Mathilde Blind photograph in The Women's Paper

Interview with Mathilde Blind, Women’s Penny Paper (June 1890)

Women’s Penny Paper: the Only Paper Conducted, Written, and Published by Women vol. 2. no. 86,  June 14, 1890, p. 397.

[NOTE: The Woman’s Penny Paper, which became The Woman’s Herald in 1891; in 1894 it was incorporated into The Woman’s Signal, was one of the most important feminist periodicals in fin-de-siecle Britain. Edited by “Helena B. Temple,” the pen name of Henrietta Müller, it published interviews with prominent feminists, essays and fiction by New Woman writers (Olive Schreiners’ “I Thought I Stood,” later published in the volume Dreams, appeared in the 8 December 1888 issue), and regular reports from a variety of women’s rights organisations (a month before this interview with Mathilde Blind appeared the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage ran a regular column in the paper).

Müller was the sister of Eva McLaren and a prominent feminist–a pioneer school board member, an early tax-resister (for the vote, in 1884), and later a Theosophist and associate of Annie Besant. As Beth Palmer has written (in Women’s Authorship and Editorship in Victorian Culture: Sensational Strategies, Oxford UP, 2011), the paper “assumed the working woman as its regular reader when it established a discrete feature entitled “to Women out of Work.” The statement of “Our Policy” in the first issue proclaimed that the paper opened its pages “to the working woman as freely as to the educated lady; to the conservative and the radical, to the Englishwoman and the foreigner,” claiming for women “a full share of power with all its duties, responsibilities and privileges in public and private life” (“Our Policy” 1). As Maria DiCenzo has noted (in  “Pressing the Public: Nineteenth-Century Feminist Periodicals and ‘the Press’”), Müller positioned the paper as an alternative to women’s periodicals that were “too conservative, timid and mechanical in spirit.” Another excerpt from “Our Policy” makes this clear, claiming that there has been “as yet no bold and fearless exponent of the woman’s cause in the Press who grasps her nettle and seeks only to speak without fear of consequences” (1).

The interview is unsigned, but was presumably conducted by Müller herself.]

Interview.

The interest which the translation of Marie Bashkirtseff’s Journal, with an account of her life, by Mathilde Blind has aroused, induced me to seek an interview with this lady for the readers of the Women’s Penny Paper. Far above the smoke and fog of London, nearly at the top of Primrose Hill, stands the pleasant residence of this celebrated authoress. As I entered the study it was with difficulty I realized that I was still in town. The thick, green ivy clustered round the windows, trees waved in the breeze, birds twittered and sang full of vigorous life, and all the noise and bustle of the great city seemed left far behind. It was an ideal study and at once revealed its owner’s love of the country, a love associated with all her earliest memories, and as far as possible now made part of her town home.

Miss Mathilde Blind, like most literary women, was an insatiable reader and devoured all books that came in her way, indeed she would not even be persuaded to take the necessary exercise which involved her leaving her beloved studies. From the age of 12 she began to write, and composed several tragedies with Marie Stuart, Columbus, and Robespierre, &c., as subjects.  She was an enthusiastic lover of poetry, and when she was some years older, she wrote verses covering pages and pages of MSS. with her efforts.

“I remember,” said Miss Blind, “when I was only 12 years old being immensely impressed by Seneca’s words upon Time, which he described as so far more valuable than money. ‘The man who robs you of time is far worse that the thief who takes your money, since without time nothing can be done, nor even money gained.’  His words came to me like a flash of light and from that moment I began to realise the value of time and to seek to employ it usefully.”

at the age of 18 she explored on foot and unaccompanied the Bernese Oberland.

