The Limits of Liberty: Gender, Power, and Freedom in Augusta Webster's In a Day
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The Limits of Liberty:
Gender, Power, and Freedom in Augusta Webster's In a Day

In Horace's Epistles, the ancient Roman poet makes the wry observation that after Rome conquered Greece, Greece had its revenge by culturally captivating its uncivilized conqueror (2.1.156).1 Demonstrating a remarkable durability and adaptability, the "civilizing" arts of the ancient Greeks continued to exert their considerable influence over Victoria's vast empire in the nineteenth century, inspiring writers, educators, architects, artists, and politicians in a myriad of ways.2 One such writer who responded to the rich literature and history of the ancient world was the extraordinarily talented autodidact Augusta Webster. Locating her verse drama In a Day (1882) in ancient Greece under Roman occupation, Webster employs the historical clash of Roman and Greek cultures as a framework for her analysis of asymmetrical power relations, particularly with regard to gender and social status.3 In In a Day, Webster is specifically interested in those who may be described as dependent and/or subjugated and their inability to reach beyond the personal to condemn the structural and systematic inequalities that blight their lives. The key themes of In a Day are consequently those of freedom and oppression, which operate on intellectual, physical, legal, political, and emotional levels. Crucially, in terms of Webster's feminist politics, she is concerned with the practical and political effects of willful ignorance, considered indifference, and inaction against oppression and with the way those in power can exploit such passivity. Informed by both classical authors such as Livy and contemporary philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, Webster uses the subjugation of Greece by Rome as the historical context for her representation of how powerful paternalistic actors can undermine liberty and justice, as a result of individual ignorance and collective complacency. In a Day should therefore be read as a powerful statement revealing Webster's frustration with the stalling campaign for women's social and political freedoms and as a sophisticated critique of political oppression and paternalism.4

As an active campaigner for women's social and political rights and [End Page 19] agency, Webster repeatedly returned to the issue of suffrage and autonomy for women in her critical essays, dramas, and poetry. Now known more for her poetic outputs, such as Portraits (1870), Augusta Webster was a technically versatile writer who produced two fascinating historical dramas, In a Day and The Sentence (1887).5 Whereas The Sentence focuses on the dangerously sycophantic court of the despotic emperor Caligula, In a Day represents the struggle for freedom of a young slave girl and that of the subjugated community in which she lives. The two dramas therefore look at the issues of constrained liberty and ruling power, and the ruthless prosecution of such power, from two complementary yet alternative perspectives. In Webster's examination of the gendered underpinnings of domestic relations and imperial power, her dramas expose the fiction of benevolent paternalism and emphasize the risks of political inaction. Consequently, it can be seen that Webster's tragedies actually promote a political philosophy of liberty, civic responsibility, and self-determination, as the best hope of all individuals and nation-states.

In In a Day, however, the blunt force of Rome with its political pragmatism, wealth, and military might overcomes the ideologically fractured Greek community, leading to the death of Webster's enslaved heroine. While the tragic outcome of In a Day may be seen as a representation of Webster's pessimism concerning the lack of progress on women's rights, on a more constructive level, Webster's cautionary tale can also be seen as a call for collective political action. In order to avoid individual suffering and political despotism, Webster suggests that everyone, including the disenfranchised, must take interest in, and responsibility for, liberty and justice. In other words, in In a Day, Webster forcefully restates the intellectual, ethical, and social case for women's political and legal equality, political participation, and solidarity.

Advised for health reasons to holiday in the warmer climes of the southern Mediterranean, Augusta Webster traveled to Italy in September 1881, aged forty-four. It was in the "Eternal City" of Rome, recently...