Had I been born a hero

Helen Deutsch

  • Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre by Paula Backscheider
    Johns Hopkins, 514 pp, £43.50, January 2006, ISBN 0 8018 8169 2

What would the 18th-century poetic canon look like if women were included? Imagine women poets being venerated alongside Alexander Pope, who held that ‘Most Women have no Characters at all,’ or Jonathan Swift, who, at the conclusion of that catalogue of excremental horrors ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, has his speaker remark: ‘Should I the Queen of Love refuse,/Because she rose from stinking Ooze?’ Or even Samuel Johnson. If women’s writing were taken into account, would it change the way we read and judge the poetry of an era long assumed to be magisterially Augustan and masculine? In her passionate and wide-ranging study of 18th-century women’s poetry, Paula Backscheider quotes Isobel Armstrong’s framing of such questions in a suggestively entitled essay, ‘The Gush of the Feminine’ (1995):

We have had two hundred years to discover a discourse of and strategies for reading male poets. They belong to a debate, a dialectic; we know how to think about politics, epistemology, power and language, in productive ways that … make these poets mean for us. A hermeneutics has evolved. Not so with the female poets. We are discovering who they are, but there are few ways of talking about them.

Armstrong was writing about the Romantic period, and the professional women writers of the time have now largely been restored to their original prominence. But we know substantially less about the 18th-century women poets on whom they relied: much of their work is still unpublished; some is excerpted and redacted. Tucked into topical corners of the Norton Anthology, they have views on marriage and argue with Pope and Swift, or hobnob in a separate section with writers with whom they have little in common except for their sex. In A Room of One’s Own, a meditation on ‘women and fiction’ to which Backscheider’s study might be read as a prequel, Virginia Woolf acknowledges a crucial debt – the birth of the possibility of £500 a year and the freedom to write for oneself – to Aphra Behn, the first professional female writer, on whose tomb ‘all women together ought to let flowers fall.’ ‘The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later 18th century among women – the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics – was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing,’ Woolf goes on. ‘Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.’ Yet for the most part she leaves earlier generations nameless, pausing only for ‘the crazy Duchess’ Margaret Cavendish, whose ‘wits were turned with solitude and freedom’, the obscure and melancholy Anne Finch, Elizabeth Carter, ‘the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek’, and of course her own creation, the mute inglorious poet buried opposite the Elephant and Castle, Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, whom she implores her young audience of Newnham and Girton students to allow to ‘put on the body which she has so often laid down’.

The novel, Woolf believes, is the form that suits women best: less burdened by male tradition, easier to write while distracted (remember Jane Austen, composing in the sitting-room, hiding her manuscript behind a sheet of blotting-paper when friends came to call), more congenial to the social observation that comes of having been confined indoors for centuries. Yet before the great flowering of the 19th-century novel, Woolf notes, ‘the original impulse was to poetry. The “supreme head of song” was a poetess.’ Looking to the future, she imagines the female writer finding ‘some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. For it is the poetry that is still denied outlet.’ Backscheider reminds us that the 18th century showed a ‘remarkably consistent, hospitable atmosphere for women poets’, from the leisurely ladies with access to libraries of the century’s first two decades to the working-class poets who in the second half of the century ‘joined an increasingly disparate group of women who published, and perhaps more notably, could earn at least some part of their sustenance’ by writing verse. Woolf would have had no access to this work; she is likely, for example, to have read only Wordsworth’s version of Finch’s ‘Nocturnal Reverie’. Why have these women poets been denied the opportunity not to gush but to speak?

I was trained in the old-fashioned canon, and if someone had suggested in the early 1980s that I turn my attention to women writers, I would have felt much like Woolf (whom I read passionately and privately at the formerly all-male college I attended) when the beadle shouted at her to get off the lawns of Oxbridge, which were reserved for (male) fellows and scholars. The image that gave shape to my guilty thoughts about the relationship of women – as both critics and poets – to the masculine canon was a drawing, a doodle really, by Dorothy, Lady Burlington, the wife of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, a great patron of art and architecture to whom Pope dedicated the last of his Moral Essays. Lady Burlington sketched Pope at a game of cards – perhaps ombre (aptly enough, an Englishing of the Spanish for ‘man’), the game at which Belinda triumphs in The Rape of the Lock. Pope’s curved spine is fully visible (this was never the case in authorised portraits), and a doodle resembling a pinwheel branches out of his head. He is too intent on the game to notice the woman appraising his figure with accuracy and amusement, perhaps even vengefulness. Glimpsed briefly and privately (the image was not made public or identified as a portrait of Pope until 1945), at play in the trivial world of women in which his mock-epic takes place, Pope only appears to hold all the cards.

Woolf, back from Oxbridge and researching the history of writing about women, also makes a sketch as she sits in the British Museum. Frustrated by the impossibility of distilling any truth about women from ‘the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings’ in her notebook, she finds instead that

I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a picture where I should, like my neighbour, have been writing a conclusion … It was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. He was not in my picture a man attractive to women.

