This week I’ll be discussing one of the Victorian poets I read for the first time last term: August Webster.
Born as Julia Augusta Davies, August Webster (1837-1894) was a writer of all sorts: poems, essays, plays, translations, and even a novel. Although she started out studying Greek at home, she eventually got the opportunity to study at the Cambridge School of Art. Like many women writers of the time period, Webster published her first poetry collection using a male pseudonym: Cecil Homes. Although she is most well-known for being a sort of successor to the popular poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her work advocating for women’s rights is also remarkable. Not only did she work for the London branch of the National Committee for Women’s Suffrage, but she also was the first female writer to ever hold elective office because she was on the London School Board in 1879 and 1885.
Although her writing was quite popular during her lifetime, she unfortunately became less well-known after her death. The Webster poem I’m most familiar with is the “A Castaway,” which was first published in 1870. “A Castaway” is told from the perspective of a “fallen woman”; in other words, the poem is narrated by a prostitute who has been shunned by genteel society due to how she earns a living. However, the narrator offers a sharp and witty critique of the Victorian society in which she lives, pointing out that her work does not make her any less moral or honorable than those in other professions:
“I know of worse that are called honourable.
Our lawyers, who, with noble eloquence
and virtuous outbursts, lie to hang a man,
or lie to save him, which way goes the fee:
our preachers, gloating on your future hell
for not believing what they doubt themselves:
our doctors, who sort poisons out by chance,
and wonder how they’ll answer, and grow rich:
our journalists, whose business is to fib
and juggle truths and falsehoods to and fro:
our tradesmen, who must keep unspotted names
and cheat the least like stealing that they can:
our — all of them, the virtuous worthy men
who feed on the world’s follies, vices, wants,
and do their businesses of lies and shams
honestly, reputably, while the world
claps hands and cries “good luck,” which of their trades,
their honourable trades, barefaced like mine,
all secrets brazened out, would shew more white?”
The narrator also looks back on her past as a young girl, saying that she never expected to be living such a life at this age. She explains that she’s grateful that her mother died before she could see her daughter like this:
“Oh mother, mother, did you ever dream,
you good grave simple mother, you pure soul
no evil could come nigh, did you once dream
in all your dying cares for your lone girl
left to fight out her fortune all alone
that there would be this danger? — for your girl,
taught by you, lapped in a sweet ignorance,
scarcely more wise of what things sin could be
than some young child a summer six months old
where in the north the summer makes a day,
of what is darkness … darkness that will come
to-morrow suddenly. Thank God at least
for this much of my life, that when you died,
that when you kissed me dying, not a thought
of this made sorrow for you, that I too
was pure of even fear.”
Perhaps my favorite part of the poem is when the narrator exposes the hypocritical view of women that men hold. Fathers may send their daughters to school to be educated, but what is the point if they are just going to marry them off to do mindless housework for the rest of their lives? Why must men put women in a corner like this?
“Well, well, the silly rules this silly world
makes about women! This is one of them.
Why must there be pretence of teaching them
what no one ever cares that they should know,
what, grown out of the schoolroom, they cast off
like the schoolroom pinafore, no better fit
for any use of real grown-up life,
for any use to her who seeks or waits
the husband and the home, for any use,
for any shallowest pretence of use,
to her who has them? Do I not know this,
I like my betters, that a woman’s life,
her natural life, her good life, her one life,
is in her husband, God on earth to her,
and what she knows and what she can and is
is only good as it brings good to him?”
The stigmas, prejudices, and inequalities emphasized in this poem still linger in our society today. Women are often viewed as inferior to men, particularly in the workplace. Although we have undeniably made great strides towards gender equality, the writing of poets such as Augusta Webster remind us that we nevertheless have a long road ahead of us.
Are you familiar with Augusta Webster? Do you have a favorite poem written by her? What other writers would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!