By: Ella Hepworth Dixon (1857-1932)
“The Story of a Modern Woman” is a work of feminist social realism. In its time it was one of the most famous and influential novels to grow out of and shape the “New Woman” movement of the 1890s. It won such attention for its author that Ella Hepworth Dixon was given the nickname “The New Woman.”
The story of the novel’s protagonist, Mary Erle, loosely follows the outline of Dixon’s own situation. As the well-educated daughter of a public intellectual, she enters the world of professional writing after his death, partly trading on his name. Victorian society had been distinctly patriarchal, and women were expected to find their places under the protection of men, traditionally defining themselves as wives and mothers. However, by the 1890s, an alarming “surplus” of unmarried women in Britain meant that many had statistically little chance of becoming anyone’s wife or mother, and must create for themselves other paths to meaningful existence. This new reality demanded a more complex understanding of life, with storylines more nuanced than the old “find-a-husband” fiction of earlier decades.
“The Story of a Modern Woman” was published first in serial form, then released in the UK and the USA in two editions with some differences in the selection and arrangement of material. This recording is based on the American edition. - Summary by Bruce Pirie