Lindsay Middleton reviews Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays

The spring issue of Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies features Lindsay Middleton’s review of Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays (Edinburgh University Press), which contains my essay “Rough Crossings: The Transatlantic Fate of Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s Life of Mary Wollstonecraft.” One focus of this essay is Mathilde Blind’s own writings on Wollstonecraft and Pennell.

Here is the second paragraph from her review, which discuss the two essays focused on Pennell’s life writing:

The first two chapters, from Dave Buchanan and James Diedrick, consider Pennell’s life writing. Buchanan’s chapter moves throughout Pennell’s career, exploring Pennell’s complicated relationship with writerly authority. At times she used pseudonyms, or gave her husband Joseph credit for her work, “playing the role” of “junior female assistant” (20), while she later “play[ed] the role of bold authorial presence in the spotlight” (28). Buchanan provocatively argues that Pennell “played the role” of expert in certain fields (travel and food writing, biography) but shied away from it in her art criticism and cycling columns: areas in which she was less comfortable. This suggests another layer to Pennell’s skills: not only was she a gifted writer, but she adopted performances to craft her reputation. Inevitably, this meant Pennell did not always receive adequate credit, and Buchanan ends by declaring that Pennell’s reluctance leaves it “up to others, beginning with the voices in this collection, to do it for her,” setting the scene for the essays that follow (28). Diedrick turns to Pennell’s The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (1884), which was altered without Pennell’s consent by John H. Ingram. Diedrick demonstrates that Pennell overcame the subsequent negative reception of her book and situates Pennell’s shifting relationship with Wollstonecraft in the context of “the contentious gender politics of late-Victorian England” (36). He notes that, unlike many of her female contemporaries, Pennell did not share Wollstonecraft’s radicalism and gradually viewed her more conservatively. Pennell recast Wollstonecraft’s views to suggest she did not argue for the emancipated woman, and Diedrick contrasts this with the rethinking of gender undertaken by women like Olive Schreiner. Ultimately, Diedrick mobilises the disparate responses to Wollstonecraft through the lens of Pennell’s shifting attitudes to “productively complicate our understanding of late-century feminism” (52).

My Oxford Bibliographies article on Mathilde Blind is now online

My “Mathilde Blind” Oxford Bibliographic article is now online here.

Although this article resides behind a paywall, if your library does not currently subscribe to Oxford Bibliographies you can request that your library request a trial subscription using this form. I can update this bibliograpy at any time, so please let me know of any resources I should add.

Here is my Introduction to Blind, her career, and her importance to Victorian literature for this article and entry:

Mathilde Blind (b. 1841–d. 1896), poet and woman-of-letters, was born in Mannheim, Germany, but moved to London in 1852 after her mother and stepfather were exiled for their participation in the European revolutions of 1848. True to her family’s radicalism, her subsequent writing reflects her cosmopolitan sensibility, her freethinking, and her feminism. Blind rose to prominence in the early 1870s, both as an expert on and proponent of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and as one of the few women writers published in the Dark Blue (1871–1873), a short-lived but influential journal that published essays, tales, poems, and illustrations by Britain’s leading Pre-Raphaelites and aesthetes. By the early 1890s, Blind had published five volumes of poetry, a novel, two translations (The Old Faith and the New: A Confession by David Friedrich Strauss and The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff), and two biographies for the Eminent Women series (George Eliot and Madame Roland). Her essays and reviews had also appeared in the Westminster Review, the Athenaeum, Fortnightly Review, National Review, Whitehall Review, New Quarterly Magazine, Examiner, and Art Weekly. A central figure in London’s literary and artistic community, Blind was close to many influential late Victorian writers and artists, including Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown, Vernon Lee, Arthur Symons, Mona Caird, and Rosamund Marriott Watson. The range, subject matter, and stylistic characteristics of Blind’s poetry embody and serve to highlight both the through-line connecting mid-Victorian aestheticism and fin-de-siècle decadence and the intersections and underground alliances linking the New Woman and Decadent movements. Like many of her fellow late-century women writers, Blind was little read during much of the 20th century, but is now attracting renewed attention in the wake of the resurgent interest in aestheticism, cosmopolitanism, the fin de siècle, and New Woman writers.

