It is easy to think of 19th-century women as demure bonneted characters from period dramas, hatched-faced dowagers in tent-like crinolines, or helpless waifs and drudges.
Easy, and a travesty, according to the academics behind a new database of hundreds of comic poems that shows how socially and politically active, literate, self-aware and, above all, how funny many women of all classes were. The website features 850 poems written by 190 women through the “long 19th century”, from 1789-1914 — a category its creators say has been sorely neglected.
Dr Jasmine Jagger, a specialist in Victorian literature and founder of the Comic Women’s Poetry of the Nineteenth Century project, said: “I realised there was this mass of women’s voices clamouring to be heard from the backs of periodicals, magazines and old forgotten anthologies. Many of these poems were buried by a patriarchal 20th-century publishing industry that saw women’s comic poetry as either unfunny or unskilled or both, when the truth is quite the opposite. So I wanted to find a way to bring as many of these voices back to life as possible.”
“The database crushes to pieces the stereotype of the simpering Victorian woman”Dr Jasmine Jagger
Jagger, the Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in English literature at the University of Roehampton, added: “It will certainly overturn the misconception that 19th-century women weren’t funny. Some of the poems are hilarious. But it should also overturn the misconception that 19th-century women weren’t skilled at composing verse. So many women were self-taught and wrote poetry as a hobby. I think people will be surprised by how bold and clever they were. The database pretty much crushes to pieces the stereotype of the simpering Victorian woman in a pinafore minding her Ps and Qs.”
Many of the poems were published in a magazine, newspaper or book but subsequently forgotten and never republished in anthologies or other formats. Some are manuscript poems that have never been published before. Others have been republished in anthologies or academic books, but relatively few are well-known. Among the poems that had not been republished since their first appearance is one of 1861 by Elizabeth, Lady Colchester, on crinolines. It makes it clear that Victorian women were well aware of the absurdity of the fashion for enormous hooped skirts.
The second verse of the poem, published in a book of Lady Colchester’s poems and dedicated to her “fellow sufferers”, reads:
As at Barry’s — to choose Wedding Presents one day —
I was carelessly gazing around —
Lo! my Crinoline swept off the table, a tray
Of Sèvres china — worth Two Hundred Pound!
As I stoop’d in despair — the crush’d fragments to save —
All trembling their value to hear —
How I mentally rav’d — that I’d been such a Slave
To a Fashion — that cost me so dear!
In later verses the protagonist unwittingly abducts a small child under her skirts and gets stuck in the doorway of a train carriage at Crewe station. She calls on the “Ladies of England” to sign an address to Queen Victoria, banning the “vile” crinoline. Portraits of Lady Colchester by the society photographer Camille Silvy in the National Portrait Gallery, dated 1863, shows the poet in a large crinoline two years after her poem’s publication — a “Slave To a Fashion”, as she had confessed in her verse.
The poets represented on the site are from all sections of society and, while there are big names such as Christina Rossetti, many others will be unfamiliar to readers. Dr Heather Hind, a specialist in Victorian literature at the University of Lancaster and research assistant on the project, said: “Some identify themselves as factory girls, servants or housekeepers. We have poets who were actresses or scientists, who went to university. Then, through the poetic personas, we have mothers, disgruntled or jilted lovers, queer women, cross-dressing women, garden enthusiasts — women with all sorts of interests and backgrounds.”
The site organises the poems by themes, including class, politics, religion, sexuality and love. Jagger said: “They tackle some seriously difficult issues. There’s a whole section on politics and there’s a big trend around women’s rights because a lot of these poems were written as part of radical feminist campaigns for women’s rights, especially to do with marriage.
“One of the poems I really love is called A Rule to Work Both Ways, Suggested by a ‘Wife-beater’s’ Letter. It’s by Marion Bernstein who was a piano teacher by day but a radical feminist by night. Her poem mocked the claims made by 19th-century wife-beaters that a man had a legal right to restrain and chastise his wife based on the alleged ‘Rule of Thumb’ tradition from common law.”
Bernstein’s poem, published in 1876 in her book Mirren’s Musings, begins:
If beating can reform a wife
It might reform a husband too,
Since such are the effects of strife —
My sisters, I advise that you
Should try it, not with fists —
Oh, no! For that would seem like some weak joker;
In husband-curing let each blow
Be given with the kitchen poker!
And it concludes:
When thus bad husbands cure bad wives,
And wives cure brutes to whom they’re mated,
Soon will the plagues of many lives
Be safely buried, or cremated.
In another poem, A Dream, Bernstein imagines a post-19th-century world in which women’s rights are well established. Two verses anticipate women in parliament:
There were female chiefs in the Cabinet,
(Much better than males I’m sure!)
And the Commons were three-parts feminine,
While the Lords were seen no more!
And right well did the ladies legislate,
They determined to “keep the peace,”
So well they managed the affairs of State,
That the science of war might cease.
Bernstein, who lived in Glasgow, addressed numerous social issues through her poetry, including industrial pollution and animal cruelty.
Jagger said the medium of comic verse gave women poets some license to make points that would have been more controversial in prose. “I’ve often found that the comic has a special way of allowing people to say something that’s deeply felt and important, but otherwise unsayable. A lot of this poetry was being used in in a radical way, especially in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s really interesting how the poems tackle the bigger topics as well as the smaller topics, or pretend that it’s a small topic, but actually there are bigger things written into the poems. It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Nevertheless, she added: “They [the poets] faced a lot of criticism. And there was a danger in the boldness of the comic. But I think the comic also won people over and attracted attention to topics that might otherwise have gone ignored. So, for example, with the wife-beater poem, when things are funny and entertaining, they become popular, and when they become popular, they become influential and capable of change.”
Many of the poems treat issues of class. A poem by Elizabeth Hands, a former servant, published in a book of her verse in 1789, highlights the snobbery and ignorance of a group of ladies horrified to see a newspaper ad for a collection of poems by a servant maid. This extract offers a flavour:
A servant writes verses! says Madame Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject? — a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he, — says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout — what else can it be?
Says Miss Coquettilla, what ladies so tart?
Perhaps Tom the Footman has fired her heart;
Further on, one of the ladies cannot fathom that a servant might be capable of art:
Some whimsical trollop most like, says Miss Prim,
Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And conscious it neither is witty or pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.
The poems are rich in social, and broader, history. In 1842, Mary Dacre bewailed the “mockery” and “anguish” she faced as an “Old Maid” of 28 — a common enough theme for the era. The third verse of the poem, published in New Monthly Magazine, references Britain’s colonising activities in India and the demand for spicy foods from old India hands after their return to Britain:
The rich old Nabob, General Brown,
For whom I read the Indian papers,
And brought the latest news from town,
And knitted comforters and gaiters;
For whom I got the best cayenne,
The newest sauces, hottest currie,
Ungrateful, like all other man,
Married his housemaid, Mary Murray.
The site is deliberately non-hierarchical. Hind explains: “We wanted to build the website in a way that people wouldn’t immediately click on Christina Rossetti’s poems or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems — and just see the things they already expected. So we’ve listed the poets alphabetically, so you can browse them. You can explore the poems through theme, by decade, or year. But the way that you explore means you can just as easily stumble across something that’s not been read since 1836 as you can a verse by Rossetti.”
Jagger and Hind are continuing to add poems to the site, including poems found and submitted by members of the public. They are also adding biographies of the poets and are preparing to launch a podcast series, based around the poems, in collaboration with other researchers.