From the age of 12 to 17 Miss Blind devoted herself to study of all kinds, and at the age of 18 she explored on foot and unaccompanied the Bernese Oberland.  She is a good walker and appreciates the delight of freedom from the usual impediment of railway travelling.  She takes her knapsack and thus wanders through the finest scenery untroubled by the worries of trains and time-tables.  She is well acquainted with England, Scotland, and Wales.  Some years ago, during a long sojourn in a farmhouse in the Isle of Skye, she became much interested in the poor Crofters and composed a stirring poem, The Heather on Fire, a tale of the Highland clearances.  It is full of sonorous beauty and pathos, the descriptions of the hamlets and the happy, contented people are very well conceived, and contrasted with the ruthless cruelties practiced at the evictions, few can read this stirring poem without being moved to deepest pity for these poor exiles as they gaze on the shore to which they shall never return.

.    .    .   .   “Crowding on the decks with hungry eyes

Straining towards the coast that flies and flies.”

The first volume of her published poems came out in 1881. The most important of these is “St. Oran,” which the Times reviewed very favourably. The narrative of St. Oran, one of the earliest founders of the Christian faith in Scotland, is interwoven with many of the beautiful Scotch legends, and the poem is rich in descriptions of sea, sky and mountain.  Indeed in all her poems Miss Blind’s love of Nature shows itself sympathetically, and only a real lover of Nature could have written such stanzas as are to be found in many of her poems, notably “The Reapers,” “The Teamster,” “The Sower,” and other out-door poems, full of exquisite imagery and thought. “The Street Children’s Dance,” which presents the spectacle of the poor little children dancing round a street organ, pleads pathetically for the toleration of street music, and is compared for tenderness and loving pity by the Daily Telegraph to Mrs. Browning’s well-known poem: The Cry of the Children.”

“Do you prefer prose or poetry?” I asked Miss Blind.

“Oh poetry, of course,” she quickly answered. “The chief work of my life up to the present time is my poem The Ascent of Man, at which I have been writing for many years and which indeed is not finished yet.  The idea possibly first took root in my mind when, as a mere girl, I used to go to Mazzini’s little rom in Brompton, and with my whole soul on tip-toe with eagerness, heard him dwell on the progressive stages of man’s development as the central fact in history. I remember his saying to me ‘Art, well and sacredly understood, is the endeavor to compel man, through feelings and enthusiasm, to pass from the cold barren sphere of pure thought to that other in which thought begets action.  Do not enervate men,’ he exclaimed, ‘men who are too enervated already, by teaching them idle contemplation, aimless and selfish sadness, vague pantheistic aspirations and mergings into the ocean or into Nature which we are to transform.’  To have known Mazzini was more than a liberal education, it was an initiation into the higher spiritual possibilities of man’s nature.  The impression which his personality and teaching made upon me has become an ineffaceable part of my inner life.  I remember how often on coming away how the common aspect of the streets and people became transfigured for me from the consciousness of so lofty a spirit dwelling amongst them.

“From Mazzini to Darwin is a far cry, but it was the road I was forced to travel by some unseen compulsion of our time. “

“From Mazzini to Darwin is a far cry, but it was the road I was forced to travel by some unseen compulsion of our time.  The Origin of Species was almost my sole companion during some summer months I spent in a cottage at Braemar [a village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, southwest of Aberdeen in the Highlands].  The idea of the struggle for existence, of the incessant preying of life upon life in the process of evolution, took such a hold upon my imagination, that the whole of Nature, the beech woods and pine forests, the birds and beasts, and insects, all wore for me an evil and sinister aspect.  They were all, down to the sweet silent plants, engines of destruction, traps of death.  It was an awful time, full of the sense of unutterable loss.  The universe seemed void, and Nature a cheat.  You will find all this expressed in ‘The Leading of Sorrow,’ ending with the lines:

            ‘Life is but a momentary blunder

                   In the cycle of the Universe.’”

With this Miss Blind handed me a copy of her volume, The Ascent of Man, a work all women and, indeed, all men should read.  Here Miss Blind treats poetically the evolution of humanity, and the gradual development of the emotions of love, pity, and justice, with other moral qualities which impart value to life.  It is a grand work.  Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Miss Blind concerning this volume: “It will compare with the glorious poetry of Tennyson’s In Memoriam.”

