No human being ever believed she was the right person in the right place

Dear Charlotte,

A Struggle for Fame (1883) explores the way social judgements based on nationality, class, and gender give shape to one’s identity and one’s opportunities in life. In a narrative arc that spans from the mid-1850s to the early-1880s, we follow two young Irish emigrants who move to London to seek their fortune.

After a failed love affair, Bernard Kelly (Barney) leaves his mother behind, travels to England, and goes to live with Mat Donagh, a family friend. Donagh, who had also emigrated from Ireland years ago, seems to have found his life purpose in trying to fit the ideal image of a London gentleman and to lose all traces of his Irishness (he occasionally refers to Kelly, who insists in maintaining his Irish manner, as a “barely civilised creature”). Later, Barney is taken up by the Dawtons, a Bohemian family. Mr. Dawton is an old actor who is now living on his past glories. His sons work at a literary magazine, the Galaxy, where, despite lacking talent, Barney finds a job through his contacts with the Dawton boys (who, in turn, edit his work to make it acceptable).

We also follow Glenarva Westley (Glen), an impulsive, tomboyish girl who decides to drag off her father to London, where she plans to start a writing career. She is determined never to get married, and dreams of supporting herself and her father by her pen. Glen’s mother had died when the girl was still a child and, shortly thereafter, Glen’s father, Mr. Westley, had lost his estate due to failed financial investments. Once in London, Glen spends her time going from publishing house to publishing house, in a desperate attempt to convince someone to give her a chance.

Yours is, in a way, a novel about writing novels. You grapple with the complexities of identity and with the contradictions of the publishing world in Victorian England – and you explore the way the topics of class, nationality, and gender conflate to exert influence on choices such as: who was able to publish; what one was able to write; and how one was read.

As we follow your two protagonists, we notice that some of the things that Barney takes from granted are inaccessible to Glen, due to her gender. She struggles to be noticed and to be taken seriously, and we follow the way she matures and develops her craft. Further, we have a sense of the way her novels are perceived by the editors and critics of her time. In one scene, a group of party guests assumes that an Irish woman could never have written Glen’s novels (which she had published under pseudonym). Even after the name of the author had been disclosed and they had met Glen in person, some continued to doubt her ability to write: “The general opinion is, her husband writes her books; I have heard he is very nice”. Talking about Glen, some of the party guests even conclude that “she certainly doesn’t look clever, or like a person capable of writing a successful book’”. One of Glenarva’s publishers, Mr. Lacere, even imagines a woman writer as a caricature: “ladies with middle age and spectacles”. And all the publishers that appear in the story, in a way or another, don’t take books written by women seriously.

The subtext of your Struggle for Fame seems to be the misogynist structural oppression of the publishing industry in Victorian times. Like you, your scribbling lady protagonist chooses first to publish her books under a male nom de plume – and, only after achieving fame, she feels able (or, rather, feels compelled by her publisher) to reveal herself.

After her first great success, Glen falls in the hands of an unscrupulous publisher who uses her image as a literary star to get rich: ultimately, by pushing her to waste herself in parties and social gatherings, he contrives to ruin her style and her joy in writing. Further, we have a sense of the extent to which she is willing to shape her identity to survive in the business – and to suit the demands of a male-dominated profession. We also see how jealous rivals maliciously gossip against her and write anonymous rant reviews of her books.

We also follow Barney Kelly, as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he has no talent for writing, and faces discrimination in London as a result of his class and nationality. By playing down his Irishness, abusing his connections, and manipulating the publishing industry, Bernard manages to establish a successful career as a critic and columnist in London.

At the centre of your novel, we have the question whether the professional and domestic aspects of a woman’s life can be reconciled. Your Glen is constantly being dragged behind by the emotional, physical, and intellectual strain that is placed on her by the men in her life. Her father and later her husband never forbid her to work, but they never really believe in her; and, ultimately, by exploiting her talents, they drain her time and energy, and hinder her from doing the best work she would have been capable to do in better circumstances.

Interestingly, the novel ends with a refused proposal of marriage. In a time when, for a woman, marriage would have been the most acceptable way of acquiring social and financial security, you create a heroine who is determined not to depend on men – and who, in the end, through her craft, becomes the breadwinner of the family. We are also given a strong sense that marriage and domestic life were incompatible with a woman’s literary career during the Victorian era. Curiously enough, the character who marries for financial reasons in the book is not a woman, but a man.

A Struggle for Fame is about a woman who struggles to earn a living at a time when it was still expected for her to be depended on the men in her life. Glen represents, in this sense, the Victorian women for whom this expectation simply did not make any sense, because they were women (like you) who had to work to support not only themselves but also their husbands. Moreover, in a society where the position of a spinster was seen as something negative (and as a cause for pity), you create a protagonist who ultimately chooses the life and freedom of an unmarried woman, and rejects the myth of the lady of letters who is able to perfectly balance the roles of wife and writer.

The highlight of the book, for me, was your writing style: it reads as a fresh, often caustic, and very modern satire, peopled with flawed, unlikeable characters. You are frequently changing the narrative point of view, going through each character’s inconsistences, as well as jumping in time, going from present to past and back, as well as throwing a quick glance to what will happen in the future.

In this book, you seem to be particularly interested in portraying a period of change in the literary industry you knew, when the professionalisation of writing generated a literary celebrity culture which (so you seem to argue) ended up by stifling innovation and art in exchange for transforming writers into marketable brands largely driven by economic rather than aesthetic interests. And a central question in the book is whether a woman writer can really find a place within such a culture, where she is, from the start, due to her gender, branded and exploited as an inferior practitioner of the writing craft. In a milieu where a woman’s stereotype is exploited as a source of financial success, how can a woman writer retain some form of artistic credibility? Can a woman be financially successful and, at the same time, be acknowledged as a good writer in this milieu? We are left with a sense that your female protagonist is a writer wearied by the struggle to publish books in a structure supported by male values and set in motion by men for the benefit of men.

The novel also suggests that literary fame always comes at a price (particularly for women), as in a Faustian pact: every time the characters achieve some form of public success, they also lose something personal. In the character of Barney Kelly, the struggle for fame is the story of a man who is willing to compromise his principles to achieve success; and, in the character of Glen, it is the story of the price a woman pays for daring to strive for independence.

A Struggle for Fame (1883) also reminds me of the central question in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Glen learns that she must take her writing seriously and make space for it. By the end of your novel, Glenarva has braved loss and death, so as to be able to create not only a room or a career, but a life of her own.

Yours truly,

J.


“Ritratto di Pauline de Galard, Principessa di Broglie” by Ingres, 1851/53

“‘What could she do? If she had been a man there were fifty things to which she might have turned her attention; but being only a woman, which way would be best, or indeed possible, for her to face the world?’” – Charlotte Riddell, A Struggle for Fame

*

“It was hard upon Glenarva that no human being ever believed she was the right person in the right place. Not when she was plodding amongst the London publishers-not when she was making a little money-not when she had gained a great reputation-not when the time came no one could deny she had achieved more than nine hundred and ninety-nine women out of a thousand ever do achieve-no, not even then did any friend, or relation, or stranger realize it was really Glenarva who had won success and not some quite independent power associated with her in an unaccountable and uncanny sort of alliance.” – Charlotte Riddell, A Struggle for Fame


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