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Ana Parejo Vadillo’s Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity is a sophisticated hybrid study combining literary critical and feminist recovery work with urban studies and cultural history in a project that has as much to offer scholars of fiction and non-fiction prose as to poetry enthusiasts. The four figures who are the prime focus of her attention (Amy Levy, Alice Meynell, Graham R. Tomson, and Michael Field) will already be familiar to Victorianists from the pioneering work of Angela Leighton, Margaret Reynolds et al. in the 1990s. Vadillo enhances our appreciation of such poets with an intricately textured account of the spatio-temporal milieu within which they lived and the defining features of the modern urban poetics they variously invented in response.
In a dense, but accessible introductory chapter, Vadillo immerses us in a fin-de-siècle London where the deaths of Robert Browning (1889) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1892), the expansion of urban mass transportation, and middle-class women’s intellectual activism all converge. Vadillo situates her study within the intersection of urban studies (in particular, the literary critical field emerging from the simultaneous appearance in 1973 of H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff’s The Victorian City, Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, and the English translation of Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire); theories of urban space (such as Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Michel Serres’ Atlas); and a constellation of critical works that followed them, most significantly those that examine women’s participation in the formation of a literature of urban rambling and consumerism (for example, Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets, 1995 and Erika D. Rappaport’s Shopping for Pleasure, 2000). Against the idea of the wandering spectator-flaneuse, Vadillo sets the trope of the urban passenger: literally the beneficiary of burgeoning mass-transit systems (including horse-drawn omnibuses, trains, and the underground) and figuratively, one who experiences poetic transport as imaginative crossing of conceptual boundaries. With this many-layered methodological framework in place, she considers her passenger-poets—each of whom she also considers in the light of other literary genres—experiencing transport as a mechanized prosthetic that opens up new ways of engaging city life. In the process of mapping modes of specular detachment and aesthetic immersion Vadillo traces the ongoing dismantling of the nineteenth-century private/public divide through urban women’s everyday experience of Walter Pater’s aesthetic of flux.
The study is organized into four chapters, each reading the work of a woman poet in relation to the spatio-temporal texture distinctive to the urban community of her residence. The first chapter (“Amy Levy in Bloomsbury: The Poet as Passenger”) unfolds Levy’s nomadic urban aesthetic in dialogue with the bohemian, transitional avant-gardism of Bloomsbury, where low rents attracted aspiring artists, intellectuals, and litterateurs. This chapter will have special charm for any scholar who has walked through the squares, crescents, and gardens of Bloomsbury on the way to the British Library. Vadillo’s reproduction of a fin-de-siècle map of the district (49)—an aid she provides for each chapter—invites readers to identify with the community of intellectuals who congregated around the British Museum and its legendary reading room from the late 1850s onward.
Vadillo’s account of Bloomsbury’s intellectual milieu equips us for a fresh appreciation of the allusive, sometimes opaque simplicity of poems from Levy’s last collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889) published posthumously after the poet’s suicide that year. Uncovering the sexist and anti-Semitic assumptions underlying the dismissal of Levy as a “very minor or even minimous” poet (58), Vadillo’s readings suggest the odd suitability of the “minor” to conveying the modern individual’s common experience of her own ephemerality and inconsequence. Furthermore, Vadillo recognizes in Levy the beginnings of an urban aesthetic through which the city offers new imaginative freedom, especially to women poets. For instance, in the “Ballade of an Omnibus,” Levy’s vantage point from the bus’s upper deck (its “topmost summit”) revises the prospect of the Romantic viewer as a “pre-cinematic” perspective which “flashes up the urbanscape and transforms the city into a motion picture” (76).
As a contrast to Levy, Alice Meynell, the grande dame of the second chapter (“Alice Meynell: An Impressionist in Kensington”) emerges as a stately, detached, contemplative critic of society as spectacle, her authority in part deriving from Kensington’s fashionable associations with the Royal Family (the Queen was born at Kensington Palace, her statue stood in Kensington Gardens, with the Albert Hall and Memorial close by) and the shopping district flourishing around Kensington High Street. Unlike Levy who embraces the freedom and access to urban experience provided by mass transit, Meynell adopts a more distanced and critical stance. Devoted to the accurate documentation of fleeting impressions, her self-reflexive aesthetic observes closely but also questions the ethics of treating the city as a spectacle. Her essays in particular document the speed with which personal misfortunes and suffering readily transform into the entertainment of detached passengers and passersby (109).
