Rough Crossings: The Transatlantic Fate of Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s Life of Mary Wollstonecraft

Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays
Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays

It took two years from submission to publication, but my essay on Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s biography of the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft is finally in print. It is featured in a new collection of essays on Pennell published by Edinburgh University Press titled Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Critical Essays, edited by Dave Buchanan and Kimberly Morse Jones. The volume appeared in April 2021.

As my essay argues, Pennell’s biography is actually two books. The first, published by the American firm of Roberts Brothers, appeared in 1884 under the title The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. When the English publisher W. H. Allen bought the rights to publish an edition of the biography in England the following year, editor John H. Ingram “cut it down to our limit, viz. about two thirds of original size.” He did so without consulting with Pennell about these cuts. He also changed the title (to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) so as to subsume Wollstonecraft’s name under her husband’s surname. In response, Pennell took to the social media of her time — the letters section of the Athenaeum — to excoriate Ingram and disown this bowdlerized edition. “Though my name is on the title page, the book is not mine as I wrote it, and as it appeared in the American edition.”

And thereby hangs a fascinating, complicated tale. The book in which this tale appears is now available for online ordering, but here is a summary of my focus and thesis:

My essay analyzes Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s first book — the Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. I discuss its troubled passage into print in England, its equally troubled reception history, and how these troubles illuminate two larger, interrelated cultural phenomena. The first is the rise of professional women writers in the Victorian era, and their struggles with the male-dominated publishing industry, which Pennell’s experiences, especially with C. Kegan Paul and Ingram, exemplify. A related phenomenon—which the subject of Pennell’s first book renders inextricable from the first—is the turn to the republican politics and aesthetics of Romanticism among many late-century intellectuals and artists. Mary Wollstonecraft is central to both developments. She served as an inspiration to women of various political orientations seeking to gain agency and autonomy by the pen; she also inspired those who shared her radical ideas of social change. Since Pennell did not share Wollstonecraft’s radicalism, her biography met with far more resistance than she anticipated in its journey from Boston to London. It appeared in England at a time when women were in the process of wresting the narrative of Wollstonecraft’s life and work from the firm grip of male writers and editors who sought to make Wollstonecraft safe for the patriarchy, God, and country. Three radical women in particular—Mathilde Blind, Olive Schreiner, and Millicent Fawcett—wrote counter-narratives that to varying degrees challenged the “domestication” of Wollstonecraft, as well as Pennell’s role in this process. Pennell’s biography, its reception in England, and her subsequent essays on Wollstonecraft and the Woman Question offer a remarkable window on the contentious gender politics of late-Victorian England. 

Mine is one of 12 commissioned pieces on various facets of Pennell’s writing career, including these notable essays:

  • “The Modern Woman as a ‘Scholar-Gypsy’: Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s To Gipsyland,” by Holly A. Laird
  • “The Gourmand as Essayist: Irony and Style in the Culinary Essays of Elizabeth Robins Pennell,” by Alex Wong
  • “The Curious Appetite of Elizabeth Robins Pennell,” by Alice McLean
  • “Elizabeth Robins Pennell as Early Champion of Popular Art,” by Kimberly Morse Jones
  • “At the Museum comme a l’ordinaire’: Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Exhibition Culture,” by Meaghan Clarke
  • “Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s War-time Prose: Nights and The Lovers,” by Jane S. Gabin

Update on July 9 2022: Lindsay Middleton (University of Glasgow) reviewed this volume for Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Issue 18.1 (Spring 2022)

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.

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.