Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Julia Margaret Cameron
and Her Children Charles and Henry (1859)
Photograph taken by Lewis Carroll

Therefore it is with effort I restrain the overflow of my heart and simply state that my first [camera and] lens was given to me by my cherished departed daughter and her husband, with the word, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.”

The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour…. I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me….

I turned my coal-house into my dark room, and a glazed fowl house I had given to my children became my glass house! The hens were liberated, I hope and believe not eaten. The profit of my boys upon new laid eggs was stopped, and all hands and hearts sympathised in my new labour, since the society of hens and chickens was soon changed for that of poets, prophets, painters and lovely maidens, who all in turn have immortalized the humble little farm erection.

When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Annals of my Glass House (1874)

Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta, India. She met her husband, Charles Cameron, on a trip to southern Africa. After her husband’s retirement in 1848, the family moved from India back to England. She took up photography in 1863, at the age of 48, when she was living next door to Alfred Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. She produced photographs for only ten years, but her photographic subjects included Robert Browning, Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and G. F. Watts. Most of her photographs have a soft, ethereal quality to them.

For the exhibition poster for Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face, I chose a quotation from an untitled, unfinished poem found in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pocket notebook, dated 1842-1844,  and a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864. The contemporaneity of the poem and the photo echo the timelessness of the nineteenth century women’s voices featured in the exhibit.

The subject of the photograph was sixteen-year-old Ellen Terry, a young Shakespearean actress and close friend of Cameron. Ellen had become acquainted with George Frederick Watts, a famous Victorian painter, forty years her senior, when she sat for him for a painting. At the urging of friends, they were married in February 1864. The photo was probably taken during their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight. The couple separated within a year and were formally divorced in 1877.  At some later date Cameron titled the photo “Sadness.”

The ABL owns eight original photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, many with inscriptions. A letter from Robert Browning to Julia Margaret Cameron (24 July 1866) thanking her for her generous gift of photographs is also a part of the collection. Sarianna Browning, sister of Robert Browning in a letter to Joseph Milsand (27 December 1866), records another generous Christmas gift of twelve photographs from Mrs. Cameron.

Although Mrs. Cameron turned, quite successfully, to photography later in life, her first love was literature. She wrote an autobiography, translated German, and published poems and fiction. This poem was written shortly before she and her husband left England for Ceylon.

Julia Margaret Cameron
“On a Portrait”
Macmillan Magazine  (February 1876)

Melinda Creech


Notes and Queries: There is an engraving of Joseph Milsand by F. Johnson in Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, and Browning by Anne Thackeray Ritchie. The caption under the engraving reads: “Mr. Milsand / from a copyrighted photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.” The Armstrong Browning Library has a large Joseph Milsand Collection. A letter from Joseph Milsand to Philbert Milsand (23 May [1874]) indicates that Joseph Milsand was to spend a day on Isle of Wight where Miss Thackeray would introduce him to Tennyson. Another letter from Joseph Milsand to Claire Milsand (11 Feb 1884) talks about Cameron’s beautiful photo of the tall, angel-like white lady which is displayed in his house. Does anyone know the whereabouts of either of the photographs, Milsand’s photographic portrait or the “angel-like white lady” photograph that he owned?

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Eliza Cook (1812–1889)

They [people who do not like poetry] are totally ignorant that Poetry is identified and incorporated in the primitive elements of all that makes God visible, and man glorious…. These people have no ear for music in a “babbling brook,” without the said brook turns a very profitable mill. They find no “sermons in stone,” beyond those preached by the walls of a Royal Exchange. They see nothing in a mob of ragged urchins loitering about the streets in a spring twilight, busy over a handful of buttercups and daisies, lugged with anxious care from Putney or Clapham—they see nothing but a tribe of tiresome children who deserve, and sometimes get, a box on the the ears for “being in the way.” They see nothing in the attachment between a poor man and his cur dog, but a crime worthy the imprisonment of one, and the hanging of the other.

Eliza Cook
“People Who Do Not Like Poetry”
in Eliza Cook’s Journal (1849)

In “People Who Do Not Like Poetry,” Eliza Cook not only deprecates those who do not appreciate poetry written on pages or lived out in the world around them, but she also admires the poor who, lacking a knowledge of the technical details of poetic verses, nevertheless, find the spirit of poetry all around them.

She was the youngest of eleven children. Although primarily self-educated, Eliza was heavily encouraged by her mother to pursue her gifts and began to compose poetry as a young child, publishing her first volume, Lays of a Wild Harp, when she was only seventeen. The volume was well-received, and she began submitting poetry to magazines. For almost a decade she published Eliza Cook’s Journal, a weekly periodical.

