MATHILDE BLIND: LATE-VICTORIAN CULTURE AND THE WOMAN OF LETTERS by James Diedrick, Reviewed by Susan David Bernstein
 

MATHILDE BLIND: LATE-VICTORIAN CULTURE AND THE WOMAN OF LETTERS
By James Diedrick
(Virginia, 2017) xix + 313pp.
Reviewed by Susan David Bernstein on 2018-03-18.

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With the first critical biography of Mathilde Blind, James Diedrick makes a thoroughly forceful case for the writer's importance in Victorian literary history. Blind herself wrote four biographical accounts of women, including George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame Roland, and Marie Bashkirtseff. These last three, Diedrick observes, were "unjustly neglected or underestimated in their lifetimes, and thus all these works reflect Blind's commitment to elevating the cultural status of influential women" (155). The same may be said of the present biography.

Diedrick has filled a glaring gap in scholarship on Blind, a writer of extraordinary accomplishments yet known mainly to specialists of fin de siècle Victorian literature. In her 1878 essay on Wollstonecraft, which helped to "rehabilitate" her reputation, as Diedrick says, Blind summed up the argument of A Vindication of the Rights of Women by stating that "women, like men, should primarily be considered rational creatures, whose understandings, if properly cultivated, might serve for their guidance in life without constant masculine assistance" (qtd. 156). Even so, Diedrick's impressive biography of Blind demonstrates the presence of "constant masculine assistance" in her own career as a writer and intellectual (173). Though Diedrick writes that in the last decade of her life she "came increasingly to identify most closely with women" (173), her literary efforts were strongly aided--if also sometimes hindered--by men such as Ford Madox Brown, William Michael Rossetti, and most extensively Richard Garnett, who repeatedly gave Blind what Diedrick calls "dubious literary advice" (xiii) and whose mixed assessment of her work may have helped to defer its being recognized and appreciated until recently.

Nevertheless, the chief source of this biography is precisely Blind's correspondence with Garnett, which ran from the 1860s until just before her death in 1896. Unpublished but preserved at the British Library, these letters gave Diedrick the details of Blind's prolific and admirable accomplishments as a poet, biographer, translator, essayist, reviewer, and, with Tarantella (1885), a novelist.

To be sure, Diedrick portrays Blind as something of a paradox: a "a pioneering female aesthete" (98) who nevertheless owed much to a "largely male tradition" (35). Politically, intellectually, and aesthetically, her sources of inspiration were mainly male. Besides Brown, Rossetti, and Garnett, they included Percy Shelley, Giuseppe Mazzini, William Morris, and A. C. Swinburne. While Blind's reading of Wollstoncraft may well have reinforced her ambition to forge a career quite independent of men, Diedrick shows that men played a central role in her story. At times, Diedrick dubiously claims that their relation to her was implicitly sexual. Interpreting her response to Garnett's request that she read the draft of a story he sent her, Diedrick writes: "In accepting this invitation to literary intercourse, Mathilde would be taking the story into herself, commingling with Garnett's imagination, imaginatively becoming one with him. Throughout this period in their relationship, sex is often an implied subtext in their exchange about texts" (57). Likewise, Diedrick calls her involvement with Brown "intimate" (161), and also asserts that their intimacy was recognized at his deathbed and funeral, even by his granddaughter Helen Angeli. According to family rumor, Brown had not only intended to marry Blind after his wife Emma's death, but actually did so (231).

While thus exploring her relations with various men, Diedrick unfolds Blind's remarkable life and career from beginning to end. Toward the end of the book, Diedrick's account of her death illuminates the writer's bifurcated life: "The will," he writes, "also inscribes the complex nature of her identity, since she is referred to as 'Mathilde Blind otherwise Cohen' or 'Mathilde Blind or Cohen' throughout" (251). By signing a document that names her doubly, Diedrick notes, she "reaffirms the Jewish identity she partially obscured in her lifetime by adopting the last name of her Protestant stepfather" (252). Blind's will thus clarifies the writer's mixed heritage, even if she had not publically acknowledged it herself. And as Diedrick points out, her Jewish background was noted in 1886 by Amy Levy in an article on "Middle-Class Jewish Women of To-Day" that appeared in The Jewish Chronicle. Much later, Blind was described with Jewish attributes by Juliet Soskice, a granddaughter of Ford Madox Brown. "Employing language that casts her as an exotic 'other,' " Diedrick notes, "Soskice writes that Blind 'had curly black hair and a hooked nose, and rather a brown face'" (219-20).

Her background was German as well as Jewish. Following her birth and early childhood in a German-Jewish family, she spent a year at a boarding school in Brussels, "likely Constantin Héger's school," writes Diedrick, "which Charlotte and Emily Brontë attended in 1842" (9), before immigrating to London at age 11 in 1852 with her mother Friederike and her stepfather Karl Blind. In London the blended family was given political asylum and mixed with other political refugees including Karl Marx and his family. In doing so, they joined the community of radicals, activists, secularists, freethinkers, and cosmopolitans that nurtured Blind from her early years and framed her own career in art and politics. Diedrick's chief aim, in fact, is to show how politics informed her literary and aesthetic life. "Blind's cosmopolitanism," he writes, "was an ethically engaged perspective, which is why, along with Morris, Swinburne, and William Michael Rossetti, she resisted the tendency to view poetry and other art forms in apolitical terms" (65).

