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“Formed with Curious Skill”: Blessington’s negotiation of the “poetess” in Flowers of Loveliness

  • Ann R. Hawkins

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  • Ann R. Hawkins
    Texas Tech University

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Lady Blessington proposed various subjects as suitable for treatment by her in the pages of the New Monthly, but none of them commended itself to the assistant editor. Then the conversation became desultory when he passed some comment on a picture of Byron hanging at a distance. This led to reminiscences regarding the poet whom she described with fluency, recalling various opinions he had expressed to her, describing his traits of character and manners, the impressions he had given her.

“Now” said S. C. Hall who knew the interest felt by the public regarding the brilliant personality of Byron “why not write what you have told me of the poet?”

Lady Blessington immediately accepted the suggestion, and promised to act upon it, and in this way her literary career may be said to have begun.

Molloy 212-13

This passage, from J. Fitzgerald Molloy’s 1896 narrative of how Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, came to publish her best-selling Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron, offers a sexually biased reading of Blessington’s fame, one which undercuts Blessington’s success as a literary professional by emphasizing her acquiescence to male advice. Molloy portrays Blessington as unaware of what will sell, ignorant that her greatest commodity lies not in the “subjects” she found suitable, but rather in her memories of an important man. According to Molloy, Hall is uninterested in Blessington’s proposed subjects, but discovers in their wandering conversation a salable topic—and Blessington, in an appropriately feminine response, “immediately accept[s] the suggestion” and “promise[s] to act upon it.”

Molloy acknowledges that Blessington approached the New Monthly with the object of starting a literary career and with the hope of finding a literary product she could bring to market. But his narrative implies that the product she eventually brought to market is due to Hall’s suggestion; as a result, Molloy obscures Blessington’s self-promotion and her prior sense of herself as a literary professional. This version of Blessington’s conversation with Hall elides what we could also read as the careful strategies of a literary woman trying out a variety of ideas on a publisher, marketing not only her literary projects, but her own charms as a conversationalist and public figure. In this paper I will examine Blessington’s creation of her literary selves, in particular her positioning of herself as a poetess in her 1835 giftbook volume, Flowers of Loveliness, arguing that to create a market for herself as a viable author, Blessington first must manage her multiple public reputations as well as define the kind of poetry she wishes to write in strongly divergent markets. To do so, I will consider Blessington’s conception of the poetess, a broader category for her than for modern critics, as revealed in her satiric poem, “The Stock in Trade of the Modern Poetess.” Then I will examine how Flowers of Loveliness manipulates Blessington’s persona and current market forces to fashion a book that focuses on the current upper-class passions for giftbooks and the language of flowers. Ultimately Flowers of Loveliness depicts her poetic persona as a woman speaking to women, and her book becomes the embodiment of women’s community.

Blessington’s Public Reputations

Molloy’s anecdote, when read from a feminist perspective, reveals a woman very interested in her public persona and her status as a public figure. Her experiences in London society prior to 1835 also bear this out. At that time, Blessington’s fame rested on a complicated intersection of her public, social and literary reputations. Even now, the bare outline of Blessington’s personal life—“sold” twice into marriage, then after Lord Blessington’s death, living under the same roof as her step-daughter’s former husband—is salacious stuff. Like Byron, whose conversations she recorded, Blessington has been victim of an obsession with her private life, and what little critical attention she has received since her death has typically focused not on her texts, but on her person.[1]

But as the Molloy anecdote suggests, Blessington seems to have worked continually to reshape her circumstances primarily by negotiating new public personae for herself. An astoundingly beautiful woman whose portrait debuted at the Royal Academy in 1822, she educated herself to become an adept and fascinating conversationalist who maintained the popularity of her London Salons (1818-1822; 1830-1849) for more than twenty years. In fact, in 1835—the same year that she published Flowers—Benjamin Haydon recorded Blessington’s popularity in his February diary: “Everybody goes to Lady Blessington. She has the first news of every thing, and everybody seems delighted to tell her. [. . . ] She is the center of more talent and gaiety than any other woman of fashion in London” (qtd. in Madden 1.179). Blessington’s Salon placed her at the center of a circle of literary men who included such literary lions as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Walter Savage Landor, and Edward Bulwer Lytton; the Salon gave her access to publishers and writers who were invaluable in furthering her literary career.

At the same time, as N. P. Willis observed in his April 25, 1835 “Pencillings on the Way,” Blessington’s popularity owed less to her great beauty than to her skill at managing conversation:

Her excessive beauty is less an inspiration than the wondrous talent with which she draws, from every person around her, his peculiar excellence. Talking better than anybody else, and narrating, particularly, with a graphick power that I never saw excelled, this distinguished woman seems striving only to make others unfold themselves; and never had diffidence a more apprehensive and encouraging listener.

340

Blessington parlayed that ability to draw out the diffident into the basis of her initial (and most lasting) literary fame, her “Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron” which appeared serially in the New Monthly Magazine between 1832 and 1833, then as a separate volume in December of 1833. Blessington’s Conversations gained her immediate fame as Byron’s Boswell, and Blessington capitalized on that fame with a quick succession of novels: Grace Cassidy, or the Repealers (June 1833); Meredith (1833); and The Two Friends (1835). Also in 1833—perhaps because Heath wished to capitalize on the popularity of the Conversations—Blessington received the editorship of the Book of Beauty, formerly edited by L. E. L., and produced her first collection for the 1834 season.

