The "Homely Muse" in Her Diurnal Setting: The Periodical Poems of "Marie," Janet Hamilton, and Fanny Forrester

By Boos, Florence S. | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The "Homely Muse" in Her Diurnal Setting: The Periodical Poems of "Marie," Janet Hamilton, and Fanny Forrester


Boos, Florence S., Victorian Poetry


CRITICAL ATTENTION TO WORKING-CLASS POETRY AS A GENRE HAS SUFFered for many years from a tendency to ignore these works' original publication-history. [1] It is easy to comment once again on the stereotypical qualities of a few readily accessible volumes of verse, but difficult to canvass thousands of unindexed pages of long-expired and barely extant periodicals, in search of working-class poets' original audiences, contexts, and modes of expression. [2]

Most working-class poets sent their work to local newspapers or journals, and many saw their poems "in print" in penny-newspapers and journals. Few seriously hoped to see them in hard covers, despite the support of a few sympathetic editors of working-class periodicals, but the sheer volume and variety of work they did publish belied facile views of these editors as instruments of Foucauldian repression. Several working class periodical poets developed distinctive voices and identities that were cherished by their peers, and articulated ideals and grievances that were "personal" as well as "political" in the deepest senses of the words.

Such successes were especially ephemeral and precarious for women, whose poems sometimes gave meanings Patrick Joyce may not have intended to his remark that working-class poetry "was not about work, but about the getting of dignity through the realisation of a common humanity" (p. 28). Most editors of reformist journals could be expected to see merit in cases for hard cover publication of "working-men's poetry," [3] but most provided fewer and less detailed descriptions of women contributors, and conscious and unconscious sexism tacitly biased the reception and publication of poor women's work. Coincidentally, more workingclass women than men also signed their poems in generic or truncated forms ("Marie," "Adeline," "Racla," or "A Ploughman's Wife").

Some editors, finally, did hold fixed and arbitrary views about the length and complexity of publishable periodical poetry (as opposed to essays and fiction), and these views seemed to proliferate and harden as the century waned. A model instance of the earlier alliance between poetry and political ideals might be found in Alexander Campbell's active editorial support in the 1860s for Ellen Johnston's efforts to develop her poetic persona as "The Factory Girl," which Judith Rosen has reexamined in this collection. [4] An elderly radical, Campbell encouraged Johnston's submissions, sought responses to them from her fellow-poets, and organized subscription campaigns which paid for the two editions of her Autobiography, Songs, and Poems at the end of her brief poetic career. [5]

Fewer and fewer editors were able or willing to make such gestures in the decades that followed, however, and the temporal undertow was so strong and steady that it suggested poetry itself--time-honored bearer of political ideals in the work of Burns, Shelley, Robert Tannahill, Ebenezer Elliot, and others--might have begun to move away from its populist origins by the end of the century, even as social attitudes and universal elementary education broadened literary magazines' evolving mass-circulation, and impoverished writers began to turn their attention and hopes for publication to essays and serial fiction.

In the present essay, I will sketch the life-trajectories and publication histories of three other working-class women poets:

(1) "Marie," whose work appeared in the London People's Journal from 1846 to 1850;

(2) Janet Hamilton, a Scottish poet whose essays appeared in Cassell's The Working-Man's Friend and its supplements from 1850-1853; and

(3) Fanny Forrester, who published sixty-odd poems in Ben Brierley's Journal between 1870 and 1876. Along the way, I will also try to elicit some conclusions about the ranges of support working-class women could hope to find in the darkling plain of Victorian poetry.

Marie

The People's Journal described "Marie" in 1846 as a factory dye-worker from Chorley, and she published over this abbreviated signature thirty-five poems and an essay between 1846 and 1852.

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