Nina Baym’s Woman’s Fiction is an influential monograph that explores the rise of women’s fiction in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Baym is careful to inform readers early on that exploring the writings of these women “seems to be outside the interests and sympathies of male critics”, and at the time this was written, she was exploring uncharted territory.
Notably, Baym is not arguing for the elevation of the literature she explores to some form of “greatness”, rather she states: “I confess frankly that although I found much to interest me in these books, I have not unearthed a forgotten Jane Austen or George Eliot, or hit upon even one novel that I would propose to set alongside The Scarlett Letter.” Baym is simply arguing that the form is worthy of study and should not be relegated to the back corner of literary history in the United States.
Her ability to successfully argue that this literature is worthy of scholarly time and effort, while widely recognized now, was not guaranteed when this work was first published in 1978. Thus, Baym spends the opening chapters of Woman’s Fiction essentially attempting to justify the work’s existence. She explains that the novels she plans to examine have only ever been approached from either “a pre-feminist or antifeminist frame of mind” (16). Up until this time, critics had either dismissed these works as too feminine and sentimental, or conversely, applied to them a sort of “covert feminism” that may or may not be supported textually (18). Baym states that her own view “is that these novels represent a moderate, or limited, or pragmatic feminism, which is not in the least covert, but quite obvious, needing only to be assessed in mid-nineteenth century terms rather than those of a later century to be recognized for what it is” (18).
During the mid to late eighteenth century, Baym claims that “women were increasingly aware of their situations as gender determined and increasingly demanding of themselves and the world” (21). Whether the increase in women’s novels was a cause or outcome of this awareness, Baym is not ready to assert. She simply lays out the facts: that novels were being read in “unprecedented numbers” and that these novels told women something that “was most satisfying to hear” (21). When boiled down, Baym is simply stating that the mere existence of a dominating phenomenon of women novelists in the eighteenth is reason enough to warrant their study.
After spelling out her intentions, Baym moves on to a discussion of many of the novels written throughout the century (and some a bit before). She begins with the works of authors such as Catharine Sedgwick, Margaret Bayard Smith, Caroline Howard Gilman and more. For each work of each author, Baym provides a fairly detailed plot analysis, examining the role of women (and men) in the novel, the situation the heroines find themselves in, and the actions taken by the women to rise above their circumstances. Baym provides several accounts throughout this portion of her work, and they can become somewhat tedious and confusing as more emerge. After the third or fourth plot summary, readers may find themselves struggling to keep track of the individual plots due to the narrative similarities found in each of these novels.
Chapters three through nine follow a similar pattern in which Baym introduces authors, examines works by these authors, and explains how these works help to shape female or domestic identity in the culture of the time. Some of the authors she finds especially influential are Maria McIntosh, E.D.E.N. Southworth, Susan Warner, and Caroline Chesebro’, whom Baym refers to as “one of the most unusual writers of the 1850’s” (208).
In chapter ten, Baym explores the decline of “the novel of feminine trials and triumph”(276). She begins with a discussion of the novel St. Elmo by Augusta Evans, claiming that the novel represents the “most complex and most popular expression” of the female trial and triumph novel” (276). She compares the plot of St. Elmo with that of Evans’ later work, Vashti, which she claims to be “symptomatic of the end of a genre that had dominated American writing” (296). Baym marks the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as the beginning of the decline in woman’s fiction and the rise of girl’s fiction.Surveying almost a century’s worth of fiction is no small feat, but Baym not only succeeds in her mission, she excels.
Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.