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Virginia Blain, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: The Making of a Woman Writer. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 1998. ISBN: 1-85928-197-4. Price: £49.50 (US$86.95).

  • Julia Saunders

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  • Julia Saunders
    Wolfson College, Oxford

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Standing in an exhibition on women romantic writers held at the Wordsworth Museum, Dove Cottage, in 1994, Virginia Blain recounts how she watched visitors hurry through the space devoted to 'so many new names'. She 'felt [she] wanted to stop people, tell them that if any one of these women had had careers half as well documented as that of the man upstairs, their exhibition would be equally fascinating' (p. xiv). Her book, what she terms 'a cross between an anthology and a critical biography' (p.10), attempts to rescue the reputation of one of these forgotten women.

Caroline Bowles Southey (CBS) is known to very few readers today; most only remember her (if they remember her at all) for her brief time as wife and nurse to Robert Southey in the last four years of his life. She was 52 when she chose to convert her long-standing literary friendship with Southey into marriage, and neither could have known that his failing mind was totally to collapse some three months later and CBS was to be thrown into an impossible position at Greta Hall, regarded as an usurper by two hostile step-children, Kate and Cuthbert Southey. The marriage, Blain argues, was also to have a negative effect on her independent reputation as a published writer of both poetry and prose. She became yoked to Southey's name both literally and metaphorically. As the value of his literary stock has sunk, so too has CBS's.

Blain's biography falls into four sections, with each section comprised of a biographical essay on a different aspect of CBS's life, coupled with extracts from her work from that period. She explains her choice as follows: 'It seemed to me that it might be hard to justify producing a book-length critical study of a writer whose works are not available in print outside major research collections; equally the bald reprinting of an anthology gathered from her collected prose works and poems might fail to reach new readers who are quite uninformed as to the circumstances of her life' (p. 10). On balance, this structure works well as at the end of each biographical section an appetite (otherwise difficult to rouse for works of a relative unknown) has been made to experience the writing. In particular, Blain should be praised for reprinting in full The Birth-day(1836) an intriguing autobiographical poem in blank verse about memories of CBS's childhood. Does this form sounds familiar? It should, because the parallels and differences with The Prelude are fascinating. Whilst not claiming that The Birth-day rivals The Prelude(not published until 1850, but its existence possibly known to CBS from around 1823), Blain argues that CBS's poem should be read by any scholar interested in romantic or Victorian autobiography. She raises some interesting questions about the conflicting reception of both works. Why did contemporary critics accept the author as a legitimate central subject in The Prelude and find it problematic in The Birth-day? Why has our culture valued a male ethos of independent self-creation as opposed to the community of relationships described by CBS as forming her identity? The Birth-day , however, is not only interesting for the questions it provokes, but also provides some excellent passages of sharp observation and well-balanced self-mockery as when CBS remembers her short-lived infant grief on the death of her great-grandmother:

Well I remember, from that storm of grief

Diverted soon, with what sensations new

Of female vanity - (inherent sin!)

I saw myself arrayed in mourning frock,

And long crape sash -

ll.187-191

Other beautifully observed incidents, such as the description of her first drawing of a house, vividly evoke the sheltered life of an only child in a Hampshire village at the end of the eighteenth century. Though CBS's poem is not relentlessly driven by a Wordsworthian teleology towards the development of a poet's mind, she too ponders the place of memory ('But Memory hoards no picture so distinct,/In freshness as of yesterday, as those/Life's first impressions, exquisite and strong' [ll.487-489]) and evaluates with humility her own creativity. Her inspiration is Nature: 'Nature in me hath still her worshipper,/And in my soul her mighty spirit still/Awakes sweet music'. Yet she is aware of how short her poetry falls from what she would like to express: 'But prodigal of feeling, [nature] withholds/The glorious power to pour its fulness out' (ll. 708-710,712-713). Blain convincingly describes the tensions between CBS's joy in creativity and instinct for submissiveness as the source of female autobiography, combining in a struggle that 'gives texture to the poem and forms a major part of its meaning' (p. 135).

Other significant poems reprinted in this volume are the satirical The Cat's Tail and Tales of the Factories, a precursor to Caroline Norton's A Voice from the Factories (1836) which has often been thought to be the first in the genre of factory-reform poetry.

Blain's book will be of particular value to scholars interested in late romantic women writers and autobiography, but, in itself, it does not constitute a definitive biography of its subject. The choice to divide the analytical sections into biographical essays ('Early life and Friendship with Robert Southey', 'Shaping a Career: negotiating with Blackwood's', 'A Life in verse: The Birth-day, Wordsworth and religion', 'Marriage and death') means that chronological continuity is lost and some material reprised. These sections leave the impression that they were spawned as separate articles, only now gathered together without an attempt being made to remold them for their new context. With this shortcoming admitted, Blain has produced an illuminating study which goes a long way to fulfil her aspiration to arrest the attention of the reader who would otherwise hurry through a space devoted to a romantic woman writer.