Despite Cook’s popular appeal, her poetry was not admired by some of her literary contemporaries. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford in 1845, stated that “Her [Cook’s] poetry, so called, I cannot admire—though, of course, she has a talent of putting verse together, of a respectable kind.” Likewise, Christina Rossetti told her brother he could call her “Eliza Cook” if he thought her verses mediocre.

Although her verses were not admired by either Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Christina Rossetti, at that time Cook was the most influential and widely read working-class author, editor, and essayist, according to Florence Boos in Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain: An Anthology. Most popular among the working-class for her sentimental poetry, she ultimately used her strong voice to champion the causes of the underprivileged and to advocate political freedom for women. Boos notes that she wrote poetry about “factory conditions, concepts of ‘property,’ worker’s education, the dignity of manual labor, enclosure, church disestablishment, class distinctions, the wanton destruction of war, the griefs of emigration, … and the humane treatment of animals.”

The ABL owns five volumes of Eliza Cook’s poetry, several of which can be viewed at the Armstrong Browning Library – 19th Century Women Poets Collection  page of the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections site. In addition, the ABL owns a letter from Eliza Cook to William Johnson Fox, which discusses her successful effort to raise money to furnish the grave of Thomas Hood, a popular Brisitsh humorist and poet, with a marker.

The poem below, “Song of the Haymakers,” is described in “Of ‘Haymakers’ and ‘City Artisans’: The Chartist Poetics of Eliza Cook’s Songs of Labor” by Solveig C. Robinson as “the most striking of Cook’s songs of rural England and agricultural labor.”


Eliza Cook
“The Song of the Haymakers”
Poems: Second Series (1864)

Melinda Creech



Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury (1812–1880)

courtesy of Bettina Lehmbeck

I believe we are touching on better days, when women will have a genuine, normal life of their own to lead.  There, perhaps, will not be so many marriages, and women will be taught not to feel their destiny manque if they remain single.  They will be able to be friends and companions in a way they cannot be now.  All the strength of their feelings and thoughts will not run into love; they will be able to associate with men, and make friends of them, without being reduced by their position to see them as lovers or husbands.  Instead of having appearances to attend to, they will be allowed to have their virtues, in any measure which it may please God to send, without being diluted down to the tepid ‘rectified spirit’ of ‘feminine grace’ and ‘womanly timidity’-in short, they will make themselves women, as men are allowed to make themselves men.

Geraldine Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle, [1849]
from Selections from the Letters of
Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle,
by Mrs Alexander [Annie] Ireland, 
London and New York: Longmans, Green 1892, p. 347.

The above quotation was suggested by Aileen Christianson, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, who has worked as a researcher and editor on the Duke-Edinburgh edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle since 1967.

Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury was born on August 22, 1812, at Measham, near the Derbyshire-Leicestershire border, the daughter of Thomas Jewsbury, a cotton manufacturer, and his wife, Maria, a cultivated woman of artistic tastes.  When she was six, Geraldine and her family moved to Manchester, and her mother died the following year. Her older sister, Maria Jane Jewsbury, who had become an accomplished poet, took control of the household and her sister’s education. After Maria’s marriage in 1832, Geraldine, was charged with the care of the Jewsbury household. After her sister’s sudden death the next year,  and the illness and death of her father shortly afterward, Geraldine grew disenchanted with her milieu. She began a correspondence with Thomas and Jane Carlyle, who became her lifelong friends.

Her unconventional personality was reflected in her “novels of doubt,” which dramatized the loss of faith in orthodox Christianity and the quest for a new structure of belief. She wrote eight novels, six for adults, two for children. She also gained fame as a critic, a publisher’s reader, and a figure in London literary life. Her friends included Huxley, Kingsley, Rossetti, the Brownings, Forster, Bright, Ruskin and Lewes. Her book, The History of an Adopted Child (London: Grant and Griffith, 1853) was in the Brownings’ library.

The Armstrong Browning Library owns one letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, dated 11 December 1854, which anticipates Geraldine Jewsbury’s gift to EBB of her book, The History of an Adopted Child (1853). Another letter from her sister Maria Jane Jewsbury to Anna Jameson describes her impressions of Mary Shelley.

