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. riendships 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.
As I was writing my biography of Mathilde Blind, I fretted over how to write about her erotic life. While I often comforted myself by repeating John Keats’ formulation like a mantra, and dwelling “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” I also wanted to interpret the available evidence in order to tell the fullest possible story of her personal as well as literary passions. At an early stage in evaluating that evidence (her letters, her autobiographical fragment, her poetry and prose, and the letters and memoirs of her friends), I formulated a crude working hypothesis: while Blind was attracted to certain men’s minds, and their professional connections, it was women–their minds and their bodies–who most deeply stirred her.
Even this formulation was unsatisfactory, though, because it nudged me toward a binary (gay vs. straight) that didn’t seem quite right. Unlike her friend Vernon Lee, all of whose most passionate relationships were with women, Blind openly admired, and spent considerable time with, men like Richard Garnett, Ford Madox Brown, and Arthur Symons. The latter even claimed that her poem “Scherzo” in Dramas in Miniature (1891) expressed her unrequited passion for him (see my analysis of this poem below, which resists this heterosexual pigeon-holing). But like Lee, Blind also had passionate attachments to women. These ranged from her childhood friend Lily Wolfsohn to her New Woman colleague and friend Mona Caird, who accompanied her on a country idyll that produced some of Blind’s most sensuous descriptions–of feminized and erotically charged landscapes. Like this one, from Blind’s Commonplace Book, describing a walk she took with Caird:
Walk to the twilight wood on the hill-side with the silvery broken light on the barley field. We were struck by the singular outline of a hornbeam with the trunk + branches half thrown back curiously resembling a woman’s body. It might have been some female struggling passionately to escape pursuit. Yea, Daphne herself changing into a shrub. (fol. 24-25)
For Blind and other New Women poets, female sexual desire unmoored from marriage–and from compulsory heterosexuality, to use our contemporary currency–constituted a radical declaration of independence.
Which explains the title of this blog. “Queering,” according to Eve Sedgwick, seeks an “open mesh of possibilities” (8) to disrupt traditional binary epistemologies that are constructed as oppositional and interdependent. By contrast, queering seeks fluidity, dissonances, gaps, and excesses of meaning that materialize “when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically (8). This comes closer to describing my sense of Blind’s radical ideas about gender and sexuality than terms like “gay” or “straight.”
Perhaps I should have written an additional chapter with the title of this blog. Or perhaps another scholar will write a book about Blind bearing this title.
I’ve been thinking about these issues ever since reading Susan David Bernstein’s review of my biography in Review 19(which is thorough and incisive, despite the quibbles I am about to share). Gregory Tate, in his Review of English Studiesessay, called my “determination to stick to the facts, . . . for the most part, admirable,” but added that “the shortage of speculative interpretation can also be vexing. (He is specifically referring here to my reluctance to speculate on the reasons for the serious quarrel between Blind and Ford Madox Brown in August 1882.) Bernstein, on the other hand, suggests that I go too far in speculating about the erotic elements in Blind’s relationships with Garnett and Caird. About Garnett:
Diedrick dubiously claims that [several men’s] relation to her was implicitly sexual. Interpreting her response to Garnett’s request that she read the draft of a story he sent her, Diedrick writes: “In accepting this invitation to literary intercourse, Mathilde would be taking the story into herself, commingling with Garnett’s imagination, imaginatively becoming one with him. Throughout this period in their relationship, sex is often an implied subtext in their exchange about texts” (57).
(I do need to note here, as I do in the biography, that Garnett specifically suggested (and suggested suggestively) that Blind take his story–”The Firefly”–and translate it into German, and that the result “would benefit us both, and it would be great fun to see the thing in German dress”).
And about Caird:
During her travels with Caird, Diedrick speculates, the two were briefly lovers until Brown’s imminent death recalled Blind to London. Just as Diedrick earlier found erotic evidence in Blind’s correspondence with Garnett, he also finds it in her commonplace book: “Her entries,” writes Diedrick, “speak of an intimate communion with Caird, both physical and mental” (228).
(Yes, but: I don’t call Blind and Caird “lovers,” and I meant the word “intimate” to remain suggestively ambiguous.)
In writing about these events in Blind’s life I hoped to convey several things. First, that certain men were erotically as well as intellectually attracted to Blind, even though there is scant evidence that she reciprocated the first of these two attractions. Second, even without the kind of evidence leading some to call Vernon Lee a lesbian, it is important to show that Blind felt and expressed (obliquely in some of her poetry, less so in some of her autobiographical prose) erotic desire for women. Moreover, I wanted to demonstrate that although she remained resolutely single (her antagonism toward marriage was notorious, and often expressed with wonderfully mordant humor), her poetry and prose speak of a deeply passionate life–although the precise objects and outcomes of her passions leave us in “mysteries and doubts.” Her abiding attachments to the men and women who enriched her life intellectually, emotionally, and physically (the latter at times by the “mere” fact of their physical presence and proximity) are at the core of her life story.