The third chapter (“The Fastest Neighbourhood in Town: Graham R. Tomson in St. John’s Wood’) is perhaps the most compelling, absorbed as it is with the lives of the artists and artists’ models, international political exiles and streetwalkers drawn to the neighborhood from the 1850s onward. Known ironically as the “Grove of the Evangelist” (126), St. John’s Wood unfolds as the neighborhood with a reputation for literal and figurative “fastness.” From Vadillo’s interpretation of the poet’s 1891 volume, A Summer Night and Other Poems, Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson) emerges as irrepressibly gregarious and egalitarian, embracing rather than fearing the modern experience of ephemerality. For instance, in “Of the Earth, Earthy” Tomson implicitly refuses St. Paul’s teaching of a heavenly future by eschewing “dreams aforetime shown/Of white-winged angels on a shining stair” in favor of participation in gritty urban vitality (“dun, dim pavement trod by myriad feet”) with all its random vicissitudes (“Life and Life’s worst and best be ours to share,/Charm of the motley! undefined and rare”).
Through the attentiveness with which Vadillo contextualizes this poetry, embedding it within informative memoirs, short fiction, and illuminating critical theory, the reader can appreciate the courage of its feminist avant-gardism. Yet a nagging irony intrudes: in embracing ephemerality and personal inconsequence, Tomson uses resolutely simple, even commonplace poetic forms that compromise the literary distinctiveness of her verse. Thus she risks forfeiting the poet’s capacity to defer or even defy the passing of time via a lyric singularity that lingers in the listener’s memory, in the mode of an Emily Dickinson or an Elizabeth Bishop lyric. This in turn leads to a question that Vadillo never overtly addresses: if poets like Levy and Tomson are by their own definitions “minor” and ephemeral, on what grounds do they now command substantial critical attention?
Others have already offered some answers to this question—for instance, Joseph Bristow, General Editor of the series in which Vadillo’s book appears has himself written compellingly on the topic in his essay “‘All out of tune in this world’s instrument’: The ‘minor’ poetry of Amy Levy” (1999), cited in Vadillo’s bibliography. Yet she herself evades the issue. The question might not even arise were her approach simply to let her attentive treatment of these poets stand as its own proof of their inherent significance. Instead, her frequent use of enthusiastic hyperbole in her interpretive evaluation draws attention to itself and by the fourth chapter, “Modernity in Suburbia: Michael Field’s Experimental Poetics,” might strike the reader as protesting too much.
In this final chapter, Vadillo turns to the suburb as both an effect of expanding mass transit and a space for escaping the mechanized, capitalist consumerism of the metropolis.In the dialectical movement between city (London) and suburb (Reigate), Michael Field (the collaborative poetic identity of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) gets the best of both worlds: the peace of the countryside for study and composition, and access to the archival resources of London and Europe through the conveniently located South Eastern and Chatham Railway. In Vadillo’s interpretation, the ekphrastic poems of Sight and Song (1892), devoted to paintings from a wide range of British and European collections, transform the reader into a passenger transported from verbal to visual conceptions. Since literal train travel brings the two women to the paintings in the first place, Vadillo extends the analogy of transport comparing the verbal translations (poems) to a train and the supposed transparency of the translation to the transparency of the train’s window panes that allow the reader/viewer new imaginative insights.
In itself, this is an intriguing approach to Field’s collection which encourages us to revisit the poems in Sight and Song, but to those already familiar with the collection, the hyperbolic generosity with which Vadillo lavishes praise on this work and indeed on the work of all the poets she studies—her frequent use of qualifiers such as “revolutionary” (183, 185), “astonishing” (187, 77), “magnificent” (133) and “brilliantly” (117)—seems overblown. Indeed, it prompts the reader to wonder whether the project’s interest is not more the product of Vadillo’s scholarly ingenuity than of the material she has chosen for study. Had she trusted more to her own fine talent for reconstructing the texture of this literary milieu, holding the reader’s attention with the fascinating maps, memoirs, and diary entries against which the poetry derives fresh richness and allure, she could have let the praiseworthiness of the material go without saying, and her innovative study stand on its own impressive strengths.
Julia F. Saville is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2000) as well as various articles on Victorian poetry and painting. She is currently working on a book manuscript provisionally entitled, “Cosmopolitan Republican Poets: Poetics Bodies and the British Body Politic, 1840-1900.”