There are many ‘gaps’ or ‘silences’1 in women’s history – especially in relation to their interior lives. Historians seeking to penetrate the thoughts and emotions of ‘ordinary’ single middle-class women living during the Late Victorian and Edwardian years have a challenging task. These women rarely left personal documents for historians to analyse. Novels, particularly popular or bestselling novels, represent one pathway into this realm. Popular novels are numbered among the few written sources that are available to help historians to fill in some of the absences in the conventional historical record. I have chosen a selection of the novels of Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) and Marie Corelli (1855-1924) to provide insights into the attitudes of, and attitudes towards, unmarried middle-class women at the turn of the twentieth century. The works of both Bennett and Corelli are invaluable sources because each author achieved a substantial level of ongoing commercial success. Their novels are vitally important to historians of mentalité because they focus on recurring themes and issues and consistently support certain views and values. Bearing in mind the extensive readership that Bennett and Corelli each enjoyed, historians can legitimately assume that these authors’ ideas and values corresponded with many of the emotional concerns and standards of their audience, and resonated in the minds of their readers, as well as simultaneously entering into the wider contemporary debate.
An enormous body of literature concerning the lives of women during the Victorian and Edwardian eras has been published over the past two or three decades. A large volume of this historical research has concentrated on detailing the social, moral and economic context in which these women operated. A significantly smaller portion of it has dedicated itself to probing the interior lives of women, mostly upper middle- and upper-class women, by using personal documents, such as diaries and letters. This thesis builds on the former, while hoping to complement the latter. It does not aim to supplant or replace previous research into women’s history. Rather, it intends to add to it by exploring the emotions and the experiences of women from the middle classes – women whose feelings and thoughts are, for the most part, undocumented. This study explores the implications of using popular novels as an alternative and an additional source for historians attempting to reconstruct the thoughts, feelings and experiences with which unmarried middle-class women were familiar – what Bernard Bailyn terms their ‘personal map of reality’.2 It does so by examining characterisation, plots and outcomes, recurring themes and issues, and implicit allusions – those noticeable gaps or absences in the fictional narrative. Thus, it analyses the attitudes and emotions of ordinary women, while also testing the extent to which popular novels are useful to historians of mentalité. Moreover, using a comparative approach to examine Bennett’s solidly popular middlebrow books and Corelli’s phenomenally popular or bestselling novels for their historical insights, this thesis further points to the differences in perspective between literature boasting varying degrees of popularity. It asks the question: which is more valuable to historians – middlebrow or bestselling fiction?