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On Their Own: The Single Woman, Feminism, and Self-Help in British Women's Print Culture (1850-1900)

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Title: On Their Own: The Single Woman, Feminism, and Self-Help in British Women's Print Culture (1850-1900)
Author: Walker, Melissa
Department: School of English and Theatre Studies
Program: English
Advisor: Brown, Susan
Abstract: Cultural and historical accounts of self-help literature typically describe its development and focus in terms of the autonomous, public male subject of the nineteenth century. This literary study recognizes that as masculine self-help discourse became widely accessible in the mid nineteenth century, mid-Victorian feminist novels, periodicals, and tracts developed versions of self-help that disrupted the dominant cultural view that the single female was helpless and “redundant” if she did not become a wife and mother. I argue that the dual focus of Victorian self-help discourse on the ability to help oneself and others was attractive for Victorian feminist writers who needed to manipulate the terms of the domestic ideal of woman as influential helpmeet, if women’s independence and civic duty were to be made culturally palatable. Chapter One focuses on how Dinah Mulock Craik drew on self-help values popularized in mid-century articles and collective biographies by Samuel Smiles, while rejecting the genre of biography for its invasiveness into female lives. By imagining a deformed single artist heroine in the context of her 1851 bildungsroman, Olive, Craik highlighted and contested the objectification of women within Victorian culture while reproducing other forms of female difference based on dominant constructions of class, sexuality, and race. Chapter Two extends formal and thematic considerations of self-help discourse to a comparison of masculine colonial accounts of class-climbing and the projection of a self-reliant, yet deeply unstable, domestic female by Maria Rye and the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society. Chapter Three exerts critical pressure on the tension between individual and mutual help by charting the debate that raged between liberal individualism and collectivism in the labour movement, particularly in The Women’s Union Journal. Returning to a focus on the binary of female aberrance and normalcy within Victorian culture, Chapter Four analyzes late-century case studies of nervous illnesses alongside Ella Hepworth Dixon’s 1894 New Woman novel that promoted self-help for women as desirable yet unattainable in a society still largely structured around the domestic ideal. At its broadest, this dissertation explores points of convergence and departure between Victorian masculine and feminine self-help texts, and touches on reverberations of this Victorian discourse in today’s self-help works directed at women in Western culture.
Date: 2012-05
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