In 2012 the ABL acquired a commonplace book containing 17 pages of manuscript text and 27 very fine pencil drawings after engraved illustrations, bound in a claret morocco binding with gilt title, Gleanings, on the cover, dated 1832, and dedicated to “ā ma chēre soeur. Mars 26ēme 1832,” translated “To my dear sister March 26th 1832”. The volume is quite beautiful, and it inspired me to search for the Victorian sister who had created it. One of the first clues in the album was a poem, “The Florentine,” written by Maria Jane Jewsbury (1800-1833). A little more research led to her sister, Geraldine Jewsbury, and having compared a sample of her handwriting, our curator of manuscripts, Rita Patteson, agreed that this may well be the work of a juvenile Geraldine Jewsbury. Prior to 1830 the young Geraldine had spent several years at the Misses Darbys’ boarding-school at Alder Mills, near Tamworth, and then in 1830–31 she continued her studies in French, Italian, and drawing in London. Perhaps Geraldine demonstrated her expertise in the French language, her drawing skills, and her regard for her sister’s poetry by composing the book and giving it to Maria Jane as a wedding gift. (Another poem in the volume is “The Bride” by Felicia Hemans.) Maria Jane was married later that year, and traveled to India with her husband, where she died unexpectedly from cholera the following year. Geraldine tried to collect the rest of her sister’s unpublished works and belongings from her husband, but was unsuccessful. Geraldine’s inability to obtain her sister’s possessions could possibly account for the loss of the lovely friendship book until recently.

Melinda Creech

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell [née Stevenson] (1810–1865)

Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other’s proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other’s opinions. Indeed, as each has her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed, nothing is so easy as verbal retaliation; but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree.

The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford (1851)

The above quotation from Cranford, suggested by Dr. Elizabeth Ludlow, crystallizes Gaskell’s desire to show the union of the new England with old Victorian values. Dr. Ludlow is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Anglia Ruskin University and author of several articles in the Gaskell Journal.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was greatly influenced by her Unitarian family, later marrying a Unitarian minister. Her faith combined with a firm belief in social duty and reform constituted the central force in her life. She wrote novels and short stories depicting the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, often incorporating the use of dialect into her writing. Her first novel, Mary Barton, published anonymously in 1848, was an immediate success, winning the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. She went on to write Cranford and North and South. Cranford, a series of episodes in the lives of three women in the fictional town of the same name, was first serialized in the magazine Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens, beginning on December 13, 1851. The 1900 volume, featured in our exhibit, includes an introduction by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, another nineteenth-century writer.

Charlotte Brontë, yet another nineteenth-century writer and author of the well-known Victorian novel Jane Eyre, was a friend of Mrs. Gaskell, and when Charlotte died in 1855, her father, Patrick Brontë, asked Mrs. Gaskell to write her biography. The biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), made use of a huge quantity of firsthand material and was skillfully written.

 In addition to editions of the two books, Cranford (1900) and The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) authored by Mrs. Gaskell, the ABL owns two letters addressed to Elizabeth Gaskell. One letter is from John Ruskin, a famous English author and art critic, assuring her regarding the selection of an architect for the London Law Courts. The other letter points to Mrs. Gaskell’s influence even in America. It is a letter from Maria Weston Chapman of Boston, thanking Mrs. Gaskell for “her beautiful contributions” and presenting her with a copy of the 1856 The Liberty Bell, an abolitionist annual. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Curse for a Nation” was published in that edition.

The ABL also owns Poems and Translations by Elizabeth Gaskell Holland, Elizabeth Gaskell’s sister-in-law. Her book of poetry is available online at the 19th Century Women Poets page of the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections site. Holland’s book includes a poem celebrating Elizabeth Gaskell’s marriage.

Melinda Creech

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Sarah Flower Adams (1805–1848)

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Sarah Flower Adams
“Nearer My God to Thee”
Hymns and Anthems, compiled by William Johnson Fox
London: Charles Fox (1841)

Virginia Blain, professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, editor of the Feminist Companion to Literature, and editor of the new Dictionary of National Biography, suggested to me that Sarah Flower Adams was best known for her composition of “Nearer My God to Thee.” The song became famous for allegedly being played by the musicians of the Titanic as it sank. The song has also traditionally been played at the funerals of American presidents. Less well known about the hymn, probably because all the verses are seldom sung, is the fact that the song is based on the story of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28: 10-28. In the story Jacob, traveling to his homeland to look for a wife, retires for the evening with a stone for a pillow and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. The Lord stood at the top pronouncing a blessing on him and his descendants and promised to be with him always.

