- The Political Poetess: Victorian Femininity, Race, and the Legacy of Separate Spheres by Tricia Lootens
In this intellectually vibrant, important book, Tricia Lootens studies patriotic performances in nineteenth-century women’s poems, reception, and criticism. Her analysis tracks an “ongoing dream poetics of ‘separate’ spheres” that enable fantasies of private innocence (p. 2). By “Poetess,” Lootens refers to a generic figure or performed identity shown by many scholars of nineteenth-century British and American women’s poetry to be wholly identified with the private sphere. Precisely because the Poetess invokes the private heart and apolitical home, Lootens finds Poetess performance and reception to be useful “access points” for representing [End Page 486] and analyzing separate spheres as a structure (p. 12). She argues that the Poetess tradition is not only gendered but also persistently racialized, haunted by the traumas of transatlantic slavery. Because Lootens’s category of “Political Poetess” resists privatizing the Poetess, the category keeps in focus the figure’s ties to Victorian and post-Victorian feelings about nation, empire, slavery, and race. Lootens demonstrates this focus with the book’s refrain: “Who made the Poetess white? No one; not ever” (p. 7). With this refrain, Lootens stresses that from the late eighteenth century to the present, there have been black Poetesses as well as Poetess performances with public, political aims. She also challenges longstanding tendencies of trying to write the Poetess as white.
Learned and wide-ranging, The Political Poetess: Victorian Femininity, Race, and the Legacy of Separate Spheres addresses a broader audience than its title suggests. Lootens, a Victorianist, does some of her finest thinking in readings of poems by Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dinah Mulock Craik, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but she addresses not only fellow scholars of historical poetics but also undergraduates and interdisciplinary scholars in feminist theory and critical race studies. To compose such a project requires carefully managed shifts in scope and scale. Thus, Lootens structures her book in three “tightly framed” sections (p. 20): “Racializing the Poetess: Haunting ‘Separate Spheres’” establishes how both the Victorians and early second-wave feminist critics created racially haunted notions of Victorian femininity; “Suspending Spheres: The Violent Structures of Patriotic Pacifism” next proposes a spatial model of separate spheres and explores how this model illuminates sentimental patriotic poetics; finally, “Transatlantic Occasions: Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Poetics at the Limits” considers two Victorian poets confronting the political potential and limits of Poetess performance. These sections keep the overall argument visible, which is helpful since Lootens herself describes her project as an “unpredictably historicized” series of “polemical speculations” relying on a method of “leaping and lingering”—leaping from the nineteenth to twentieth century and back again while also lingering over how ideas unfold and how stock phrases function within texts (pp. 2, 19). The risk of this method, as Lootens is aware, is that there will not be time to establish consistently nuanced connections between individual readings and the strong arguments they support. The book’s readings and political payoffs are so compelling, however, that Lootens’s method is well worth the risk.
The “precise spatial model” of separate spheres—what Lootens terms “suspending spheres”—forms the book’s core (p. 83). Section one establishes the need for such a model through two histories: first, the Victorians’ attempts to distance themselves from the unfulfilled hopes of antislavery poetry by turning “freedom” and “slavery” into abstractions haunted [End Page 487] by corporeal histories (p. 21); second, the history of how second-wave feminist criticism’s claim that the personal is political led to a de-emphasis on more clearly political or public poetry, especially African American women’s poetry. Having demonstrated this persistently racialized structure of separate spheres, Lootens proposes we address “the imaginary forms of those spheres themselves” (p. 13). This proposal involves thinking of the spheres as suspended rather than separate (see Lootens’s diagrams, p. 86). Lootens develops this model through Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, showing how the state relies on the fantasy of an...