Despite her popularity, however, Blessington’s status in society was consistently ambiguous. Even without a disreputable past Blessington still would have had difficulty breaking into the tight circle of London society. Too many factors were against her: she was a great beauty, but intelligent; a fascinating conversationalist and hostess, but Irish; a versatile and perceptive writer with a bent for social satire, a clever marketer of her texts and those of others—but a woman. Blessington’s problem in the complicated world of London society was to find a stance or series of personae that would allow her a place to speak.

Given her ambiguous public status, Blessington carefully guarded both the reputation of her texts and her relationships with her publishers. When collecting texts for her first Book of Beauty, Blessington cautiously refused those that might evoke negative comments. She regretfully rejected “verses” from Charles James Mathews which she describes as “beautiful, but alas! a leetle too warm for the false prudency of the public taste”:

Were I to insert them, I should have a host of hypercritical hypocrites attacking the warmth of the sentiments of the lines, and the lady-editor: and therefore I must ask you to give me a tale, or verses more prudish—prettier ones you can hardly give me. I have been so long a mark for the arrows of slander and attack, that I must be more particular than anyone else: and your pretty verses, which in any of the annuals could not fail to be admired, would in a book edited by me draw down attacks. [. . .] What misery it is, my dear Charles, to live in an age when one must make such sacrifices to cant and false delicacy, and against one’s own judgments and taste.

Madden 3.323-24

In a similar letter to Captain Marryat some years later, Blessington makes clear that she rejects his story in order to protect her publisher’s (and thus her own) interests: “the ridiculous prudery of a pack of fools compels me to abandon it; for well do I know, that were I to insist on [its] insertion […] Heath and his trustees (should the sale of the book be less than formerly) would attribute it to you and me” (Madden 3.105).

Such comments reveal Blessington’s sense of the instability of her status—not only as a public person, but specifically as a literary person. As the letters to Mathews and Marryat suggest, Blessington carefully balances the claims of art with those of the marketplace. For Blessington, then, success as an author was not merely popularity, but a careful management of multiple public reputations that would allow her to support her lifestyle and create her own art. To succeed in this way, Blessington must not only create a viable art people will want to read and buy, but do so while overcoming a variety of social stigmas.

Defining the Poetess’ “Stock”

Ranged against this set of obstacles are Blessington’s own pointed criticisms of popular women’s poetry and the figure of the “poetess” in “The Stock in Trade of the Modern Poetess,” one of her three contributions to the 1833 Keepsake. This poem suggests that Blessington’s conception of the poetess forms a broader category for her than for modern critics—one built upon a specific set of sentimental and particularly Byronic “stock” elements, put together to form a marketable whole. “Stock in Trade” is a short, 48-line poem in three sentences, but in that space Blessington delivers a withering satire of the poetess as she sees that persona.

“Stock in Trade” offers a witty assessment of the “modern poem’s” overindulgences and a nod to the basis of her own fame, her relationship with Lord Byron. The poem’s first sentence begins with a long list of elements that describe the natural settings typical for sentimental and romantic poetry.[2] According to Blessington’s reading, the physical landscape of the modern poem continues to be strongly influenced by the aesthetic terminology of the gothic. Favored scenic descriptions for the modern poem include both the picturesque—“lonely shades,” “murmuring founts,” and “Limpid streams”—as well as the sublime, to “mounts[,] Rocks and caverns, [and] ocean’s roar” (1-3). The poem’s movement from picturesque to sublime underscores the movement of the lovers from the realm of “vulgar” men who remain “a-bed” to the beauties of the natural landscape (6).

Descriptions of spatial setting soon shift to those of temporal settings, but the air of sentimental romance creates a continuing litany. The poem dedicates four lines to night-time scenes—the “silver radiance” of “moons”; the “shining” of “ stars and planets”; the “mysterious light” of twilight—and only one line to the harsh light of “suns,” suggesting the lovers’ preference for solitude (5, 7, 9, 10). The plurals offered for “moons” and “suns” emphasize the multiple poems that such elements appear in: repeatedly “Stock in Trade” reminds us that the settings being inventoried aren’t just the settings in one or two poems, but of many or of “all” poetess poems (10). The description of the “suns whose rays are ‘all’ too bright” also indicates this rhetorical end; for “all” here could function as an intensifier, describing the brightness of the sun, or it could also emphasize the ubiquity of this kind of description, that in “all” the poems the “suns” are “too bright” (10).

As is most typical in sentimental poetry, the atmospherics of the setting link to the inner experience of lovers, and the joys of new love lead to the pains of loss. However, this internalization focuses on the heroine and her response to unrequited love. The narrator catalogs the heroine’s features most often noted by poetesses: the heroine’s “snow[y]” chest, flowing dark locks, rose-red lips, and “cerulean” eyes as well as her foot so dainty as to “pass over, yet not bend, the grass” (26-32). With the couplet “Wither’d hopes, and faded flowers/ Beauties pining in their bowers” (11-12), Blessington makes clear that these heroines have not been successful in love, and she simultaneously creates a direct link between the heroine and the garden landscape she inhabits.[3] “Harps,” “lyres” and “lutes,” some of the tools of feminine accomplishments in love, lie “broken,” “untuned” and “neglected” (13-14). From flowers, the list shifts to birds poetesses use to describe the pains of lost love—“Vultures packing at the heart” are satirically juxtaposed with “Doves that, frighted from the breast, / Seek in vain some sweeter rest” (15, 17-18).

