Mathilde Blind was a consummate late-Victorian professional woman writer, distinguished for both her feminist politics and her wide-ranging intellectual interests spanning multiple languages. Associated from childhood with radical German politics—her stepfather, Karl Blind, was a leading activist and an associate of Karl Marx, and her brother, Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, attempted to assassinate Otto von Bismarck—Blind exemplified, as Diedrick (Agnes Scott College) argues, late-nineteenth-century cosmopolitanism. A poet, a literary journalist, a critic, an editor, a biographer, a lecturer, and an occasional fiction writer, Blind experimented with poetic form and versification, efforts that put her into sometimes contentious dialogue with those in the aesthetic movement (whose politics she suspected). But Blind’s most lasting contributions may have been as a scholar of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose reputation she helped rehabilitate, and as an innovative biographer of George Eliot (on whom she partly sought to model herself) and Madame Roland. Diedrick carefully reconstructs Blind’s overlapping social networks, which included figures ranging from A. C. Swinburne to painter Ford Madox Brown to women’s rights activist Clementia Taylor. Although a quick summation of Blind’s posthumous reception would have served the volume well, the biography successfully delineates Blind’s complex personality, her rejection of late-Victorian mores, and her literary accomplishments.
Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.
On August 2, senior White House aide and notorious alt-right propagandist Stephen Miller came to the White House Press Room to discuss the RAISE Act, which would halve legal immigration into the U.S. In a heated exchange with Jim Acosta, a CNN anchor who quoted Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colussus” (“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), Miller attacked Acosta for his “cosmopolitan bias” and for asking about what the bill would do to the racial composition of immigrants to the US by claiming “that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things said you’ve ever said.”
James Diedrick’s biography of the Victorian writer Mathilde Blind opens with a critique of Benjamin Disraeli’s 1872 speech on ‘Conservative and Liberal Principles’, in which Disraeli set out a stark opposition between the popular nationalism of his Conservative party and the elitist cosmopolitanism (or un-British radicalism) of Gladstone’s Liberals. For Diedrick, ‘this speech illuminates the reasons Blind’s career and writing mattered to her contemporaries, and why her story still speaks to contemporary cultural debates’ (p. 2). He argues persuasively that her life and career subvert Disraeli’s simplistic distinction between the national and the cosmopolitan. Born in Germany in 1841, Blind’s family settled in London in 1852 after her mother and stepfather’s involvement in the failed 1848 revolutions; she thought of herself as British, and she campaigned and wrote on a range of national issues, from women’s education to the cultural ramifications of Darwinism to the history of the Highland Clearances. Diedrick also makes a valuable case for the importance to Victorian culture of the multinational and politically radical circles in which Blind moved: she knew Karl Marx and Giuseppe Mazzini as a child, and her writings consistently champion active and progressive responses to the social inequities of Victorian Britain. For those of us reading the book in Brexit Britain, these are compelling arguments for Blind’s current relevance. Diedrick’s narrative of Blind’s life is comprehensive and illuminating, but the most important contribution of his biography is its evocation of Blind’s cosmopolitan intellectual environment, and of the literary and political culture of late-Victorian London more generally.
The book offers an insightful analysis, for instance, of the ways in which Blind’s ‘gift for friendship’ helped her career. Through a range of different kinds of social exchange—letters, conversations (in, for example, the British Museum), literary salons, public readings, and lectures—Blind positioned herself as part of a group of writers and artists with shared interests, who supported each other practically (through introductions to publishers and editors of periodicals, for instance) and intellectually; this ‘community of like-minded friends and fellow artists is what enabled her career and inspired her writing’ (p. 260). Over the course of her life Blind developed more or less close friendships with (in no particular order, and among others) Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Michael Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Eleanor Marx, Mona Caird, Richard Garnett (superintendent of the reading room at the British Museum), William Kingdon Clifford, Arthur Symons, and Vernon Lee. Diedrick’s focus on Blind’s friendships enables him to develop a detailed picture of the cultural dynamics of late-Victorian London, of the interactions and exchanges between particular individuals, and of the shared concerns that underpinned those exchanges. For Diedrick, Blind’s diverse interests—in socialism, Romanticism, aestheticism, science, and debates about the New Woman—exemplify the inseparable connection between aesthetics and politics that was a guiding conviction of her wider intellectual community.
