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Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials. Edited by Susan J. Wolfson. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. Pp. 633. $49.50 cloth.
Felicia Hemans has historically been ill served by her editors, beginning already in her lifetime and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Many early writers felt as Frederic Rowton did when in 1853 he called Hemans's works "a perfect embodiment of woman's soul," by which (Rowton informs his readers) he means that "the delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative." Rowton's "Mrs. Hemans" is, unfortunately, the poet whom generations of readers came to know: the sentimental celebrant of hearth, home, and nation whose poetic ethos seemed to be epitomized in "Casabianca," the famous recitation piece that has been parodied for a century and a half. Hemans has to bear some of the blame for what happened, of course, and indeed she expressed her regret, late in her brief life, at having invested so much time and effort in works that she regarded as less than what she was capable of producing but which, in purely practical terms, helped to pay the bills for her and her boys. She wrote what sold, and she was very good at doing so. But if the profit was considerable, so also was the cost.
Contemporaries and successors came during the nineteenth century to revere the domesticity they associated with much of Hemans's most popular work, work that seemed to embrace the ethic of recessive female domesticity that characterized early Victorian cultural values. In the process they conveniently ignored—or chose to forget—the Hemans who almost from the start of her poetic career asked the hard questions and who questioned alike empire and the materialist culture, the unequal and gendered nature of British society, and the resulting social and political inequities of British life. Positioned by her "critics" as a sweet songstress of domesticity, she came down to later generations in increasingly misrepresented fashion. This mattered little in the academic world (where readers of poetry have come in the last century increasingly to be cloistered), since the collapse of Romantic poetry on the literary stock market in the early twentieth century was followed by a rally that [End Page 217] lionized a small group of male poets at the expense of a very large group of prolific and influential contemporaries, many of whom were women.
The last two decades or so, however, have witnessed the recovery and systematic reassessment of the lives and works of women poets—indeed of women writers—of the Romantic period in England, together with a fresh examination of male contemporaries beyond the formerly sacred circle of six. With no poet has the impact of this activity been greater than it has with Felicia Hemans. Susan Wolfson's remarkable volume adds importantly to a number of recent projects that have at last taken Hemans seriously as a serious poet—rather than as an agreeable versifier of homey values—and the results are dramatic. In 2001 appeared the fine collection of scholarly essays on Hemans prepared under the dedicated editorship of Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk, followed by Paula Feldman's new edition of Hemans's Records of Woman and, most recently, Gary Kelly's selections from Hemans's prose and poetry.
But it is Wolfson's edition that sets the bar in a wholly new fashion, presenting a far more fully nuanced picture of its poet than is typically the case in "editions." Here we have, for instance, not only a generous selection of some of Hemans's very best poetry (nearly five hundred pages, including the excellent annotations and contextual materials), but also some fifty pages of Hemans's letters, and nearly a hundred pages of other people's words and impressions of her work, comments ranging from formal reviews in the periodical and the book press, to letters, memoirs, and reminiscences by her friends and...