Miss Blind is also greatly interested in social questions, a warm advocate of Women’s Suffrage, and all that can further the fuller development of her sex.  Long before these subjects were widely discussed she felt that women should be the equals of men as regards the advantages of education and political responsibilities.  She lectured at one time, but has now entirely devoted herself to literature, and is never so happy as when she is in the heart of the country surrounded by Nature in all her exquisite changes.

“Have you written many works of fiction?” I asked

“I have written several, “she said.  “Tarantella probably had the greatest success.  It is a romantic story whose central motif is the delineation of the musician’s nature, and deals also with the strange effects produced by the bite of a tarantula spider, so firmly believed in by the Italian peasantry and exorcised by the power of music.”  I had read it, and remember vividly its strange fascination: the musician, Emanuel Sturm, supernaturally inspired, plays all night to quiet the frightened girl who has just been stung by the deadly spider.  He falls in love with one Antonella, but his love brings him as much misery as his famous music brings him triumph.  The descriptions of Italian and German life are very fine.

Miss Blind has contributed to the “Eminent Women’s Series” a capital life of George Eliot, in which she has evidently been employed on a labour of love.  She has also written the life of Madame Roland, and many consider this to be even more successful.

Miss Blind has contributed to the “Eminent Women’s Series” a capital life of George Eliot, in which she has evidently been employed on a labour of love.  She has also written the life of Madame Roland, and many consider this to be even more successful.  She has brought to the work much careful study, and the story of the French Revolution is imbued, if possible, with yet greater interest.  Daudet, in L’Immortel, remarks that most poets begin their literary career nowadays by writing an essay on Shelley.  Miss Blind unwittingly bears out this remark, for her first effort was a very able article on Shelley in the Westminster Review, and a selection from his works for the “Tauchnitz Series,” prefacing the volume with his memoir and a notice.  She also published an edition of the letters and journal of Byron, with a short biographical notice.

Her latest work, the translation of Marie Bashkirtseff’s Journal, the young Russian artist who dies in the flower of her youth, has just been published by Messrs. Cassell and Co., and has created a widespread interest.  Mr. Gladstone, who himself wrote an article in the Nineteenth Century upon Marie Bashkirtseff, wrote to Miss Blind to express his gratification at the proposed translation.

“I am very glad,” said the Grand Old Man, “to know that you have the journal in hand.  It well deserves to be widely known.  And,” he continued, “I am reading your Madame Roland with deep interest.”

Miss Blind was the first person to draw public attention to this wonderful girl [Marie Bashkirtseff] in England, by the articles which she wrote in The Woman’s World, in 1888.  She had had a copy of the journal given to her by Marie Bashkirtseff’s mother on whom she called at Nice, and on reading the book, of which she had never heard before, was strangely moved and fascinated by it.  Here was indeed a new page in the history of woman, and one well worth the study.  She has now furnished the English edition with an introduction, in which the main features of Marie Bashkirtseff are touched upon.  The journal is left to tell its own tale in its own passionate language.  The translator has, by her excellent work, enabled us all to read the story of this young artist. The work will add to the already wide fame of Miss Blind as an authoress.

It is easy to see, when with Miss Blind, the passionate enthusiasm she has for her work.  She is overwhelmed with letters and correspondence of all kinds, and is never idle, save when she finds herself, perhaps, in the midst of beautiful scenery, where she is content to rest tranquilly, admiring, and noting and gathering fresh inspirations for future poems.

“Are you fond of poetry?” she asked, and upon my answer she added, “then will you accept a copy of my works?” and with ready courtesy acceded to my request for her autograph by writing my name in her grand works, The Ascent of Man, and The Heather on Fire.  They will be valued souvenirs in my bookshelf of a very pleasant interview.  I cordially hope all who are interested in women’s work will read both these volumes.

Miss Blind’s sonnet, “The Dead,” which has already appeared in many selections of poetry, was reprinted and sent in the name of 1,000 operatives to Mrs. Fraser on the death of her husband, the late Bishop of Manchester.