novelists before Jane Austen: The Critics and their Canons. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 326 pp. $65.

"[T]he majority of eighteenth-century novels were actually written by women, but this had long remained a purely quantitative assertion of dominance," Ian Watts's unsubstantiated "throw-away line" in The Rise of the Novel (1957), motivated Dale Spender's hypothesis that early women novelists were deliberately excluded from literary canons based only on their sex. Brian Corman, who tells us "[does] not believe in 'only' explanations for interesting problems in literary history" (4), was spurred to ask questions about canon making and the story of the development of the novel. The result is a "history of histories" of the novel: a survey of two hundred years of responses to the novel, with a particular emphasis on discovering how women novelists came to be excluded. Corman's chronological presentation of histories and the emergence of literary canons is an accessible, informative, and sometimes humorous study.

The survey is presented in five chapters: the eighteenth century which viewed Henry Fielding's "new species of writing" as an antidote to the feminized and dangerous Romance; chapter 2 covering the first self-conscious attempts to establish a canon from 1800 to 1840; chapter 3, the critical centrepiece of the study, 1840 to 1880, wherein in the second half of the chapter Corman focuses on criticism of Behn, Manley, and Haywood, Richardson, Burney, and Austen who prove reliable indicators of critical trends; chapter 4 on the Victorians, 1880 to 1920; and chapter 5, the High Modernism and Formalism of 1920 to 1957. Each chapter begins by introducing the developing interests and trends informing "the canon-making instincts" of the critics (109) and explaining Corman's rationale for his selections of texts. The conclusion to each chapter summarizes its particular period's critical values of the novel--morality, pleasure, nationalism, realism--and its openness to early women novelists. The chapters get longer as the critical works increase for each period. The appendix of "Novels Cited" and the index of "Authors/Critics and Their Works" provide a very welcome and helpful key, making the book an accessible reference tool.

Corman's methodology in this encyclopedic survey is to examine the critics' evaluations of male novelists as well as female in order to foreground "the critical principles and personal biases informing those evaluations" (5). In this way, Corman offers a balanced and systematic appraisal of the canon-making machine, avoiding simple sexist explanations like Spender's. Most interestingly, Corman discovers that a critic's attitude toward Samuel Richardson provides "an important bellwether for responses to eighteenth-century women novelists" (43). The pendulum of taste in the dialectic of the manly Fielding versus the feminized Richardson is an unusually trustworthy indicator of how a specific era will react to women novelists. A sympathetic critical reading of Richardson usually prefigures an equally sympathetic reception of women novelists. Corman's tracing of the critical rise and fall of Richardson's (and thus women's) popularity through the many quotations from the histories provides one of the main enjoyments of the book. Critics, it seems, have not always been diplomatic and objective in their judgments of literature; as quoted throughout this study, they are often personal and deliciously vicious. For instance, in 1859, at the height of admiration for Fielding's manly humour and vitality, David Masson describes Richardson as "the nervous, tea-drinking, pompous little printer, coddled [. …