The Recontextualization of Women’s Experience
in Hemans and Aikin (a selection)
by Beth Seltzer, EN641, Spring 1998

   As Elaine Showalter writes in the introduction to A Literature of One’s Own, “English women writers
have never suffered from the lack of a reading audience, nor have they wanted for attention from scholars
and critics.  Yet we have never been sure what unites them as women, or indeed, whether they share a
common heritage connected to womanhood at all” (269).  Felicia Hemans and Lucy Aikin, two women
poets of the Romantic era who are only recently coming under critical scrutiny, were aware of the “common
heritage” that united them as women and poets during the early nineteenth century, and that awareness
distinguishes both poets from other women writers of the time.  Hemans and Aikin both under took
literary projects, “The Records of Woman” for Hemans and “Epistles on Women” for Aikin, which
sought to use some of the common literary forms of the Romantic and Enlightenment eras to psychologize
the female voice and character to represent a strong female form -- a form obviously missing from the
literature of the day.

   The strong female, one who is strong, intelligent, and filled with Romantic sensibility, was not a new
historical and literary concept, but as female writing tradition is and was   full of hook and hiatus, because
of what Germain Greer calls ‘the phenomenon of the transience of female literary fame’; ‘almost
uninterruptedly since the Interregnum, a small group of women have enjoyed dazzling literary prestige
during their own lifetimes, only to vanish without a trace from the records of posterity.’  Thus
each generation of women writers has  found the itself, in a sense,  without a history, forced to rediscover
the past anew, forging  again and again the consciousness of their sex (Showalter 273). Although with the
irony of history Hemans and Aikin were both destined to become women writers who disappeared from
the literary canon after death, the two poets both attempted, despite an absence of models, to call on past
literary tradition to aid their projects; Hemans work invokes the literary tradition of Ovid’s Heroides, and
Aikin, though perhaps working from a more scholarly position than Hemans given her academic background
and her relationship to Anna Barbauld, draws not only on extensive Greek and Roman history to write her
Epistles but engages in a classical debate with Alexander Pope through her work.

   The conscious projects of these two women are extraordinary for several reasons, not the least of which
is their use of women in their past or current societal positions as subject matter, for “as poets women
were patently excluded from the ‘masculine tradition’ persuasively delineated by Margaret Homans, within
which women featured as not active, creative subjects, but as passive, quasi-natural objects, “objectified
as the other’ and made ‘property’ by the male subject” (Richardson 13).  Therefore, when Hemans and
Aikin employ the female condition and psychology as their subject, they engage in a sort of rebellion. a
epossession of the concept of woman;  indeed, a literary turning of the tables in which they both effectively
subvert the male objectification which often limited both female poets and their poetry.  As Margaret
Homans writes in Women Writers and Poetic Identity, “cultural patterns  may help to determine sexual
identity, but the powerful poet can, if she chooses, adapt these patterns to her own purposes,” and Hemans
and Aikin were both aware of the feminine element in the Romantic cult of sensibility which would allow
them to communicate their projects to their readership without an overt feminist agenda that would have
been both ineffective and unlikely in the early nineteenth century (6).

   Unlike Aikin, who articulates her goal in the introduction to “Epistles on Women” as a desire “to make
the effect of various codes, institutions, and states of manners, on the virtue and happiness of man, and the
concomitant and proportional elevation or depression of woman in the scale of existence” and “to point out...
the most complete identity of interests subsists, so that it is impossible for man to degrade his companion
without degrading himself, or to elevate her without receiving a proportional accession of dignity and happiness,”
Hemans project for “Records” is less clearly stated (Mellor and Matlak, 817).  Although “Records of Woman”
has an obvious formal debt to Heroides, her purpose in displaying the usually disappointing and often violent
end to romantic love seems to be more focused than Howard Jacobson’s description of the Heroiden motto:
“Powerless women who are helpless to influence their own lives must resort to vicarious (and futile) acts to
provide psychic satisfaction in the absence of potency, be it weeping, complaining, or verbal expression” (372).
As Anne K. Mellor writes, “Overtly celebrating the primacy of the home and the domestic affections as the
source of enduring human fulfillment, [Hemans’] poetry nonetheless records all the ways in which the values
of hearth and home are betrayed...” (1180).  So not only does the topic of hearth and home allow Hemans
to explore all the ways in which that a separate sphere imprisons women, it also allows her to disguise her
agenda through the cult of sensibility, as Aikin does when she records “the effect of various codes, institutions,
and states of manners, on the virtue and happiness of man” (817).

   In “Romantic Poetry:  The I Altered,’ Stuart Curran observes that for female Romantic writers “if a woman’s
place is in the home, or in the schoolroom as in Anna Barbauld’s case, or in the garden, then the particulars
of those confined quarters are made the impetus for verse” (190).  Felicia Hemans skillfully manages to
examine the confined quarters of domesticity and love for women, as Aikin examines the confined quarters
of society in general, all through the proper Romantic looking glass of sensibility, which allows the poet to
extend his or her feelings and sympathies towards to their culture.  Although the fact that that the culture they
extend these sympathies towards is revolutionary in its focus on women, sensability not only “embodies a
defense of the right of women, with no capactiy for education beyond that offered by boarding school or
indulgent parents, to literary status,” but that “refined fellow-feeling” also becomes “the mark fo the formation
of an independent and shared women’s poetic, and...a locus for an encoded treatment of the female condition”
(Curran 198).  Despite the cunning identification of an element in Romantic tradtion which would allow women
to engage in an often heavily masked political project to define a strong female representation, the status of the
woman poet remained tenuous, and the difference between the poet who wrote to support herself and her family,
such as Hemans, and the writer or novel and letters for diversion and scholarship, such as Aikin, was marked.
Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar expand on “the anxiety of authorship,” “a radical fear that she cannot create,
that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate and destroy her,” that often
plagued those career writers who were aware of the disappearing act women literary figures made from society
when they ceased to write (291).  The female writer’s “battle for self-creation” and her struggle for a permanent
spot in the literary cannon,   involves her in a revisionary process.  Her battle, however, is not  against her (male)
precursors’ reading of the world but against his  reading of her...Frequently, moreover, she can begin such a
struggle only by actively seeking a female precursor who, far from  representing a threatening force to be
denied or killed, proves by example that a revolt against a patriarchal literary authority is possible (Gilbert 292).

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