- Uncanny Transactions and Canny Forms:Rosamund Marriott Watson's Märchen
There were jewels in the pebbly brook and jewels in the sky,
And a thousand fighting Pixies in the snow.———"The Golden Age"1
In a series of essays at the end of the twentieth century Linda K. Hughes enriched an earlier fin de siècle by restoring to visibility one of the most haunting poetic voices of the 1880s and 1890s: "Graham R. Tomson," or Rosamund Marriott Watson.2 It is sobering to think of the hundreds of innovative, finely wrought and powerful lyrics which constituted Watson's poetic oeuvre being at the mercy of the combination of modernism, masculinism, and misogyny that stilled the voices and covered the tracks of countless nineteenth-century women poets in the early twentieth century.3 Hughes's endeavors, happily, have made possible further assessments of a poet too soon, and without ceremony, consigned to oblivion.
In Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity, Ana Vadillo characterizes Watson as "one of the most radical and transgressive poets of the fin de siècle"4 by placing her in a geographical and cultural milieu that looks forward to modernism by blending geography (place/space), "fastness" (velocity, both moral and physical) and paradigm shift to engender an historically specific, urban trope signifying change, and inevitably looking to the future: fin-de-siècle London. In this construction of literary history Watson is a "passenger of modernity" and "the poetics of London" (p. 1) signify a species of mobility arising within a particular locality that can function to express a cultural attitude: "London was synonymous with modernity" (p. 3). Watson's "sensuous engagement with the modern city" (p. 117) locates her in a present constantly metamorphosing into an unpredictable and liberating future.
Vadillo thus gives Watson significance and weight by aligning her with modernity, as an example of the importance of women as "proto-modernists" (p. 2). In this essay I shall endeavor to engage with that construction, and with Hughes's critical and literary historical (re)constructions, by offering [End Page 429] what is perhaps a more Victorian, etymological, and genealogical inflection of Watson's poetics, one that addresses her transactions with the past, and the formal innovations that were the result. Charting, in the twenty-first century, ways in which poetry of the 1880s and 1890s informs the future by participating in the evolution of a concept like modernity (a procedure which includes constructions of the notion of the fin de siècle itself) seems a difficult endeavor to orientate historically within the context of constantly changing conceptualizations of what "Victorian" means. Such changes trouble the notion of the pastness of the past by making its nature dependent on present affiliations and conjecture with the result that transitional periods are particularly difficult to fix in time. Where or how one is to ground (proto)modernity conceptually and historically becomes less sure when its "other" is in flux, but Vadillo breaks new ground in using "new systems for public urban mass transport" to this end.5
While it is important to address the historical specifics of industrial technology that give the fin de siècle a peculiar ethos and poetics, a teleological paradigm (one that is in a sense future-driven) may also collude with the idea that "Victorian" was something to be outgrown and transcended, something that gains significance by being deemed anterior to modernist forms. Ironically, the modernity that poets such as Watson can be said to help construct led to a modernism defined by critical perspectives and literary-historical gestures of excision that resulted in the almost total loss of their own voices. That modernity itself remains a "problematic concept" is attested by Vadillo (p. 3), and it is perhaps most problematic when aligned with issues of gender and poetry. Modernism was certainly antithetical to Victorian attitudes of gender inclusion in terms of the publication and reception of women poets (as problematic in turn as that inclusiveness was).
Vadillo expresses her gratitude to Hughes, locating her work at the core of her own exploration of Watson's urban aestheticism (p. 119). My own understanding of Rosamund...