Arms and the Circassian Woman: Frances Browne's "The Star of Atteghei"

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IN DECEMBER 1916 A WRITER FOR THE IRISH BOOK LOVER LAMENTED THAT THE centenary of the birth of Frances Brown, once known far and wide as 'the blind girl of Donegal,' which occurred on 16th January last, did not elicit a single line in any journal, as far as I am aware, showing, alas! how transient a thing is a literary reputation." Though Brown's name is "sought in vain in the 'Dictionary of National Biography,'" the anonymous writer believed "our northern province is not so rich in women writers that it can afford to neglect one, who, in her day, brought to it some degree of fame, as much by her widely acknowledged abilities as her heroic struggle to overcome the results of her early affliction." (1) Almost ninety years later, the life and work of Frances Brown (or Browne, as it is more often written) remain neglected, though her biography is as extraordinary as any writer's in the nineteenth century, and her poetry evinces a strong personal voice and a rich variety of subjects. While Browne's nationalistic lyric "Songs of Our Land" was a particular favorite in the Victorian era, other poems feature Muslim, Jewish or Christian protagonists, and her settings cover five continents. Her longest works include "The Vision of Schwartz," about a twelfth-century monk's search for the philosopher's stone, and the subject of this essay, The Star of Atteghei, a tragic romance set in nineteenth-century Circassia. Such a range of historical and geographical interests is unusual though not unique among women poets of the 1840s; but it becomes rather startling when we consider that Frances Browne became blind before the age of two and spent the first thirty years of her life far from the literary centers of Ireland or Britain.

Browne's lifelong fascination with world history certainly influenced her choice of subject matter, but it was not simply a taste for the exotic that inspired her to choose Circassia as the setting and subject of her longest poem. A number of travelogues describing the Caucasus had recently appeared, and British newspapers regularly reported the Circassians' struggles with Russia from the mid1830s onwards, reaching something of a peak in early 1844, the year The Star of Atteghei appeared. Browne's work is the major poetic response in the English language to a conflict that resulted in the forced removal of more than one million Circassians and Turkic Caucasians from their homeland, a conflict directly related to Russia's ongoing struggle in Chechnya. Browne draws inspiration from Lord Byron's Eastern Tales of the 1810s and from the psychologically-charged portraits of women crafted in the following two decades by Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon; but she extends her predecessors' work by situating her mysterious and courageous heroine in a narrative based on recent historical events. Thus her poem is also an intriguing expression of nineteenth-century concepts of nationalism, bringing together three nations whose struggles for independence and national identity were well known in the Victorian era: Circassia, Poland, and Ireland. In doing so it also associates Russia and England as fellow oppressors.

Norman Vance has recently noted that "Victorian Ulster and its writers have been little explored, perhaps because of a suspicion that the most British province could not possibly be authentically Irish." (2) My essay begins to address this oversight by focusing on one poet whose favored themes of exile and national identity mirrored the major issues facing nineteenth-century Ireland. In the first half I sketch the life of Frances Browne and the contemporary situation in Circassia, at least the reports of that situation then available to British and Irish readers. In the second half I focus on The Star of Atteghei, analyzing its representations of nationalistic sentiments and the surprising ways Browne uses nationality and gender to tell her story. Despite her perceived economic, physical, and geographical limitations, "the blind girl of Donegal" recognized in the Caucasus war a struggle with striking similarities to the situation in Poland and troubling associations with the recent history of her homeland. …