Sarah Flower Adams was born in Essex, England, the daughter of Benjamin Flower, a radical journalist and political writer. Sarah and her sister Eliza, a composer, were close friends of Robert Browning and corresponded with him frequently. Eliza is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Browning’s Pauline (1833). After her father’s death, Sarah contracted tuberculosis. Recuperating on the Isle of Wight, she composed her first long poem, “The Royal Progress.” Sarah wrote poems on social and political subjects, a religious catechism for children, dramatic poems, and even attempted a career as an actress. In 1834 she married William Adams, a civil engineer. Her greatest achievements, however, were literary rather than dramatic. Adams’ longest work, Vivia Perpetua: A Dramatic Poem (1841), recounts the third century martyrdom of Vivia Perpetua. Of course, Adams is best remembered for her hymns. Blain suggests those “simple expressions of devotional feeling at once pure and passionate, can hardly be surpassed.”

The Armstrong Browning Library owns a copy of Vivia Perpetua: A Dramatic Poem (1841), inscribed by the author, “Celina Flower. With love from The Author – 1841.” The ABL also owns a very important letter written by Sarah Flower Adams to William Johnson Fox.  After the death of her father, Sarah lived with the Fox family and contributed to the Monthly Repository, a magazine Fox was managing at the time. In this letter, written to Fox on May 31, 1827, Sarah Flower begins by bemoaning the degradation of the “immense hot house” of London and reminiscing about her recent glorious stay in the country. She then introduces Fox  to the juvenile poetry of  “the boy” Robert Browning, quoting two of his poems, “The First Born of Egypt” and “The Dance of Death.” This letter is significant because Browning eventually destroyed the manuscripts of his entire first volume of poems, Incondita, and these two poems transcribed by Sarah Flower are all that remain. The last two pages of the letter contain the transcription of Robert Browning’s poems.

May 31, 1827
Sarah Flower to William Johnson Fox
courtesy of the Armstrong Browning Library

Melinda Creech

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–1838)

Farewell, my lute!–and would that I
Had never waked thy burning chords!
Poison has been upon thy sigh,
And fever has breathed in thy words.

Yet wherefore, wherefore should I blame
Thy power, thy spell, my gentlest lute?
I should have been the wretch I am,
Had every cord of thine been mute.

It was my evil star above,
Not my sweet lute, that wrought me wrong:
It was not song that taught me love,
But it was love that taught me song.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon
from “Sappho’s Song”
in The Improvisatrice

The above quotation was suggested by Jill Rappaport, Assistant Professor of English at The University of Kentucky, who has published several books and articles on nineteenth century women, including Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Several women writers in the nineteenth century chose the life of Sappho, a Greek lyric poet (c.610-c.580 BCE), for the focus of their poetry, finding a resonance between her plight and their own. The fragmentary nature of Sappho’s writings allowed for creativity in the way Victorian women represented her in their works. Here Landon paints Sappho as an abandoned woman, wrestling with the conflict between art and love, profession and gender, and fame and societal pressures.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon learned to read as a toddler. She published her first poem in the Literary Gazette at the age of 18, signing it simply with the initial L. The following year, she published a book of poems, The Fate of Adelaide. She frequently signed her works L.E.L. Her biographer, Laman Blanchard remarked the initials L.E.L. “speedily became a signature of magical interest and curiosity” and Bulwer Lytton reported that he and his friends would anxiously peruse the weekly publications for “the three magical letters L.E.L.” She grew to be respected among the literary community.

In 1838, just four months after she married George Maclean, Letitia was found dead, with a bottle of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in her hand. The circumstances of her death are still a mystery. It is unclear whether she overdosed on her medicine, committed suicide, or was intentionally poisoned.

Previous blogs about Felicia Hemans, Anna Jameson, and Mary Shelley have highlighted the connections between nineteenth century women writers. The blog about Felicia Hemans noted that both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Letitia Elizabeth Landon wrote poems about Felicia Heman’s death in 1835. A few years later, in 1838, Both EBB and Christina Rossetti wrote poems about L.E.L.’s death. Christina Rossetti’s poem was simply entitled “L.E.L,” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was entitled “L.E.L.’s Last Question.” The Armstrong Browning Library owns a manuscript copy of EBB’s poem about L.E.L.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Autograph manuscript,  with corrections
“L. E. L.’s Last Question”
Courtesy of Armstrong Browning Library

The Armstrong Browning Library owns four of Miss Landon’s books published in the nineteenth century: The Troubadour: Catalogue of Pictures and Historical Sketches (1825), The Golden Violet (1827), and The Improvisatrice: and other poems (1827), and The Poetical Works of Miss Landon (1838); and also Samuel Laman Blanchard’s Life and Literary Remains of L.E.L. (1841). Both The Golden Violet and The Improvisatrice can be viewed online at the 19th Century Women Poets Collection page of Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections site. Elizabeth Barrett Browning owned a copy of The Troubadour as well as a copy of Blanchard’s Life and Literary Remains of L.E.L.

Melinda Creech