NOTE on featured photograph: Clarendon Building, Oxford University Press: also showing Broad Street. Creative Commons License

Uncollected letters from Mathilde Blind

Today a new section of the website has been added, featuring letters from Mathilde Blind to various correspondents. The first of these, in chronological order, is her first known letter to her contemporary and friend Lucy Madox Rossetti (see excerpt above), part of Oscar Wilde scholar Michael Seeney’s personal collection of late-Victorian literary manuscripts. 

The next set of excerpts come from a series of letters Blind wrote in 1873 to her friend Richard Garnett, then Assistant Keeper of Books in the British Library, while on an extended visit to the Hebrides archipelago on the west coast of Scotland. These letters are of particular interest because three of Blind’s poems–“The Prophecy of St. Oran,” The Heather on Fire, and “The Ascent of Man,” drew inspiration from this trip.

The 1889 letter is the only known letter from Blind to Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother, born Jane Francesca Agnes in 1821 (she became Lady Wilde in 1864, when her husband, the surgeon Dr. William Wilde, was knighted for his involvement with recording births and deaths in Ireland). This letter is also reproduced thanks to the generosity of Michael Seeney, who has granted me permission to publish it here along with the letter to Lucy Rossetti.

The individual letters and excerpts:

Dispatches from the Isle of Skye, August-September 1873

Visiting Fingal’s Cave, September 1873

Visiting Iona, the setting of “The Prophecy of St. Oran,” September 1873

Mathilde Blind’s first letter to Lucy Rossetti, 15 July 1875

Letter to Lady Wilde, 9 May 1889

Margaret Drabble on Mathilde Blind: “she has come back to life”

Margaret Drabble, the English novelist, biographer and critic (named “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire” in 2008), has written an essay in the 8 May 2020 issue of the Times Literary Supplement honoring and praising Mathilde Blind, whose will created a scholarship awarded to Drabble when she entered Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1957. I was also delighted to discover that in the course of her essay she discusses my biography Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters.

In “Making Peace with Mathilde Blind,” Drabble re-reads Blind’s poetry, and also acknowledges one reason for the neglect that Blind and other late-Victorian women writers suffered in the early to mid-20th century–and in universities and colleges: 

Reading her works, and reading of her life, I became acutely aware of how much our sense of literary history has evolved since my undergraduate days in the late 1950s. Although Newnham was (and is) a women’s college with a confident sense of its own female identity, in my day it had little interest in its connections with women’s literature. Feminist criticism had hardly been invented, and poets such as Mathilde Blind were far beyond our reach. We touched on the classicist Jane Harrison’s pioneering views of the matriarchy when we were studying Greek tragedy, and we were encouraged (and permitted by F. R. Leavis) to revere George Eliot and the Brontës, but feminist objections to D. H. Lawrence, which were to be articulated so formidably a decade later by Kate Millett, had hardly begun to emerge. . . . We had never heard of Amy Levy, the poet and novelist and the first Jewish woman to matriculate at Newnham, who committed suicide in 1889 at the age of twenty-seven; some critics have suggested that her death may in part have been prompted by the “homosexual panic” that peaked with the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895, . . . . 

Confessing that she looks back on her years at Newnham “with some embarrassment [about] my complete lack of interest in the woman who had endowed the benefaction which was bestowed upon me by the college,” Drabble writes that “before the feminist rewriting of the canon,” she assumed that Blind “was a minor fin-de-siècle poetess, long forgotten and never to be revived. But she proved to be far more interesting than that.” She continues:

Her poetry, like all poetry by once famous and now neglected women, is in the process of being rediscovered: a thoroughly researched full-length biography by the American academic James Diedrick appeared in 2017, placing her in her social and literary context, and tracking her publication history. (It has been reproached for taking a male point of view, and Diedrick has had to defend himself against allegations of suppressing her supposed sexual orientation: see his online essay, “Queering Mathilde Blind“.) 

