“A profound contribution to Victorian Studies”

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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.

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