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  • Politicizing Dance in Late-Victorian Women's Poetry
  • Cheryl Wilson (bio)

As she sought to differentiate herself from her traditionally "Victorian" counterparts, the New Woman interrogated and challenged her role within established social institutions. Calling for the reform of ideas about education, property ownership, and dress—to name just a few—the late-Victorian feminist defined herself as she redefined the culture. Writers who embraced such ideas used novels, essays, and poetry to advance the political agenda of the New Woman, question the institution of marriage, and promote transgressive sexualities. Recent recovery efforts have brought a body of work by writers such as Ella Hepworth Dixon, Mona Caird, George Paston, and Sarah Grand, among many others, back into circulation, providing scholars and students a new point of entry into the literature and culture of the finde siècle. While the novels and essays of the New Woman are often recognizable for their heightened social consciousness and clear political stance, her poetry is more difficult to identify. Indeed, characterizing New Woman poets or New Woman poetry is a vexed undertaking, complicated by the nature of the genre and the influence of aestheticism, as Linda K. Hughes explains in her Introduction to New Woman Poets: An Anthology: "While aestheticism and New Woman writing were not mutually exclusive, the latter was often an intermittent stance within the encompassing category of writing by female aesthetes" whose work "has not hitherto been memorable chiefly for its feminist activism."1 The influence of the New Woman phenomenon, Hughes notes, may appear in individual poems rather than characterize an entire volume or body of work. This complex relationship between the New Woman and aestheticism has been articulated by Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades in their Introduction to Women and British Aestheticism, in which they discuss how critical attention to the New Woman has not necessarily accommodated the work of female aesthetes, focusing instead on those writers "with strong feminist or political credentials."2 In characterizing the aesthetic movement Schaffer and Psomiades cite the interest in "fields traditionally assigned to the women's sphere—including fashion, interior design, and decorative art" (p. 1). To this list, I would add dance as both a feminine accomplishment and theatrical performance that attracted male and female aesthetic poets. Yet, for women poets in particular, writing about dance allowed them to engage [End Page 191] with aesthetic ideals while using their poetry to promote the political ideals associated with the New Woman.

Despite changing conceptions of gender roles and sexuality at the fin-de-siècle, in certain arenas, pushing women onto the path from virginal courtship, to heterosexual marriage, to domestic bliss remained the status quo. The ballroom of the 1880s and 1890s was one such arena; here, couplings and courtships prevailed. For example, in her manual The Perfect Art of Modern Dancing (1894), Edna Witherspoon provides an illustration of "polite" behavior that shows how women were denied agency in the ballroom: "Gentlemen are expected to ask for introductions if they are not acquainted with ladies who are without partners for dances, and at a private ball a lady is not justified in refusing to dance with any gentleman who is introduced for this purpose, unless she has most justifiable grounds for so doing."3 Women are, essentially, at the mercy of any potential suitor, and they are continually thrust into a series of partnerships—the body is forced to act, despite the wishes of the mind and heart. Predictably, when the ballroom appears in poetry and prose by women writers, its strict rules of etiquette and gender politics are often criticized and questioned; nonetheless, these writers remain aware of the liberatory powers of the act of dancing itself. An examination of the function of dance in poems by Amy Levy, Katharine Tynan, and A. Mary F. Robinson reveals the strategies through which late-Victorian woman writers revised women's experience of dancing while challenging the established practices of the Victorian ballroom. Moreover, such an approach locates these texts firmly within the "broader ensemble of aesthetic principles, styles of versification, representational strategies, and cultural rhythms" that Joseph Bristow has recently posited as essential contexts for the fin-de-siècle...


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pp. 191-205
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