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).

The “Unified Volume Theory” & Mathilde Blind’s Late Poetry

While annotating Mathilde Blind’s last three volumes of poetry for the Jewelled Tortoise series of fin-de-siècle texts, I was struck by the ways in which Blind structured each book so that the whole is greater than (or extends the implications of) the sum of its separate parts. Below are slightly revised passages from my introduction to Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siecle Poetry and Prose that describe her arrangement of the poems in volume (for a more detailed discussion, complete with full citations, see the entire “Introduction” on pages 1-46).

The Ascent of Man (1889)

The Ascent of Man consists of three sections–the title poem, “Poems of the Open Air,” and “Love in Exile.” The poems in the latter two sections exist in an implicitly dialogical relationship to the title poem. Most of the verses in “Poems of the Open Air” hearken back to (and elicit nostalgia for) a pre-Darwinian conception of nature (as the epigraph from Coleridge that heads the section suggests). In so doing they invite the reader to confront the epistemic shifts that occurred in the long nineteenth century when pantheistic visions of nature gave way to scientific perspectives. As Blind put it in Shelley’s View of Nature Contrasted with Darwin’s, she and her late-century contemporaries were forced to acknowledge “the oppression, strife, and cruelty, which seem to pervade all organic beings according to that dread law formulated by Darwin: ‘Let the strongest live and the weakest die”’ (p. 243). The sequence of poems in the ‘Love in Exile’ section, which includes twenty numbered poems subtitled ‘Songs’ followed by four individually titled lyrics, registers this seismic cultural shift through intimate expressions of personal loss. This section begins with an epigraph from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850), whose famous phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw” anticipated the troubling implications of Darwin’s theory. Tennyson’s poem grieves both the loss of a loved one and of faith in a benign universe, and thus Blind’s allusion to Tennyson in the final section of The Ascent of Man is doubly appropriate. The lyrics in “Love in Exile” give voice to feelings of isolation, exile, and unrequited love that echo those of Tennyson’s lyric speaker. They also implicitly link these personal griefs to broader cultural dislocations engendered by an increasingly naturalistic world view.

Dramas in Miniature (1891)

This volume is divided into two sections, the first labelled “Dramas in Miniature” and the second “Lyrics.” By subsuming both her “dramatic” and “lyric” poems in a volume titled Dramas in Miniature, Blind is intentionally blurring the distinction between these two poetic genres. In effect, she is inviting her readers to think of all these poems as what Monique Morgan calls “‘lyric narrative hybrids.” Isobel Armstrong’s concept of the ‘double poem’ is also relevant here — a poem in which the speaker’s utterance is always also “the object of analysis and critique. It is, as it were, reclassified as drama in the act of being literal lyric expression.” In this regard it is worth noting that its position as the last “drama” of the first section allows “Scherzo” to function as a kind of bridge to the “lyrics” that make up the second. A monodrama of female erotic desire, ‘Scherzo’ in one sense fully embraces the Romantic tradition of direct subjective expression. It begins with a direct expression of the speaker’s desire for the presence of a lover: “Oh, beloved, come and bring | All the flowery wealth of spring!” (p. 172). But in the second half of the poem, this speaker relates the story of Diana’s love for Endymion as a way of validating this desire. Blind thus makes use of narrative and dramatic elements that serve to “objectify” the speaker’s lyric effusion.

As Carol Christ notes, Victorian (and Modernist) poets reacted against the subjectivity they associated with Romanticism “by attempting to objectify the materials of poetry,” often turning to “structures of myth and history which provide a narrative that contains and gives significance to personalities.” Of the fifteen “lyrics” in the volume three are narratives or include narrative elements; one (“A Child’s Fancy”) contains dialogue; and many rely on metaphorical indirection to express the speaker’s feelings, from the use of vividly detailed landscape tableaux, to comparisons of the speakers to sleepwalkers, Tantalus, even a viola d’amore. Furthermore, the lyrics in this section employ a wide array of metrical patterns and verse forms, including iambic and trochaic dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter; quatrains, quintets, sexains, octets, and Spenserian stanzas, which foreground the formal qualities of each poem. Indeed, one of these lyrics, a sonnet, is titled “Sonnet,” verbally objectifying its form.

