"We Should Be That Iago": Counterfactual Sympathy and the Lyric "We" in Augusta Webster's Portraits and A Housewife's Opinions
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"We Should Be That Iago":
Counterfactual Sympathy and the Lyric "We" in Augusta Webster's Portraits and A Housewife's Opinions

Augusta Webster called her 1870 collection of dramatic poems Portraits, but according to a review in the Nonconformist, the title is misleading. The poems, the reviewer explains, "are not portraits, but dramatic sketches," since Webster's "faculty of sympathy" prevents her from achieving the exacting objectivity required by "true portraiture."1 Specifically, the reviewer claims that Webster's "dramatic imagination" overwhelms her "critical faculty" in the poem "A Castaway." The poem, a first-person account of the life of Eulalie, a contemporary high-class courtesan, is plausible as "the kind of pleading a pure sister might offer on behalf of a fallen sister" but implausible as a monologue spoken by an actual prostitute. Referring to Eulalie's introspective account of her past, including a failed attempt to start a new life at a Magdalene refuge for fallen women, the reviewer reasons that "[t]he woman who had resolution enough to subject herself to so keen a torture as all this remembrance and self-judgment involve, would have been able to break away from her entanglements, and could have borne the discipline of 'the Refuge' " (p. 417).

In speculating about what the Castaway would have been able to do if she had possessed a particlar moral quality, the reviewer invokes contemporary Victorian debates about fallen women, moral responsibility, and social reform. More specifically, in phrasing that speculation as a counterfactual statement—if a fallen woman had the resolution to produce such a self-searching text, she would have been able to bear the Refuge—the reviewer makes use of a set of values that Webster's poem actively works to question, criticize, and re-form.2 While critics have usefully pointed out the ways in which "A Castaway" addresses contemporary Victorian debates about prostitution, women's work and [End Page 63] education, and the Woman Question in general, I argue that Webster engages with these discourses not only thematically but on the level of the sentence.3 Examining Webster's own use of the counterfactual statement in Portraits and in the essays that she collected in 1879 under the title A Housewife's Opinions gives us access to a developing line of Webster's poetics and social thought. In these texts, Webster mounts a critique of the counterfactual thinking that so often shaped the Victorian novel and Victorian literature of social reform, in which narratives feature contingencies leading to individual moral failure or redemption. As an alternative, Webster proposes a specifically poetic version of counterfactual thinking, a mode I refer to as "counterfactual sympathy." In this mode, readers' identification with and radical sympathy for a poetic speaker produce expanded imaginative communities that can enact real social change: the individual "I" is replaced by a collective "we" through the reading of poetry. This essay traces the development of Webster's poetics of the "lyric we"—from Portraits, in which Webster experimented with the use of "we" as an alternative to the "I" most often associated with both lyric and dramatic poetry, through A Housewife's Opinions, in which she codified these ideas into an extensive social and poetic theory—in order to demonstrate that Webster's goals as a political activist and her techniques as a poet are intimately linked.

I begin by considering the counterfactual statements in "A Castaway" and in an essay from A Housewife's Opinions, "Poets and Personal Pronouns," to show how Webster's dramatic poems served as a testing ground for the theories of reform and social thought that she went on to develop in her essays. Eulalie in "A Castaway," attempting to imagine an alternative reality in which she might not have "fallen" or been "cast away," tests multiple solutions to the problem of prostitution by incorporating them into a series of counterfactual statements and questions. Ultimately she rejects counterfactual thinking as unproductive, as do the speakers in many of the other poems in Portraits. Webster presents a more optimistic version of the counterfactual, however, in "Poets and Personal Pronouns," using the "if . . . then" structure of the counterfactual statement to describe the...