- Melesina Trench Tests the Moony Waters of Romantic-Era Lunar Fiction in Verse:The Moonlanders (1816)
This essay examines an intriguing poem that appeared in 1816: Laura's Dream; or, the Moonlanders by Melesina Chenevix Trench (1767–1827). The poem is a verse narrative, cast in the form of a one-sided dialogue between mother and daughter, about love and death (and birth) on the moon. But it is considerably more than that, as closer examination reveals. Laura's Dream sheds revealing light on innovations in form and content, genre and subject, that were being made by Romantic-era women writers. Trench's poem daringly stakes a claim for female participation not just in traditionally male-inflected literary forms but also in the professional fields of astronomy, science, and speculative philosophical discourse, fields of privilege and public accomplishment historically barred to women. The image of the poem's female moonlanders who sprout wings that they may take flight themselves provides a metaphor for the sort of interventionist feminist aspirations and agenda with which Trench was habitually concerned, both in her public and private writings and in her enlightened philanthropic activities.
Remembered during the nineteenth century most often for her striking beauty, the Dublin-born Melesina Trench was known among her contemporaries as a poet, travel writer, and social activist of some note, particularly among Irish circles.1 While her earlier poetry often [End Page 72] recalls the mannerism of Della-Cruscan sensibility, her work reflects the growing interest among Irish women poets in extended narrative tales that resulted in works like Anna Liddiard's The Sgalaighe; or, A Tale of Old (1811), Louisa Stuart Costello's Redwald: A Tale of Mora (1819), Vincentia Rodgers's Cluthan and Malvina: An Ancient Legend (1823) and Hannah Maria Bourke's O'Donoghue, Prince of Killarney (1830), as well as Mary Tighe's exceptionally popular Psyche (, 1811). In England the trend yielded works like Margaret Holford's Wallace; or, The Flight of Falkirk (1809) and Margaret of Anjou (1816), Caroline Bowles's Ellen Fitzarthur (1820), Letitia Elizabeth Landon's The Improvisatrice (1824), and Agnes Strickland's Worcester Field; or, the Cavalier (1826). But Trench also wrote energetically on subjects of social conscience like the slave trade and the abuse of chimney sweepers, on contemporary Irish politics, and on education, often publishing her efforts privately and distributing them to friends, acquaintances, political figures, and others. As she did with printed copies of her poems, she regularly inserted undated corrections, additions, and other comments in her own hand, a practice that challenges the scholar seeking to establish definitive texts.
Like many of her contemporaries of both sexes, Trench published her first work anonymously: the now very rare 1800 Mary Queen of Scots, an Historical Ballad: with Other Poems was published by the London publisher John Stockdale. In 1815 came the privately printed Campaspe, an Historical Tale; and Other Poems, which traces from a distinctively feminist perspective the tragic fate of the concubine of Alexander the Great, Campaspe, whose many paintings of her image by Alexander's artist friend, Apelles, had convinced the foolish king that Apelles loved her. Believing a lover's jealousy to be beneath him, Alexander renounces Campaspe, who loves him and not Apelles, and insists that she accept Apelles; betrayed and insulted, she declines and dies, her painted images surviving to remind Alexander of his folly.2 [End Page 73] The theme of the tragic and often fatal effects of jealousy reappears, transformed, in the denouement of Laura's Dream. At about the same time as Campaspe appeared also Ellen: A Ballad (1815), a hybrid collection in which the title poem is followed by a Gothic verse fantasy called "The Monk's Blessing" and a number of briefer occasional poems.3 Aubrey, a five-canto poem set in the fourteenth century, was privately printed in 1818 for distribution by Trench.
The 1816 Laura's Dream; or, the Moonlanders was published by the mainstream London publisher and bookseller John Hatchard. Now widely regarded as one of the first works of science fiction authored by a woman (and likely the first crafted in verse) and predating Mary Shelley's Frankenstein...