Drabble notes that when she initially approached Blind’s poetry through anthologies (which typically misrepresent 19th-century women poets by reproducing only their shorter lyrics) “I didn’t get on with it very well.” But when she sought out her longer poems, she was struck by Blind’s scope and intellectual reach:

“Heather on Fire” (1886) is an impassioned and well-informed narrative poem protesting against the Highland Clearances, then well within living memory. Blind had visited the Isle of Arran in the summer of 1884, had seen the ruined villages and heard the “simple story” of “a solitary old Scotchwoman, who well remembered her banished countrymen”. Her magnum opus, “The Ascent of Man” (1889), is a long and intellectually challenging poem, written in several verse forms, some of them Homeric and reminiscent of Walt Whitman, whom she greatly admired, and some in more conventional metres. It is nothing less than an attempt to write an epic about evolutionary theory. She confronts “nature red in tooth and claw” in stanzas such as these:

War rages on the teeming earth;
   The hot and sanguinary fight
Begins with each new creature’s birth:
   A dreadful war where might is right;
Where still the strongest slay and win,
Where weakness is the only sin.

There is no truce to this drawn battle, 
  Which ends but to begin again;
The drip of blood, the hoarse death‐rattle,
   The roar of rage, the shriek of pain,
Are rife in fairest grove and dell,
Turning earth’s flowery haunts to hell.

Drabble observes: “These lines are conventional enough, in terms of poetic diction, but the sweep of her narrative is grand, and Diedrick provides convincing contemporary evidence that many found the story she told gripping, one reader even missing her stop on the Tube in her absorption.”

Drabble also expresses pleasant surprise that “my hero,” the novelist Arnold Bennett (see Drabble’s 1974 biography) praised Blind’s poetry:

I was astonished to discover that my hero Arnold Bennett had given a favourable (though anonymous) review to her last volume of verse, Birds of Passage, which appeared when she was already very ill with uterine cancer. Bennett was assistant editor, then editor, of Woman (from 1894 to 1900). The magazine had published a profile of Blind in 1890 (July 3), and in his “Book Chat” column written under the name of Barbara, Bennett wrote that “Miss Blind sings in many modes — she is probably more various than any other woman-poet in English literature” (May 1895). He singled out the first poem in the volume, “Prelude”, for particular praise, and also “Noonday Rest”, written on Hampstead Heath under the willows. 

Near the end of her essay Drabble reports on an unsuccessful search for Mathilde Blind’s grave, noting that 

I went to look for Blind’s grave recently, but I went to the wrong cemetery. I went to St Pancras Old Church, just north of the British Library and the station, which I had visited before. I assumed she would be there because I knew Mary Wollstonecraft was there, and Blind had written about her. But I couldn’t find her memorial and nobody there had heard of her. She is in fact in the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery which is a huge plot, miles away. She was one of its first inmates, and she was cremated, when cremation was newly legalized. I don’t know if I have the energy to make another effort to look for her there.

In case Dame Drabble is reading this essay, I can satisfy her with both a description and a photograph of the impressive stone monument to Blind–both from my biography:

Two years after her death the Ludwig Mond family commissioned an imposing marble monument to Mathilde Blind, erected near the graves of Ford Madox Brown and his family in Islington and St Pancras Cemetery in East Finchley. . . .  Blind’s monument, nine feet high and four feet wide, was carved from Carrara marble by the French sculptor Edouard Lanteri, an expatriate like Blind and a professor at the National Art Training School in Kensington. Near the top of the edifice is a life-size medallion profile of Blind (based on the smaller bronze medallion Lanteri cast the same year). Appropriately, given the ways in which she unsettled Victorian gender codes, her face resembles that of a Roman emperor, while her luxuriant, Pre-Raphaelite hair prominently proclaims her female beauty, spilling down outside the frame of the medallion. She is facing west, and two full-length female figures are flanking her: the classical goddesses of Philosophy and Poetry. Blind’s name is carved at the top of the marble frame of the urn receptacle, and beneath it are the same words she had inscribed on Brown’s memorial wreath: “Death is the Mercy of Eternity.”  (Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters 255-56)

Mathilde Blind monument
Edouard Lanteri monument to Mathilde Blind,1898, Islington and St. Pancras Cemetery in East Finchley

Drabble’s essay ends by imaginatively revivifying the woman whose generosity smiled on Drabble at Newnham, and whose writing still speaks to us in the 21st century:

It took me a long time to catch up with her in person, but now I can see her dancing wildly in St John’s Wood and striding boldly through the Alps and declaiming dramatically to an eager audience. She has come back to life. 

