Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence
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Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence

In many respects, the recovery of Augusta Webster may be read as a feminist success story with a now familiar plot. Literary scholars of the early- to mid-nineties seized on Webster’s powerful dramatic monologues for their cultural and social significance, focusing particularly on her ideological engagement with urgent mid- to late-Victorian social questions related to female sexuality. More recent work has explored her closet dramas, literary reviews, publishing history, and biography. Safely enshrined in anthologies for the past decade, Webster’s frequent appearances in dissertations, journal articles, and books not only reveals the impact of Victorian women’s poetry on canon formation, but also the ongoing relevance of central feminist questions about literary authority and women’s writing. The critical awareness of and interest in Webster’s writing might be read as evidence that recovery has done its work, and, as Margaret Russett observes, that “nineteenth-century gender studies have long since moved beyond the reclamation phase.”1 Yet scholarship on Webster’s poetry also reveals the ways in which literary scholars still struggle with some of the same questions that faced feminist scholars thirty years ago. Although we have moved past basic debates over whether or not women authors should be studied at all, the study of nineteenth-century women’s poetry is still in a powerful transitional phase. As Alison Chapman remarks, “the critical effects of the recovery of forgotten voices are still making their mark and the work of uncovering women’s poetry is by no means completed.”2 In what follows, I will suggest a reading of Webster that I hope reveals not only how her work enriches our understanding of nineteenth-century poetry, but also illuminates some of the challenges scholars continue to grapple with as they recover lost writers.

I will focus on Webster’s representation of motherhood. While her [End Page 27] entire canon lies outside my scope here, I have chosen to concentrate on two works that I believe serve as touchstone pieces for Webster’s interest in the relation between maternity and literary creativity: “Medea in Athens,” a dramatic monologue from her most famous collection of monologues, Portraits (1870), and Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence (1895), a collection of posthumously published sonnets. Both works offer a complex and equivocal answer to the question of whether or not motherhood enhances or undermines a woman writer’s poetic authority. I argue that these texts attempt to demonstrate that motherhood can be an important source of creative inspiration for women, but the literary forms in which Webster chooses to work—monologue and the sonnet—also voice ambivalence about this idea. In Portraits, the dramatic monologue performs maternal creativity only by showing the impact of its loss, while Mother and Daughter questions the sonnet’s efficacy to represent the mother-daughter bond even as it engages the form. Indeed, Webster’s sonnet sequence in particular, with its provocative portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and a mysterious publishing history which suggests that Webster’s male editors may have been responsible for its final form, might be seen as haunted by a ghostly matriarchal line that comes to fruition only through the disavowal of poetic language and a (possible) abandonment of the very tradition it attempts. My argument obviously owes much to the legacy of second-wave feminism and the critical engagement with motherhood and women’s writing inspired decades ago by Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born or French feminism as represented by Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and particularly Julia Kristeva. But by taking a close look at both “Medea in Athens” and Mother and Daughter, I hope my investigation occasions close readings that bring recovery work into a larger conversation with the rejuvenation of formalism. The initial recovery work of women poets tended to focus on social context and cultural representations of identity, particularly the ways in which these writers engaged progressively with important political and social questions. Genre has come to the table more recently, and I would argue that the question of gender and genre—or, to borrow Marion...


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