Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Romantics weren’t all boys

Mary Robinson in character as Perdita

Imagine a conventional literary scene: men and women writing, arguing, publishing, in ‘creative dialogue’ with each other, as the textbooks have it, and selling well, or less well, or struggling. Some get high praise and public acclamation, others are ignored and can’t really find an audience. These 18th-century poets wrote in a milieu which would later get labelled as Romantic. They wrote their poetry, and about poetry, in simple language, easy forms, and talked about society and idealism and revolution. The really successful ones were not, however, the ones we were all taught about at school or university as ‘the Romantics’. We were all taught that William Blake, William Wordsworth, that Coleridge bloke, Shelley the Bysshe, poor tragic John Keats and mad and bad Lord Byron were the big names, the leaders of this group, and that’s all we needed to know. OK, perhaps John Clare too, if you insist. And maybe Robert Burns. But they were peasants: whereas the Six Big Men were the real poets.

When we were at school, nobody mentioned the women of this group, unless it was to laugh at how awful their poems were. Anna Laetitia Barbauld was an important woman of letters and a literary critic, whose selections of poetry for anthologies pretty much established the list of poets we study today from that period. Her most famous poem caused her undoing, a satire on the Napoleonic Wars in 1811, which did not go down well with a virulently patriotic public, and she never wrote another one. We don’t hear much about her after that.

Felicia Hemans is now only known for her poem ‘Casabianca’, which was a set piece for memorising in the Victorian period, loathed by school children ever after, and satirised and sneered at by 20th-century writers keen to condemn her Victorian piety and imperialist views (Arthur Ransome was one such snooty author). But Felicia Hemans was the most noted poet of her day, graciously visiting Sir Walter Scott with her august presence in 1820, publishing over 400 poems in magazines and newspapers, and was a clear influence on Wordsworth et al. So why don’t we hear more about her as an innovative and influential figure?

Joanna Baillie was a seriously famous playwright and poet in the same circle, considered by her contemporaries to be equal only to Sappho and Shakespeare. She was also a dramatic theorist and a critic, and supported her less successful peers with sponsorship and mentoring. Funny that we weren’t taught much about her influence on the Romantics either.

I could bang on and on about the women Romantics who were swept under the carpet by the dictators of literary taste from the last century and a half, and were forgotten for generations before modern feminist critics began to wonder why all the Romantics appeared to have been born wearing trousers. But I shan’t: I shall confine myself to two examples from women Romantic poets to encourage you to give them a try.

My favourite title for a Romantic poem is by Charlotte Smith, whose sonnet, ‘On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic(note the italics: very 18thC) is a great one to read and teach, full of sound and fury and pity for the foolishness of the world’s assumptions.

My favourite poet from this group is Mary Robinson, because she’s a lovely writer. I like her directness, her sharp eye and her focus on the detail of living. Two of her really well-known poems are all about the observation of life, and because of this, again, they’re both good to teach and delightful to read. ‘London’s Summer Morning’ is about just that, a description of daily life on the shopping streets of London. Here’s a bit from the middle.

Now every shop displays its varied trade,
And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet
Of early walkers. At the private door
The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
Annoying the smart ‘prentice, or neat girl,
Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
Darts burning splendour on the glittering pane,
Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the day’s merchandise. Now, spruce and trim,
In shops (where beauty smiles with industry),
Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
Of humming insects, while the limy snare
Waits to enthral them.

This reminds me so much of walking to work in London in high summer, when the street-cleaners have swabbed the pavements ready for the day’s tourists and the air is still a tiny bit cool. The cleaners are wiping down the doors and windows and busy girls are rushing to work in a hurry. Pretty busy girls working in shops attract the eye from outside, which is caught by their looks much as an insect is caught in the blue zapping trap.

Here’s part of another one, called ‘January, 1795’.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses ;
Theatres, and meeting-houses ;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish ;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing ;
Commerce drooping, credit failing ;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal ;
Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner ;
Many a subtle rogue a winner ;
Fugitives for shelter seeking ;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted ;
All the laws of truth perverted ;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring ;
Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning ;
Fools the works of genius scorning ;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

It’s packed with opposites and social commentary, and laced with satire, nicely dense with meaning, like a rather good cheesecake full of rum-soaked currants. The thing I particularly like about Mary Robinson is not just that she was a poet and a very successful one (she earned her living and supported her family by it for years, and was called ‘The English Sappho’). She was also one of the most famous actresses in England, particularly for her ‘breeches parts’, playing Shakespeare’s girls-dressed-as-boys roles. This naturally led to a good deal of male attention (she was married but not at all happily), and the Prince of Wales offered her £20,000 to become his mistress. She thought about this for ages, but just as she capitulated, the offer was withdrawn, and she was abandoned, without any chance of returning to the stage. So she turned to writing again, became phenomenally famous, but died at 42 in poverty. She wasn’t talked about much in the poetry textbooks either, until recently. I wonder why? Perhaps success in breeches parts was only for the stage.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

12 comments on “The Romantics weren’t all boys

  1. annebrooke
    June 21, 2012

    Really fascinating, Kate – thanks for opening up this forgotten aspect of the Romantic period for us! 🙂

  2. David
    June 21, 2012

    Much enjoyed reading all this – very informative and interesting indeed.

    Forgive me if mistaken, but I pick up a rather condemnatory tone regarding the recognition given to women of that and immediately-following eras.

    To be sure, society then oppressed women, and it was also aristocratic, undemocratic and corrupt, and practised unspeakably wrong things such as slavery.

    But that was the world that was – it’s over, let it go. That was then; this is now: there’s not much point seeking to apply the mores of 21st century society to that of the 18th and 19th.