Tate’s final paragraph emphasizes both Blind’s underestimated significance as a writer and the ways in which her career illuminates cultural concerns that inform our present:
On the . . . topic of Blind’s writing, the book is thorough and authoritative, and it does a particularly important service in demonstrating and examining the range of her talent. After Blind’s death in 1896, her friend Arthur Symons used his 1897 Selection from the Poems of Mathilde Blind and his 1900 edition of her complete Poetical Works to construct a surprisingly conventional (and conventionally gendered) view of Blind as a sentimental and lyric poet, and, while not so narrow in its interpretation of her writing, recent scholarship has also focused nearly exclusively on her poetry. However, as Diedrick makes clear, ‘presenting Blind exclusively as a poet, and an exclusively lyrical poet, was doubly reductive’ (p. 255). As well as publishing seven volumes of poetry that made room for dramatic monologues and narrative verse as well as lyrics and sonnets, Blind was also a novelist, a translator of writers as diverse as David Friedrich Strauss and Marie Bashkirtseff, a biographer of George Eliot and Madame Roland, a champion and editor of Shelley and Byron, and a frequent contributor to the Victorian periodical press. Diedrick makes a persuasive case for a fuller consideration of Blind’s versatility as a writer, and of her popularity and influence in late-Victorian literary culture; he notes that an 1890 profile in the journal Woman commented that ‘“everyone familiar with the current thought and literature of the day knows the name of Mathilde Blind”’ (p. 223). Diedrick’s book is a meticulous and comprehensive biography of this now underestimated writer, and it deserves to make Blind’s name better known today. It is also a valuable addition to recent scholarship on Victorian cosmopolitanism, and a timely reminder of the importance to British culture of cosmopolitan and transnational perspectives.
Diedrick’s account builds a picture of an intelligent and passionate advocate of women’s rights, a thoughtful writer who engaged deeply with the society in which she worked. Blind would likely have approved of this way of portraying her. As a character in her only novel (Tarantella, 1885) has it: “I’m a revolutionary at bottom … but it all goes into music with me”. –Camilla Cassidy
Diedrick presents Blind herself as a vibrant figure at the centre of literary culture and social reform in fin-de-siècle London. He reveals a great talker who thrived on conversation — tellingly, she called the salon “this school for women” — and forged significant relationships with many of the people who defined her age. In its colourful patchworks of lengthy paraphrase and quotation, this biography sets different voices talking among themselves – and this seems perfectly suited to creating a bustling sense of a cultural and intellectual milieu characterized by cosmopolitan talk of the sort Mathilde Blind loved best.
Cassidy singles out my opening chapter, “The Making of a Cosmopolitan,” which presented the greatest writing challenge, since it encompasses more than 30 years of Mathilde Blind’s event-filled life:
Mathilde Blind was seven years old in 1848 when her father died; not long afterwards, she and her family were forced to flee their native Germany. Her mother and future stepfather’s political views – and occasional arrests – saw them move from place to place frequently during these years of unrest. Eventually, they settled in London, “the chief center”, as James Diedrick puts it in his vivid account of this phase of Blind’s life, “of exile politics”. Here the family got to know Marx and were visited by Mazzini and Garibaldi. This was also the place where Blind’s literary career would take shape – as Diedrick sees it, it was “the making of a cosmopolitan”.
I also appreciate Cassidy’s emphasis on Blind’s life-long passion for women’s rights and women’s causes:
Especially close to Blind’s heart was the so-called Woman Question. She wrote the first biography of George Eliot, and begins that book with Eliot’s view that French women made better writers because (in Eliot’s words) their “small brain and vivacious temperament … permit the fragile system of woman to sustain the superlative activity requisite for intellectual creativeness”. A “knotty and subtle problem”, Blind wryly observes, best left to “the scientist of the future”. She fervently believed in equality and was suspicious of talk about separate spheres. Women, she argued, could do much the same work as men.
Her translation of the Russian-born painter Marie Bashkirtseff’s journal includes the lines: “I have nothing of the woman about me but the envelope . . . . As for the rest, that’s quite another affair. It is not I who say this, since it seems to me that all women are like myself”. This reflection, Diedrick tells us, was widely misconstrued. Gladstone, Bashkirtseff’s most famous English advocate, had omitted the final phrase when quoting from the French edition in a review, and took the passage to mean merely that Bashkirtseff “did not possess the finer graces”. By reinstating its larger claim, Blind creates a forcefully feminist translation.
Cassidy claims that my emphasis on Blind’s relationships with prominent male writers “feels lopsided: no woman’s work receives comparable treatment.” While I understand the reason for this complaint, a biography requires archival evidence, and Blind’s correspondence and associations with men like William Michael Rossetti, Richard Garnett, and the still underrated poet James Thomson are far better documented in the surviving archives than her friendships and expressed solidarity with Vernon Lee, Mona Caird, Rosamund Marriott Watson, Lucy Clifford, and other radical women writers of the fin de siècle. I also stress that Blind’s relationships with literary tastemakers like Rossetti and Garnett were instrumental, since Blind knew these men could introduce her to and influence the mostly male editors who published her work.
