Literary Reception in her Own Time

Felicia Skene’s Literary Reception in her own Time

Felicia Skene’s first literary effort, The Isles of Greece and Other Poems, was not a critical or commercial success. However, it did mark Skene’s arrival on the Victorian literary scene and the text was reviewed by The Spectator, a periodical described as ‘‘both political and literary…readers were upper middle to middle class, of high educational standard’’ (Ellegård 11). This demonstrates that even early on in her career, Skene was making a name for herself amongst the readers of a highly regarded periodical. As we shall see later, Skene continued on this path and was reviewed by a wide variety of publications throughout her career.

Wayfaring Sketches among the Greeks and Turks, and on the Shores of the Danube was published in 1847 and received mixed reviews. The Spectator speaks of ‘‘the literary ability of the fair writer’’ (‘‘Wayfaring Sketches’’ 712) but also criticises Skene for a lack of rhetorical skill and logical arguments. Dublin University Magazine, which published a lengthy piece on the novel, described it as delightful. Another review in Athenaeum denounces Skene’s ‘‘objectionably florid style’’ (‘‘Wayfaring Sketches’’881) and inconsistency. Although Wayfaring Sketches was not a resounding critical success, the fact that it was published by the esteemed Chapman and Hall of London seems to suggest that Skene was considered an emerging talent on the Victorian literary scene. Chapman and Hall had been the principle publisher of Dickens’ works up until 1844, and also published works by Thackeray and Gaskell (Sutherland 115).

In Oxford, Skene became involved with the Oxford Movement, whose Tractarian values were appealing to this devout writer. Her devotion to this cause inspired The Divine Master, a dialectic influenced by religious devotion and High Church values, which was originally published in 1852. In 1857 the fourth edition was brought out, and the eleventh edition in 1885, indicating that there was a continuing interest in this book.

During the 1850s Skene was becoming more and more well-known in the public sphere, especially in the city of Oxford. She carried out social work in slums, taught in schools and even helped organise nurses during a cholera outbreak. It seems as though Skene was an important figure both in everyday life and, increasingly, in the literary world. An indication of this growing influence was Skene’s appointment as editor of Churchman’s Companion in 1862 (a task which she continued up until 1880).

Felicia Skene’s most successful novel, Hidden Depths received an unprecedented amount of critical attention when it was published in 1866 in two volumes by Edmonston & Douglas of Edinburgh.  The novel was inspired by the injustices Skene had witnessed as a visitor to women’s prisons and reformatories, and by her work trying to save women from prostitution; writing about this social evil was too risqué for some, for example, Mudie’s Library considered Hidden Depths to be too provocative to be displayed on their shelves. Given the importance of Mudie’s as a significant circulator of literature, and the fact that this two-volume novel would have been far too expensive for the average Victorian citizen to buy, we can assume that Hidden Depths did not reach a very large audience.

Although it may not have reached the mass readership, this book was widely reviewed by a variety of publications. As Fryckstedt points out: ‘‘Considering the large number of reviews devoted to this anonymous novel and also the prominent position these reviews were given in these leading periodicals, Hidden Depths in fact emerges as a serious rival to Wives and Daughters for the reviewer’s attention.’’ (‘‘Hidden Depths’’ 107).

Skene met with both approval and with scathing attack from reviewers of the book; Athenaeum criticised the novel as being weak, superficial and unrepresentative of society (‘‘Hidden Depths’’233-234), and a piece in Contemporary Review described it as ‘‘one-sided and therefore ineffective’’ (‘‘Hidden Depths’’131).The Reader, however, considered it well written and interesting (‘‘Hidden Depths’’ 198). The London Review said about the author:

‘‘Had she contented herself with writing an ordinary novel, in which the sin of seduction was held up to the reprobation and scorn of all right-minded readers, we are sure she would have deserved to be recognised as worthy of a conspicuous place in the ranks of contemporary English novel-writers. She has chosen, however, to write ‘‘with a purpose’’ and, we might almost say, has courted failure…’’ (‘‘Hidden Depths’’ 345)

This review resonates with many others, which see Hidden Depths value as being in its fictionality rather than in its attempt to be an instrument of social reform.