Thus far, Blessington has merely listed stereotypical elements, and the satirical tone comes mostly from this condensed repetition of triteness. But having established the pattern of sentimental poetry, Blessington begins to salt this list of relatively neutral elements with a series of witty asides on the ridiculousness of the heroine’s position. Blessington builds the sense of lost love to a climax with “Hearts a prey to dark despair”—yet she immediately undercuts that image with the comment, “Why, or how, we hardly care” (22). She then describes the effects of love-sickness on the woman, but links her illness to a lack of intellect: “Pale disease feeds on the cheek, / Health how feeble—head how weak” (23-24). Finally, she mocks the excesses of the woman lover’s emotionalism: “Bursting tear and endless sigh— / Query, can she tell us why?” (25-26). The result is to make ridiculous not only the woman’s over-emotionalism, but the entire mechanism of stock poetic elements described to this point.

These criticisms of the heroine in sentimental poetry shift to a discussion of the irony of the bad-boy Byronic hero. The hero is a Byronic contradiction of “vice and virtue,” waging “war for empire,” and “raving […] for glory [and] fame” (37-39):

Next a hero, with an air—

Half a brigand—half corsair;

Dark, mysterious in his life,

Dreadful in the battle’s strife

33-36

As Blessington describes him, this hero seems patterned on Byron’s Giaour and Corsair, as if these sentimental heroes were slim echoes of the popular version of the Byronic hero. To underscore the stilted nature of this stereotype, Blessington alters the prosody of this description. Almost all of the poem offers four stresses per line, each line beginning and ending on a stress: “Lonely shades, and murm’ring founts” (1). This pattern of truncated trochees destabilizes with the description of the hero; by the last four lines of the description of the hero the meter shifts dramatically, offering first an iambic line with an extra unstressed syllable at the end of each line, then three full trochaic lines:

A Macedoine of good and evil,

One part hero—three parts devil:

Quite an Admirable Crichton

Is the hero all now write on.—

43-46

This metrical shift reiterates the imbalance of hero and devil expressed in line 44, while focusing attention on the ridiculousness of the heroine’s misery over someone who seems either mostly bad or wholly unbelievable.

The poem’s satirical treatment of these “stock” elements—the beautiful heroine whose heart is broken by the ambiguous hero—also plays on the fact that they are stock in an economic as well as literary sense. The poem’s culmination—“This now is all the stock in trade / With which a modern poem’s made” (47-48)—as well as its title emphasize that these elements are the typical poetic merchandize of the poetess, the “stock” in which she “trade[s]”. That metaphor emphasizes the commercial nature of the poetess’s enterprise: she must sell her wares to a public that expects a certain conventionality, and if she veers from that path, she will likely find herself out of business.

The figure of the poetess created in “Stock in Trade” is certainly not complimentary: Blessington’s satire depends on the idea that the poetess is conventional, formulaic, and tritely Byronic. In this assessment, Blessington’s sense of the poetess clearly differs from that of modern critics. Blessington instead values the poets she quotes in her epigraphs and footnotes: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Felicia Hemans, and L. E. L.—which with the possible exception of Barbauld, most modern critics would label as poetesses.[4]

That Blessington would take these women as models for making a way in the literary marketplace makes considerable sense: they too were women trying to create poetry that was both economically and artistically successful. These women poets measured success at least in part by the market, and Blessington wrote Flowers of Loveliness partly to support herself, her family, her household, and her salon, to say nothing of Alfred d’Orsay. As her criticism of the poetess in the “Stock in Trade of Modern Poetesses” shows, she wants to be as economically successful as the poetess without using any of her stock. Her problem: how can she meet the economic demands of the marketplace, while avoiding simply repeating the popular mode of the “modern poem”? Clearly an economic motive informs even her satiric attack on the poetess: “Stock in Trade” is rife with Byronic allusions, capitalizing on her fame as author of Conversations and thus as an expert on Byron. In a sense, with this poem Blessington further stakes her claim for her authority as Byron’s intimate, and linking her own satirical voice to Byron’s satirical treatments of modern poetry in works such as English Bards and Scots Reviewers and Don Juan. But in doing so, Blessington also obligates herself to avoid in her own poetry what she has criticized in others’. She must somehow create a different kind of poetic voice that is nonetheless viable in a marketplace that values the poetess. To make a space for herself, Blessington must reshape the stock, creating her own poetic mode and vocabulary. Her problem is finding a distinctive and marketable poetic voice that is not that of “the poetess”—as she has defined the term.

The Language of Flowers and the 1830s Giftbook Market

Blessington’s task, then, was to negotiate a new kind of poetry that avoids the excesses and superficialities she criticized in “Stock in Trade,” but that accommodates the demands of the marketplace. The product of that negotiation, Flowers of Loveliness, manipulates Blessington’s persona and current market forces to fashion a book that focuses on the current upper-class passions for giftbooks and the language of flowers. Analyzing only the book’s poetry, however, would present only a partial picture of Blessington’s success in solving this problem, because the physical characteristics of the book, as well as its poetry and illustrations, form a unified product.