Cassidy’s review, subtitled “The German feminist who found a place in Victorian London,” is the first full-length review of my biography–and a welcome one.
[NOTE: I presented this short paper at a Roundtable on “Women’s Transnationality” at the 25th annual British Women Writers Conference, held June 21-24 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Roundtable was organized and moderated by Linda K. Hughes, Texas Christian University; the other four panelists were Beverly Taylor (UNC Chapel Hill); Marjorie Stone (Dalhousie University); Deirdre d’Albertis (Bard College); and Heidi Hakimi-Hood, Ph.D. candidate, Texas Christian University. Some of the material for this presentation comes from my biography Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters, University of Virginia Press, 2017]
“A dangerous curiosity for an undiscovered world”: Mathilde Blind’s Radical Cosmopolitanism
If transnationalism is in part a means and method of thinking beyond the nation as a literary category and interrogating the formation and deployment of the concept of the nation-state across both time and space, then the work of the Anglo-German, Anglo-Jewish poet, political refugee, radical feminist and socialist Mathilde Blind provides an excellent example of how certain Victorian writers pioneered this project. In my brief remarks today, I want to show how her political affiliations inform her literary practice, and how her writing embodies this transnational perspective. I will be using three terms during my discussion, and I hope to suggest both how they overlap and how they diverge: internationalism, transnationalism, and cosmopolitanism.
To begin with the first of these terms: both liberal and socialist versions of internationalism were circulating in the 1870s, when Blind began publishing under her own name, and she was firmly aligned with the socialist camp. The liberal version derived from Kant’s essay on “Perpetual Peace,” in which he first advocated a “league of nations”—the inspiration for the organization established after World War I (which Blind’s stepsister half-sister Ottilie would campaign for). The socialist version envisions the eventual disappearance of nation-states, and this is where internationalism shades into transnationalism. While Blind supported the formation of independent national states (the goal of the European Revolutions of 1848, which her mother and stepfather participated in) and later Irish Home Rule, she was also one of those who looked toward an altogether different future. In the words she used to translate David Strauss’s unsympathetic definition of cosmopolitanism in The Old Faith and the New (1873), she would “have the large consolidated states resolve themselves into groups of small confederated republics, organized on the socialistic principle, between which, thenceforth, differences of language and nationality could no longer act as barriers, or prove the cause of strife” (301). Since I won’t have time to discuss her poetry in any depth today, it is worth noting that Blind’s poetry consistently gestures toward this imaginary Europe, what Christopher Keirstead in Victorian Poetry, Europe, and the Challenge of Cosmopolitanism calls an “ever-impending Europe of the future” (3). And now that I’ve introduced this third term, I want to spend a few minutes discussing Blind’s distinctive cosmopolitanism.
In 1872, the same year she began reviewing for The Athenaeum and published her edition of selected poems by Shelley, another Anglo-Jewish writer, Benjamin Disraeli, delivered his Crystal Palace speech, in which he castigated those who, like Blind, professed cosmopolitan views—in terms that remind us of the politically charged nature of late-Victorian cosmopolitanism. Delivered two years before Disraeli would return as Prime Minister to lead the Tory government for the next four years, this speech illuminates the reasons Blind’s career and writing mattered to her contemporaries, and why her story still speaks to contemporary cultural debates. Disraeli aligns the Conservatives with “nationalism” and the Liberals (and their leader William Gladstone) with “cosmopolitanism,” which he equates with radicalism on the Continent. He also attempts to enlist the British working classes in the Conservative cause, claiming they “repudiate cosmopolitan principles. They adhere to national principles. They are for maintaining the greatness of the kingdom and the empire, and they are proud of being subjects of our sovereign and members of such an empire” (10). Blind’s anti-monarchical, antitheist, anti-imperialist ideas, not to mention her socialism, made her an unnamed target of Disraeli’s speech.