From 1866 – 1873 Skene published a number of articles in Good Words, a periodical containing predominantly religious material. During the 1860s and 1870s, when Skene contributed to Good Words, it achieved a circulation of between 80,000-130,000 copies per issue and contained contributions from prestigious writers such as Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope (Brake and Demoor 254). Good Words was evidently a highly successful publication and the articles written by Skene would have been widely read. At around the same time, Felicia Skene was also affiliated with Quiver, a middle-class Evangelical publication. Skene serialised eight stories in its pages in the period 1871-1889.  In addition to these regular appearance in Good Words and Quiver, Skene also produced two articles about experiences she had had in France for Macmillan’s Magazine.  Contributions to these three periodicals would have meant that the work of Miss Skene reached a wide audience and readers from a variety of social/political backgrounds.

Furthermore, in the 1860s, 1870s and1890s Skene also wrote for Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Belgravia, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Argosy, Temple Bar, and Cornhill Magazine. The number and range of works produced for such a variety of periodicals, in addition to her work as editor for Churchman’s Companion, attests to Skene’s success as a writer in the mid to late Victorian period.

While Skene was busy writing for these publications, she still managed to find the time to publish novels in bound volumes. In 1886, A Strange Inheritance was brought out by the respected Blackwood & Sons. The Spectator praised it for having lively characters and an elevated standard of English, while Athenaeum described it as a ‘‘decidedly entertaining romance.’’ (‘‘A Strange Inheritance’’429)

The next novel to appear on the bookstore and library shelves was The Lesters: A Family Record in 1887, which warned readers of the dangers of alcohol. The book was denounced by Saturday Review as being ‘‘cheap melodramatic horror’’ and ‘‘almost beneath criticism.’’ (‘‘Four Novels’’ 895) Academy seemed to share similar sentiments in dismissing The Lesters as dull and destined for failure. An advertisement in Temple Bar shows that this novel was available in all libraries, however it is unknown if this novel would have been widely read. If the public heeded critics’ opinions, it can be assumed that this book was certainly not Skene’s most successful.

Perhaps such negative criticism led Skene to publish Through the Shadows: a Test of the Truth (1888) under the pseudonym Erskine Moir. This novel was given a prominent position in the advertising pages of Academy and Athenaeum, which let the public know they could find it in all libraries. Through the Shadows was highly esteemed by critics; The Spectator stated it to be ‘‘the outcome of a most refined, religious, and poetical mind’’ (‘‘Through the Shadows’’ 1858) and Athenaeum commended it for being a novel with a purpose.

In 1989 Scenes from a Silent World, or Prisons and their Inmates was reprinted (the majority of the book had previously been published by Blackwood’s Magazine in monthly instalments) in book format under the pseudonym Francis Scougal. The original articles had attracted much attention and Scenes from a Silent World was consequently widely reviewed and commended. Looking at reviews in Academy, Saturday Review and The Spectator, it seems that critics admired the writer’s treatment of an interesting subject and eloquence, but tended to disagree with the opinions presented. Whereas Skene’s skill as an author was not disputed, her progressive views on the prison system and capital punishment were not appreciated by everybody.

Overall, it appears that Felicia Skene was both a prominent member of Oxford society and an acclaimed British author. She wrote on a variety of subjects for many different publications, suggesting that a wide readership would have been reached. The fact that her novels were given generous advertising space in papers and were widely reviewed means that this author was very much in the public eye during her career. In the next section we shall look at whether or not the success achieved during her lifetime left a lasting legacy.

* All referenced sources can be found on the page “Useful Resources”.

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    • Helen Talbot
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