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Reviews77 Angela Leighton. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. New York, London, etc.: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992. xiii + 321. £12.95 (paper). It is refreshing to read sophisticated analysis of literature and its contexts where theoretical concepts are dissolved in or subordinate to unremitting critical practice. It is also useful to be given significant biographical information about the chosen authors (many of whom are little known), though it is always seen in "a suggestively interacting tension" (5) with their poetry — a tension that is also said to obtain more generally, and especially in feminist criticism, between the politicalhistorical world and the "free play of signifiers" (6). Poems by men and novels by women in the nineteenth century have hardly been neglected. In this- book Angela Leighton successfully revives the work of nine women poets and with great originality teases out their interrelationships. She does not confine herself to the Victorian age, though the tradition was perhaps at its most self-conscious when Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Parkes began the Portfolio Club in the middle of the century, where women could meet to show and discuss their art, both verbal and visual. Poets like Jean Ingelow, Adelaide Procter and Christina Rossetti belonged to this group, thereby promoting "an electively separate female tradition" (123) more distinctive than anything shared by women novelists. Often, however, this tradition is best revealed by subtle explications of poems — one of Leighton's strengths — and by progressive elaboration of the thesis contained in her subtitle. A great deal is new. A short review must be selective. There is so much else that requires time for further thought and assimilation. Early in the century Leighton finds "a highly moralized celebration of women's sensibility" (3). The technical proficiency of Felicia Hemans and her disingenuous pose as a sweet woman poet ensured her popularity. Nevertheless, she not only admired but also resisted with deliberate literalism in her poems of exile and emigration the male, "questing, self-tormented voice of high Romanticism" (25). To her poetic descendants, too, she transmitted the values of de Staël' s Corinne: or Italy, whatever matronly morals she felt impelled to tack on. Hemen's poem 'Corinne at the Capitol', about an incident reworked by George Eliot, Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, displays an "écriture féminine, which flows, unimpeded by thought or reflection, from her convulsed, highly visible body . . ." (34). In poems written on Hemens's death in 1835 by Letitia Landon and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, L.E.L. described a pure and sweet life, a kind of "vapid saintliness," whilst Browning asked, angularly and 78Victorian Review oddly, "Would she have lost the poet's fire for anguish of the burning?" (43). This is in effect a denial of the complaints Hemens used to make about the effect of fame upon her emotional and domestic life. But Leighton does not fail to note the historical context: Hemens, Landon, Mitford and other women had to write saleable verse for the annuals in order to support fathers, sons, husbands and brothers, even if genius should, in Thackeray's careless eyes, serve "higher duties" (49). L.E.L., she believes, eventually managed to repudiate "the high style of exotic melancholia which was the key to her easy, short-lived success" (57), achieving a more sinewy verse style along with a tougher sense of vocation. It marks the appearance of a new kind of scepticism, "precisely about feeling" (68), in women poets of the century. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, about whom Angela Leighton has already written a book in the Key Women Writers series, inherited the sensibility expected of a woman poet. Far more significantly, she saw morality realized in human history, as in her powerful slavery poems, and developed a vivid awareness of what she termed " 'the system' of man" towards woman (102). Her late, deceptive poem, ? Musical Instrument', inspires Leighton to give a fascinating account of the way in which she transformed the inherited figure of a dreamy, sensual Pan, spirit of nature. She demonstrates in detail how in this poem Browning made poetic creativity a difficult combination of "the heartless and the heartfelt" (114), and offered a "double vision" that is both "false...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 77-80
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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