Biography of Mathilde Blind Wins 2017 Book Award

The South Atlantic Modern Language Language Association has awarded James Diedrick’s biography Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters its 2017 SAMLA Studies Award for best monograph of the year.

In making the award, Adam Wood, Chair of the SAMLA Studies Book Award, had this to say about the book:

“James Diedrick in Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and The Woman of Letters provides a highly readable biography of an important but overlooked intellectual of the late-Victorian era. His thoroughly researched book illuminates  politics and history as it shows Blind’s multi-genre literary influence. This biography sheds new light on writers and a time period that we thought we knew well.”

Photos of the award presentation:

More about the SAMLA Studies award, including a list of the other monographs nominated for this year’s prize, visit the SAMLA Studies Book Award website.

Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters reviewed in VPR (Fall 2017)

Victorian Periodicals Review Volume 50, Number 3, Fall 2017


Linda Wetherall reviewed Mathilde Blind in the Fall 2017 issue of The Victorian Periodicals Review (pp. 666-69).  I am happy to see the book reviewed here, since Victorian periodicals provided both a home and proving ground to Mathilde Blind as she was establishing her reputation as a cosmopolitan woman of letters. In fact, this is something I discuss in one of my first essays on Blind, which  appeared in the VPR in 2003 (“A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the Dark Blue“).

Wetherall’s review begins with this assessment and overview:

          The biography is a pioneering work that uses periodical reviews of Mathilde Blind’s literary works, as well as letters from her circle of friends to create a highly detailed account of her life. Diedrick, who has spent nearly two decades meticulously researching Blind’s life, . . .  identified two main goals for this biography. First, he aimed to show that “Blind’s story has a historical as well as literary significance, illustrating the complex affiliations linking radical thought, revolutionary politics, and aestheticism in the mid- to late nineteenth century” (xii). Diedrick’s second goal was to demonstrate how “feminist theory and theories of cosmopolitanism” are “rooted in and linked to Victorian discourse—on aesthetics, citizenship, nationhood, imperialism, gender, and sexuality—and how Blind herself contributed to this discourse” (xii). Diedrick succeeds in accomplishing these goals through the passionate and thorough research encompassed by this 336-page biography.

She concludes her review thus:

          As Blind’s first biographer, Diedrick undoubtedly had a challenging task before him. But this book skillfully balances extensive historical research into Blind’s life and the lives of those within her social circle with thoughtful and thorough literary analysis of her writing and critical reception. Furthermore, this biography contains a wealth of information on late Victorian periodicals for scholars interested in feminism, aestheticism, and cosmopolitanism, as well as contemporary critical reactions to those ideologies and movements. Mathilde Blind is a welcome addition to the scholarship on women writers and intellectuals at the fin de siècle.

Victorian Periodicals Review is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. For access to the full review and information about the journal go to:


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.

Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian Culture and the Woman of Letters reviewed in Times Literary Supplement reviews (28 July 2017)

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

Camilla Cassidy reviewed Mathilde Blind: Late-Victorian London Culture and the Woman of Letters for the July 28 issue of the Times Literary Supplement (“School for Women,” p. 13), and the concluding words from her last paragraph concisely represent the spirit of the woman and culture I hoped to convey in the book:

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.