And central to what we might call her “queerness,” in a somewhat more broadly cultural sense than what Sedgwick’s definition above may imply. In her introduction to her translation of Marie Bashkirtseff’s journal, Blind links Bashkirtseff directly with her friend and fellow poet Rosamund Marriott Watson, whose exercise of sexual freedom had made her notorious in many circles. Describing Bashkirtseff’s unrepentant hedonism, Blind alludes to Watson’s poem “Of the Earth, Earthy,” a militantly secular paean to sensuous existence: “no rapt and saintly vision clothed in the purity of dawn passes across her vision; this child of the nineteenth century is of the earth earthy” (xii). Blind’s poem “Scherzo” partakes of this same spirit. Its speaker compares her would-be lover (who could be male or female, given the metaphorical gender inversions at work) to Endymion, whose beauty inflamed Diana, and describes her passion in pagan, intensely sensual terms:
You are light and life in sooth, Fair as was that Grecian youth Who in her cold sphere above Drove poor Dian mad with love— When she saw him where he lay, White and golden like a spray Of tall jonquils whose intense Sweetness faints upon the sense; When she saw him swathed in light, Couched on the aërial height Of hoar Latmos, hushed and warm; While, to shield him from all harm, Like a woman’s rounded arm, A fresh creeper wildly fair Twined around his throat and hair. (85-6)
The speaker effects an inversion of conventional gender roles in this passage, first by investing the male beloved with qualities typically ascribed to females by desiring males (passive receptivity, purity, sweetness, warmth), then by comparing the ivy that protectively “shields” him to a woman. The penultimate stanza of the poem describes how Diana’s desire for Endymion surprised her, causing her to momentarily forget her reputation for purity: “She forgot in her surprise, / When her empyrean eyes / Saw Endymion where he lay / Slumbering” (75-78). The words immediately following the caesura in line 78, however, emphasize choice and agency, as “she cast away / Her immortal honour, clear / As her own unclouded sphere, / For the palpitating bliss / Of a surreptitious kiss” (75-82). Although she willingly gives up “her immortal honour” to transform herself from a virgin goddess to desiring woman, her embrace of sexuality is not associated with any sacrifice of human honour (her own “sphere” remained “unclouded”) [“‘Hectic Beauty'” 637].
In this sense Diana, like “Scherzo” itself, and like Blind in her life and writing, forcefully represents every woman’s right to gender and sexual self-determination.
Blind, Mathilde. The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff. Translated with an Introduction by Mathilde Blind. 2 vols. Cassell, 1890.
____. Dramas in Miniature. Chatto and Windus, 1891.
____. Commonplace Book 1892-95. Bodleian Library, Oxford (Ms. Walpole e.1.).
With the first critical biography of Mathilde Blind, James Diedrick makes a thoroughly forceful case for the writer’s importance in Victorian literary history. Blind herself wrote four biographical accounts of women, including George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame Roland, and Marie Bashkirtseff. These last three, Diedrick observes, were “unjustly neglected or underestimated in their lifetimes, and thus all these works reflect Blind’s commitment to elevating the cultural status of influential women” (155). The same may be said of the present biography
Since one of my hopes for my biography is that it will inspire additional work on Mathilde Blind and late-century literature and culture, I was especially gratified to read the concluding paragraph of Berstein’s review, where she writes that “in addition to demonstrating amply how the spirit of Blind’s own writings became part of the spirit of her own late-Victorian age, this book will surely draw more attention to her and possibly lead to republications of her work in print, not just digital formats. Ecocritics, for instance, might welcome a new edition of The Heather on Fire, and The Ascent of Man might well find a place in the field of posthuman studies.”
Here’s to the future of scholarship on Blind and her still-provocative ideas!
Maria Luigia Di Nisio reviewed Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters for Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 14.1 (Spring 2018) . I was especially pleased that she quoted Blind’s own description of “proper biography” in describing mine: the story of a life “in which the philosophical insight into the mainsprings of character and action shall be combined with the power of infusing the breath of life into its subject” (152). Di Nisio also notes that while having special appeal for Victorianists, this biography “will prove an interesting reading for a more general audience as well, given the compelling personal portraits it carves out and the tantalizing glimpses it offers into the burgeoning cultural atmosphere of fin-de-siècle London.” She adds that “the study throws into relief the interconnections between female intellectuals sharing the same ideals, as well as a strong awareness of their own controversial position within contemporary society, and an eager desire for change.”
In making the award, Adam Wood, Chair of the SAMLA Studies Book Award, had this to say about the book:
“James Diedrick in Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and The Woman of Letters provides a highly readable biography of an important but overlooked intellectual of the late-Victorian era. His thoroughly researched book illuminates politics and history as it shows Blind’s multi-genre literary influence. This biography sheds new light on writers and a time period that we thought we knew well.”