The Italy of Human Beings

Frances Wilson

  • Felicia Hemans: ‘Records of Woman’ with Other Poems edited by Paula Feldman
    Kentucky, 248 pp, £15.50, September 1999, ISBN 0 8131 0964 7

Mrs Hemans – or Hewomans, as Byron called her, for no one was less of a he-man than Felicia – was lavishly praised in her lifetime, and second only to Byron in popularity and sales. But while Byron was disowned by the Victorians, embarrassed that this ‘huge sulky dandy’, as Thomas Carlyle called him, should have received so much adoration and respect, Felicia Hemans’s reputation grew, and her work went out of print only after the First World War. Her importance in dictating the taste for patriotism, obedience and sacrifice in generations of readers cannot be underestimated. She was, after all, the author of the heroic tale of filial duty, ‘Casabianca’ (‘The boy stood on the burning deck’).

Byron may have been the wrong type of man to find favour among the critics of the 19th century, but Hemans – with what Byron described as her ‘false stilted trashy style which is a mixture of all the styles of the day’ – was the right type of woman. She was admired not so much for being a good poet as for being a good female poet, or rather a good feminine poet, modest enough to know her own limits and reassuringly not good enough to threaten the grandees. ‘It is a great thing to have said of her that she has given so much innocent pleasure,’ Wordsworth said of her behind her back, ‘and that her verses may be more useful to the Americans – with whom she is a favourite – in their present state of intellectual culture, than more powerful productions.’

Felicia Hemans was huge in America, where Andrews Norton (Charles Eliot Norton’s father) offered her a prestigious job editing a literary periodical in Boston, which she turned down. Despite speaking five languages she never left the British Isles. Nor did she ever stop writing: between 1808, when her first book appeared, and her death in 1835, she published 19 volumes of poems and two dramas. Had she written less (not necessarily better) poetry, and had she written less easily, her reputation might have been different. No one thinks worse of men who write voraciously and apparently without effort – Byron, for example, who would have it believed that he tossed off poems while dressing for dinner – but women who write too much have never been entirely trusted. Hence critics’ interest in relating Hemans’s abundant poetry to her femaleness.

Wordsworth was appalled to discover that Mrs Hemans was ‘totally ignorant of housewifery’ – more able to ‘manage the spear of Minerva as her needle’. How could this be? She was the representative of female virtue and conservative values, the poet of the ideal home. Had she not celebrated the domestic harmony of his own home at Rydal Mount, in ‘To Wordsworth’?

Or by some hearth where happy faces meet,
When night hath hush’d the woods, with all their birds,
There, from some gentle voice, that lay were sweet
As antique music, link’d with household words.
While, in pleased murmurs, woman’s lip might move,
And the rais’d eye of childhood shine in love.

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