In the process of preparing two very small selections of Victorian poems and essays for our second year students, I’ve gone through a number of the main anthologies in the field. To tell you the truth, I’m quite amused by what I’ve found. And also disappointed. I’ll name a few volumes. For poetry: Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology edited by Margaret Reynolds and Angela Leighton; Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology edited by Virginia Blain; and even Victorian Working-Class Women Poets: An Anthology by Florence S. Boos. For prose: Prose by Victorian Women: An Anthology by Andrea Broomfield and Sally Mitchell. For both: Women’s Writing of the Victorian Period, 1837-1901: An Anthology, by Harriet Devine. Sigh… So, clearly, the feminist project of bringing back women writers from unjust oblivion is not over, not by far. I see that more and more women writers are incorporated into general anthologies, which are getting bigger as no male names, no matter how minor, are dropped. But how can we be still stuck at this essentialist, gender-based type of anthologizing?
The debate is already too old. As women have been so blatantly discriminated against, we have the duty as feminists of making their ‘special case’ particularly visible. Fair enough. What worries me is that we’re not making the other ‘special case’ particularly visible because we’re not highlighting that the others are male writers. Just imagine the havoc an anthology called Victorian Men Poets would rise, for its patriarchal sexism… when actually it would help to clarify matters. To be precise, anthologies should identify even more clearly who they’re dealing with: The Victorian Anthology of Verse by White, Middle-class, Male writers… If the adjective ‘working-class’ appears in one of the anthologies of Victorian women poets, shouldn’t its counterpart also appear? (Other unnamed categories include ‘heterosexual’ and ‘right/left wing.’)
If you’re against being so specific, thinking that we’d end up with anthologies of, say, poems by Australian, right-wing, working-class, lesbian, disabled, white, transsexuals (might happen…) perhaps you have a point. My own is that by creating specific categories for some but not for all we’re not making headway into that utopian future in which full equality will reign and PEOPLE will be judged by the QUALITY of their writing and not by their identity. Having said that I’m looking forward to the further defusing of identity categories by more fun anthologies, such as: Victorian Prose by Blond Writers, Victorian Verse by Poets Who Enjoyed Drinking Laudanum Too Much, or Victorian Writing by Brits Who’d Never Been Abroad but Really Wanted To.
In the meantime, I’ll make do with what we have, hoping someone begins to change things by putting the word ‘male’ (or ‘men’) in titles.