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.