To exemplify what Diedrick calls Blind's "socially engaged aestheticism" (201), he cites her epic narrative, The Heather on Fire: A Tale of Highland Clearances (1886). Blind's poem showcases Scottish resistance to British colonialism and specifically to the land clearances policy in the eighteenth century, when the British government evicted Scottish peasants and farmers in order to appropriate their land for wealthy sportsmen from the US and the UK. Indirectly, Blind's epic prompted legislation in 1886 to protect Scottish crofters' "security of tenure and fair rents" (201). Also, since Blind sent a copy of the poem to Prime Minister William Gladstone, Diedrick implies that its anticolonialism may have played a small role in Gladstone's introduction of the Irish Home Rule Bill in the very year Blind's poem was published. In any event, as Diedrick notes, Blind not only corresponded with Gladstone and eagerly supported his political positions but also appreciated his enhancing her reputation by "public praise" (202).

In the same year as Blind's epic on the Highland clearances appeared, she published a biography of Madame Roland for the "Eminent Women" biography series to which she had contributed the first biography of George Eliot three years earlier, in 1883. That Blind herself wrote biographies provides at least a key to her conception of the craft of life writing. In her biography of Eliot, Diedrick finds "the same kind of ironic and occasionally critical perspective assumed by Eliot's fictional narrators" (179). She brings this approach to Eliot's novels, particularly Daniel Deronda. In faulting Eliot's treatment of Judaism and what she calls "Jewish separateness," Diedrick contends that she "represents her own perspective as a secular Jew and rooted cosmopolitan" (180). Just as forcefully, in what Diedrick calls "one of the best biographies" (195) in the Eminent Women" series, Blind represents Madame Roland as both a leader of the Girondists and a victim of Robespierre's Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Exemplifying the larger argument that Blind's writing blended art and politics, her biography of Roland, Diedrick claims, "doubles as a celebration of political philosophers and writers as essential instruments of social change" (196).

Soon after her biography of Roland appeared, Blind turned to science--specifically to Darwin's theory of sexual selection in The Descent of Man (1871)--by writing an epic poem titled The Ascent of Man (1889). In Diedrick's words, this poem mimics "the fecundity, profligacy, and unruliness that Darwin identifies with nature itself," and "its very structure resists conventional affirmation or resolution" (214-5). Yet Diedrick contends that Blind "fitfully asserts a meliorist vision in the poem" (214) even while slighting marriage "as a model of redemptive social relations" (217). According to Diedrick, the poem made Blind an "ascendant poet," and according to an Athenaeum review that he cites, avid readers of The Ascent of Man on the Underground were so absorbed by the epic that they missed their station by several stops (211).

Elected president of the Women Writers' Dinner Club in 1893, Blind became a leader of New Woman writers in the last decade of her life. Aligned with "sexual nonconformists," Diedrick writes, her social network in late-Victorian London included "a community of avant-garde women writers...who challenged the patriarch order" (228) and who included Mona Caird, Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Amy Levy, and A. Mary F. Robinson. During her travels with Caird, Diedrick speculates, the two were briefly lovers until Brown's imminent death recalled Blind to London. Just as Diedrick earlier found erotic evidence in Blind's correspondence with Garnett, he also finds it in her commonplace book: "Her entries," writes Diedrick, "speak of an intimate communion with Caird, both physical and mental" (228).

Whatever the truth of this inference, Blind's biographical publications on women writers, activists, and artists in the 1880s and 90s exemplify her most dedicated feminist work. At Oscar Wilde's invitation, she contributed to Woman's World an essay on the Russian painter Marie Bashkirsteff, who died at age 23 in Paris. Having included in her essay some passages translated from the young artist's journal, Blind published her complete translation of it after it had appeared in French in The Nineteenth Century. According to Diedrick, Blind's translation became "the most widely reviewed and discussed of all her publications" (206), and "Blind identified with Bashkirsteff--her artistic ambition, her rage at gender constraints, her iconoclasm" (209).

Since Blind wrote the lives of four women who (except for Eliot) were "unjustly neglected or underestimated in their lifetimes" (155), Diedrick finds in these biographical publications "telling, if oblique, autobiographical insights into Blind's own career, life, and values" (155). Reviewing, for instance, Elizabeth Robins Pennell's biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, Blind faults Pennell for writing only "a painstaking and businesslike account," offering essential facts but failing "to impart any life to her narrative" (qtd. 195) or to situate that life in a larger historical and cultural landscape.

Tracking Blind's twin commitments to art and politics, Diedrick himself makes clear the fiery passion of her investments in her work even as he offers a richly painted context for her life and publications. Though newcomers to Blind may find that Diedrick's wealth of details occasionally curbs the pleasure of his remarkable story, those already familiar with her significant career will find rewarding new information coupled with new interpretations of her writing. Without question this excellent scholarly biography of Mathilde Blind is a major achievement. In commenting on Wollstonecraft while reviewing Pennell's biography of her, Blind wrote: "Although her writings are at this day but little known and still less read, the spirit that animates them has...become part of the thought of our age...." (157). In addition to demonstrating amply how the spirit of Blind's own writings became part of the spirit of her own late-Victorian age, this book will surely draw more attention to her and possibly lead to republications of her work in print, not just digital formats. Ecocritics, for instance, might welcome a new edition of The Heather on Fire, and The Ascent of Man might well find a place in the field of posthuman studies.

Susan David Bernstein is Research Professor of English at Boston University.


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