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Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama Patricia Rigg By the 1870s, when Augusta Webster had published two volumes ofdramatic poetry, Robert Browning had developed the dramatic monologue to a standard against which dramatic poetry was measured . Recent scholars ofthe dramatic monologue have continued the tradition ofdefining the genre exclusively through reference to male poets, primarily Browning.1 However, I think that we need to reconsider this association of the objective "mask" ofdramatic poetry with the masculine, for the fact is that Victorian women wrote a great deal ofdramatic poetry. Herein lies a dilemma: the dramatic monologue has consistently been associated with masculine reticence, particularly with an anti-Romantic, reactionary reticence on the part ofVictorian male poets to express the inner selfand project outward those passions that define the poetic self. Browning's public withdrawal ofhis private poetic voice and his decision to distance himself emotionally from his subject are well known. The general contrast to dramatic poetry is emotive, expressive, and subjective lyric poetry, a poetic genre which implies a close relationship between speaker and poet. The problem we face now is that, although it cannot be called "lyric," dramatic poetry by women tends to be less specific in defining the speaker, thereby retaining an important attribute of lyric poetry and delineating a rather transparent dramatic "mask." Dora Greenwell's "Christina," Amy Levy's "Magdalen," and most of Webster's Portraits and Dramatic Studies, for example, are all works that have been labelled dramatic monologues; however, in each ofthese works the speaker is vaguely, at times, abstractly, drawn. These speakers are all far more broadly representative types than are Victorian Review (200 1 ) 75 P Rigg Browning's Duke of Ferrara and Tennyson's Ullyses, for instance. We need to find some way to describe dramatic poetry written by women that is more flexible and less absolute than the polarized subjectivity ofthe lyric or objectivity of the dramatic monologue. The delineation ofthe speaker is only one reason that dramatic poems by a number ofnineteenth-century women are not easily classified as dramatic monologues. To demonstrate the differences among dramatic forms and to explore the ways in which dramatic poetry by women might be a genre separate from the dramatic monologue, I will consider here two ofAugusta Webster's dramatic poems that seem at first to be dramatic monologues, "The Happiest Girl in the World" and "A Castaway." Comparisons with Browning, I suggest, only contribute to a self-perpetuating critical myth with respect to much ofWebster's work. Both of these poems were published in Portraits (1870), a collection ofsingle-speaker poems that depict the speaker's response to his or her social context. Although the dramatic conventions ofparadox and irony that Browning integrates with poetic form and structure are elements of most ofthe poems in Portraits, rarely are they the ordering principles of the poem, even ofthose poems that we have been calling dramatic monologues.2 In fact, when irony is an integral feature of dramatic poems by Webster and by many other nineteenth-century women, it tends to point to the need for social change rather than to emphasize individual character. Furthermore, irony in nineteenth-century women's poetry can be complex, for it is often associated with the tension produced by antithetical desires: on the one hand, there is an implicit sentimental attachment to a domestic sphere increasingly eroded by the women's movement; on the other, this attachment is countered by resentment at the constraints ofa Victorian patriarchal society that limits women to this sphere. Webster tends to undermine the former and emphasize the latter, but her ambivalence about the possibility of re-defining the social politics of the "sphere philosophy" is evident in the two poems to be discussed here. Certainly, the tension in her poetry is not the tension produced by the lack ofself-knowledge typical of the speaker in a dramatic monologue. 76volume 26 number 2 Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama Webster's poetic tendencies are consistent with her life interests: she was actively involved in the women's suffrage movement of the early70's and served as a member of the London School Board in the late 70's and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 75-107
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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