Flowers is clearly designed to meet a specific marketing niche of the English giftbook market, while distinguishing itself adequately from it. As the most popular and lucrative literary medium in mid‑nineteenth‑century Britain—particularly from 1822 to 1860—the giftbook was long ridiculed for presenting sentimental, didactic, and unrealistic texts written for largely uneducated and sentimental women. However, the annuals have begun to receive more sympathetic treatment. Critics now consider them as “vital cultural artifacts, important to our understanding of nineteenth‑century book history, gender relations, and the commodification of literature in the period” (Hoagwood and Ledbetter). Common practice among the giftbooks was to produce smallish, well-illustrated books—often quartos, though they could be smaller. Reviewers often complained that one needed a magnifying glass to properly view giftbook engravings, and, in the same year Flowers was published, L. E. L.’s Bijoux Almanack appeared in a 64mo (about 2.1 cm x 1.4 cm).[5] But, as their publishers recognized, small books sold best, indicating either that “women readers preferred the [. . .] smaller size as a code for gendered social acceptance or their economic status did not allow for heavier expenditure” (Hoagwood and Ledbetter).

Not only did Flowers fit into an established market, but its marketing strategy sets it in the context of a tremendous interest in the language of flowers. French books on the language of flowers had appeared as early as B. Delachenaye’s 1811 Abecedaire de flore, ou langage des fleurs, but the craze seems to begin in England with Frederick Shoberl’s 1832 translation “with considerable alterations and additions” of Charlotte de Latour’s Le Langage Des Fleurs. Shoberl’s “alter[ed]” and “improv[ed]” version of Latour’s original proved immensely popular, reprinted in its fourth edition by 1835 and in its tenth by 1846 (ix).[6] Since Shoberl was already editing Ackermann’s Forget-Me-Not, Ackermann seems to have turned to Blessington to produce another volume of flowers poetry to capitalize on the current craze. Blessington was well aware of the continental literature on flower language, quoting both Latour and Stephanie de Genlis’s La botanique historique et litteraire” (1810). However, she avoids quoting from Shoberl’s translation, presenting herself to her readers as an accomplished woman who needs no one to translate the French for her.

Since Blessington already had one popular annual on the 1835 Christmas giftbook market, Heath’s Book of Beauty, she had to be careful that her products did not directly compete with one another, nor with Ackermann’s other popular giftbook which also carried a “flower name,” the Forget-Me-Not, Blessington’s edition of the Book of Beauty was typical of the mainstream market: though bound more expensively in dark blue leather with gilded embossings, it appeared in a quarto measuring 20.3 x 13.5 cm—a mid-sized book for the market. Its content too followed common practice by providing a combination of poetry and short fiction by various authors, punctuated occasionally by engravings.

Flowers by contrast offered purchasers a volume out of the ordinary, benefitting from Ackermann & Co.’s commitment to aesthetic quality and innovation.[7] A large folio measuring 38 x 28 cm—larger than even the generously sized Fishers Drawing Room Scrapbooks (22.5cm x 28.5 cm)its size bespoke wealth and class. Its binding reinforced that suggestion: red morocco embossed with a rectangular series of bars about 2.5 cm inside the outer edges, creating an interior frame whose corners were decorated with gilt embossed curls. In the center of the frame, an oval wreath with a tasselled pillow at the bottom and a crown at the top, encircled the volume’s title, which was set in gilt capital letters approximately 1 cm tall. In contrast, Ackermann’s Forget-Me-Not, a small 18mo., was bound less lavishly, either in a “dark green cloth” or in “brown morocco gilt” (Tallent-Bateman 7).

At the same time that Flowers offered a rich presentation, it provided readers with significantly less text than the other popular annuals: on 26 leaves of heavy paper, the volume presented a mere 12 poems, all written by Blessington herself, with an engraved plate to accompany each poem. The thinness of the volume in contrast with its height suggested the impression of a sumptuously crafted volume, each page to be savored individually. Not only was the production quality of the book high, but that of the engravings was, in the words of one reviewer, “superb.” A contemporary reviewer of the volume described the design of the annual as follows:

The idea of the work is original as well as graceful, and the execution worthy of the design. A flower—for instance, a rose or a lily—is chosen as the subject of a poem and an engraving, which are both employed to illustrate some sentiment or anecdote of which the flower may be considered an emblem. The ingenuity and taste of the artist are manifest in the variety and loveliness of the ladies whom he has associated with the several flowers, ‘themselves the fairer flowers.’

Times Oct. 1835, 2

Thus the design of Blessington’s volume pairing a single text with a single engraving was unusual and expensive, placing equal emphasis on the written word and the visual image. Blessington’s Flowers, then, offered its purchaser an unequalled opportunity for displaying wealth and class, at the same time that it offered readers a topic of considerable popular interest, that of flowers and their meanings. The physical book complimented the class and wealth of its purchasers, and by extension the “value” of the readers to receive such an expensive and expensively produced volume as a gift.

A Woman Speaking to Women

As I have suggested, Blessington’s challenge was to create a volume that negotiated her complex reputations, her aesthetic sensibilities, and the marketplace—the dynamic relationship between author, publisher, purchaser, and reader. It is a marvel that Blessington was able to find a solution that satisfied all of these competing agencies, but the 1835 Flowers clearly succeeded admirably in doing so—primarily by combining illustrations, book design, and a poetry that spoke to women. In the remainder of this essay, I argue that Blessington’s strategy was to create from these elements the sense of a community of women relying upon each other for solace, companionship, and friendship. Ultimately Flowers of Loveliness depicts her poetic persona as a woman speaking to women, and her book becomes the embodiment of women and women’s community.

