Notable Women Authors of the Day – Helen C Black

Most of the Notable Women Authors interviewed by Helen C Black for the Lady’s Pictorial magazine in the 1890’s are now completely forgotten. Of the 30 authors featured here I’d heard of seven before reading this book. I’ve read books by only two. These women represent that large group of writers who made a living by their pen, mostly a precarious living, but then fell out of fashion & are forgotten. Critical tastes decide who’s in the canon & who’s not. For most of the 20th century, the only 19th century women writers who were in print & widely read were the usual suspects – Austen, the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot. The feminist publishers of the 70s brought many more back from obscurity including Margaret Oliphant, M E Braddon, Sarah Grand & Marie Corelli (Grand & Corelli are interviewed in this book). Victorian Secrets, the publishers of this book, have recently reprinted books by several of the Notable Women – Rhoda Broughton, Florence Marryat & Charlotte Riddell.

The interviews by Helen C Black are fascinating for what they do & don’t say about these woman writers. The Lady’s Pictorial was a popular newspaper, full of articles on fashion & the home. This is not the place to expect in-depth serious discussion of the writer’s work. The articles take a similar form. Black sets the scene with her arrival at the author’s home, often after a considerable journey by train or boat (such as her trip to Ireland to visit Mrs Hungerford). Black then describes the setting of the house, whether in suburb, city or village. She then often describes the room she waits in & then, the author appears, & her appearance & dress is minutely described. The emphasis is on their feminine appearance & accomplishments. Flowing tea dresses are often worn & pieces of embroidery are left casually on chairs. The sitting rooms are stuffed with objects, paintings, and mementoes from foreign travel. The writer’s credentials are established with reference to any other writers in the family, usually men, fathers & grandfathers. Her early life is sketched, husband & children (if any) are introduced, a short outline of the author’s career with her novels listed & then we enter the study or private room where the work is done. The emphasis throughout is on the author as a wife, mother, daughter, homemaker first & professional author second.

Nothing less than a genius is Mrs Hungerford at gardening. Her dress protected by a pretty holland apron, her hands encased in brown leather gloves, she digs and delves. Followed by many children, each armed with one of “mother’s own” implements… she plants her own seeds, and pricks her own seedlings, prunes, grafts and watches with the deepest eagerness to see them grow… She is full of vitality and is the pivot on which every member of the house turns. Blessed with an adoring husband, and healthy, handsome, obedient children, who come to her for everything and tell her everything, her life seems idyllic.

The wonder is that Mrs Hungerford ever found time to write! I found it all fascinating. Helen C Black feels a real sympathy for her subjects & is an observant writer who fits a lot into these profiles of only about 10pp. Although the emphasis is on the domestic virtues of these women, insights into their working lives do emerge,

Above all things, Mrs Stannard is a thoroughly domestic woman. Popular in society, constantly entertaining with great hospitality, she yet contrives to attend to every detail of her large household, which consequently goes like clockwork. She writes for about two hours every morning, and keeps a neat record book, in which she duly enters the number of pages written each day.

‘I always,’ (Iza Duffus Hardy) observes, ‘have the story completely planned out before I begin to write it. I often alter details as I go on, but never depart from the main lines. My usual way of making a plot is to build up on and around the principal situation. I get the picture of the strongest scene – the crisis of the story – well into my mind. I see that this situation necessitates a certain group of characters standing in given situations towards each other… Having got the characters formed, and the foundation of the story laid, I build up the superstructure just as an artist would first get in the outline of his central group in the foreground, and then sketch out the background and the details.

There are occasional glimpses of a different, more modern life for a few of the Notable Women. Adeline Sergeant was a politically active woman as well as a novelist. She lives in the Ladies’ Residential Chambers, an apartment building near Tottenham Court Road, founded in 1888 by Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson as a residence for independent, working women.

A long-felt want is here supplied. In an age when hundreds of women of culture and of position are earning their living… a necessity has arisen for independent quarters, such as never can be procured in the ordinary lodgings or boarding-house, where, without being burdened with the cares of house-keeping, the maximum of comfort and privacy with the minimum of domestic worry can be obtained.

The only man on the premises is the porter, whose respectability is guaranteed by the row of Crimean War medals on his chest. Miss Sergeant’s rooms, however, are just as crammed with knickknacks & bibelots as any suburban villa. Oriental draperies, a Japanese screen, Persian rugs, Benares brass vases and most intriguingly, “a white Siberian wolf, mounted on a fine black bearskin forms the rug.”

After reading each interview, I turned to the appendix where the editors, Troy J Bassett & Catherine Pope, have listed any other information about the author. They reveal the interesting things ignored by Black, like separation, divorce & scandal, & what happened after the interview. There’s also a list of other reading, including editions of the author’s work. Other now-forgotten authors in the book include Mrs Lovett Cameron, Matilda Betham-Edwards, May Crommelin, Jean Middlemass & the Hon Mrs Henry Chetwynd.

As I was reading, I realized that I had heard of Jessie Fothergill & her best-known novel, The First Violin, before. The name seemed familiar & I remembered that I had downloaded the book from the excellent Girlebooks. After reading the review there again & also the Notable Women’s editor’s comment that the Times thought The First Violin was Fothergill’s masterpiece and “It features a sympathetic portrayal of a married woman’s affair, thus incurring the censure of the American Library Association, who in 1881 deemed her works ‘sensational and immoral.’” I can’t wait to read it!

I’ve been dipping into the Notable Women for a few weeks now, reading one or two interviews at a time, which I think is the best way to read the book. The interviews were first collected in book form by Black in 1893 & reprinted with extra interviews in 1904. Often these interviews are the only biographical information available about the women authors so they are of great historical value as well as being a fascinating, sometimes amusing but always interesting insight into the life of the woman author in the 1890’s.

10 thoughts on “Notable Women Authors of the Day – Helen C Black

  1. It's a really interesting book for anyone who loves Victorian fiction or who's interested in the image of the woman writer. I hope you all enjoy it if/when you get to it. As I said, it's perfect for dipping into if you're short of reading time (as we all are). Rose, Girlebooks are wonderful! They have lots of the classic 18th & 19th century women authors & lots more, especially some American authors I hadn't heard of, a little crime & mystery & some childrens books. Their e-books are well-formatted & they're free. What's not to love?

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  2. Darlene, I've now read First Violin & I loved it. My review will be up in a couple of days. We certainly wouldn't call it immoral or sensational these days but there are elements that would have shocked the circulating libraries. Catherine, thanks for commenting. I did enjoy the book very much & I'd be very interested in any of the Notable Women's novels you feel are worthy of a reprint. I've read a lot of Victorian fiction & I love discovering new authors so thank you for Victorian Secrets.

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