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What is a Woman to Do?

A Reader on Women, Work and Art, c. 1830-1890


Edited By Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi and Patricia Zakreski

This anthology contributes to a scholarly understanding of the aesthetics and economics of female artistic labour in the Victorian period. It maps out the evolution of the Woman Question in a number of areas, including the status and suitability of artistic professions for women, their engagement with new forms of work and their changing relationship to the public sphere. The wealth of material gathered here – from autobiographies, conduct manuals, diaries, periodical articles, prefaces and travelogues – traces the extensive debate on women’s art, feminism and economics from the 1830s to the 1890s.
Combining for the first time nineteenth-century criticism on literature and the visual arts, performance and craftsmanship, the selected material reveals the different ideological positions surrounding the transition of women from idleness to serious occupation. The distinctive primary sources explore the impact of artistic labour upon perceptions of feminine sensibility and aesthetics, the conflicting views of women towards the pragmatics of their own creative labour as they encompassed vocations, trades and professions, and the complex relationship between paid labour and female fame and notoriety.


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Section Two The Feminine Aesthetic 97


Section Two: The Feminine Aesthetic Introduction Over the course of the Victorian period, women’s quest for purposeful work invariably inf luenced their conception of the kind of art they pro- duced. Their questioning of the ideology of separate spheres – of the natu- ralisation of feminised notions of passivity, modesty and delicacy – was matched by an equally charged probing of the limits and possibilities of their aesthetic expression. Having as its starting point the extent to which the friction between domesticity and professionalism permeated female artistic labour, this section aims to explore the aesthetic questions raised by women through and by their work. Although a feminine aesthetic is not necessarily a feminist one, female artistic subjectivity was necessarily inf luenced by the social and material debates on the Woman Question. This section opens with two pieces by Fanny Kemble and Mary Ann Stodart that show how women’s conception of their own creativity could inter- nalise bourgeois notions of biologically determined femininity. While Stodart claims that ‘the body is rarely suf ficiently powerful to sustain the workings of the mind’ of the woman of genius (182), Kemble praises her father’s acting, as compared to her own, because of his emotional and rational alertness to the world around him. The conf licting ideological positions in this section reveal the multivalent and political character of female artistic labour and the possibilities it of fered for the reinvention of femininity as women’s sphere of activity widened. The ways in which Kemble and Stodart, among others,...

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