News & Notes

Molly Youngkin reviews Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters

I am grateful to Molly Youngkin for her thoughtful, detailed review of Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters for The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies (vol. 29, Fall 2020, pp. 102-06). Her first paragraph succinctly summarizes my major goals in writing the book:

This . . . biography of the politically radical woman aesthete Mathilde Blind is important for several reasons. It changes the way we think about aestheticism, since it shows how women such as Blind were central in aesthetic circles that have been traditionally presented as male dominated, and it characterizes aestheticism as more politically aware than has typically been acknowledged. In addition, it provides a more nuanced view of the relationship between the New Woman and male decadents by indicating the complex relations between New Women such as Blind and decadents such as Arthur Symons. Finally, it adds significantly to our awareness of how literary criticism about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley developed, since Blind (who wrote in a variety of genres, but is known primarily for her poetry) contributed significantly to this development in the 19th century.

My thanks to Professor Youngkin and The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies for this review.

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”

bookcover

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.

Queering Mathilde Blind

Mathilde Blind
Undated studio portrait of Mathilde Blind, ca. 1870

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 Studies essay, 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.  

 

Works Cited

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.).

Diedrick, James. Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters. University of Virginia, 2016.

____. “The Hectic Beauty of Decay'”: Positivist Decadence in Mathilde Blind’s Late Poetry. Victorian Literature and Culture 34 (2006): 631-48.

Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Duke UP, 1993.