"I suppose we insensibly invented the rest": Adelaide Procter and the legend of the female poet

Oulton, C. (2014) "I suppose we insensibly invented the rest": Adelaide Procter and the legend of the female poet. In: Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1840s and 1850s, 21st-22nd July, Canterbury Christ Church University.

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Best known for her two series of Lyrics and Legends (1858 and 1861), the poet Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864) had a varied career as a women's rights campaigner and prolific contributor to journals such as Dickens' Household Words and All the Year Round. Her highly successful 'The Lost Chord' (second series) was later set to music by Arthur Sullivan, but its popularity as a drawing piece made her a natural target for a younger generation of writers keen to eschew their Victorian past. Such a response ignores Dickens’s preface to the posthumous 1866 edition of Legends and Lyrics, in which he warns against the attribution of excessive sensibility to the figure of the writer, stressing instead her professionalism and ready wit. Implicitly subverting the gendered construction of the 'poetess' in particular, he admits that he too had initially mythologised the unknown 'Mary Berwick'. Over time the Household Words staff had decided that she must be a governess of some years standing, and 'insensibly invented the rest'.
At the end of the century the New Woman writer Mary Cholmondeley incorporates 'Cleansing Fires' (published in the first series in 1858) into her own myth of the literary woman. In Red Pottage (1899) the superficial Lady Newhaven offers a less than convincing performance as a self-proclaimed victim of fate, singing a musical version of the poem accompanied by the piano, but also by the narrator's merciless stage directions. While Cholmondeley apparently uses 'Cleansing Fires' to register a lack of authenticity, a close reading of the context in which it is performed in the novel, actually invokes the potential for female solidarity.

That this adulterous figure chooses to sing 'Cleansing Fires' at all, signals her false response to the offer of literary consolation (a theme repeated elsewhere in the novel, through Mr Tristan's parodic confusion of Shakespeare with Tennyson). This misappropriation of a poet's work signals the rejection of a trans-generational feminine community of writers and readers, articulated by Cholmondeley a few years earlier in her own response to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'My Heart and I', 'I wonder whether she felt it to be hers, she who wrote it, as intensely as I know it to be mine who only read it.'

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English Literature > PR0111 Women authors
P Language and Literature > PR English Literature > PR0161 By period
P Language and Literature > PR English Literature > PR0500 Poetry
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Humanities > International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICWW)
Depositing User: Prof Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton
Date Deposited: 03 Feb 2015 13:50
Last Modified: 03 Feb 2015 13:55
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/13030

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00