Disraeli’s dichotomies obscure what are in fact a range of complex political positions. His opposition of “nationalism” and “cosmopolitanism,” for example, leaves no room for Blind and her friend William Morris, socialists who also “adhered” to “national principles” in the sense that they were English citizens who organized to support national movements in Germany and Italy. Moreover, Blind and Morris were simultaneously cosmopolitans, socialists and aesthetes, and their careers challenge those who have cast the aesthetic movement as the apolitical precursor to the avant-garde. Borrowing a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche, Regenia Gagnier describes late-Victorian cosmopolitans like Morris as “citizens of the world” who “perceived no conflict between individualism and the social state, who never fell “into the depoliticized idealism that that phrase evokes today” (137). This is especially relevant to Blind, whose career coincided with the revival of socialist internationalism in Britain, Europe, the Americas, and Australasia (the Second International was formed in Paris in 1889, the year Blind published The Ascent of Man, many of whose poems express a kind of apocalyptic socialism). Like her countryman Nietzsche, —whose books Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human her friend Helen Zimmern would translate into English — Blind writes from the perspective of those “free spirits” or “good Europeans” who in Nietzsche’s words are characterized by “a dangerous curiosity for an undiscovered world,” one that “flames and flickers up in all the senses” (4).
Blind’s cosmopolitan identity is distinct from that of Morris, however, and not only because of her gender. In William Michael Rossetti’s loaded words, “she was of Jewish race” (2: 388). Though she was thoroughly secular in her outlook, and unlike her friend Amy Levy did not self-identify as Jewish, she was often identified as such in ways that also cast her as an outsider. This is important because one of the late-century debates concerning cosmopolitanism is directly bound up in questions of Jewish identity and citizenship. Were Jews considered “rooted” citizens of their nations, or “rootless cosmopolitans”? Anti-Semites cited Svengali (in fiction) and the Rothschild banking family (in fact) as proof of the latter. In this debate, “cosmopolitan” is a pejorative term meaning stateless and not deserving of a state, as in the myth of the Wandering Jew. Though Blind was herself a self-confessed wanderer, and frequently traveled on the Continent, she also thought of herself and described herself as English. At the same time, she identified and sympathized with those struggling for self-determination on the Continent as well as in Scotland and Ireland—a sympathy linked in part to her awareness of the Jews’ history of being treated as aliens. For this reason Nathan Sznaider’s Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order provides a valuable framework for discussing Blind’s subject position, especially his appropriation of Anthony Appiah’s concept of “rooted cosmopolitanism” (618)
Sznaider’s observation that throughout much of their history, Jews were both a nation and cosmopolitan, living in a constant tension between particularism and universalism, also relates to two other late-Victorian debates. The first concerns nationalism and internationalism, which I outlined above. The second, related late-century debate concerns particularism and universalism. Sznaider writes that the Jewish experience “straddles the interstices of universal identifications and particular attachments,” and that cosmopolitanism “combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state” (5) Blind was a child of the German Enlightenment who imbibed the totalizing ideas of Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Strauss, and Marx—and later Comte, Wollstonecraft, and J. S. Mill. And her own universalist ideals—concerning universal suffrage, equality of the sexes, the religion of humanity, and socialism—were shaped by them. Yet they were also productively complicated by her particular experiences of alienation—as a Jewish female, a sexual nonconformist, a political radical, and an expatriate. She understood that those who formulated universalist ideals often ignored the realities of race, class, and (in particular) gender. Her writing does not. Like “cosmopolitanism” as defined by Sznaider, it is “sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture . . .” (6).
To link this overview of Blind’s political allegiances to our contemporary literary discourse, I argue that for Blind cosmopolitanism is not figured, to use Tanya Agathocleous and Jason Rudy’s terms, as “the false idealism of globalization and the cultural logic of neoimperialism,” but as “globalization’s critical edge, an ethos that attempts to encompass all humanity while remaining attentive to the pitfalls of humanism” (390). In Amanda Anderson’s usage, cosmopolitanism is an ethical and characterological stance intrinsic to the detached outlook of Victorian narrators and cultural critics. Blind, as Anderson argues about other Victorian writers, was “self-consciously pluralistic” (30) and politically “enabling” (4). Blind’s work is especially critical of the hierarchies of nationality, race, class and gender” that Lauren Goodlad and Julia Wright claim much Victorian literature mounts “comparatively inert” challenges to, or even embraces. Blind’s cosmopolitanism is always already in dialogue with issues of nationalism and imperialism. In this sense, her cosmopolitanism exists, again in Agathocleous and Rudy’s words, as “nationalism’s dialectical other” (392), contesting the imperialist forces underwriting its existence.
