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Reviewed by:
  • Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England
  • Virginia H. Blain
Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England, by Cynthia Scheinberg. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, gen. ed. Gillian Beer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 275 pp. $55.00.

This is a very timely publication. There has been a huge revival of interest in Victorian women's poetry in the last ten years, and it has led to a major reconfiguration of the English poetic landscape of the nineteenth century. Many of those feminist critics engaged in the recovery work of lost female voices from this period have had agendas far removed from the religious sphere. Yet religion and religious devotion were one of the major motivations driving many women poets towards publication of their work at a time when self-display of this kind was severely frowned on for women.

Cynthia Scheinberg's excellent volume clearly demonstrates the importance of the religious element in the work of some of the most well-known of female poets, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, where these elements have not been so much overlooked by earlier critics as perhaps, too homogeneously interpreted. For the angle introduced by Scheinberg is that of Jewish identity within Christian cultural formations in the Victorian period. She has chosen two poets from the mainstream Christian [End Page 152] (Protestant) culture to compare with each other, and with two Anglo-Jewish poets, Amy Levy and Grace Aguilar. Her readings bring to light some unexpected and highly illuminating insights, and cast a different interpretation on some aspects that have previously been too quickly assimilated into a "normative" Christian reading.

Scheinberg's research has taken her beyond the more obvious figures in the new canon of women poets; her chapter on the remarkable Jewish poet Amy Levy, and one on the less well-known Grace Aguilar, show an impressive breadth of research. Her work on Aguilar is particularly valuable as she is so little known—and less understood, as an openly Jewish writer occupying space within a Christian tradition—and I found the discussion of Aguilar's poetic project judicious and illuminating, having only known her previously through her best-selling Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters (1847).

Amy Levy's remarkably fine poetry has been taken up with avidity by critics anxious both to pay tribute to its understated intelligence, depth of feeling, and musicality and to decode the evidence of same-sex desires in pre-twentieth-century verse. Scheinberg accepts this evidence, but her extensive and finely tuned readings help to inflect the poetry towards another of its deeper interests, that of Jewish identity and its meaning for a young woman with a more problematic relation to her own Jewishness than Aguilar's, a relation which has often been traced in her novels—especially the remarkable Reuben Sachs (1888)—but seldom in her poetry—until now. Both Aguilar and Levy, of course, were grappling not only with issues of Jewish identity in a Christian culture, but also with an often openly expressed and virulent antisemitism which pervaded mid-Victorian British culture. "Run to Earth" is an early Levy poem (not noted by Scheinberg) that might well repay a reading of this kind, dealing as it does with the horrific hunting down and destruction of a gypsy woman and her baby by a pack of stag-hunting aristocrats, starved for their usual prey on a day out in the forest. Of its kind, it is a chilling study of the roots of racism.

Scheinberg's tracing of the multiple explorations by non-Jewish women poets of the archetypal Jewish figure of Miriam, prophetic singer of womanhood, is especially interesting. She shows the different inflections given to this figure by the Christian poets, arguing that there was a tendency to project upon the Jewish woman an erotic and public power of performance denied to "the angel in the house." Here I wish Scheinberg had been able to include a discussion of the extraordinary Adah Isaacs Menken, Jewish convert, actress and poet, whose one volume of poems Infelicia (1867) makes some unusually powerful indictments of Christian women's culture, seen as complicit with...


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