The red-faced, jowly, small-eyed Professor von X is angry: he feels threatened in postwar, post-female-suffrage Britain by the loss of a feminine mirror in which to glimpse his own superiority. Woolf is angry too and her anger is similar to the anger that radiates from the work of such writers as Anne Finch and Charlotte Brontë, who write ‘in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth’.

Here is Finch, slighted by Pope’s depiction of melancholy poetesses in The Rape of the Lock:

Disarm’d with so genteel an air,
The contest I give o’er,
Yet Alexander have a care
And shock the sex no more.

We rule the World, our Lives whole race,
Men but assume that right,
First slaves to every tempting Face,
Then Martyrs to our spight.

You of one Orpheus, sure have read,
Who would like you have writ,
Had he in London town been bred,
And Polish’d to his wit.

But he (poor soul) thought all was well,
And great shou’d be his Fame,
When he had left his Wife in Hell,
And Birds and Beasts cou’d tame.

Yet vent’ring then with scoffing rhimes
The Women to incense,
Resenting Heroines of those Times,
Soon punish’d the offence;

And as thro’ Hebrus, rowl’d his Scull,
And Harp besmear’d with Blood,
They clashing, as the Waves grew full,
Still harmonized the Flood.

She assures Pope that in their polite age ‘The Lock won’t cost the Head,’ but the poem ends on a note of warning: ‘Yett sooth the Ladies, I advise.’ Finch’s playful assertion of the tyrannical power of female beauty, something that preoccupied women writers throughout the century, ironised at its start by Mary Wortley Montagu in her Town Eclogues, excoriated at its end by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and glittering at the centre of The Rape of the Lock’s amoral and artificial universe, is a reminder that the poem’s polite battle of the sexes might spill into real violence when women are given their say. When Pope published the poem in one of his miscellanies in 1717 he omitted the sixth stanza, preferring to keep his head intact and laurel-crowned.

There were many such exchanges between men and women in 18th-century literature. Pope’s affinities with the feminine world extend beyond the objectification of his body. Like Finch, a former courtier of James II, the Catholic poet turned his forced retirement to poetic and moral advantage, but Backscheider isn’t very interested in the transformation of quarrels into productive conversations. Nor do Woolf and Backscheider have such disputes in mind when they think of women’s literature or women’s agency. Woolf’s ‘white light of truth’ emanates from Jane Austen, whose tranquilly incandescent mind ‘consumed all impediments’, and who wrote without rage or resentment, expressing her genius ‘whole and entire’. Such self-effacing purity eludes Woolf, who, like the angry Charlotte Brontë writing of herself when she should be writing of her characters, becomes a figure in her own essay, scribbling flames over the face of Professor von X.

In the practice of what she calls ‘literary gender history’, Backscheider praises precisely what Woolf would have deplored. For Woolf, Austen’s genius lay in her ability to transform a ‘man’s sentence’, ringing with the sonorous rhythms of ‘Johnson, Gibbon and the rest’, into one that fitted her. Like Lady Burlington drawing Pope, she ‘looked at it and laughed at it’ and then ‘devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it’. For Backscheider, who reads poetry more thematically than formally and so isn’t particularly interested in the partly involuntary conversation that anyone, male or female, who writes heroic couplets must have with Pope and Dryden, or that anyone who writes blank verse must have with Milton and Shakespeare, women’s agency is not located solely in the impact of individual authors on poetic forms; equally important, she argues, is that ‘writers who are granted agency are granted careers.’ In contrast to Woolf’s celebration of the androgynous mind, epitomised by Austen’s freedom from thinking of her sex, Backscheider’s women announce themselves self-consciously as poets in homage to their foremothers: they ‘used poetry to find themselves within a philosophy of life, and over the course of their writing lives their poetry became a fascinating kind of life-writing’. In an age not known for lyric verse, the female poet that emerges in this study left a mark on a wide range of forms: the fables of Anne Finch, the devout soliloquies of Elizabeth Singer Rowe, the classical elegies of Mary Darwall and Anna Seward, the sonnet sequences of Mary Robinson and Charlotte Smith are only a few examples. The woman poet herself thus becomes a complex character, contemplating her public image with the pleasure of Mary Jones at mid-century: ‘Well, but the joy to see my works in print!/Myself too pictur’d in a mezzo-tint!’

Take Finch’s ventriloquising of the prototypes for Professor von X in ‘The Introduction’, a touchstone for discussions of 18th-century women’s poetry:

Did I my lines intend for public view,
How many censures would their faults pursue!
Some would, because such words they do affect,
Cry they’re insipid, empty, uncorrect.
And many have attained, dull and untaught,
The name of wit, only by finding fault.
True judges might condemn their want of wit;
And all might say, they’re by a woman writ.