Given the physical design of Flowers, we can expect that its audience would have been tightly focused—and that Blessington would have crafted its poetry with equal care to speak to that audience. Although Blessington was probably reaching for a slightly higher ton than other giftbooks, the audience for Blessington’s lavish volume, as for all the annuals, was probably middle-class women who received such books as Christmas or birthday gifts. In my copy of the 1850 edition, for example, the inscription plate reads, “To Charlotte French on her birthday. October, 1854.” At the same time, for the volume to succeed economically, it would need to appeal not only to its audience, but to its purchasers. According to Harriet Jump, “if the annuals’ readers were primarily young girls and women, their purchasers must frequently have been parents, godparents, and other interested relatives,” a situation that, Jump argues, explains the “strong element of didacticism which permeates […] these works” (3). In light of the conflict between readers’ and purchasers’ interests, Jump argues that giftbook “authors had to perform a delicate balancing act, supplying their readers with what they wanted to read, combined (not always happily) with what it was believed they should read” (4).

Blessington found her balance in a complex analogy that links women to flowers. This analogy first appears in the epigraphs to the volume, repeated in each successive edition:

In Flowers and Blossoms, Love is wont to trace,

Emblems of Woman’s virtues and her grace;

Both pure, both sweet, both formed with curious skill,

The quaint analogy surprises still.

This epigraph establishes the volume’s thesis: that women and flowers form an “analogy” resting on their shared natures. Of course, this analogy is as much a stretch for the flowers as it is for women, and the idea that women embody the same essential qualities expressed by flowers is both supported and interrogated in Blessington’s poems. But this governing analogy effectively presents a woman’s text as something not only appealing to the female audience, but unthreatening to the purchasers of the giftbook, who were just as likely to have been male.

At the same time, the “quaint analogy” between women and flowers provides opportunities for multiple significances. For example, according to the OED, only at the very end of the eighteenth century does the word “quaint” begin to carry an association with being pleasantly old-fashioned—which the epigraph’s “still” suggests is the primary meaning. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century the word continues to carry earlier connotations of “carefully or ingeniously elaborated; highly elegant or refined; clever, smart; full of fancies or conceits; affected,” as well as the sense of an object being “strange, unusual, unfamiliar, odd, curious” (OED). The context of the epigraph allows both meanings to be applied not only to women and flowers, but to the metaphorical flowers being presented in this volume—Blessington’s poems. In a variety of senses, all of these analogous elements could be said to be “formed with curious skill.”

Thus the “flowers” in Flowers of Loveliness are multifaceted; they are the botanical flowers, the poems named after flowers, the women pictured in the accompanying engravings, the women in the poems themselves, and by extension the women reading the volume. Moreover, Blessington explicitly includes herself in this analogy by beginning her volume with “Daisies.” Just as the volume’s epigraph calls attention to the analogous nature of women and of flowers, Blessington’s footnote calls attention to Blessington’s status as a daisy: “The English daisy is called Marguerite in France.” Here Blessington performs an act of self-inscription similar to those Stuart Curran describes in other Romantic women’s poetry.

The poem itself furthers this identification by recounting the daisy’s elevation from a “simple” flower to an “emblem” for “sweet poesy,” an analogy for Blessington’s own implied elevation from a simple woman to a poet for women (1, 18). “Daisies” positions Blessington as both domestic and devout—valuing “simple flowers,” “simple children” and the “Power / who created child and flower”—a fit companion to the young women who will be her readers (1, 3, 12). Blessington’s poetry takes its inspiration, not from a traditional poetic muse, but from the following elements:

Flowers and children—emblems meet

Of all things innocent and sweet;

Gifts of tenderness and love,

Sent to bless us from above,

Smile, oh! Smile on me, and pour

Your fragrance round me evermore.

21-24

This highly textured analogy also helps Blessington avoid the problem that besets all women poets: the tradition that the female muse’s role is to inspire men. Blessington’s invocation of flowers and children as her muses allows a neat unification between her poetry and her audience, women who are themselves flowers. Her poetry, indeed the whole volume of poems, then originates in and is inspired by the sphere of women. Likewise the engravings accompanying each poem, all present two or more women seated closely to one another, touching arms, or hair, or faces, and in one-third of the images, pictured with a child as well.

The poems in Flowers repeatedly present the female community as independent of men, as supportive and life‑sustaining. Flowers offers a femininity more frequently cloistered rather than public, rural rather than urban, and defined by relationships between women more often than by relationships between women and men. The largest single group of poems focuses on women’s communities, particularly as they face assaults to their integrity, whether from separation, death, grief, or men’s infidelity. Most often, female friendships are framed as sisterhoods; and the experience of loss and sorrow these women share evoke statements upholding hearth and home.

Both “Orange Flowers” and “Heart’s-ease” show women supporting other women’s relationships with men. In “Orange Flowers” two sisters share grief and consolation when one embarks on her wedding day. The anxiety of leaving the “sheltering care” of family leads the bride, Viola, to “droop,” and her sister Florence to offer sad consolations (11, 1). Whereas the sentimental poetry Blessington criticizes in “Stock in Trade” might focus on the beloved’s separation from her male lover, here Blessington applies similar language to describe Florence’s loss of Viola to marriage. After encouraging her sister to make her new home as “joyous as our own fireside” (21), Florence laments her own impending isolation:

For myself,

My fate will be to see (through mists of tears)

Thy image always—in thy vacant chair

By thy still harp, and near the books thou lov’dst,

And near the sweet frail blossoming Orange Flowers;

And I shall hear thy voice in every breeze,

And answer thee—

22-27

The bereavement of the lover haunted by the image of the absent beloved, the harp “still[ed]” in her absence, and so forth, echo the “broken harps, and untuned lyres; lutes neglected, unquenched fires” of “Stock in Trade,” but shifts the landscape from the sublime to the domestic hearth, and the relationship from heterosexual to sororal.