One example from Blind’s poetry will need to suffice here. Tricia Lootens argues that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” helps identify the transatlantic poetess tradition as one that strives to convert women’s powerlessness to a form of extranational power. The Heather on Fire: A Tale of the Highland Clearances, published in the midst of the Crofters’ War of the 1880s, expresses this power. Crofters were the Scottish peasant farmers and fisherman who had earned a subsistence living from the land for generations; the war was fought with such bitter ferocity that the British government sent gunboats to the west coast of Scotland and stationed policemen and troops on the Hebridean islands. The conflict was rooted in the Highland Land Clearances that began in the eighteenth century and accelerated in the 1830s, the decade which is the setting of Blind’s poem. One of the most infamous mass evictions of a class of people in British history, the clearances were part of the transformation of the west of Britain from a paternalistic society based on ties of kinship to a capitalist one based on commercial and exploitative landlordism. Crofters were brutally evicted from their homes and property, first to make way for sheep grazing, then for hunting grounds for wealthy British and American sportsmen. In the preface to her poem, Blind emphasizes that the atrocities rendered in her narrative are historical, not imaginative, and that “the uprooting and transplantation of whole communities of Crofters from the straths and glens which they had tilled for so many generations must be regarded in the light of a national crime” (2). The Heather on Fire gives the clearances a local habitation and a name. Its 181 octave stanzas, all composed of heroic couplets and each ending with an Alexandrine line, tells the story of a family destroyed by actions of English landlords, one of whose agents boasts:, “of all these dirty huts the glen we’ll sweep, / And clear it for the fatted lowland sheep” (61).
I won’t discuss the poem at length here, or the ways in which it engaged contemporary Parliamentary debates about land reform (beyond noting that the poem appeared the same year that Gladstone introduced the contentious Irish Home Rule Bill in Parliament, marking the beginning of the end of British domination of Ireland). Instead I want to note the ways in which it was perceived by one of Blind’s closest friends, the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. He was particularly attuned to the ways in which Blind’s perspective as a rooted cosmopolitan—critical of the imperial designs and practices of empires, whether British, German or Russian—gave her a critical perspective on the clearances that native-born writers lacked or simply declined to exercise.
Brown’s comments on The Heather on Fire reflect his advocacy of her poetry, including his interventions on her behalf, as well as the ways in which her perspective as an expatriate engendered insights beyond those of her native-born contemporaries. On 13 April 1886, writing to his friend Marion Harry Alexander Spielmann (the art critic for the Pall Mall Gazette and editor of the Magazine of Art), Brown says that Blind’s poem on “the crofters . . . produced almost entirely in our house here in Manchester,” is about to be published. Then he praises the poem for going “deeply into the matter” before calling it “strange” that Scots writers and reformers like Carlyle and Henry Brougham (who helped pass the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 when he was Lord Chancellor) should “have been holding forth to spellbound listeners in Edinburgh and London and neither of them to have uttered (or shown that they knew) a word on the subject.” Brown suggests why: “so clearly do the English nation screen their peccadillos from too ardent glare of publicity” (English MS., Rylands Library University of Manchester). Brown wrote to Spielmann again on 22 April, thanking him for inserting a notice about Blind’s biography of Madame Roland in the Pall Mall Gazette and observing with bitter humor that “there is fear of such a small book being overlooked among the many other half-crown affairs which are devoted to impure actresses and mistresses of Royal Princes and others scarcely worthy to be written about” (English MS., Rylands Library University of Manchester). For Blind, the Highland Clearances represented the depradations inflicted by the English state on its one-time quasi-colony, and exemplified the abuses of imperial power. Indicting past imperial practices, she also created a narrative poem that constitutes an important instance of post-colonialism avant la letter.
Agathocleous, Tanya Agathocleous and Jason R. Rudy. “Victorian Cosmopolitans: Introduction.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38(2):389-397.
Anderson, Amanda. “Cosmopolitanism, Universalism, and the Divided Legacies of Modernity.” In Cheah, Pheng, and Bruce Robbins, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998.Cheah and Robbins. 265-89.
I want to dedicate my remarks tonight to the students of Agnes Scott College–queer, straight, transgender–who I trust will find in Mathilde Blind a companionable spirit who still speaks to them 120 years after her death–just as she spoke to and for other creative spirits and independent thinkers (like her friends Vernon Lee and Oscar Wilde). As my students from last semester’s Victorian Sexualities class know, Blind was a sexual noncomformist, and like other late-century writers she openly challenged gender and sexual binaries. And while you can read all about this aspect of her life and career in my book, Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters, published in January by the University of Virginia Press, tonight I want to focus on recent American political developments, and explore a few of the ways in which Blind’s experiences in late-Victorian London speak to them.
So: to begin. Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss has called our students “feisty”; I want to talk about a woman whose life and career suggests a more appropriate adjective: fierce. To use the contemporary American vernacular, she was one of the “nasty women” of the Victorian era, and she persisted in her pursuit of literature as a form of political intervention (I use “political” here in its broadest sense).