Behind this manifesto are two 17th-century predecessors falsely opposed, as Backscheider shows, in a ‘chaste-versus-transgressive paradigm’ that would be used to classify women poets throughout the century: on one side, the virtuous Katherine Phillips, ‘our Orinda’, whom Jane Brereton (1716-40) praised as the writer who ‘spotless in her Fame,/As chaste in Wit, rescued our Sex from shame’ and whose poetry, in a phrase to which Backscheider often returns, ‘evoked Simone de Beauvoir’s counteruniverse of female friendship and private-sphere pleasures’; on the other, the outspoken and protean Behn, extolled by contemporaries as the ‘sole Empress of the Land of Wit’, lauded for her ‘female sweetness’ and ‘manly grace’, whose output, ranging from novels to plays to pastoral reveries to Pindaric odes on political subjects, ‘inaugurated the moral stance that women poets would claim as their own and institutionalise by the end of the century’. Behn had proclaimed Finch’s sentiments in bolder terms:

All I ask, is the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me (if any such you will allow me), to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have long thrived in … If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves; I lay down my quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no, not so much as to make comparisons, because I will be kinder to my brothers of the pen than they have been to a defenceless woman – for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle favours.

The androgynous Behn styles herself at once as a ‘defenseless woman’ and as Achilles, willing to retire from wit’s battleground if deprived of her due glory, while Finch finds her model of female authority in the Old Testament prophet and warrior Deborah, ‘Devout, majestic, for the subject fit’, who sings of her victory, then ‘to the peaceful, shady palm withdraws,/And rules the rescued nation with her laws.’ She thus rewrites the Fall in a feminine register:

How are we fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,
And education’s, more than nature’s fools;
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dull, expected and designed;
And if someone would soar above the rest,
With warmer fancy and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposing faction still appears,
The hopes to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears.

Deborah’s righteous victory has dwindled into retreat from ‘the opposing faction’, while Eve, barred from the paradise of knowledge, no longer the agent of the Fall, plummets like Icarus, as a result of thwarted ambition and internalised convention. Much of Finch’s poetry, and much of the poetry by women that follows it, takes place in the space of retirement where ‘The Introduction’ ends:

Be cautioned, then, my Muse, and still retired;
Nor be despised, aiming to be admired;
Conscious of wants, still with contracted wing,
To some few friends and to thy sorrows sing.
For groves of laurel thou wert never meant;
Be dark enough thy shades and be thou there content.

This movement away from the groves of Eden and the groves of laurel to not quite solitary shades delimits what Backscheider calls ‘woman’s space’, a particular variation of poetry’s ‘unique combination of the individual and the social, the public and the private’. Reasonable even in its melancholy (women carried the Enlightenment legacy much farther into the 19th century than men did, in Backscheider’s view), and social, often political, in its solitude, women’s retirement poetry rejects the vertiginously self-referential contemplation of its male equivalent – the reader of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is confronted with the speaker’s own epitaph. Gray’s narrator may have ‘gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished), a friend’, but for women poets, that friend and not the solitude of ‘fair Melancholy’ is the necessary precondition of poetic speech.

In her compelling claim that the friendship poem – which seems to intersect with almost every other form she discusses – ‘is the only significant form of poetry that women inherited from women’, Backscheider gives us a genealogy of the simple sentence that Woolf encountered while leafing through the work of a fictional young novelist, Mary Carmichael, and which gave her hope for the future: ‘Chloe liked Olivia.’ This sentence fills Woolf with wonder: ‘For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down, not knowing where one is stepping.’ In that cave she might also have found the work of Mary Leapor, the kitchen maid who died of measles in 1746 at the age of 24, ‘sometimes taking up her pen while the jack was standing still, and the meat scorching’, whose ‘chief Ambition’, according to her friend and patron Bridget Freemantle, ‘seem’d to be to have such a Competency as might leave her at Liberty to enjoy the Company of a Friend, and indulge her scribbling Humour (as she call’d it) when she had a mind, without Inconvenience or Interruption’. In ‘Epistle to a Lady’ (a poem that befriends Pope in multiple allusions to his poetry of friendship) Leapor dreams that ‘Books and Pictures in bright Order rise/And painted Parlours swim before her Eyes’; her sleep disrupted, ‘her Eye unwilling falls/On the blue Curtains and the dusty Walls:/She wakes, alas! To Business and to Woes,/To sweep her Kitchen, and to mend her Clothes.’ The longed-for books and pictures obscured by the pall of illness, she addresses Freemantle with urgent dignity:

The sliding Joys in misty Vapours end:
Yet let me still, Ah! let me grasp a Friend:
And when each Joy, when each lov’d Object flies,
Be you the last that leaves my closing Eyes.

Leapor’s vision evokes Woolf’s never-heard ‘half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex.’ Had Woolf read Leapor or any number of the other poets to whom this book gives us access, she might have had a very different story to tell the young women of Newnham and Girton.