Victorian Women Poets #victober

     As part of the #victober celebration of all things Victorian, which I referenced on my blog of 17th October I am tackling Katie's challenge from Books and Things: To read a Victorian book that is not a novel. I am going to have a look at some Victorian Women Poets. The edition I will be using is entitled Victorian Women Poets: an anthology and is edited by Angela Leighton & Margaret Reynolds. I won't be talking about all the poets who are included- it runs to 691 pages but it may be surprising how many women were writing poetry during this period, given the strong tradition that existed for male authors. One of the difficulties in looking at women poets is first that you have to decide whether they should be grouped together in this way because of their gender. Seen against the male canon, it is possible to look for common preoccupations and to consider how women might be seen as sidelined and constrained by the institutions of marriage and within society. What seems clear however is that women writers were aware of each other's work.

    Some of the names are familiar as novelists: Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte, George Eliot. I have reviewed a volume of the Bronte's poetry here
and it is currently my most popular post since I started the blog. Emily, in particular, wrote with emotion and fervent imagination, exploring notions of 'self' when one is not constrained by society. Emily's poetry was intensely personal to her and when in 1845, Charlotte happened upon it, a long lasting quarrel erupted between the sisters as Emily felt that her private thoughts had been intruded upon. She wrote purely to express herself, neither thinking of nor wanting publication. It is interesting that Charlotte seemed to appreciate her sister's poetry because it was so unlike what was looked on as 'female' writing.

Christina Rossetti 1830-94
John William Waterhouse- Circe Invidiosa 1892

Christina is associated with the Pre- Raphaelite tradition. Her elder brother was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet. Her poetry has a lyrical style and her subjects are melancholic and haunting, with frequent references to death. Her most famous poem, Goblin Market, mixes together fairytale elements and erotic, sexual fantasy with ideas about society and religion. She mixes the secular with the spiritual. The peril of the 'fallen woman' was a subject of several women's writing at the time and the end of Goblin Market stresses the need for sisters to stand together.    

Augusta Webster 1837-94

   Augusta published her first two volumes of poems under the pseudonym, Cecil Home. She was active in the women's suffrage movement and was a keen promoter of education for women in her role on the London School Board. She wrote articles for The Examiner against the unhealthiness of women's clothes, the waste of women's time spent in social entertaining and against the attitudes of society to single women and of the role of Matrimony. She greatly admired Christina Rossetti's work and sent her a copy of her pamphlet on Parliamentary Franchise for Women Ratepayers. She was a social realist and her views were reflected in her poetry. Her subjects were older and plainer than fairytale princesses found in others' work . Her women were bored and frustrated. In the poem, Faded, she uses the mirror as a means to explore women's self- image as opposed to their public face. Mirrors occur throughout Victorian women's writing. In The Castaway, she examines the plight of the fallen woman and the social inequalities which forced women into prostitution. Augusta Webster's poems fell out of fashion in the 20th century but Christina Rossetti regarded her as the 'most formidable' of 19th century women poets. She looked at the place of women in society through the prism of class, money and power and the inequalities they brought. She was never sentimental or fanciful. 

Michael Field  (Katharine Bradley1846-1914 and Edith Cooper 1862-1913) 

Michael Field was the pseudonym for two women, Katharine
Bradley and Edith Cooper who were aunt and niece. They were supporters of the suffrage movement and also the anti-vivisection league. They wrote and travelled together. They were lovers as they themselves admitted but this was never questioned by their contemporaries. They met most of the literary lights in London, including Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Olive Schreiner and E Nesbit. As the century progressed, they became more isolated. Their poetry was a collaboration. Early poems take Bacchus as the muse as the god of wine whose female followers wreak revenge on their husbands and sons. In these early works, an almost pagan quest for pleasure for its own sake is found and classical gods are invoked as a challenge to orthodox Christianity. Towards the latter stages of their lives, the form of their poems became more informal and freer with open ended, improvised metres, reflecting the Modernism which was coming. 

    I have barely scratched the surface of this subject and there are many Victorian Women Poets who are not referred to, notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Their styles are varied. Some voice social protest. Others look at a woman's internal monologue. They all in their own way examine what it was to be a woman in the 19th century and it is clear that they took inspiration from each other.

In short:- a tapestry of sisters' voices. 

I decided to read Victorian Women Poets as part of the Classics Club Challenge.   My full list of books can be found here. 


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