In fact, Mathilde Blind had much in common with the women in these images:
Agnes Scott College students (and college president Elizabeth Kiss) marching in Washington, D.C. on 21 January 2017
The 21 January 2017 Women’s March, as you know, was a worldwide protest that advocated for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers’ rights. Mathilde Blind supported these rights as well, either directly or obliquely, in her writing and her public statements. She also, like some of the Agnes Scott students who marched in late January, wanted to dismantle the patriarchy (or “Smash the Patriarchy,” as one of the signs in the photograph below announces). Her first published essay, appearing in 1870 in the influential Westminster Review, praised the poet Shelley’s poem Prometheus Unbound as an “enfant terrible” of a poem designed to “take by storm” “that triple-headed power which rules the world”: “theology, monarchy, and matrimony.” As a radical freethinker, Republican and feminist, she opposed all three. She also told her friend Richard Garnett that women should be allowed to pursue all professions, including those traditionally reserved only for men, and when Garnett expressed dismay at “throwing a mass of cheap labour into occupations much overstocked,” she replied that “the men might emigrate.” These views meant she was often ostracized and marginalized by many of her contemporaries; but she also discovered and was supported by a remarkable group of fellow freethinkers, rebels against the gender system, and political radicals.
Agnes Scott College students marching in Washington, D.C. on 21 January 2017
How to talk about Mathilde Blind’s relevance to our current political climate in 40 minutes? First, by talking about the philosophical and literary concept of the sublime, and its relevance to political movements; then by talking about Blind’s status as an immigrant, political refugee and cosmopolitan; and finally by noting her intellectual and political affinities with today’s Agnes Scott College women and activists.
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” –Edmund Burke, On the Sublime
“An Avalanche in the Alps,” by Philip James de Loutherbourg
The experience of the sublime usually occurred to the solitary individual, as it did for the poet William Wordsworth. The following passage from his poem The Prelude is a description of a night-time ascent of Snowdon, a mountain in North Wales that Wordsworth climbed in 1791 when he was 21. Notice that Wordsworth’s language accommodates atheists (like Mathilde Blind) as well as believers:
A meditation rose on me that night Upon the lonely mountain when the scene Had passed away, and it appeared to me The perfect image of a mighty mind, Of one that feeds upon infinity, That is exalted by an under-presence, The sense of God, or whatso’er is dim Or vast in its own being …
(1805 Prelude, lines 66-73)
The Political Sublime
Later writers like Mathilde Blind extended the concept of the sublime to encompass communal experiences of human solidarity and exaltation, experiences of nearly overwhelming intensity and import. And this phenomenon continues in our day. Consider the ways in which some writers and speakers have described the 21 January 2017 Women’s March. The Politicus podcast reporting on the march is headlined “Women’s March Brings a Pink Apocalypse Upon Drumpf” (the very notion of an apocalypse, which combines feelings of terror with feelings of revelatory change, is a form of the sublime). Note, too, these excerpts from the Politicus website, under the headline “Women’s March Is The Biggest Protest In US History As An Estimated 2.9 Million March,” which emphasize the historical (and numerical) enormity of the event:
1982’s anti-nuclear march in New York City drew an estimated crowd of 1 million. The 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington drew 250,000. 1969 anti-Vietnam war march in Washington was attended by an estimated 500,000-600,000. 1995’s Million Man March was attended by 400,000-1.1 million. In 1993, the LGBT March for equal rights had a crowd of 800,00-1 million.
An estimated 60,000 people marched in Atlanta. 250,000 are marching in Chicago. There are estimates of 250,000 people in Boston, and 200,000 more in Denver. In New York, the estimate ranges from 200,000-500,000. City officials estimate that 500,000 people participated in the main march in Washington, DC. In Los Angeles, the estimate is anywhere from 200,000-750,000.
There has never been anything in US history like the Women’s March. It is nationwide, and proof that the American people are not going accept the agenda of the Drumpf administration without a serious fight.
Mathilde Blind also wrote about her own political involvement in terms that evoke the sublime. I’ll read from a short section of chapter three of my biography to illustrate this:
On the evening of 21 March 1872, snow blanketed the streets of northeast London as Mathilde Blind set out to express her solidarity with fellow republicans, freethinkers, and supporters of women’s rights. She was accompanied by her friend Eliza Orme, secretary of the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. They joined nearly 2,000 others who gathered in St. James Hallto hear from two leaders of the Republican cause in England. A capacity crowd had gathered to hear from Charles Bradlaugh, the leading freethinker in Britain, and to honor radical MPs Charles Dilke and Auberon Herbert, both of whom argued that the United Kingdom should adopt a republican form of government. Three days earlier Dilke had introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an investigation of Queen Victoria’s expenditures as part of an initiative to reform the Civil List. Herbert seconded the motion, and though it failed by a vote of 276 to 2, both men were hailed as heroes by Blind and her fellow radicals for this direct challenge to the power of the monarchy.
