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The Chaucer Scholarship of Mary Eliza Haweis (1852–1898)
Mary Flowers Braswell
The corrected proofs [of Chaucer for Children] were brought to my beloved wife on her death-bed. Knowing how near and dear this part of her life work was to her heart, I held up the proof-sheets before her, and she tried to look at them, but soon said, 'I am too ill to attend to it.'
A well-known woman writer has passed away in Mrs. Haweis.
Just who was Mary Eliza Joy Haweis? Wife of philandering preacher and music aficionado Hugh Reginald Haweis; mother of three semi-estranged children; daughter of failed artist Thomas Musgrove Joy; hostess of fancy dress balls; restorer of historic houses; member of the Suffragettes; and author of Flame of Fire, another "foolish effusion with which women writers attack the eternal marriage question."1 But Haweis was also "an enthusiastic student of Chaucer," whose works were "educationally valuable," "original in plan and conception,"2 and "mine[s] of poetic beauty and most scholarly explanation."3 She tackled bookish issues—Chaucer's final -e, his accent, and his meter—and she ferreted out academic rumors and pieced together what scholarship she could verify on the poet's life. She wrote in support of the abortive Chaucer concordance that predated John S. P. Tatlock and Arthur G. Kennedy's,4 and she corresponded with F. J. Furnivall and Sir Israel Gollancz on matters of medieval concern. She researched medieval paintings to make her own illustrations for the Canterbury Tales correct, and she identified the seal of Thomas Chaucer, reproducing it exactly from the miscellanea at the British Museum and from MS Cotton Julius C.vii. Her recorded evidence, gleaned from manuscript rolls and records, is not always chronicled elsewhere. She was the first Chaucerian/art historian to link Chaucer's poetry to existing paintings and drawings, observing that [End Page 402]
Chaucer and his contemporaries are as careful as Van Eyck in realizing an exact and brilliant picture, and in trying to put it before our eyes as definitely as they saw it themselves.5
Finally, her works echo the talk and nuance of a male-dominated Chaucer Society6 to which she clearly worked in parallel, a group who never admitted her into its ranks, but who could not entirely shut her out.
This essay is an introduction to the scholarship of Mary Eliza Haweis, who died and, for whatever reason, was quickly forgotten. It is not an attempt to describe her as a "Victorian Medievalist," although that would be possible, nor is it to evaluate her work for its "accuracy."7 It is an effort to access her own importance and uniqueness as a Chaucerian and to establish her in the male-dominated world of nineteenth-century Chaucer scholars—which is where she belongs.8
In a 2000 article entitled "Infantilizing the Father: Chaucer Translations and Moral Regulation," David Matthews discusses renditions of Chaucer's poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and devotes several pages to a rare discussion of Haweis's works for children, which he sees as "morally regulatory," "highly sanitized versions" of a "Protestant" poet caught in a corrupt Catholic world.9 Chaucer was pleasant and merry and well intentioned: a "kind of moral guide."10 Haweis was a product of her times. Still, to end precisely here with the work of Mary Eliza Haweis would be to give her short shrift and to disregard those accomplishments by which she struggled for—and ultimately failed to achieve—lasting recognition. She was a diligent researcher and a close textual reader. She comprehended and responded to the frenzied activity in Chaucer studies and wrote for as "scholarly" an audience as she was allowed;11 she pored over formidable manuscripts in the British Museum and brought her insights to bear on Chaucer...