“A profound contribution to Victorian Studies”


Diana Maltz, whose important book British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People informed my own research, has just reviewed Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters for Victorian Studies. She begins her review by emphasizing the importance of Blind’s career to current scholarship in the field:

One would be hard-pressed to find a sharper embodiment of late-Victorian cosmopolitanism than editor, fiction writer, critic, biographer, translator, and poet Mathilde Blind. The expatriate German-Jewish Blind was at the matrix of aesthetic, socialist, free-thinking, and New Woman circles throughout her literary career. James Diedrick’s biography, Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters, offers a chronological study of Blind’s growing intellectual interests and social networks as well as analyses of her key works in their contexts.  As such, this is a boon to scholars researching Blind, and a profound contribution to Victorian studies. (145)

Maltz also emphasizes the importance of intellectual and literary networks in encouraging and supporting Blind’s development as a writer, thinker and non-comformist:

The aesthetic coterie around the Dark Blue was just one early manifestation of Blind’s sustained interdependent literary community. Authors recommended one another to publishers, read each other’s work in draft and aloud to fellow writers, and reviewed each other’s volumes.  Just as Blind helped coax James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night (1874) toward publication, she in turn sought Thomson’s aid in finding a publisher for her antitheistic poem “The Prophecy of St. Oran” (1881). Arthur Symons also benefited from Blind’s contacts and promoted her work in kind, though he could be condescending about it. Into the fin de siècle, Blind forged alliances with New Women. Friendships with sexual nonconformists such as Vernon Lee encouraged a new ambiguity in her poems, where speakers’ genders are unclear and their affections potentially queer. Diedrick locates a similarly subtle same-sex eroticism in a journal entry about Mona Caird during their holiday together in 1893. (146-47)

I also appreciate Maltz’s emphasis on the ways in which Blind’s radicalism informed all of her writing, from her essays and translations to her poetry:

Blind’s desire to focus critical attention on important women in history  fueled several literary  endeavors, including biographies of Madame Roland  and  George  Eliot for the  Eminent Women Series that she co-founded with poet  A. Mary F. Robinson. She brought her liberatory politics to her biographical and critical work. Writing on Mary Wollstonecraft, she emphasized the radical potential of women’s education by imagining an expansion of women’s professions. Translating the diary of the late Marie Bashkirtseff, Blind strategically described Bashkirtseff’s suffocation in the skin, or “envelope,” of her gender (208).  Diedrick similarly underscores the feminist purport of Blind’s creative writings, such as her revisionist invention of Mona in “The Prophecy of St. Oran,”  her enthroning of a primeval mythical mother figure in Birds of Passage’s “Nuit” (1895),  her psychological  explorations of sexual  exploitation and  infidelity  in Dramas in Miniature (1891),  and her critiques  of marriage in Tarantella (1885) and The Ascent of Man (1889). (147)

Because I set out to write a biography that makes an argument about Blind’s contributions to late-Victorian intellectual and social culture, I am especially grateful that Maltz highlights my interpretive arguments in the book:

Her letters reveal her diligence and ambition, and Diedrick also surveys periodical reviews of her work. He performs nuanced close readings of primary texts and situates them in wider cultural conversations, as when he shows The Ascent of Man as a reflection of evolutionary writings by Blind’s friend William Kingdon Clifford and as a response to heated debates on the Woman Question. This methodology impelled Diedrick to go beyond archival research on Blind to read the political, theological, and philosophical texts that inspired her. The result is a comprehensive, layered study of interest to scholars of Victorian poetry, periodical studies, gender and women’s studies, and aestheticism and decadence. (147)

Victorian Studies is published by Indiana University Press. For more on the journal and the press, visit the journal’s website.