    One of our very greatest novelists was female, although Mary Anne Evans had to use the pen name of a male, George Eliot, in order to get proper recognition as a writer: immense gender inequality there still existed, clearly, and it’s noteworthy as the history of the day, but otherwise, in a way, so what? – not much point in applying to it the standards of another age entirely.

  3. Kate
    June 21, 2012

    Of course I’m condemning the neglect and abandonment of perfectly good writers for non-writerly reasons: who wouldn’t? Its important to get cross about attitudes from the past so we don’t slip back into them in our own time. It’s very easy to be complacent in hindsight, but if we question things that we can see were clearly wrong then, maybe we won’t ignore writing of today that is also being greyed out and ignored for irrelevant reasons.

  4. David
    June 21, 2012

    Not for a moment suggesting that we shouldn’t be aware of the past, and learn from it, but to bemoan how society was in another age is I think just a bit pointless.

  5. Jackie
    June 22, 2012

    What an excellent piece! Thanks for shining a light on these overlooked talents and inspiring us to have a closer look at them. I’m glad that they are being returned to their rightful places by enlightened teachers and readers.
    Have you ever noticed that it’s always white men who tell us that we shouldn’t apply modern sensibilities to past times?

  6. Kate
    June 22, 2012

    Yep, its so strange!

  7. Hilary
    June 22, 2012

    Really fascinated by this piece – thank you, Kate. I shall add Mary Robinson to my (at present) short (but growing) list of women writers who had to walk a tightrope between success and scandal, and, it seems, more often than not died early of exhaustion or penury. There are parallels here with the life of an earlier writer, Laetitia Pilkington, who also died at about 42, too worn out by the struggle to survive and find protection for her children by her writing, to enjoy the money that her Memoirs earned in the last years of her life.

    I had heard of Mary Robinson only as an actress, and had no idea she was such a skilful and, it would appear, entertaining writer.

  8. Leena
    June 23, 2012

    But, David, I’m not sure Kate is bemoaning the society of that time so much as the attitudes that came after and led to those authors becoming so obscure – after all, women novelists and even women poets (up to a point, of course: only lyrical, romantic women poets) were hugely successful at the time. So much so, in fact, that some commentators of the day were overreacting and moaning that literature was becoming feminised, despite the fact that male authors had all the privileges of education and authority, and that women were still very much a minority in the field and dominated only very specific sub-genres like the Gothic novel.

    (Mary Robinson was even surprisingly successful as an author, considering her reputation; as was Eliza Haywood, another actress, who started out writing soft porn but ended up writing popular edifying domestic novels.)

    The thing is, for a long time “18th-century English literature” stood for Pope, Richardson, Fielding, Cowper… and who else, I’m forgetting names at the moment. But the (late) 18th century was just as much the era of Burney, Radcliffe, Smith, and others… Mary Robinson among them. Look at the booksellers’ lists of the first decades of the 19th century and you’ll see plenty of female names – even men pretending to be women!

    It doesn’t really matter that there’s a canonised female here and there, one George Eliot for every hundred men, when it doesn’t reflect the reality of literary history. And the reality isn’t the often heard “but those bestsellers penned by women of the past were forgotten for a reason; they just weren’t any good”. Many of them were. I’ve read them.

  9. Leena
    June 23, 2012

    Oops, sorry, got a bit carried away (and off-topic) there! Just wanted to thank you, Kate, for the wonderful post on wonderful poets who deserve more attention. Have you read Paula Byrne’s splendid biography of Mary Robinson? It was my understanding that she was indeed the Prince’s mistress, and the mistress of other men besides, including Lord Malden and Charles James Fox. As I understood it, her mistake was to fall in love with the pretty much penniless Banastre Tarleton, and she always angled for too much money and in the wrong ways – lived lavishly on her rich lovers’ gifts instead of putting some money away. But had she been less flamboyant and more calculating she wouldn’t have been the person she was. She wasn’t really cut out to be a professional courtesan.

    Well, well – off-topic again… 😉 Just goes to show to what extent Robinson’s fascinating and gossip-ridden life has overshadowed her works, which is a shame.

  10. Kate
    June 25, 2012

    I was very confused about her being the mistress, or not, but i wonder now if some of the sources I looked at were just out of date (my university library IS), or whether I was confusing MR wirh Mrs Fitzherbert. Those Regency princes did get around.

  11. Caroline
    August 7, 2012

    Enjoyed the post and the comments here. I don’t know much about these things, but it can’t be sexism because these lady authors were popular, even more so than many men in their time. Wordsworth didn’t do well till middle age. I think the real issue is, despite being intelligent and good, these women authors weren’t timeless. They wrote for their age, which was a good thing for their time, not so for posthumous reputation. The image of a starved poet is somehow associated with men (!!!) who were supposed to be more reckless … well, assuming the stereotype has some truth, then it makes sense. To write for all time would mean abandoning a great deal of their contemporary audience, and a reckless man might do that, giving him an advantage. A woman who wrote to support her family would have to conform to her time (we’re not talking about the Brontes, George Eliot or Mrs Gaskell, because that’s another era) which would be foreign to us modern readers. Mrs Hemans said she doubted she would last after her death, and she was right. Perhaps she knew her works catered for her own audience not posterity. Novels are easier to read than poetry and are more likely to be known by readers. which means the old poetry we know is exceptional. Note that the Brontes, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell didn’t write purely for a source of income (they had other means to support themselves) so they could write for more artistic reasons. There’s another female writer who isn’t known well now: Dinah Mulock Craik, widely admired in her lifetime. I’ve read some of her works and they’re nothing compared to the famous female Victorian novelists.

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This entry was posted on June 21, 2012 by in Entries by Kate, Poetry, Poetry Week, Poetry: lyric, Poetry:literary and tagged , , , , .



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