On January 7, 1845, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61) wrote a long, impassioned letter to the journalist and critic Henry Fothergill Chorley (1808-72), discussing the history of British women poets. Barrett Browning complained, "England has had many learned women… and yet where were the poetesses? … I look everywhere for Grandmothers and see none. It is not in the filial spirit I am deficient, I do assure you - witness my reverent love of the grandfathers!" In this and her other letters, Barrett Browning acknowledges that Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-38), Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), and especially Joanna Baillie (1772-1861) were gifted versifiers. But Barrett Browning will not grant that they rise to the level of her divine category of "poet," nor are they perhaps actually old enough to be her grandmother. Barrett Browning claims to have wanted exemplary, older women writers to love and revere. The problem is that she cannot see them. Barrett Browning’s invoking the phrase "grandmothers" as she tries to imagine the history of British women’s poetry is significant. It is clear that she was not actually looking for old women writers of the past or present but merely seeking poets who had preceded her. This was done regardless of whether they were still alive and with an apparent lack of interest in the age to which they lived. Nevertheless, her use of the term "grandmothers" - in addition to demonstrating that mainstream literary histories had not successfully handed down the names of many talented and renowned poets - suggests that she envisioned accomplished older writers ("literary grandfathers" one could "revere") as males. Barrett Browning’s complaint points to something that was, in the Romantic period, a larger cultural problem. Elderly female writers of the time risked becoming invisible in late life, even when they continued to write or publish. Barrett Browning at least claimed to be fruitlessly looking "everywhere" for literary grandmothers.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Arts and Humanities(all)