I have been reading Sally Mitchell's study Dinah Mulock Craik (1983), part of Twayne's English Author Series. Mitchell's short book provides a brief biography of Dinah Mulock Craik and introduces her works more by detailed description than by literary analysis. The book is a fast read and offers an excellent introduction to an under-valued mid-Victorian woman author.
Dinah Mulock Craik has not been appreciated by American feminists, as Elaine Showalter pointed out in her 1975 article in Feminist Studies, because, especially after she got married at the old spinsterish age of 40, she began more frequently to express conventional ideas about male authority and wifely submission. But her continued commitment to mentoring unmarried working women, to promoting their education and training, and to fostering their professional ambitions, seems to me to anticipate many of the feminist dialogues of the so-called "New Women." She writes for unmarried women specifically in her nonfiction work A Woman's Thoughts About Women (1857).
After her mother died and her crazy father abandoned his family, at the age of 19 Dinah Mulock began to pursue a writing career in order to support herself and her younger brothers. By 25 she was a popular novelist with an established career and a lot of connections in the publishing and writing world. She gained financial security with the publication of John Halifax, Gentleman, in 1856. In 1865, Mulock married George Lillie Craik, a man 11 years her younger, and even more unconventionally, she adopted an abandoned baby girl a few years later (adoption was terribly suspect in England at this point--adopted children were not granted the kinds of rights that biological children/heirs would enjoy). And then she continued to produce a novel approximately every five years. She used the money from her books to design and build a house for her family. Was her husband emasculated by her industrious financial support? It seems a definitive biography of Mrs. Craik is required. Craik's concern for unmarried working women--exacerbated by the hysteria around the surplus of spinsters discovered in the 1851 Census (see W. R. Greg's essay "Why Are Women Redundant?")--never abated during her long, prolific career. Still, a much-quoted letter to Oscar Wilde seems to expose a kind of anti-feminism. She wrote to the fop:
For myself, whatever influence I have is, I believe, because I have always kept aloof from any clique. I care little for Female Suffrage. I have given the widest berth to that set of women who are called, not unfairly, the Shrieking Sisterhood. Yet, I like women to be strong and brave--both for themselves, and as the helpers, not the slaves or foes, of men.In their discussions of Craik, Elaine Showalter and Sally Mitchell attempt to recover her for American feminism by reading her life story against her sentimental novels. They locate Craik's independence, self-reliance, and staunch individualism in counterpoint to her long-suffering, martyrish unmarried heroines who pine and pine for conjugal bliss. I'm not sure this is the most convincing method of redeeming Dinah Mulock Craik. One of the problems is that there is not much of a historical archive on which to base biographical claims. Indeed, some scholars (or armchair fans) have attempted to narrate Craik's life story by quoting her novels. I'll mull over the question of Craik's feminism more this weekend at the British Women Writers Conference in Iowa. I like her spunk, for sure--"I like women to be strong and brave..." Maybe I will add "Definitive Biography of DMC" on my to-do list. That would be right after the book on Victorian matrimonial advertisements, which follows my translations of Bhagyavati and Devrani Jethani ki Kahani, which is of course just second to the ongoing project of turning my dissertation into a book entitled Tying the Knot: Marital Fictions in England and India 1753-1907. Argh. I wish Miss Mulock were around to act as my mentor!