Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Langham Place to Lancashire: Poetry, Community, and the Victoria Press's Offering to Lancashire

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

From Langham Place to Lancashire: Poetry, Community, and the Victoria Press's Offering to Lancashire

Article excerpt

During the closing months of 1862, Isa Craig and her colleagues at the Victoria Press gathered poems from an assortment of Victorian writers-including Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mary Howitt, R. Monckton Milnes, and Bessie Raynor Parkes-and published them in a slender volume titled Poems: An Offering to Lancashire, which they dedicated to "the relief of distress in the cotton districts," where the trade embargo caused by the American Civil War had led to widespread unemployment. While the state maintained official neutrality in response to the war, the British also observed Northern blockades of Southern cotton, even though they starved Lancashire of the raw materials needed to feed its mills and sustain its employees. These workers gained admiration (especially among liberals and radicals) for patiently waiting out the blockade, recognizing the moral imperative of abolition-or possibly the status of American slaves as fellow workers in need of liberation, as Karl Marx had argued. (1) To British observers, the war by then had become not a battle over state sovereignty but unquestionably a war about slavery.

As a response to the cotton famine, An Offering-alongside the art exhibition that accompanied it--was consciously presented as a social and political document, encouraging continued British support for abolition, (2) but also urging a reconsideration of the position the working classes occupied in British society during the years leading up to the franchise reforms of 1867 and 1868. Hence its opening poem, a sonnet by Emily Taylor, declares that "the work, the duty of the hour" must be to mend social divisions, so that all classes might stand "At one in spirit-One for evermore!" (ll. 1, 8). Indeed, observers like William Gladstone pointed to the fortitude displayed during the cotton famine as evidence that these workers were capable of acting with politically responsible disinterest and therefore merited full political rights. "The admirable conduct of the suffering workpeople ... must surely tend to increase the confidence reposed in them by other classes of society," the prime minister stated in a speech, expressing his hope that "whenever again the time arrives for considering the question of the franchise, that conduct will be favorably and liberally remembered" (qtd. in Foner, p. 22).

Yet as a gift book, An Offering also unmistakably identified itself with domestic intimacy. The genre had longstanding associations with feminine reading habits and familial exchange. Appearing just before Christmas, An Offering closely followed a pattern set by exemplars of the genre, which reputable young women and families typically gave each other during the holiday season. Craig and her fellow editors at the Press thus made their call for democratic reform through a genre that emphasizes familial attachments; their social and political document was also an object of affective exchange. In choosing this genre for their response to the cotton famine, Craig and her fellow editors troubled the boundary between public and private spheres, suggesting that the values associated with democratic reform might emerge from patterns of familial socialization. More remarkably yet, Taylor's sonnet suggests that engaging with a volume very much like An Offering might prove a way of rehearsing the quality of thought and feeling necessary for sustaining democratic community. The poem concludes with a vision of a "fresh page in Life's great book unrolled, / With eyes made clear to read it," a reading experience that "shall repay / With tenfold good the sorrow of to-day" (ll. 12-14). Depicting a more perfect community as a scene of reading, these lines-and the volume they introduce-picture the liberal subject as a reader of a poetry collection like the very one she is holding in her hands.

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The popularity of gift books had peaked in the 1830s and 1840s, falling out of fashion as the century reached its mid-point; when the Victoria Press published its three anthologies, Victoria Regia (1862), An Offering, and A Welcome (late 1863) the genre was nearly obsolete. …

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