Bradlaugh was the featured speaker at this gathering because the event was organized to oppose the Parks Regulation Bill.Bradlaugh led the resistance to this bill, which restricted freedom of assembly and speech in the city’s four major parks–Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Richmond Park, and St. James’s Park. (Parliament annulled this bill in December 1872, due in large part to Bradlaugh’s agitation). Since the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner was the most important public forum in London for political discussion and debate, the bill was seen as an attempt to suppress political dissent.
“. . . the reception given to Bradlaugh and Sir Charles Dilke was something overwhelming. A fury of enthusiasm thrilling through two thousand . . . and raging for several minutes like a hurricane lashed and dashed against the speakers who stood perfectly calm and unmoved.” –Mathilde Blind
Blind described the atmosphere at what she called the “Monster Meeting” at St. James Hall in a letter to [Richard] Garnett a day after the event, emphasizing the rapturous reception given to the representatives of radicalism and reform “Mon Dieu what a spectacle it was; the reception given to Bradlaugh and Sir Charles Dilke was something overwhelming. A fury of enthusiasm thrilling through two thousand . . . and raging for several minutes like a hurricane lashed and dashed against the speakers who stood perfectly calm and unmoved. If my words seem extravagant they are but feeble echoes of a tremendous extravaganza.” Blind’s description might seem hyperbolic, but it was echoed in newspaper accounts of the event, including one by the London correspondent for the New York Times, who described the “storm of applause” that greeted Dilke “which culminated after a few minutes in Kentish fire.” As Blind’s letter continues, she turns to nature for metaphors to convey her response to this event:
What a sense of delight there is . . . in these passionate outbursts of great multitudes; something akin to the breadth and magnitude of storms on the ocean. . . . And then one issued out into the calm, frosty, moonlit night. Saw all these houses with the sleepers within and the snow above so quiet, so peaceful. The Church and the Churchyard with the dead so still and the still dark shadows of the trees slanting the shroud of snow and the soul realized for moment the wonderful mysteriousness of this most mysterious world.
In this passage Blind invokes the Romantic sublime–the sense of awe in the presence of something beyond the mind’s capacity to contain–to celebrate the nearly overwhelming sense of collective energy and solidarity among her fellow radicals. She also links herself and her contemporaries to their dead yet still influential ancestors, much as her 1881 sonnet “The Dead” would do. “Our perishable bodies are the mould / in which their strong, imperishable will, / Mortality’s deep yearning to fulfill, / Hath grown incorporate through dim time untold.” . . .
Bradlaugh himself was often described in terms that evoke the sublime. One of the most remarkable radicals to emerge from the working classes in the nineteenth century, the Irish journalist T. P. O’Connor would later compare him to another towering nineteenth-century figure who threatened the bourgeois order—the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “imagine . . . a huge creature, some six feet one or two high; conjure up a vision of a man who looked at once like a coal heaver or a pugilist and a great thinker, and a protagonist in the fight of ideas, and you have some idea of what the figure of Bradlaugh suggested.” For Blind, who told Garnett that her early desire was to become a platform speaker, Bradlaugh exemplified republican ideals of reformist agitation.
To give just one example of the politically charged nature of the Hyde Park gatherings that Bradlaugh, Blind and others sought to protect: the Times of London, reflecting the unease of the establishment of the day, declared after one Hyde Park demonstration in 1866 that “it is against all reason and all justice that motley crowds from all parts of the metropolis should take possession of Hyde Park, and interfere with the enjoyments of those to whom the Park more particularly belongs.” But reporting on the same event, the radical Reynolds’ Newspaper of 29 July 1866 declared exultantly that despite the attempts of the police and troops to prevent them, “the people have triumphed, in so far as they have vindicated their right to meet, speak, resolve, and exhort in Hyde Park.”
Asylum, Immigration, and Cosmopolitanism Blind associates herself in her letter to Garnett with fellow British radicals, but she was in fact something of an outsider in Britain at this time–in several senses of the term. She was a German immigrant and political refugee, for one thing, the daughter of a famous mother and stepfather who were friends and colleagues of Karl Marx and participated in the 1848 revolutions that swept through Italy, France and Germany (which is why the family fled the Continent for England in 1850). She was also a woman in open revolt against the “separation of spheres” ideology that dominated middle-class British society at the time. Finally, she was Jewish–she was born Mathilde Cohen before taking the last name of her stepfather in the late 1860s. And this brings me to another way in which her life experience speaks to our political present.