Similarly, in “Heart’s-ease” Frances comforts Louisa in the absence of her beloved; though Louisa’s grief shares much with that felt by Mariana in Tennyson’s poem (published only 6 years before), Louisa’s relationship with Frances keeps despair at bay. Louisa says, revealing that her hope is still alive, “when he comes, / (But not till then), I’ll smile” (18-19)—in contrast, the isolated Mariana repeats, “he comes not [. . .] I wish that I were dead.” Frances’s encouragement allows Louisa to believe in the eventual return of her beloved, strongly contrasting to the heroine’s situation in “Stock in Trade” where no female companion impedes the “pale disease feed[ing] on [her] cheek” (23).

But while “Orange Flowers” and “Heart’s-ease” depict women as supportive of each other’s passions, in “Passion-Flower,” a woman betrays not the man who courts her, but her female supporter, disrupting the female community from within. Though Alice knows that Lord Bertram is the “affianced Lord” of her “benefactress,” she “weakly believe[s]” his promises that the Lady’s “love was only as a sister’s, cold and pure” (22, 21, 30, 27). The Lady, however, responds by sacrificing herself for Alice: though torn by “rebel spirits,” the Lady invokes the “aid” of her “good angels” in order to “resign” Bertram so that he can become Alice’s husband (33, 16, 50). The poem valorizes the Lady’s continued suppression of her passions even in the face of such deep betrayals: she determines that though her choice is “bitter,” she’ll “bear it as becomes / A woman—and though weak, a Christian still” (48-49). Suppressed passion and religious piety allow her to place her affection not in earthly but in heavenly love. The same suppression of passion that allows her to “resign” her betrothed also allows her to turn her affections to heaven. In the end, she invokes the passion-flowers that surround her balcony to “teac[h]” her “wayward heart/ to suffer patiently—and look to Him / Who sorrow, torture, death, sustained for me” (54-55).

“Roses” and “Snowdrop” also show women helping each other, but in dealing with the pain of grief. In “Roses,” a garden walk causes two sisters, Hermione and Helena, to reflect sadly on the loss of a third, Anne. In this poem, the relationship between women and flowers is the most overt and explicit. Anne’s “fragile” life is compared to that of a flower: though “blooming” and “bright” for a time, she soon after “droops,” “fades,” and “dies” (29, 28, 26). So fully have the sisters associated Anne with roses that each “dying rose” “recall[s] her last brief hours,” particularly for Hermione who feels a “gentle grief” at each blossom (37, 36, 24). The poem like others in the volume juxtaposes the views of the two characters: Helena represents religious consolation (for her, Anne clearly rests “in Heaven!” [47]); but Hermione is less sanguine, focusing instead on the contrast between the living natural world (the “bright, odour-breathing flowers” and the “music of the woods”) and Anne’s “narrow grave” (54-56). While the sisters’ perspectives on death differ, their relationship offers them an opportunity to share their grief and to console one another.

“Snowdrop,” however, combines the solace of female companionship in grief with the uncomprehending innocence of childhood. In a Wordsworthian narrative reminiscent of “We Are Seven,” a child-narrator asks her “weep[ing]” older sister a series of questions about her mother’s grave (19). The situation—as revealed through the child’s commentary—surrounds the child’s inability to understand the nature of her mother’s death since in dreams she continues to “see” the mother and to “feel” her “kiss” “on my brow” (17-18). Though her sister attempts to use metaphors to explain the idea of death—that Mother is sleeping, that Mother has gone to heaven—the child hears both explanations literally, which leads to her desire to “see our Mother’s bed” (2). The child finds the tombstone “no pillow” but a “cold, cold stone,” questions how “does our darling Mother sleep in a place so sad and lone?” and wonders when the Mother will awaken (3, 6-8). The sister’s explanation that “to Heaven she’s gone” fails as well, for the child considers heaven as a physical place and wishes “that we were there to-day!” (21-22). Only the child’s final comment—“Everything’s so grave and lone/ Since our Mother went away!” —suggests a growing awareness of the nature of death (23-24).

In addition to offering consolation, participating in a women’s community as modeled in “Lilies of the Valley” allows the narrator greater social freedom. Here “[s]imple village maids” travel the countryside freely together in search of flowers (7). The speaker of the poem contrasts cultivated Roses with wild Lilies of the Valley. The Rose, she notes, “of all the flowers that bloom within our garden bowers, is chosen Queen”; the Lilies on the other hand appear not in the cultivated garden, but rather in the “native vale” (1-3, 5). The secluded “lily” becomes an emblem for the virginal Village maids who love it, and that seclusion from the cultivated space is linked throughout the poem to the maid’s virginity and pure unsophistication.

At the same time, the ruse of appropriateness and piety occasionally slips up, uncovering a veiled eroticism. For example, “Lilies of the Valley” alludes to the pleasure of the female body by valorizing the narrator’s “lov[e]” for the “unseen” flower that “lingers in [her] native vale” which she loves for its “pearly bell and for its scent” and for the fact that the narrator’s “hand was first to find it there” (5-6, 19, 23-24). Even “Violets” consciously reminds readers of the sexual content of fables, legends and myths, stories of rape, sex and transformation, such as those of Io or Proserpine (though Blessington discreetly explains her allusions only in French). So, too, do the women’s voices sometimes appear inadequate to the task the poem sets for them: the narrator in “Lilies” cannot see the “purity,” “spotless modesty” and “placid brow” of the sleeping infant without praying that the infant should be “spare[d]” the “relentless years [. . .] wrinkling cares, and streaming tears!” that will come with age (2, 12, 14-16). The narrator’s cry—“why shouldst thou be doom’d to know / Of weary life th’increasing woe”—undercuts the simplicity of the “quaint analogy” between women and flowers (17-18). For though lilies are “free from care or sin, / stainless, do neither toil nor spin,” the infant cannot remain so, but must age or die (19-20).

But these moments of subversion are counterbalanced by the book’s obvious marketing to those who value English patriotism in both “Honeysuckle” and “Sunflower.” “Honeysuckle,” for example, offers the reader sentimental encomiums to “England, Isle of the free and Brave” and to “blissful” English homes, “blessed shrine[s]” from “whence happiness doth come” (13, 7, 8). These “cheerful hearths” offer “ev’ry solace of man’s life,” and those solaces are explicitly described in female terms, the comforts of “Mother,—Daughter,—Sister,--Wife” who inhabit the “holy” “home” (9, 1,, 12, 18). Blessington suggests that love and romance are patriotic values. In both these poems, nationalistic sentiment broadens the scope of typical symbolic meanings into which the language of flowers could be translated, since the books about that language focused almost exclusively on romantic relationships. “Honeysuckle” is one of the few poems where Blessington overtly calls attention to the meaning applied to the flower in Latour’s Langage: “Liens d’amour”—ties or bonds of love. In making the bonds that honeysuckle represents those of patriotism, however, Blessington diverts the expected association with marital or romantic love that the language of flowers books promote. “Sunflower” similarly openly flouts the “standard” definition which associates the flower’s turning to follow the sun to the misguided pursuit of earthly riches. Rather Blessington’s poem follows the lead of Thomas Moore’s epigraph to emphasize the sorrow of separation (sun’s setting) and assert the promise of a return of happiness (sun’s rising). In doing so, however, Blessington does not make an association typical in the trade of poetess poetry: women pining for the man who “wander[s]” from the “dear, blessed home!” (19, 20). Instead, the sun becomes a complex metaphor representing both the “roam[ing]” English tourists as well as the loved ones at home who draw the “wanderers” back (19).

The wary purchaser of this volume would be comforted by these poems’ recurrent emphasis on female purity and seclusion, the religious messages that the women draw from Nature, and the positive effects of female companionship. The young recipient of the volume would find as much here as in any annual to entrance and entertain: the emphasis on romantic love and marriage. But she would also find more, something beyond standard giftbook fare in Blessington’s delineations of fulfillment through the companionship of women.

Flowers in Review: Managing public perception

How successful Blessington was in her attempts to present a domestic, even devout face to her public appears most readily in the reviews of her edition of Flowers of Loveliness especially as they contrast with the later reviews of L. E. L.’s 1837 edition. These reviews reveal a distaste for annuals in general balanced by praise of Blessington’s finesse in writing for her audience—surely a mark of Blessington’s success at negotiating her way past the wary chaperones of female virtue. At the same time, these reviews also reveal a curious obsession with the sensuality of the images themselves, a sensuality that Blessington’s 1835 volume somehow manages to elide, but to which L. E. L.’s 1837 volume succumbs.

For the most part, contemporary reviewers responded with hostility to each year’s spate of giftbooks. In 1835, the reviewer for the London Times designated most of the 1836 annuals “mere showy gimmicks,” “trashy publications,” and the “greatest nuisances of the season.” In that year’s first review of the annuals, the Times reviewer notes only one annual deserving of “great praise,” the Book of Gems, a collection of “judiciously selected passages from the writings of our most eminent poets, of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Waller, Milton, Cowley, Dryden, etc.” — significantly, a roster of all male writers. The reviewer then caricatures the typical literary contents of the annuals:

Rhyming rodomontade or puling prose,—false sentiment in less pardonable verse, and tales of hearts that were broken because the invariable course of nature was not changed, nor the most valuable usages of society violated, merely in order to gratify the absurd whims and caprices of some spooney, sentimental hobbard-de‑hoy, or of some bread-and-butter boarding-school miss, just in her teens and just out of pin-a-fores.

“Book” 5

The reviewer continues his critique with an equally scathing assessment of the quality of the engravings:

Such rubbish [the literary text], too, is not unfrequently most appropriately illustrated with faces and figures that are seen nowhere else but in barbers’ windows, or in tailors’ or milliners’ show‑rooms. Now, stuff of this description can never be useful, and it ought not to be entertaining, because it is too shockingly stupid to laugh at.”

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The reviewer’s class bias is particularly clear here: proper middle‑class young ladies should not find amusing pictures more appropriate to the world of advertising. Furthermore, the pictures themselves are not as discreet as their viewers must be; instead, they are “public,” displayed in mercantile establishments, just as the women whom the pictures illustrate are “public,” accessible to the gaze of any young man with the resources to purchase them.

Five days later, on November 25, 1835, the London Times offers a second review of the 1836 annuals. This time, Flowers of Loveliness is considered, and the reviewer devotes half the space (about 8 sentences) to praising the “elegant volume edited under the auspices of the Countess of Blessington.” When discussing Flowers, the reviewer’s tone differs drastically from its earlier hostility, but at the same time, though its language is positive and complimentary, its praise is also strongly gendered. The illustrations—like beautiful women—are valued for their ability to “fascinate” and affect male emotions:

We certainly have never seen before in one work such a fascinating collection of female beauty—enough to melt a stoic or turn the head of a saint; and, what is scarcely less remarkable the artist has contrived to render his “belle assemblee” perfectly enchanting without one debasing touch of sensuality. The book is one, both in its writing and illustrations, which might be expected to proceed from an accomplished and right‑minded woman; it is one which may be put fearlessly and without reserve into the hands of the most delicate and innocent girl.

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The reviewer’s overt compliment of Blessington as “right‑minded” reveals the culture’s expectations for women: though Blessington has a public presence as a writer, her productions reinforce, for this reviewer, social expectations of women as “delicate and innocent” and women’s art as “enchanting”.

The review’s intentions, however, are undercut by its own language: whereas the illustrations themselves are devoid of sensuality, the review isn’t. The reviewer while praising the innocence of the images also calls the reader’s attention to the fact that beauty of the women is so powerfully rendered that those immune to physical charms—stoics and saints—are moved to respond. Then almost as if the reviewer recognizes the import of his statement, he hastens to add that the illustrations aren’t “debased” by “sensuality.” But this rhetorical point serves the reverse of its purpose, drawing the reader’s attention even further to sensual responses rather than away from them.

The reviewer’s characterization of Blessington as “right-minded” suggests a range of possibilities for Blessington’s reputation at this point: that the review is a puff, that the rumors about Blessington’s character aren’t common knowledge beyond a certain circle, or that Blessington’s performance of domestic, devout femininity successfully negotiates the expectations of readers and reviewers alike.

The positive comments Blessington’s Flowers garners from this Times reviewer contrasts strongly with the negative review that L. E. L.’s Flowers receives from the same publication two years later, but the underlying voyeurism of the reviewer’s language remains the same. In 1837, the Times chooses not to review the volume internally, but instead, reprints from Fraser‘s a “smart and just criticism [. . .] which [. . .] represents our opinion, both in its censures and its praise.” The 1837 reviewer complains about the poor quality of the art represented in the engravings, particularly focusing on the artist’s unnatural depiction of women:

Pansies, for instance in that delectable book the Flowers of Loveliness [. . . is] a fat indecency [. . .] whose shoulders are exposed as shoulders never might have to be, and drawn as shoulders never were. Why should Miss Corbeaux paint naked women, called waterlilies, and paint them all?—or Mr. Uwins design a group of females (the Hyacinths) who have limbs that females never had, and crouch in attitudes so preposterous and unnatural?

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The Fraser’s reviewer—just as the Times reviewer in 1835—critiques the physicality of the women presented in the images, but this time the reviewer suggests the images are sufficient to stand as pornographic. Consider for example the reviewer’s critique of the buyers of these images:

How rich! Says the gloating old bachelor, who has his bed‑room hung about with them, or the dandy young shopman, who can afford to purchase two or three of the most undressed; and the one dreams of Opera girls and French milliners, and the other of the splendid women’ that he has seen in the Y [. . .]s last scene at the Adelphi. [8]

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The viewer of the images, the reviewer asserts, will find in them ample sensuality. The reviewer believes that the Flowers’ illustrations are much like pornography hung in the bedrooms of men: it offers them “dreams” of sexually available women, stereotypically “public” women like Opera singers and Adelphi actresses, as well as working women like the French milliners. The women in the prints become “public” women as well, “h[a]ng[ing] about” in men’s bedrooms, where no proper lady should be. And the presentation of these images as “public” rather than “private” severely questions the appropriateness of such illustrations for the hands of “delicate and innocent” girls.

Once the reviewer associates the images with pornography, and the women in the images with “public women,” it follows that the writers of these books—already public women for having published—share much in common with other public women, prostitutes. L. E. L. writes verses for lascivious pictures that make men dream of public women, so L. E. L. becomes at best a pimp, at worst a prostitute herself. The reviewer thinly veils such criticism under the guise of good advice:

She [L. E. L.] will pardon us for asking if she does justice her great talent by employing it in this way? It is the gift of God to her—to watch, to cherish, and to improve: it was not given her to be made over to the highest bidder, or to be pawed over for so many pounds per sheet. An inferior talent [. . .] must sell itself to live; a genius has higher duties! and Miss Landon degrades hers, by producing what is even indifferent.

“Annuals” 4

The rhetoric is clear: L. E. L.’s gift for poetry is discussed as if it were her feminine virtue, which has been besmirched by her ill behavior in writing verses to accompany such engravings. L. E. L. “sells” her talent “to the highest bidder”; her poetry becomes a second body for L. E. L., one that is “pawed over” for a price.

Conclusions: Domesticity and the Poetess’s Public

Just as L.E.L.’s book becomes a second body for its author—one whose appropriateness is judged in the public market—Blessington self-consciously represents her volume as its author’s body, as her self-inscription in “Daisies” indicates. But whereas reviewers found L. E. L.’s volume to present an inappropriately sensual “body” of work, the reviewers find Blessington’s volume a suitable female companion to the young woman reader, offering comfort and encouragement and thereby constituting one of the female communities described in the poems.

Flowers, then, shows Blessington taking the voice of the “poetess” to meet a particular market. Her poetess however is not one who simply manipulates a poetic “stock” inherited from other more accomplished poets, but rather one who identifies markets and creates products to suit them. That this product marketed a particular type of women’s community and presented itself as a particular kind of woman shows mid-century women writers actively shaping conventions and aesthetics to endow themselves with a poetic voice.

Appendices