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Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 387-408

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Radical Myths:
Eliza Keary's Little Seal-Skin and Other Poems (1874)

Paul Ellis

ELIZA HARRIET KEARY (1827-1918) WAS A YORKSHIRE POET WHOSE MAJOR work, a remarkably varied collection of poems running to one hundred and eighty-five pages, warrants far greater critical attention than it has received. Little Seal-Skin and Other Poems (1874) appeared almost out of nowhere and thence returned. Published in London by George Bell and Sons, it was never reprinted in the nineteenth century and is today only available online, courtesy of the Indiana University Victorian Women Poets Collection, or, in book form, in very few libraries. The British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont, each hold a copy. The Athenaeum's damning remark that Eliza Keary had "no claim to be reckoned among writers of poetry," 1 as well as probably affecting sales of the collection, was perhaps more discouraging than Keary could bear. There seems to be no evidence of her having published any poetry beyond 1874, other than some verses for children. The 1881 census' listing of Eliza Keary as "lady help," an official seal of domesticity, further contributes to the image of her as a strikingly promising and important female poetic voice that was tragically muted. Keary's significance as a Victorian poet, however, is increasingly being recognized. Christopher Ricks's edition of The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987) included one of her minor poems. In 1996, Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock, reprinted six of her poems. This last selection, together with Naomi Hetherington's recent entry on Eliza Keary in volume 240 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century British Women Poets" (2001), 2 perhaps heralds a phase of modern critical interest in her work. Isobel Armstrong has already written on one of Keary's major poems, "Christine and Mary. A Correspondence," 3 but there has so far been no substantial critical evaluation of Keary's 1874 collection, Little Seal-Skin and Other Poems.

One of the chief sources for Eliza Keary's biographical details is her Memoir of Annie Keary, by Her Sister (1882), an account of the life and spiritual development of her beloved elder sister Annie, who was also a writer. Eliza Keary's Irish father, William, brought "dashing," "gay," and [End Page 387] "wild" stories of Ireland and battle to the Keary household. Before he became a Yorkshire curate he had served in the Peninsular War. He exerted, Keary's poetry suggests, a lasting influence on her fascination for the romance of Ireland and, perhaps, her approach to religion. Her mother Lucy was a Yorkshire woman of good family. The youngest of seven children, Eliza Keary spent her early years at the seaport town of Kingston-upon-Hull. There, rather like the young Brontë sisters in Haworth, 4 Eliza and Annie would create a "magic land" in order to escape from the "prison-house world" of a provincial curacy. But Eliza Keary did not spend all her life in Yorkshire; nor could her poetry be described as in any sense regional. She also lived in Clifton, Bristol, and spent much of the latter part of her life in London, as her two nephews' housekeeper. Beneath the domestic details of Eliza Keary's life, her love of mythical worlds frequently manifests itself. In the late 1850s, Annie, to whom Eliza was intellectually as well as emotionally close, traveled to Egypt and Venice. Her letters to Eliza suggest how the fantastic architectural realities of these places seemed to reflect and legitimate the two sisters' longstanding fascination with myth and "'fairy land[s].'" 5 With a Romantic respect for the imaginative capacities of the child's mind, Annie and Eliza published together three collections of mythical stories for children: The Heroes of Asgard and the Giants of Jotunheim; or, The Week and Its Story (1857); Early Egyptian History for the Young; with Descriptions...


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