“The Last of England,” Ford Madox Brown’s painting of emigrants leaving England (1855, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery). The theme was inspired by the emigration of the sculptor Thomas Woolner, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite, who left for the goldfields of Australia in July 1852. In the same year, 369,000 emigrants left Britain to seek their fortune overseas.
If England in 1850 had been led by an anti-immigrant nationalist like our current president when Blind’s stepfather applied for political asylum in 1850, he would have been branded a “bad hombre” or “bad dude” and never allowed in. But in the mid-19th century, immigration and settlement in England was relatively unrestricted. The government’s motivations were not entirely altruistic, of course, though the practice reinforced Britain’s dominant ideology of political and economic liberalism. Hundreds of thousands of Brits were emigrating from England every year, seeking opportunities in America, Canada and elsewhere, so asylum fulfilled a dual function. It served the interests of the capitalist class while legitimating it . . . But of course one result of this policy was that socialists like the Blind and other critics of capitalism were given safe haven and allowed to voice their opposition to the country’s political and economic order. Although Blind supported the struggle for national self-determination in Germany, Italy and France, as a socialist she believed in a future in which, in the words she used to translate David Strauss’s unsympathetic definition of cosmopolitanism in The Old Faith and the New, “the large consolidated states [would] resolve themselves into groups of small confederated republics, organized on the socialistic principle, between which, thenceforth, differences of language and nationality could no longer act as barriers, or prove the cause of strife.” And here is where Blind’s literary and political affiliations become part of a larger political debate in England that has remarkable correspondences with our own time. In 1872 Blind published a widely circulated edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry (for Blind, like her fellow artists and intellectuals in late-Victorian London, Shelley was not only one of the greatest of all English poets but also the standard-bearer of their aesthetic, freethinking, feminist and republican principles). The same year Blind issued this Shelley volume, another Anglo-Jewish writer, Benjamin Disraeli, delivered his “Crystal Palace Speech” in which he attacked those who, like Blind, professed cosmopolitan views—in terms that indicate the politically charged nature of late-Victorian cosmopolitanism. Delivered two years before Disraeli would return as prime minister to lead the Tory government for the next four years, this speech illuminates the reasons Blind’s career and writing mattered to her contemporaries, and why her story still speaks to our current cultural debates. Disraeli aligns the Conservatives with “nationalism” and the Liberals (and their leader William Gladstone) with “cosmopolitanism,” which he equates with radicalism on the Continent. He also attempts to enlist the British working classes in the Conservative cause, claiming they “repudiate cosmopolitan principles. They adhere to national principles. They are for maintaining the greatness of the kingdom and the empire, and they are proud of being subjects of our sovereign and members of such an empire.” Blind’s anti-monarchical, antitheist, anti-imperialist ideas, not to mention her socialism, made her an unnamed target of Disraeli’s speech.
Late-Victorian cosmopolitans like Blind and William Morris, the English-born poet, Arts and Crafts Movement pioneer and socialist, saw themselves as “citizens of the world” who perceived no conflict between individualism and the social state and never held to the depoliticized idealism that that phrase “art for art’s sake” evokes today.
Like her countryman Friederike Nietzsche, whose books Beyond Good and Evil and Human, All Too Human her friend Helen Zimmern would translate into English, Blind writes from the perspective of those “free spirits” or “good Europeans” who in Nietzsche’s words are characterized by “a dangerous curiosity for an undiscovered world,” one that “flames and flickers up in all the senses.” Blind uses a similar metaphor to express this same curiosity in Birds of Passage, her last volume of poetry. Implicitly rejecting Western exceptionalism, Blind invites her readers in one poem to honor the Egyptian god Horus:
In manifold disguises,
And under many names,
Thrice-holy son of Isis,
We worship him who rises
A child-god fledged in flames.
Understanding Blind’s cosmopolitanism requires us to abandon ideas of socialism that see it as incompatible with individualism or with the freedoms and choice that modern citizens have come to expect. Morris and other “forced or voluntary Victorian cosmopolitans” saw themselves and were seen by others as international comrades, international feminists, translators, Europeans, and even world citizens.
This might be a good place to end my brief remarks tonight, after a visual reminder that the women of Agnes Scott College are also international feminists and world citizens:
(Agnes Scott College students marching in Atlanta on 21 January 2017)