This “Sonnet” alludes to Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, whose speaker assures his beloved that “thy eternal summer shall not fade” thanks to his immortalizing verse, which will live “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” The speaker in Blind’s sonnet, seeking to “shield” the beloved “from time’s fraying wear and tear,” asks “How save you, fairest, but to set you where | Mortality kills death in deathless art?” (p. 176).  Like many of the “lyrics” in the section, this poem registers Blind’s acute awareness of the tradition of English lyric poetry in which she is writing. Some ten months before she published Dramas in Miniature, Blind’s friend and fellow poet Edmund Gosse published the essay “Is Verse in Danger?” Gosse writes that contemporary poets are so haunted by the poets of the past that the “activity of the dead is paramount and threatens to paralyse original writing altogether,” adding that many “suggest that poetry has had its reign, its fascinating and imperial tyranny, and that it must now make way for the democracy of prose.” But Gosse goes on to assert the vitality of verse, and speculates that the “poetry of the future” will represent more successfully than fiction the nature of human consciousness, those “ephemeral shades of emotion which prose scarcely ventures to describe,” those “divisions and revulsions of sensation, ill-defined desires, gleams of intuition and the whole gamut of spiritual notes descending from exultation to despair.” Because “untroubled by the necessity of formulating a creed, a theory, or a story,” this poetry “will describe with delicate accuracy, and under a veil of artistic beauty, the amazing, the unfamiliar, and even the portentous phenomena which it encounters.” Gosse could here be describing the poems in Dramas in Miniature.

Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident (1895)

Birds of Passage is divided into five sections: “Prelude,” “Songs of the Orient,” “Songs of the Occident,” “Shakespeare Sonnets,” and “Miscellaneous Pieces.” Because of its musical connotations, “Prelude” may seem to apply only to the second and third sections. In fact, it frames the entire volume, both in its imagery and themes. Most importantly, the literal avian migration that is the controlling imagery in the poem — the “passage” from one region to another, followed by a return — becomes a metaphor for a cosmopolitan vision and a transnational impulse the entire volume embraces. So too does the poem’s celebration of the “undaunted wing” of the birds’ journeys as they “face the fluctuant storm‐winds and the elemental night” express the volume’s embrace of both imaginative risk-taking and acceptance of fate. The final stanza of the “Prelude,” with its reminder of personal mortality, anticipates the final two poems in the volume’s final section. The “Prelude,” along with the poems “Rest” and “Mystery of Mysteries,” are fittingly valedictory expressions of Blind’s antitheism and aestheticism (she died a year after this volume appeared), and a reminder that, like her friend Helen Zimmern, she was a close reader of Nietzsche. Nietzsche expressed his conception of amor fati (love of fate) in terms that describe the sensibility everywhere apparent in Birds of Passage: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer” (from The Gay Science, originally published in 1887 as Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, and sometimes translated as The Joyful Wisdom or The Joyous Science)

Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siècle Poetry and Prose now available

I am delighted to announce the publication of Mathilde Blind: Selected Fin-de-Siècle Poetry and Prose — an annotated edition of the three major volumes of poetry Mathilde Blind published between 1889 and 1895 (The Ascent of Man, Dramas in Miniature and Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient and Occident). This new edition also contains several of Blind’s reviews; her essay “Shelley’s View of Nature Contrasted with Darwin’s”; and reviews of Blind’s writing by Arthur Symons, Arnold Bennett, and Edith Nesbit, among others. It is available in both hardback and paperback.

My sincere thanks to series editors Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista for their support, expert guidance, and close readings; Simon Davies for his superb copy editing; and Gerard Lowe, Senior Publishing Manager for the Modern Humanities Research Association for guiding this project through all stages of writing, revision and production.

Mathilde Blind Selected  Poetry and Prose

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.