Women's Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture

By Cynthia Scheinberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the
“Hebraic monster”

“HEBREW ROOTS ENOUGH… TO FRIGHTEN”: THE DOUBLE
EDGE OF HEBRAIC KNOWLEDGE

Although she [Miss Barrett] has read Plato, in the original, from beginning to end, and the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Malachi (nor suffered her course to be stopped by the Chaldean), yet there is probably not a single good romance of the most romantic kind in whose marvellous and impossible scenes she has not delighted… All of this, our readers may be assured, that we believe to be as strictly authentic as the very existence of the lady in question, although, as we have already confessed, we have no absolute knowledge of this fact. But lest the reader should exclaim, “Then, after all, there really may be no such person!” we should bear witness to having been shown a letter of Miss Mitford's to a friend, from which it was plainly to be inferred that she had actually seen and conversed with her. (Richard Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 339–40)

So he has exalted me personally with all manner of devices… & with the aid of “charming notes to fair friends”, – & Hebrew roots & Plato enough to frighten away friends fair and brown… the circumstance of your name being mentioned (as it is once) in connection with me, goes very far to reconcile me to my position as an Hebraic monster who lives in the dark. Also, I shall appear much tamer for it in the eyes of the public. (Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford) 1

In 1844, Richard Hengist Horne published a volume of essays titled A New Spirit of the Age, a work modeled on William Hazlitt's 1825 volume The Spirit of the Age. Horne, like Hazlitt, compiled essays which described “a set of men… [who] have obtained eminent positions in the public mind” (xix) in the fields of arts, letters, politics, and science. Horne includes seven women in his list of approximately thirty-eight figures; in the chapter titled “Miss E. B. Barrett and Mrs. Norton, ” Horne compares the two women poets by noting that Norton “is well known, personally, to a large and admiring circle” while Barrett “is not known personally, to anybody, we almost said” (338). Horne's play on proving the actual existence of

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