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A fresh look at distinguished Victorians

There ought to be a special category for non-fiction books that are neither scholarly to the point of dessication, nor so superficial as to resemble a collection of in-depth profiles from People magazine. Such books are the non-fictional equivalent of the ''good read'': they entertain and inform, but within certain well defined limits. Elizabeth Longford's ''Eminent Victorian Women'' belongs comfortably in this group. Copiously and even lavishly illustrated, the book is a deliberate corrective to Lytton Strachey's provocative and iconoclastic history of the sacrosanct Victorian pantheon.

There are no surprises on the list, although Harriet Beecher Stowe is made an honorary Victorian for, as Longford says, ''She was what we mean by Victorian in many of her feelings,'' and ''her influence on Victorians was enormous.'' The list is eclectic, including writers like the Brontes and George Eliot, the actress Ellen Terry, and the intrepid Mary Kingsley who, venturing into the hinterland of West Africa, declared the notorious cannibal Fan tribe to be ''uncommon fine human beings.'' From the perspective of the late 20th century Longford can be more kindly and objective about women who made such enormous and varied contributions to their age than Strachey could be, writing during the high tide of reaction against Victorian sentimentality.

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All the women had to contend with great obstacles. Florence Nightingale's family allowed her to begin the career she felt she had been called to only in her 30s, when she became superintendent of a sanitarium. (Nightingale later wrote, ''I know nothing like the petty grinding tyranny of a good English family.'') George Eliot's father and brother expected her to remain at home and, as a proper Victorian daughter, manage her widowed father's household. And, in order to write, Harriet Beecher Stowe had to cope with the demands of a large family, little money, and no privacy. Mary Kingsley could embark on her travels only when her brother was safely out of England. Women were still regarded as the subjects of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, though the reformer Josephine Butler was fortunate in having a husband supportive enough to make sacrifices of his own for the sake of her work.

Longford writes with an agreeably light touch, but she also seeks to assess what views her subjects held on women's rights. Unlike other assessments of this kind, hers is marked by sympathetic fairness rather than ringing denunciation of their equivocations. For complicated reasons, some of which still prevail, women who have made enormous efforts to succeed are often reluctant to embrace feminism wholeheartedly. Even George Eliot, who had once written, ''You may try but you can never imagine what it is to have a man's force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl,'' had doubts. She told Emily Davis, a champion of women's rights, that the women's movement ''seems to me to overhang abysses of which even prostitution is not the worst.'' And Florence Nightingale, who proved that brilliant women no longer need wish they had been born men, could write that she was ''brutally indifferent to the rights and wrongs of my sex.''

Longford, perhaps rightly, does not regard these essays as the place to examine such far-reaching questions. Instead, she prefers to show us a group of women who were strong minded enough to circumvent and even defy convention to fulfil what they felt was their calling. Strachey wrote despairingly of Florence Nightingale that ''she would think of nothing but how to satisfy that singular craving of hers to be doing something.'' Longford writes in celebration of that very energy and determination.

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