Reading/writing the Forgotten: The Poetry of Mary Boddington

By O'Brien, Lee | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Reading/writing the Forgotten: The Poetry of Mary Boddington

O'Brien, Lee, Victorian Poetry

For if it is rash to walk into a lion's den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on the top of St Paul's, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet.

---Virginia Woolf, Orlando

I first encountered the work of forgotten women poets when, as research assistant to Virginia Blain in 1994, I sat down in front of a microfiche reader to prepare reports on the dazzling, and somewhat daunting, number of writers sitting quietly in bright red boxes on the shelves of Fisher Library in the University of Sydney, Australia. Anyone who has done it can attest to the fact that reading poetry on microfiche is not the most alluring of reading scenes, but even in that unsympathetic environment the power of these women's words was compelling; they have haunted me ever since. The historical irony of the situation was not lost on me: a technical, electronic revolution the Victorians set in motion, but did not foresee, has fetched them--all of them, it seems, who put pen to paper--from the bowels of the British Library to hurl them half way across the world so that people like me, who have never polluted the shades of reading rooms in the northern hemisphere, can read them without so much as a grain of dust or spore of mold intervening. The odd poem addressed to convict women, my ancestors, seemed like a friendly wave: a salute from another time and another place that I was happy to be able to return.

The sheer volume of work by forgotten women poets in the nineteenth-century points to an ephemerality produced by the closeness of fit between mass demand, mass production, and undemanding product. The forgotten exemplify the extent to which the lyric is, in many crippling ways, a hostile environment for women in spite of, or rather because of, the (treacherously) easy fit between lyric expressiveness and the feminine stereotype: self-conscious, voluble, emotional, sensitive, nicely engaged but reliably passive. The focus of my work on Mary Boddington has been to use her work as a case study of the problems the forgotten represent and to construct reading strategies to address the peculiar demands they make on readers. I believe it is important to open up the reading of these difficult, uneven, disconcertingly illuminating, radically marginalized texts rather than participate in their continued exclusion. I think--hope--it is useful to keep open a category of outsiders. In a century that, like most other centuries, thrived on the suppression of women, but, unlike others, allowed them a substantial voice in the literary marketplace, amateurs who are allowed to play the game for a while to fill (market) space if nothing else, constitute an intriguing field. Although it is not true to say that I have been looking for bad poetry, I have read sympathetically, and taken dismay at an apprehension of banality, for example, as an invitation to read more carefully, not to stop. Feminism allows the assumption that women's minds/imaginations, unlike Mr. Vincy's silk, (1) are not rotted by the cheap dye of gender ideology no matter how aggressively applied. There is always, as Irigaray has it, the possibility of "disruptive excess"(2) on the feminine side. How does it manifest itself in the lyric production of the forgotten? I would like to develop a critical discourse and theoretical methodology that can function outside considerations of biography or tradition partly because these have been so dominant in work on women, and partly because biography and tradition can, as well as enable recognition/recovery, perpetuate an exclusionary mechanism for lost writers) What happens when one reads women in a context that is intertextual and ideological, rather than intersubjective and biographically/socially/historically embedded?

Mary Boddington's poetry intersects in illuminating ways with dominant forms. Reading her further opens out the interrogation of how women's poetry troubles and destabilizes the lyric "I" (in a way that men's does not), and thus what "expressive" means at the level of both author/poet and lyric discourse. …

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