Researching the Women Poets of the Romantic Period Collection – Week 1

For the 2011-2012 academic year, Special Collections in CU’s Norlin library hired me as a Researcher to read as much of the Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) collection as I can and to curate exhibits in time for the 18th- and 19-Century British Women Writers Conference that will be hosted in Boulder, CO next June. The exhibits will include (1) an in-house display of particular pieces of the collection to be set up in Special Collections in Norlin Library, as well as (2) a digital exhibit. Both exhibits need to center around the BWWC 2012 theme of “Landmarks” and the digital exhibit should be one that will be able to be archived and used in the future by Special Collections.

Nine Living Muses of Great Britain: Elizabeth Carter, Angelica Kauffman, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Catharine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Griffith, Hannah More, et al.

I feel extremely charmed and grateful to be working in my field and getting paid for it as a graduate student, and was thrilled to start this project this week with the Collection’s fabulous staff.

To get to know the collection, I spent some time in the (arctic-temperature-controlled) stacks just looking at the authors and titles. Of course the collection is cataloged and searchable online, but just looking at the physical books on the shelf was useful for getting my bearings. I’ll take some pictures (if I’m allowed to) next week and will post them here. There are about 450 books in the WPRP collection. I pulled a few works from the top of a shelf to start with–realizing that if I’d just used an online catalog, I probably would have started elsewhere.

First reads: Mariana Starke’s tragedy The Widow of Malabar (1791) and Eliza Tonge’s Poetical Trifles (1832). I also pulled Emily Trevenen’s Little Derwent’s Breakfast. By a Lady. (1839) for kicks.

On The Widow of Malabar:

Starke’s The Widow of Malabar was an exceptionally fun read. Though I have studied far more Romantic gothic fiction and poetry than drama, I immediately noticed similar tropes in Starke’s work to the work of Radcliffe — tropes such as the discovery of family members at crucial moments in the plot, the use of caves, and the heroine being saved just in time by a lover that she presumed dead. Great stuff.

In her preface, Starke says that her play was inspired by the German dramatic tragedy by Le Mierre called La Veuve Du Malabar, but that she was not content to simply translate the play — she wanted to write her own version of it. The setting of Starke’s play is Eswara, India, and the heroine, the widow Indamora, is about to be burned to death apparently because her husband is dead and due to tradition, wives must follow their husbands; so, death doesn’t part anything, but leads to more death. We learn that Indamora has been secretly in love with the memory of a British captain named Raymond that she briefly met years ago, and who she yearns for as an alternative to her tyrant of a husband.

For myself alone

I ne’er cou’d weep—but, for my dearer self!—

I tweeted these lines out while thinking about the idea of a dearer self within the self — Indamora’s outer social self veiled her other self, which was in love with Raymond. It seems to me that Indamora suggests the necessity of women having a plurality of selves in order to negotiate social terms — especially the far stricter Hindu social norms in the play. Of course, the “dearer self” is not just Indamora, but also the memory of her love, Raymond — a memory that materializes in the flesh by the end of the play.

The young Bramin in charge of bringing Indamora to the flaming pile is sympathetic of her and also very emotional — he argues with the Chief Bramin who instructs him to deliver her to her death. The burning is put off when some chieftains worry that the ritual burning will alarm the nearby British who have agreed to a truce, but then the burning is rescheduled when they learn that the truce has been violated. About to be led to the fire, Indamora and the young Bramin discover that they have the same father, and are thus brother and sister. The young Bramin then goes in search of Indamora’s British captain — but learns from his men that he was killed in action. Finally, as Indamora is about to thrust herself upon the burning Pile to her death, she hears Raymond’s voice and no longer wishes to die:

“Hah! Those well-known accents / Call back my fleeting soul. Am I on Earth?” (44)

Raymond tells Indamora his story: he fabricated the rumor about his death. Rather, he his troops hid in a vast cave, then leaped out and took the nearest town so that he was able to reach the temple and save her.

Brazenly, the Young Bramin tells the Chief Bramin:

The very Cave

Which thou, blood-thirsty Wretch, too oft hast

stain’d

With human gore, now proves thy deadliest bane,

Thy total overthrow!— (45)

Horrified and defeated, the Chief Bramin requests to be put to death, and when the Young Bramin and Raymond prevent his burning, he pulls out a concealed dagger and stabs himself. After the suicide, Raymond ends the play with a speech about the power of Christianity and his design to erect a Christian cross and alter in the Bramins’ temple.

This play encapsulates what I’m most looking forward to this semester: enlarging the scope of my reading in the field of Romanticism. I had never heard of the play before, or the author, and as I said, I have read very little Romantic drama besides some works by Joanna Baillie, Byron, P.B. Shelley, etc. The opportunity to waltz from my desk in into the WPRP stacks and pull books to read during hours when the collection isn’t even officially open is an absolute pleasure. This research position will no doubt enhance the range of thought that I can bring to my dissertation.

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  1. […] “Researching the Women Poets of the Romantic Period Collection – Week 1” […]

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