Sarah Wentworth Morton

James Northcote, portrait of Ida Aldridge, 1826

Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759 – 1846) was a socially prominent New England woman who came of age in the years following the American Revolution. As a young woman, Sarah joined the cause for independence, and then became a fierce abolitionist (her own father had been a slave-trader) in a time when slavery threatened to tear the Union apart. As a woman, she was prevented from formal schooling but nevertheless taught herself. She married an ambitious young lawyer, Perez Morton, who became the Attorney-General of Massachusetts, as Boston society shifted from its Puritan heritage to a key player in the early years of the United States.

Morton published under the pen name Phileniaand her works were read by John Adams, and numerous other members of high society. Life was not without scandal, especially when her sister Frances bore a child to an unknown man (heavily rumoured to be Sarah’s own husband) and then poisoned herself.

Morton was highly respected, and wrote novels, essays, and poems, although with the luxury of a wealthy upbringing and husband, she was able to treat writing as a hobby rather than a profession. Nevertheless, her poem The African Chief was known by most American schoolchildren for decades after her death in 1846.

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Caroline Norton

Thomas Lawrence, Julia, Lady Peel, 1827

Caroline Norton (1808 – 1877) was the granddaughter of famed playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and sister of the noted beauty and wit Lady Helen Dufferin. The girls’ mother, widowed early, was keen to marry off her daughters, and struck gold when Helen married a young heir to a lordship at only 18. Caroline made a more ill-favoured match, when she was courted by George Norton, who had met Caroline through her governess. She learnt with some dismay that – as the youngest son of the family – George had nothing of note coming to him in terms of inheritance. Quickly bearing three children, Caroline Norton used her native talent to publish poems and earn income, but her family were devastated to learn that George felt it was their obligation to provide for him, especially as they had not been able to provide a dowry!

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Three poems on pets

Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, “A Girl with a Kitten”, 1745

William Brighty Rands (1823 – 1882) was a prominent writer of nursery rhymes in the Victorian Era, one of the grandest ages of printing, when literature and books circulated with the rapidity and constant evolution of the modern social media meme. Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845), whom I’ll be profiling soon, was a prolific magazine contributor in the first half of the 19th century, writing for, among others, Punch. And Lord Byron – well, we know all about him already.

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Henry Howard, “Sarah Trimmer”, 1798

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.EL.) (1802 – 1838) is another example of what distinguishes 19th century women poets from their predecessors. Those in the 17th and 18th centuries had been the precocious, the upstarts, the smart individuals with open-minded fathers or uncles. Instead, we find many of the women of the 19th century turning their talents to money-making needs early on. Landon’s father had been wealthy until some unwise decisions on the stock market, and her family were attempting to restore their former glory. Landon’s brother went to Oxford, while she began publishing poems as a teenager. After her father’s death in 1825, Landon pursued a career releasing numerous volumes of poetry, as well as writing pieces for a variety of journals and annuals. After her death, the young L.E.L. was remembered by a childhood neighbour as:

…a plump girl, grown enough to be almost mistaken for a woman, bowling a hoop round the walks, with the hoop-stick in one hand and a book in the other, reading as she ran, and as well as she could manage both exercise and instruction at the same time. The exercise was prescribed and insisted upon; the book was her own irrepressible choice.

By 1830, Landon – publishing under the intriguing, gender-neutral name of “L.E.L.” – rented a room in London, writing independently and sometimes defiantly. She was a free woman, one might say. L.E.L. is not a moralist or a didactic poet like her contemporary, Felicia Hemans. Instead, her female voices are those of independent, creative, or passionate women, women who are interacting with the world on their own terms – and often being punished for doing so, but unfairly.

Befriending poets of both genders, L.E.L. faced allegations of scandal from various men she was said to have degraded herself with, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, MP and author of The Last Days of Pompeii. Perhaps some of her female idols from the continent could get away with this behaviour but 19th century England was not the place for it. Landon seems to have been conflicted in her role as a poet; writing for money often meant catering to the market, but she was someone who wished to tell her own stories, to question society, and those acts couldn’t always go together.

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Thomas Miller and Edgar Allan Poe

Théodore Géricault, “Alfred Dedreux (1810–1860) as a Child”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), the American writer, is famous for his short stories and poetry, most notably The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Purloined Letter and The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s somewhat odd because – frankly – Poe was never a very good writer. His influence and imagery, however, loom large in the American consciousness. His contributions to the embryonic detective fiction genre are pivotal. Perhaps he appeals more to Americans than those of us overseas, but regardless of my opinion, Poe mania lives on! The City in the Sea is one of his more succcessful pieces, imaging a Biblical city – relocated into the South of American Gothic style – ruled by a kind of Death.

Thomas Miller (1807 – 1874) was born in Lincolnshire, and worked as a shoemaker’s apprentice before developing his own basket-making business. Miller took to poetry as a side-business, moving to London in the late 1830s to start a family. He attempted to make some money as a professional author but unfortunately was unable to get past writing “penny dreadfuls”, the cheap, tawdry thrillers available for sale on the street. (Charles Dickens, among others, was not impressed).

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Women Poets of History, Part VIII

Hello, friends! This is the penultimate piece in a series of nine posts exploring some female poets from around the world who were writing before the year 1800. Of course, now that we’re barrelling through the 19th century, we’re meeting many great poets of all genders, but we know that history wasn’t always kind to women who desired to express themselves, let alone if it was for a career in the arts! These voices – most of them, by nature of the time period, being in languages other than English – can easily be lost to us. Unlike their male counterparts, many female poets were not able to leave behind much written information about them, and this poverty of biography also helps to push them into the background.

The reality is, given that women were often denied an education and an outlet for any artistic thoughts, and were often actively discouraged from learning about things outside their sphere (and even if they mentioned to do all of the above, their works were less likely to be copied and published enough times to survive down through the centuries), we are never going to find as many great female poets from early eras than we do men. But it’s enlightening to hear the thoughts of this array of female voices, some existing within the intricate customs of their culture, others asking questions of it.

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