“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. 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.

Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters reviewed in The Review of English Studies (10 August 2017)

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.”

The use of the adjective “cosmopolitan” by right-wing polemicists has a long history, and this is why English writer Mathilde Blind’s life and career continues to speak to contemporary political realities. Gregory Tate emphasizes this in his 10 August 2017 review of Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters for The Review of English Studies:

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.

Tate continues:

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.

I appreciate the careful and thorough reading Gregory Tate gave to Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters.