You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Articles

“Mightier than death, untamable by fate”: Felicia Hemans’s Byronic Heroines and the Sorority of the Domestic Affections

  • Sharifah Aishah Osman

…more information

  • Sharifah Aishah Osman
    University of Malaya

Article body

   Have you no children? – fear ye not to bring

The lightning on their heads? In your own land

      Doth no fond mother, from the tents beneath

            Your native palms, look o’er the deserts out,

      To greet your homeward step? You have not yet

Forgot so utterly her patient love –

      For is not woman’s in all climes the same? –

Elmina to Abdullah the Moor, The Siege of Valencia [1823]

Despite Felicia Hemans’s reputation as the best-selling female author in the early decades of the nineteenth century (one whose contemporary sales figures threatened to surpass even the acclaimed Byron’s[1]) it is surprising that only in the past decade or so have Romanticists participated in the active recovery, discussion, and publication of Hemans’s texts. Earlier readers such as Frederic Rowton, who edited the 1848 edition of The Female Poets of Great Britain, venerated the poems of “Mrs. Hemans” as the “perfect embodiment of woman’s soul”, and “intensely feminine”, since they displayed so patently “the delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman’s nature”.[2] More recent critics such as Susan Wolfson and Paula R. Feldman, however, discern in Hemans’s writings a reflection of the cultural ambivalence of her time. Wolfson, for instance, notes that although Hemans became renowned for such sentimental patriotic favorites as Casabianca, The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers, and The Homes of England, her poems also betray a grim obsession with the oppressive and devastating realities of domestic life, drawing attention to “the violence of war, its child martyrs, its female victims, its devastation of domestic affections, and the hollowness of its ‘glory’ and ‘fame’” (Introduction to Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials xvi). Similarly, Feldman, in her introduction to Hemans’s most accomplished collection, Records of Woman (1828), states that for an author who avidly promoted herself as “a defender of hearth and home”, Hemans’s poems “undercut, even while [they] reinforce, conventional views of women” (xx). In short, as Stephen Behrendt observes, the traditional view of Hemans as a sentimental lyricist of “feminine” domestic pieties has evolved in recent years into one that finally acknowledges her intellect and sophistication as a serious poet. Many contemporary scholars, including Behrendt, now regard Hemans as an author who “questioned alike empire and materialist culture, the unequal and gendered nature of British society, and the resulting social and political inequities of British life” (Review of Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials 217).

The defiant Byronic Oriental heroines that appear in Hemans’s poetry not only emphasize how domesticity and nationalism are mutually implicated through the role of women as moral authorities within the family, but also challenge stereotypical representations of femininity through their unorthodox acts of self-assertion—often by engaging in violence and even resorting to suicide as a means of avenging the loss of familial ties or emancipating themselves from their oppressive circumstances. Indeed, Hemans’s gallery of rebellious heroines like Eudora in “The Bride of the Greek Isle”, Maimuna in “The Indian City”, and a whole host of other distraught yet resolute women who insist on reclaiming their dignity and humanity through acts of violence and self-destruction, all reflect the poet’s persistent, even obsessive, meditations on the role of the Eastern woman in the formation of English national consciousness. As the feminized embodiment of Britain’s “self-consolidating Other”, Hemans’s Byronic heroines serve not only as potent symbols of English ambivalence towards racial and cultural difference but also reveal “the social and political inequities” of nineteenth-century British society by drawing attention to issues of nationalism and gender closer to home.

Hemans was clearly inspired by Byron’s propagandistic appropriation of the orientalized Greek heroine as a symbol of revolutionary freedom, and even composed several poems on philhellenic themes, namely “Modern Greece” (1817), “The Suliote Mother” and “Greek Funeral Chant” (from The Forest Sanctuary, published in 1825), “The Bride of the Greek Isle” (from the 1828 Records of Woman), and “The Sisters of Scio” (from the 1830 Songs of the Affections). Her figurative deployment of gender to discuss nationalist concerns, however, exceeded Byron’s in its scope, as seen in the racial and ethnic diversity of her orientalized heroines, who are not only Greek (as seen in the poems mentioned above) but also Indian Muslim, Hindu, African, and Native American, among others. Examples of these include the protagonists from “The Wife of Asdrubal”(1819), “Moorish Bridal Song” and “The Bird’s Release” (1825), “The Indian City,” and “Indian Woman’s Death Song” (1828), all of which I discuss here. The breadth and variety of Hemans’s portrayal of such heroines in her poems demonstrates her conflation of local perception with global consciousness—a uniquely cosmopolitan outlook that allows her to foreground the oppressive realities that underlie the lives of all women, regardless of color and creed. As Wolfson remarks, Hemans’s “exotic historical and cultural displacements [...] may seem strategically distancing and derealizing, but their fictionality allows disturbingly familiar issues to emerge, with the foreign scene returning a sign of a universal condition” (Introduction to Felicia Hemans, xvi).

Hemans’s sympathetic portrayal of her Byronic heroines in her numerous orientalist poems also exemplifies what Anne Mellor describes as an exceptionally tolerant view of ethnic and racial difference seen in the writings of Romantic-period women authors, and that reflects “the [imperialist] effort to assimilate cultural, ethnic, and racial difference into a unified family politic [...] [one] which anxiously tried to find sameness within [...] a practically infinite range of hybridities” (Mellor 144-5). Yet as both Tricia Lootens and Jane Stabler note, although Hemans espoused a more inclusive and nurturing view of empire in her poetry, such aesthetic efforts at cultural assimilation did not necessarily mean that she was uncritical of the British imperialist enterprise (Lootens, “Hemans and Home” 250; Stabler, Burke to Byron 229). Despite her reputation as the quintessential female author of popular English patriotic verse, it is difficult to perceive Hemans as an imperialist apologist. In fact, as the poet’s multi-cultural representation of the trials and tribulations of womanhood suggest, her concern lies with women and children—the often overlooked victims of patriarchal and patriotic duty—and their sufferings at the hands of negligent or treacherous husbands and fathers, whether abroad or at home. By drawing attention to the emotional turmoil of her female protagonists, Hemans reveals the incongruity between the ideals of the domestic affections and the bitter realities of woman’s fate. More importantly, such a compassionate view of the sufferings of woman allows her to promote the feminized idea of the British nation, and by implication, the British Empire, as a political commonwealth based on an ethic of care and tolerance, and presided over symbolically by a nurturing mother: Britannia.[3]

Thus, Hemans’s treatment of her Byronic heroines in her Orientalist poems demonstrates her engagement with contemporary discourses of gender and national identity in two distinctive ways. First, the poet’s appropriation of these defiant heroines as symbols of rebellion and revolutionary freedom enables her to draw on female experience to overturn conventional notions of patriotism associated with warfare and imperialist conquest. Most, if not all, of her Orientalist poems call into question the nobility of military acts of valor and sacrifice, and endorse instead the fierce nationalistic spirit that underlies a feminine martyrdom based on the domestic affections. In addition, by displaying her sympathy for the plight of these unfortunate Eastern “sisters”, Hemans propagates a form of feminine patriotism and political governance based on the notion of cultural assimilation rather than racial difference. Here, the poet’s feminization of national consciousness reflects a similar inclination among women authors of the period to exploit figures of maternal nurturing in order to assert their literary and political authority as social reformers. While this concept was also used to justify Britain’s imperialist efforts, Hemans’s ambivalent deployment of images of maternity and sorority in her writings suggests that issues of gender—“the haunt and main region of [her] song”, as Wolfson puts it (Introduction to Felicia Hemans, xvii)—provide fruitful avenues for examining her critical reflections on British nationalism and imperialism.

Much of Hemans’s obsession with portraying the misery of women’s lives in her poetry can be attributed to the numerous disappointments in her own personal life, the most well known being the failure of her marriage to Captain Alfred Hemans, whom she wed in 1812 at the age of nineteen. His abandonment of the poet and their five sons a mere six years later, leaving her to support their children on her own through her writing, is well-documented by biographers and scholars.[4] Her husband’s betrayal would have evoked the pain of her own father’s desertion of her mother, leaving the latter to raise six children with the most meager of financial resources, what Leighton terms as “something more than a cruel and unforeseen coincidence” in the lives of the two women (10). As a result, despite the public image that Hemans cultivated as a “feminine” poet who epitomized the joys of domesticity, her poems paradoxically reveal an inherent skepticism about the conservative values of the marital home, and even a sense of resentment at having to glorify such values in her writing. As Mellor claims, Hemans’s ostensible celebration of “the glory and beauty of maternal love, and the lasting commitment of a woman to her chosen mate” is threatened by “the fragility of the very domestic ideology it endorses” (Romanticism 124).

Indeed, in her personal correspondence, Hemans reveals her frustrations and anxieties over having to uphold the ideals of hearth and home—both in fiction and in real life—and the cost it exacted on her personal ambitions as an artist, and on her physical and emotional well being. While it is true that her husband’s desertion heralded some of the most prolific and commercially successful years of her career, home was not always the blissful place that she proclaimed it to be as “woman’s own true sphere”. [5] Despite the help and support that she received from her mother and sister in raising her family, the members of which usefully “immunized” her from the usual stigmas associated with the “unfeminine” financially independent, professional female author, she complains that

I am actually in the melancholy situation of Lord Byron’s ‘scorpion girt by fire’ – ‘Her circle narrowing as she goes,’ for I have been pursued by the household troops through every room successively, and begin to think of establishing my métier in the cellar; [...] [in] talk of tranquility and a quiet home, I stare about in wonder, having almost lost the recollection of such things, and the hope that they may probably be regained [...] [6]

This tone of resentment is further reflected in a letter that she wrote towards the end of her life, where she confesses, “It has ever been one of my regrets that the constant necessity of providing sums of money to meet the exigencies of the boys’ education, has obliged me to waste my mind in what I consider mere desultory effusions [...]” (qtd. in Wolfson, “Domestic” 134). Thus, while the dissolution of her marriage granted her the invaluable time and freedom that she needed to devote herself almost exclusively to her writing, and allowed her to capitalize on her image as a poetess “at home,” her poems in effect betray what Cora Kaplan has observed as “a symbolic discipline that turned anger inward and romanced death as the only resolution” (93-95).

Another plausible explanation for Hemans’s gendered treatment of the domestic affections as the basis for her redefinition of patriotism lies in her acute understanding of her own powerful role in the cultural production of English nationalist literature. For all of the remarks that she made regarding having to sacrifice her personal happiness in order to provide for her family through her writing, Hemans was also highly conscious of the fact that her appeal as a poet, especially among a distinctly female readership, stemmed from her canny ability to speak of, and for, other women. As one contemporary female reader enthused about the “maternal” Mrs. Hemans, “[she] just said the things I was thinking”.[7]

Indeed, it was precisely Hemans’s seemingly effortless ability to cater to the demands of a lucrative audience of women in a highly competitive literary marketplace that caused such resentment among male authors like Wordsworth and Byron. Although Wordsworth and Hemans established a firm friendship, he is noted for having begrudged the latter’s commercial success, and complained of her as a “spoilt child of the world” who, although highly intelligent, was unfortunately “totally ignorant of housewifery” (Wordsworth 138). Byron’s disdain over her mainstream popularity is even more obvious, as revealed in several name-calling episodes in his letters to John Murray (who also served as Hemans’s publisher), where he sardonically refers to her as “Mrs. Heman”, “Mrs. Hewoman”, and “your feminine He-Man” (Moore 452). His other infamous pejorative comment on the poet’s intellect—that he would have preferred it if she “knit blue stockings instead of wearing them” (455)—only emphasizes her formidability as a literary rival.

Thus, Hemans’s commercial prowess not only proves how attuned she was to the needs of her audience but also suggests that her poems attempted to establish a sorority of female suffering by depicting woman’s voice as a form of “socialized public speech to be ‘heard’ by other women, and to be understood [and thus claimed] as their own” (Leighton 13). She adopts, as Wolfson observes, the stance of a female Wordsworth—presenting herself as “a woman speaking to women” (Wolfson, “Domestic” 128)—and in doing so, embraces a powerful position of authority that enables her to exploit gender as a means to address issues of national identity. Through her Byronic heroines, Hemans advocates a new definition of patriotism, one based on an ethic of “feminine” self-sacrifice rather than “masculine” warfare, and which celebrates, even as it challenges, the ideals of the domestic affections. One of the most conspicuous means with which she attempts to achieve this form of nationalist propaganda is her use of motherhood as a symbol of female heroism.

Hemans’s Mad Mothers: Motherhood as Political Metaphor

Hemans’s Orientalist poems are replete with suffering mothers. Consider, for instance, the Muslim Maimuna in “The Indian City”, who seeks vengeance for the death of her son by inspiring inter-racial war; “The Suliote Mother”, who kills herself and her child by jumping into a chasm to avoid being enslaved by an invading army of Turks; and the bitterly defiant “Wife of Asdrubal”, a Carthaginian queen who decides to punish her husband for his political treachery by killing herself and their young sons in front of his very eyes. The intensity of these heroines’ emotional distress is reminiscent of the desperation of Byron’s Gulnare from The Corsair, the Greek harem slave who stabs her tyrannical husband Seyd in his sleep in order to escape from her loveless marriage. The fact that Hemans chooses to portray mothers committing such violent acts as murder or suicide, and sometimes even both, overturns some of the most powerful emotional connotations associated with Romantic or early Victorian motherhood. Hemans’s Byronic mothers are far from the stereotypically passive, angelic women of hearth and home who watch vigilantly over their young ones as they sleep; these heroines, as Tricia Lootens notes, are “figures in extremis […] whose sanity, and perhaps even humanity, is questionable” (243).

According to Elizabeth Fay, motherhood was one of the most influential metaphors that nineteenth-century female authors could deploy to address men, and thus the nation at large, on political subjects, since it endowed women with a level of subjectivity that would otherwise have been denied them under the laws of religion and patriarchy. Thus motherhood became an exceptionally powerful device for literary women since it enabled them to imagine a public role for themselves in a manner that was “reassuring rather than transgressive” (91). Under the guise of what Fay terms “maternal nationalism”, women writers were able to exploit the symbol of the protective and nurturing mother to reconfigure an idea of the nation in which children as future citizens would be “properly educated into political loyalty and social responsibility” (91). Yet as Fay correctly perceives, maternity as a social construct was confining as well as liberating for women, since their uniquely powerful status as mothers was also entirely dependent on their biological role as the producers of future citizens of the nation.

What happens then when an author like Hemans, who cultivated the image of a “maternal” poetess for much of her literary career, deploys one of the most dominant symbols of the period to highlight the connection between femininity and patriotism in ways that are patently transgressive? And why does Hemans deliberately empower her heroic mothers by granting them the right to decide on their own destinies, and that of their children, only to show how such acts of feminine self-assertion persistently end in gruesome and dramatic deaths? As poems like “The Wife of Asdrubal”, “The Suliote Mother”, “Indian Woman’s Death Song”, “The Indian City”, and The Siege of Valencia illustrate, Hemans’s depiction of her Byronic mothers draws attention to how these women are not only fiercely protective, but also actively seek their own deaths and that of their offspring. Mired by the betrayal of the men in their lives, and seeking relief from the sheer oppressiveness of their physical and psychological circumstances, these desperate women regard it as their maternal duty, and in the case of Hemans’s more overtly political poems, a patriotic necessity, to murder their children and to kill themselves, as the thought of raising their young in such a corrupt and unjust world is simply too much to bear. For these “mad” mothers, death becomes a conscious, if inevitable choice, and even a form of physical and emotional salvation, since it is clearly preferable to die than to be conquered in mind, body, and spirit.

Thus, Hemans’s ambivalent representation of motherhood in the Orientalist poems mentioned reflects her implicit critique of a patriarchal culture that is so inherently oppressive as to make these women perceive death as a perverse ideal, and motherhood as synonymous with martyrdom. If death is the most intense expression of maternal love for Hemans’s Byronic heroines, then feminine self-sacrifice becomes an equally important means for them to publicly declare their status as true patriots. By defiantly embracing death, these women not only reclaim their dignity and individuality as human beings, but also affirm their devotion to the land by asserting their rights as citizens. Most significantly, Hemans’s use of maternal nationalism challenges “masculine” notions of heroism based on military glory and political conquest through her privileging of feminine psychological rebellion. In the shadowy, melancholic spaces of her literary imagination—the ruins of the battlefield, the deserted homes, and the bleak landscapes of nature—Hemans’s defiant mothers reveal the treachery and cowardice of men who neglect their duties as husbands and fathers, sacrifice their own children as political pawns in times of war, and renounce their countrymen in the face of defeat in order to save themselves.

One of the most striking examples of Hemans’s portrayal of female nationalist fortitude is “The Wife of Asdrubal”, a poem which first appeared in Tales and Historic Scenes in 1819. As the headnote to the poem explains, the “mean-spirited” Asdrubal, governor of Carthage, secretly surrenders the city to Roman invaders, abandoning his countrymen, and even his wife and their two sons, in order to “throw himself at the conqueror’s feet”.[8] Left without a commander and faced with attack by the Romans, his people, “reduced to despair”, decide to set fire to the citadel in which they had sought protection. In a climactic scene of vengeance, the Wife of Asdrubal, to punish her husband for his selfishness and disloyalty, stabs their two children in front of him, and “while they were yet struggling for life, threw them down from the top of the temple, and leaped down after them into the flames” (149).

Hemans’s characterization of the Wife has all the familiar traits associated with Byron’s assertive Oriental heroines: she is “sternly beauteous” and “haughty” as she watches the fire growing in intensity; her looks reflect a “wild courage” and a “proud despair” that is “mightier than death, [and] untameable by fate”. She appears as an “avenging goddess” whose unbound locks seem “like a warrior’s floating plumage” (149), and whose defiance clearly refigures that of Byron’s Gulnare, who decides upon “the firmness of a female hand” to murder her husband (Byron, Corsair 3.8.381). And in a stanza which emphasizes the perverse conflation of maternal love with infanticide, the poet, voicing the incredulity of the shocked reader, asks “Are those her infants, that with suppliant cry / Cling round her shrinking as the flame draws nigh/ [...] Is that a mother’s glance, where stern disdain, / And passion, awfully vindictive, reign?” Yet the Wife appears to have been never more self-possessed; she confronts Asdrubal directly and expresses her unequivocal disgust over his actions by taunting him thus:

Live, traitor! live! [...] since dear to thee,

E’en in thy fetters, can existence be

Scorned and dishonoured live! – with blasted name,

The Roman’s triumph not to grace, but shame.

O slave in spirit! bitter be thy chain

With tenfold anguish to avenge my pain!

149-150

Here, Hemans highlights an explicit connection between the Wife’s insults and Asdrubal’s cowardice as a political leader, a man who “when his country perished, fled the strife/ And knelt to win the worthless boon of life”, but is now reduced “in bondage safe” to the status of a Roman slave (150). In contrast, the Wife casts her impending acts of murder and suicide, horrifying as they are, as the truest expression of maternal and patriotic devotion. Defying her husband to disprove the intensity of her affection for her sons, she reminds him that unlike him, she would never have abandoned their family and their people. Although Asdrubal has displayed the folly of his choice by desecrating his role as a military commander, husband, and father in order to save himself, she will now reclaim their collective dignity for his betrayal by courageously embracing death, and more significantly, take their sons with her so as to prove her point. In her eyes, it is infinitely better to perish free than to live enslaved. As she boldly proclaims:

E’en now my sons shall die – and thou, their sire,

 In bondage safe, shalt yet in them expire.

Think’st thou I love them not? – T’was thine to fly –

T’is mine with these to suffer and to die,

Behold their fate – the arms that cannot save

Have been their cradle, and shall be thy grave.

150

The Wife’s act of vengeance against her husband, which is made even more horrific through infanticide, suggests the paradoxical manner in which Hemans’s treatment of maternal love conflates with repressed rage over the betrayal of a spouse and father. If the Wife’s sacrifice of her children seems personally motivated, it is only because it emerges out of her sheer desperation for self-assertion. Unable to vent her anger physically on Asdrubal, the Wife retaliates by “killing” him through their sons (“thou, their sire [...] shalt yet in them expire”). To complicate Fay’s figuration of maternal nationalism, in which a mother’s role is perceived as crucial to the development of her children as politically loyal and socially responsible citizens, Hemans’s portrayal of the Wife’s murder of her sons suggests that in the humiliating absence of fathers who can, and indeed, should, serve as patriotic role models to their children, death seems to be the only bleak solution.

Furthermore, Hemans’s depiction of the Wife also enables her to deploy the liminal figure of the Orientalized heroine as a means to contemplate two “fantasies” that would have been deemed inappropriate for her female readers to even consider: revenge against a treacherous husband, and the murder of one’s innocent children to gratify one’s desires. Interestingly, Hemans’s projection of these subversive desires onto the character of the Wife not only enables her female readers safely to indulge a “mixture of morbid fascination and genuine indignation” [9] towards the Oriental heroine, but also to reflect on her own repressed anger over the idea of a husband’s desertion. Far from the “sweet and holy” attitude of suffering womanhood that Hemans was careful to cultivate in public—one that even Wordsworth could not help but admire [10]—Hemans’s characterization of the Wife’s response to masculine betrayal suggests that her personal life tended to intrude itself in her fiction despite her best efforts to restrain the ghosts of her past. As Leighton notes, “restlessness” is a distinctive trait of many of Hemans’s male characters, who are all, like her own husband and father, “anxious to depart” (26). Nevertheless, as wounded as Hemans may have been over her husband’s abandonment and its implications for her own freedom and thwarted desires, she was able take comfort in the knowledge that her personal disappointments could be channeled to such great commercial effect. Indeed, her later poems are indicative of a development within the poet herself, one that suggests that with time, maturity, and financial stability, she was able to overcome her lingering resentment over her husband’s mistreatment of her. Like the child martyr of “Casabianca”, Hemans’s depiction of her heroines in her later poems reflects her resigned acceptance of the fact that “women too must stand at the post of moral duty and hopeless devotion, whatever the cost or the absurdity of it” (13).

Thus, in “The Suliote Mother” (from the 1825 Lays of Many Lands), Hemans depicts another desperate mother who is compelled to kill herself and her child, seeing it as the only means to escape the horrors of enslavement. The poem is inspired by an account in the French biography of the Turkish Ali Pacha of how Suliote women, on witnessing the advance of the Turkish army, decide to “[precipitate] themselves, with their children, into the chasm below, to avoid becoming the slaves of the enemy” (417). Hemans’s treatment of the title character is remarkably similar to that of “The Wife of Asdrubal” in its display of the depth of the domestic affections. This Byronic mother, however, is moved to commit infanticide and suicide not out of vengeance for the betrayal of a husband, but from a pure desire for self-determination. As a victim of war, the heroine, with “a bitter smile/ And a dark flash in her eye”, faced with the stark prospect of rape and servitude as the enemy closes in (“Dost thou see where the foeman’s armor shines? / Hast thou caught the gleam of the conqueror’s crest?”), regards suicide as the only way to overcome the impending loss of her freedom and that of her child. With no men left to protect them, since the war has “cost [her son] a father”, and on the battlefield “lay Suliote sire and son [...] [in] piles of death”, death becomes an inexorable yet conclusive choice. Far from a sign of defeat or a plea for help, the mother’s last words to her infant son are a triumphant battle cry for liberty:

“Hear’st thou the sound of their savage mirth?

Boy, thou wert free when I gave thee birth –

Free, and how cherished, my warrior’s son!

He too hath blessed thee, as I have done!

Ay, and unchained must his loved ones be –

Freedom, young Suliote! for thee and me!”

417

The Suliote mother’s decision to kill herself and her child reveals Hemans’s representation of maternal love to reflect a distinctly feminine version of patriotism, where a connection is established between domestic affection and political rebellion. In addition, the poem highlights the inadequacy of a nationalist heroics based purely on military glory, since the men here perish as victims of war and violence as well, leaving their homes and families vulnerable to attack. In drawing attention to the paradoxical absence of male protection (a form of betrayal in itself) the poem enables Hemans to cast the Suliote mother’s actions as a “self-consuming heroism” (Wolfson, “Domestic” 31) a crucial element in her redefinition of patriotism. Accordingly, it also serves as a remarkable example of Hemans’s perceptiveness in addressing a similar, if displaced, dilemma faced by her own countrywomen—the thousands of mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters who have been left behind at home, divided from their men, or even lost to them, through British military and colonial service—an address that helps explain the poet’s popularity and commercial success among female readers in a time of war.

The defining characteristics of a form of nationalism based on the extreme display of domestic affection, female passion, and self-determination in the mode of Byron’s defiant oriental heroines also mark Hemans’s depiction of the protagonist in “Indian Woman’s Death-Song”, from her celebrated collection, Records of Woman (1828). The poem, based on a tale found in Stephen Long’s “Expedition to the Source of St. Peter’s River”, relates the incident of an Indian[11] woman who, “driven to despair by her husband’s desertion of her for another woman”, decides to drown herself and her infant daughter by rowing her canoe toward a cataract in the Mississippi river. Significantly, Hemans uses the poem to emphasize the theme of female suffering, as cued by an epigraph from James Fennimore Cooper’s The Prairie in the headnote, which states “Let not my child be a girl, for very sad is the life of woman” (468). Here, the Indian woman’s “wild, proud strain – a song of death” evokes the defiance of both the Wife of Asdrubal and the Suliote Mother in its display of the intensity of maternal devotion. Unable to withstand the agony of her husband’s infidelity (he “hath looked upon another’s face” while hers “hath faded from his soul”), her revenge against male authority takes the form of a perverse yet triumphant infanticide and suicide.

Through such acts of self-assertion, this Byronic mother not only stakes her “claim for a freedom elsewhere denied” (Goslee 249) but also believes that killing her daughter actually shields the latter from the lifelong misery that will eventually befall her as a woman. As she declares in the last two stanzas of her death-song:

 “And thou, my babe! though born, like me, for woman’s weary lot,

 Smile! – to that wasting of the heart, my own! I leave thee not;

Too bright a thing art thou to pine in aching love away –

 Thy mother bears thee far, young fawn! from sorrow and decay.

 She bears thee to the glorious bowers where none are heard to weep,

 And where th’ unkind one hath no power again to trouble sleep;

 And where the soul shall find its youth, as wakening from a dream:

One moment, and that realm is ours. On, on, dark-rolling stream!”

468-9

According to Nancy Moore Goslee and Susan Wolfson, in this version of female heroics, death provides not only physical release from the pain of masculine betrayal, but also a means for the suffering victim to achieve spiritual salvation (Goslee 249; Wolfson, “Domestic Affections” 153). Thus, the Indian woman views her suicide not as a destructive act of defeat, but the renunciation of one cruel patriarch (a heartless husband) for the welcoming embrace of another: the Mississippi river, the “Father of ancient waters” and “Father of waves” in the poem. If patriotism is defined as a deeply felt attachment to one’s own land, then Hemans’s characterization of this Byronic mother clearly illustrates how the latter’s eagerness to merge with nature (in this case, literally so) reflects not only a desire for freedom and acceptance, but also serves as the ultimate gesture of love and sacrifice. Furthermore, Hemans’s transformation of Nature here into a masculine, indeed patriarchal presence, indicates her rejection of Romanticism’s mythologizing of nature as a feminine symbol of nurturing and security. Instead, as Goslee suggests, Hemans’s depiction of the Indian woman’s melancholic immolation in the sublime wilderness of the cataract is suggestive of the heroine’s “defiant claim of her own sexuality”, a desire that is “celebrated and climactic” but “displaced to natural images and made suicidal”, so as to be socially acceptable to her readers (249).

Hemans reprises the theme of maternal nationalism in “The Indian City”, another poem from the 1828 Records of Woman and inspired by a tale in Forbes’s Oriental Memoirs. Here, the poet depicts with striking intensity the devastating effects of female vengeance through her portrayal of the Muslim heroine Maimuna, who causes the fiery destruction of an entire city in her attempt to seek justice on behalf of her dead son, murdered for inadvertently wandering into the forbidden grounds of a sacred Hindu temple. In the face of such a tragic loss, the bereaved Maimuna, in a dramatic display of controlled rage, demonstrates the unmistakable pride and passion of Byron’s most rebellious Oriental heroines:

She rose

 Like a prophetess from dark repose!

 And proudly flung from her face the veil,

 And shook her hair from her forehead pale,

 And ’midst her wondering handmaids stood,

 With the sudden glance of a dauntless mood.

 Ay, lifting up to the midnight sky

 A brow in its regal passion high,

 With a close and rigid grasp she press’d

 The blood-stain’d robe to her heaving breast,

 And said – “Not yet, not yet I weep,

 Not yet my spirits shall sink or sleep!

 Not till yon city, in ruins rent,

 Be piled for its victim’s monument.

465

Indeed, Maimuna realizes her vow of revenge—to see the Indian city “in ruins rent”—not through direct involvement in its destruction, but by compelling others to adopt her cause through her tale of “sad renown.” Consider the following stanza, where her inspirational role in rallying her Muslim brethren throughout the land to retaliate against “the children of Brahma” is most evident:

Maimuna from realm to realm has passed,

 And her tale had rung like a trumpet’s blast.

 There had been words from her pale lips poured,

 Each one a spell to unsheathe the sword.

 The Tartar had sprung from his steed to hear,

 And the dark chief of Araby grasped his spear,

 Till a chain of long lanes begirt the wall,

 And a vow was recorded that doomed its fall.

 Back with the dust of her son she came,

 When her voice had kindled that lighting flame;

 She came in the might of a queenly foe,

 Banner, and javelin, and bended bow;

 But a deeper power on her forehead sate –

 There sought the warrior his star of fate:

 Her eye’s wild flash through the tented line

 Was hailed as a spirit and a sign,

 And the faintest tone from her lip was caught

 As a sibyl’s breath of prophetic thought.

466

What Maimuna lacks in physical prowess, she more than makes up for in her role as a “queenly foe” and a “prophetess”, her words “a spell” capable of “[kindling]” the flames of war. More significantly, the source of her “deeper power” as a woman and a mother lies in her ability to engage the domestic affections for a political purpose. She becomes, in short, a nationalistic symbol of maternal passion that unifies her community and provokes them into “Moslem war”. With a “wounded heart” that “cries against a mighty wrong” (466), her voice becomes a clarion call for military action. Indeed, there appears to be an explicit self-reference in Hemans’s depiction of Maimuna as a “poetess” or bard-like figure capable of inspiring militaristic power. In this sense, the heroine’s charismatic political authority is suggestive of a role that Hemans herself (despite her fame and commercial success) wishes she could have attained and been publicly acknowledged for. Her tone of regret is best reflected in a letter that she wrote near the end of her life, when she was in poor health, where she declares: “My wish ever was to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work; something of pure and holy excellence (if there be not too much presumption in the thought), which might permanently take its place as the work of a British poetess” [my emphasis].[12]

For the female poet, however, such artistic achievement is frequently unable to compensate for the lack of domestic security, a fact that Hemans would have been all too conscious of. Thus, despite achieving her objective—the stately Indian city is razed to the ground, with “palace and tower [...] like fallen trees by the lightning cleft”—Maimuna’s victory against her enemies is depicted as a hollow one, since it is unable to restore the bonds of affection that have been severed by death. Her devotion and desire for vengeance inspires patriotism in others, but it does little to fill “the deep void of the heart, nor still / The yearning left by a broken tie” (466). The only means left for this grieving mother to be reunited with her son and thus return to her former idyllic emotional state is to die, a fate she accepts with pride and triumph, as seen in her request for him be given “proud burial at [her] side”, both their graves shaded by the ruins of the fallen city.

Although Hemans valorizes Maimuna as a feminine symbol of maternal nationalism and acknowledges her power to provoke others into military action in order to uphold family honor and national pride, her depiction of the detrimental effects of masculine warfare in the poem emphasizes the futility of pressing the domestic affections into the service of a “militaristic patriotism” (Lootens 242). Maimuna attains her martyrdom at too high a price: the utter destruction of a stately, idyllic city and the huge loss of lives, including, of course, her own. Thus, Hemans establishes a connection between femininity and patriotism in the poem only to undermine it, so as to show “the failure of domestic ideals [...] to sustain and fulfill women’s lives” (Wolfson, “Domestic” 145). Most significantly, she implies that when female affection is compromised by the egoistic desire for military conquest and patriarchal glory—as seen in the swift manner in which the heroine’s tale of a “deep heart wrung” induces men to “unsheathe the sword” and “grasp their spears” (466)—even righteous, devoted mothers like Maimuna can “inspire bad wars” that result in senseless devastation (Lootens 245).

Hemans’s characterization of Elmina in The Siege of Valencia (1823) evokes Maimuna’s futile heroism in her depiction of how maternal affection challenges masculine definitions of patriotism through its exposure of the hollowness of patriarchal notions of national honor. Set in late medieval Spain, the play stages the political conflict between the Christian city-state of Valencia and the Muslim Moors and links ideas of motherhood with nationalism through Elmina’s role as an aggrieved mother who pines for her young sons, who have been taken hostage by the Moorish prince Abdullah. Unlike her husband Gonzalez, the governor of Valencia, who regards the boys’ capture and potential murder as a sign of masculinity and noble martyrdom, Elmina resists the sacrifice of her innocent sons to such a rigidly patriarchal egotism and even plots to betray the city by unlocking its gates in exchange for their release. However, guilt causes her to falter before she can perform this act of self-assertion, a trait that places her in opposition to openly defiant mothers like the protagonists in “The Wife of Asdrubal”, “The Suliote Mother”, and others previously discussed.

By depicting how Elmina succumbs to the pressures of “the struggle between the consciousness of duty and maternal fondness”, [13] Hemans demonstrates how her plight as a suffering mother arises from her awareness that the cries of maternal affection, even those as plaintive as hers, pleading that “[she] must be heard”, do not count for much in a world where nationalism is defined through military glory. Her frustration with the selfishness and empty pride of a “masculine” imperialist culture that appears to have little respect for the domestic affections is seen most clearly in her tirade against Gonzalez, who insists that their dignity as a nation must be preserved at all costs, even if it means losing their sons:

 Oh, cold and hard of heart,

Thou shouldst be borne for empire, since thy soul

Thus lightly from all human bonds can free

Its haughty flight! – Men! men! Too much is yours

Of vantage; ye, that with a sound, a breath,

A shadow, thus can fill the desolate space

Of rooted up affections, o’er whose void

Our yearning hearts must wither! – So it is,

Dominion must be won!

325-6

Similarly, Elmina’s pleas to Abdullah to spare her sons’ lives are met with scorn and indifference. He refers to her entreaties as “vain words” and upon seeing her kneel in front of him, asks her to return to her husband, for perhaps “[he] may be lightly won / By a few bursts of passionate tears and words” (336). This exchange illustrates yet again how “women’s affections succumb to the poison of men’s undomestic passions” (Wolfson, “Domestic” 147). Although Abdullah comes from a different cultural system, he subscribes to the same patriarchal ideology in which the sacrifice of sons in times of war is regarded as an act of noble martyrdom, and is thus unable to appreciate Elmina’s maternal point of view. More importantly, Gonzalez’s vilification of Elmina as a political traitor suggests that much of the tragedy of the play arises from the misguided urge to sentimentalize warfare as an expression of patriotism and a means to maintain patriarchal honor, a notion that even young children are psychologically conditioned into accepting (a point that Hemans also reinforces in “Casabianca”). For instance, when Elmina visits Abdullah’s camp to negotiate a deal for the release of her sons, her eldest boy Alphonso warns her against such a “selfish” act of treachery since their pride and national dignity are at stake:

Yet, yet beware!

It were a grief more heavy on my soul,

That I should blush for thee, than o’er my grave

That thou shouldst proudly weep!

337

In such an oppressively patriarchal cultural environment, Elmina’s refusal to sacrifice her sons is regarded as a mark of feminine weakness that compromises her entire community rather than as a courageous act of female rebellion. Her repentance over the error of her ways later in the play, however, is glorified as the only “appropriate” response of a true patriot. Indeed, contemporary reviews of the play, such as that which appeared in the British Critic, extolled Hemans’s depiction of Elmina as a penitent and hence dutiful mother, the embodiment of an “exquisitely beautiful” maternal voice. Such a compliment is implicitly extended to the poet herself, since the play is also described as a “deep and passionate strain of eloquence” that a “mother only could have poured forth” (Wolfson, “Felicia Hemans” 229). As Wolfson notes, the reviewers’ apparent indifference to Hemans’s political critique of imperialist ambition in the play stems from their inability to discern anything but Elmina’s “self-sacrificing” virtues as a woman and a mother (231). Indeed, the poet’s indictment of the emptiness of patriarchal notions of warfare, honor, and national glory has, until recently, been eclipsed by mellifluous praises of her treatment of the domestic affections. Nonetheless, as the tragic ending of The Siege of Valencia reveals (Elmina’s family members all perish in battle, while she is left alone to mourn her “uprooted” life in an “unpeopled earth”), the ideals of the domestic affections rarely correspond to the harsh realities of women’s lives.

“Woman’s weary lot”: The Sisterhood of Female Suffering

Hemans’s nineteenth-century readers tended to overlook the political connotations of her writings, preferring instead to admire her treatment of “[the] tenderness and loftiness of feeling, and an ethereal purity of sentiment, which could only emanate from the soul of a woman”.[14] The gendered language of the contemporary reviews exhibits some of the choicest forms of condescending praise, as in the 1820 Edinburgh Monthly Review, whose (male) author commended the poet’s avoidance of “political warfare” and “personal satire”, subjects he regarded as clearly “unsuitable” for her “gentle hands” (Wolfson, Introduction to Felicia Hemans, xx). Accordingly, when her poems are perceived to contain the threat of a political subtext, she is reprimanded for her “unfeminine” nature, a trait that places the poet in danger of Wollstonecraftian impropriety: “Our authoress [...] has a strong predilection for warlike affairs, for bold, fervid, and daring characters. We must, however, remark, that the military spirit that breathes and glows in many of her pages, does not add to their real excellence. We do not like Bellona as a Muse”.[15] Fortunately, the recent works of Romantic scholars like Susan Wolfson, Stuart Curran, Marlon Ross, Nanora Sweet, and Anthony John Harding [16] have recuperated Hemans’s texts from such critical denigration, allowing for more enlightening views of her gendering of British political discourse. In fact, the poet’s sympathetic portrayal of her racially diverse Byronic heroines, all of whom are “bold, fervid, and daring”, and exude a strong “military spirit”, rather than being regarded as a literary failing, can now be appreciated for its political acumen.

Ironically, despite Hemans’s enchantment with Byron’s treatment of female heroism, her reputation as a national “poetess” and the embodiment of English feminine rectitude was used to pit her against the poet, a comparison that surely served as a source of irritation to Byron, and that explains his resentment over her fame. As a Tory reviewer from The Quarterly declared of Hemans’s writings: “we can trace no ill humour or affectation, no misanthropic gloom, no querulous discontent; [...] whether the emotions she excites be always those of powerful delight or not, [...] our hearts at least will never be corrupted” (Wolfson, “Hemans” 161). It comes as no surprise, then, that Byron’s political views, specifically his opinions on Greece, were strongly divergent from Hemans’s. Indeed, he disparages her openly in an 1817 letter to John Murray, describing her poem Modern Greece (published the same year) as “good for nothing; written by some one who has never been there”. [17]

At issue is the British Government’s purchase of the Elgin marbles and its removal from Greece to England, which Byron describes as a form of vicious “plunder from a bleeding land”: “Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee, [...] / Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldring shrines remov’d / By British hands” (CHP 2:13-15). As Sweet argues, Hemans, in contrast, regards the displacement of the marbles as an inexorable, and even necessary, act of preservation (“History” 177). She depicts the English not as a nation of plunderers and thieves, but as rescuers and protectors, since by being “borne to other lands”, these precious relics will avoid being defiled by “rude insensate conquerors”, “spoilers of excellence” and “foes to art”. Indeed, she believes the removal of the marbles to England may even prove beneficial, kindling knowledge and artistic genius in the West, and possibly producing a “British Angelo” (Modern Greece 91-93).

Hemans’s perception of the role of England as a nurturing restorer and custodian of ancient Greek art and culture can be extended to an understanding of her feminization of British national consciousness. Specifically, Hemans envisions Britain as a model Christian nation, the British Empire as a harmonious commonwealth that attempted to accommodate peoples of various racial, cultural, and political identities, and Britannia as a nurturing icon of maternal affection, empathizing benevolently with the plight of her colonized, oppressed sisters around the world. Her depiction of the sufferings of the Eastern woman in such poems as “The Bride of the Greek Isle” (1828) and “The Sisters of Scio” (1830), for example, evokes Byron’s appropriation of the figure of the Greek slave-woman as a nationalist symbol of revolutionary freedom in his Orientalist fiction. And while poems like “Greek Funeral Chant”, “Moorish Bridal Song”, and “The Bird’s Release” (1825) that dramatize the mourning rituals of various cultures from a feminine perspective are not ostensibly related to imperialist issues, since they appear to be mere “effusions” of grief, they do depict with great sensitivity Hemans’s empathy toward universalized female suffering and her desire to blur the differences between East and West through an emphasis on the domestic affections.

In “The Bride of the Greek Isle” from Records of Woman, Hemans engages with themes of female empowerment and the subversion of patriarchal injustice through her portrayal of the title character, Eudora, a young Greek beauty who is abducted by pirates on her wedding day. Eudora’s triumphant act of suicide not only recalls the self-determination of the “mad mothers” in “The Wife of Asdrubal”, “The Suliote Mother”, and “Indian Woman’s Death Song”, but also Byron’s Greek harem slave Myrrha in his 1821 drama Sardanapalus, whose self-immolation is seen as a symbolic feat of courage and rebellion. Indeed, Hemans cues the reader to this link through the poem’s epigraph, which cites Myrrha’s defiant speech before leaping into the pyre to join her lover, the defeated Assyrian king Sardanapalus, who has himself chosen suicide rather than to “live degraded” in exile or captivity: “Fear! – I’m a Greek, and how should I fear death? / A slave, and wherefore should I dread my freedom?”(1.2.527-28).

Although Eudora is not a slave, Hemans’s footnote, which explains the circumstances that inspired the poem, reinforces her feminist connection to Myrrha. The poem, she states, is based on an incident found in Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature and is part of a series of pictures called “Of a Biography Painted”. It dramatizes a painting by the Venetian traveler Charles Magius, which is described by D’Israeli as follows:

The Turks are seen landing with their pillage and their slaves. – In one of the pictures are seen two ships on fire; a young lady [...] preferring death to the loss of her honour and the miseries of slavery, determined to set fire to the vessel in which she was carried; she succeeded, and the flames communicated to another.[18]

In the poem, Eudora’s Byronic heroism is ignited by the violence of men—pirates who disrupt her wedding celebration, murder her groom Ianthis, tear her away from his corpse “in wild despair”, and abduct her in the night. Here, Eudora’s anguish in the face of such injustice also evokes Byron’s portrayal of Haidee from Canto IV of Don Juan, whose courage in the face of adversity is seen in her defiance of her father Lambro’s violent authority when he and his crew of pirates attempt to separate her from Juan:

She stood as one who champion’d human fears –

 Pale, statue-like, and stern, she woo’d the blow;

And tall beyond her sex, and their compeers,

 She drew up to her height, as if to show

A fairer mark; and with a fix’d eye scann’d

 Her father’s face – but never stopp’d his hand.

4.43

Like the heroic defiance of Myrrha and Haidee, the threat of slavery and sexual violation provokes a fury in Eudora that can only be appeased through death. Thus, while the rest of the ship’s occupants (“slave and master” alike) swim frantically to shore to escape “the might and wrath of the rushing flames”, Eudora decides on the only course of action that can avert “the loss of her honour and the miseries of slavery”:

– and lo! a brand

 Blazing up high in her lifted hand!

 And her veil flung back, and her free dark hair

 Sway’d by the flames as they rock and flare;

 And her fragile form to its loftiest height

 Dilated, as if by the spirit’s might;

 And her eye with an eagle-gladness fraught, –

 O, could this work be of woman wrought?

 Yes! ‘twas her deed! – by that haughty smile

 It was hers: she hath kindled her funeral pile!

 Never might shame on that bright head be:

 Her blood was the Greek’s, and hath made her free!

455

The fire that overwhelms the ship, instead of being an agent of destruction, becomes Eudora’s mode of deliverance, emancipating her from her servitude to men. Like Myrrha, who sees her self-immolation as proof of her devotion to her king, akin to the ritual of suttee that “an Indian widow braves for custom”, Eudora stands “[p]roudly [...] like an Indian bride / On the pyre with the holy dead beside” (455). Similarly, Eudora’s fidelity recalls that of the “serenely savage” Haidee, who dies overwhelmed by her grief for Juan, but whose humanity and courage Byron emphasizes throughout the poem. Thus, even though the poem stages Eudora’s death as a mark of her impotence against the heartlessness of male aggression, her suicide exalts her into a political martyr, one who reflects an impassioned desire to assert her humanity and to reclaim her dignity as a woman. Clearly, Eudora stands with Myrrha and Haidee in a Byronic sorority, serving as a figure of Hellenic resistance through Hemans’s conflation of the indomitable spirit of the Greeks with the sentimentalized pathos of the Hindu widow.

Hemans’s philhellenism, kindled by the success of Byron’s Orientalist poems of the 1820s, and expressed in poems like “The Sisters of Scio”, did not escape the notice of contemporary reviewers. John Wilson, for instance, commended Hemans’s portrayal of the courageous women of the Greek island of Scio in an 1829 review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Noting Hemans’s association of female martyrdom with political rebellion, he concedes how death can seem so attractive to these beleaguered women:

Die – rather let them die in famine amongst sea-sand shells, than ere their virgin charms be polluted in the harem of the barbarian who has desolated their native isle! Bowed down and half dead, beneath what a load of anguish hangs the orphan’s disheveled head on the knee of a sister, in pensive resignation, and holy faith triumphant over despair, as Felicia [Hemans] happily singeth.

Feldman, Notes to Records of Woman, 167

The poem, from the Songs of the Affections (1830), depicts the fate of two sisters who are orphaned by the Turkish occupation of Scio in 1822 during the Greek war for independence and reenacts the desperation of the Suliote mother who, faced with enslavement by the Turks, consoles her infant son with words of courage even as she walks him toward a chasm that will serve as their grave. Here, a young woman placates her sister in a similar fashion by reminding her that she is not alone in her grief over the loss of “our father’s voice, our mother’s gentle eye, / Our brother’s bounding step”. Even if death (or worse, slavery) appears inevitable, the fact that they are still together provides some measure of comfort, bonded as they are by the intensity of their affections. As the epigraph to the poem states: “Strong affection / Contends with all things, and o’ercometh all things.” Thus, the heroine declares, “Cheer then, beloved! [...] thy sister’s heart and faith are high / Our path is one – with thee I live and die!” (519).

In her 1825 collection, Lays of Many Lands, Hemans displays a similar emphasis on bereavement in three Orientalist poems set in different cultural systems. The first, “Greek Funeral Chant”, articulates with great poignancy the grief of three women in a family (a mother, a wife, and a sister) as they mourn the loss of a young man who has been slain in battle. The second, “Moorish Bridal Song”, is based on a custom practiced by the Moors, where a woman who dies unmarried is buried in her finest wedding costume, and “a bridal song is sung over her remains before they are borne from her home” (492). Finally, in “The Bird’s Release”, Hemans alludes to the mourning ritual of the Bengali Indians, whose custom it is to “bring cages filled with birds to the graves of their friends, over which they set the birds at liberty” (492), highlighting the idea of death as a form of escape from the physical and emotional constraints of “woman’s weary lot”.

Although Hemans professes that these poems are merely “commemorative of some national recollection, popular custom, or tradition”, and are to be considered as part of a series (there are twenty in all), they demonstrate more than the “desultory effusions” of a consciously feminine sentimentality, as the poet herself would self-effacingly claim about most of her work. In fact, Hemans’s persistent focus on female experience in her poetry—a tendency that contributed much to her fame—posits a role for the domestic affections in propagating a notion of political governance based on an ethic of care and tolerance, and founded on racial diversity and cultural assimilation. Her sympathetic portrayal of the numerous Byronic heroines in her Orientalist writings, showing them in various states of female suffering, suggests that unlike Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, she did not view the Eastern woman as a figure of opposition but instead acknowledged and identified with her dignity, virtue, and strength of character.[19]

In this sense, Hemans’s Byronic oriental heroines serve not as the feminine West’s absolutely alien, ultimate “Other” but instead as a “recognizable image in the mirror” (Melman 316). As Glennis Stephenson notes, “[These heroines] may be disguised [...] but a stolid middle-class English woman, utterly devoted to husband and children, is only barely concealed beneath exotic beads and skins” (64). However, because Hemans stages the deaths of her heroines almost obsessively (as Paula Feldman observes, nearly every poem in Records of Woman “describes a corpse or the anticipation of one” [Introduction xxii ]) such an image, although familiar, was not necessarily pleasant to behold. Indeed, as the feminized embodiment of Britain’s “self-consolidating Other”, these characters illustrate how Hemans, like Byron, regarded the Eastern woman as a liminal figure: one that inspires admiration and sympathy, but also provokes fear and distrust. One needs only to recall, for instance, Hemans’s depiction of the Wife of Asdrubal (“Are those her infants?” “Is that a mother’s glance, where stern disdain / And passion awfully vindictive, reign?”), and the suicidal Greek bride Eudora (“could this work be of woman wrought?”), whose “unfeminine” actions incite such horror and disbelief. Having said that, the poet also reminds us that her heroines’ transgressions are motivated not by a perverse desire for murder and self-destruction, but by the betrayal of men, and thus their humanity can paradoxically be redeemed only through death. As Wolfson remarks, “[Hemans’s] assertive women take no joy in their power, and their heroism emerges only inversely to domestic happiness, or to life itself” (“Domestic” 155).

Most significantly, Hemans’s Byronic heroines not only reflect her gift for valorizing the domestic affections to underscore the sorority of female suffering, but also reveal her deployment of the figure of the Eastern woman to draw attention to the social injustices that English women faced in their own lives. It is in her persistent exploration of the implications of patriotism and imperialism for women that her poems most resonated with her audience, especially one that had highly ambivalent views about war and its role in the quest for national glory, and that fervently questioned the nature of heroism. If woman’s empire is her home, then Hemans’s critique of the domestic ideal through the tragic lives of her Byronic mothers and sisters demonstrates the physical and emotional toll that a nation with imperialistic ambitions like Britain exacts on its devoted citizens.

Appendices