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Victorian Literature Julia Augusta Webster
by
Patricia Rigg

Introduction

Born in 1837, Webster was a prolific writer in every genre, a self-educated classical scholar, a professional poetry reviewer, an activist, and an educator. She began her literary career as a young girl and had published two volumes of poetry, two well-received translations of Aeschylus and Euripides, and a three-volume novel by the time she became a very active member of the London Suffrage Society in the 1860s. During the 1870s Webster continued to support suffrage for women and the women’s movement in general, as well as liberalism and individualism, in a series of essays that she wrote for the Examiner and later published as A Housewife’s Opinions. Beginning in 1879, she served two terms on the London School Board, with the second term concurrent with her position as one of the main poetry reviewers for the Athenaeum. She consistently published poetry and drama in these years, as well as a children’s novella. Webster was married and had one daughter. In the 1880s she hosted literary salons and was one of the most respected literary, political, and social figures in London until she died of cancer in 1894. Webster disappeared from view immediately after her death, and critics are only now beginning the process of exploring the rich diversity of her work. The recent increased interest in Julia Augusta Webster bodes well for a more complete understanding of the significance of Webster’s work as a writer and professional critic, as well as her effectiveness as an activist and political figure. However, as this bibliographic project demonstrates, relatively few scholars have focused on the work of this woman of significance in the last half of the 19th century.

Biography

The only biographically focused work to date is Patricia Rigg’s book. Rigg 2009 makes use of archived letters and family records in the United Kingdom and the United States to construct as comprehensive an account of Webster’s early family connections, marriage, motherhood, activism, and professional reviewing work as archival materials allow.

  • Rigg, Patricia. Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.

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    This biographically informed book traces Webster’s life and literary output chronologically, placing her developing aestheticism in context with her work for women’s suffrage, her tenure as a member of the London School Board, and her professional reviews.

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Bibliographies and General Overviews

Bibliographical and biographical information on Webster that precedes Rigg 2009 can be found in a variety of 19th- and 20th-century sources. The most helpful of these expand on Lee 1917, a Dictionary of National Biography entry: Bell’s 1905 article (Bell 1986) is interesting for its gendered cultural context; Hays 1885, an article in Women of the Day, is based on the author’s interview with Webster; and Boos 1985 is an entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Sackville-West 1929 offers an early feminist perspective on Webster’s life and literary career, and Stedman 1882, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, is valuable for its contemporary perspective on Webster as a popular writer. Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a very good beginning resource for those who can afford access, particularly with respect to its links to contemporary reviews and related topics.

  • Bell, Mackenzie. “Augusta Webster 1840–1894.” In The Victorian Poets: The Bio-Critical Introductions to the Victorian Poets from A. H. Miles’s “The Poets and the Poetry of the Nineteenth Century.” Vol. 3. Edited by William E. Fredeman, 105–112. New York: Garland, 1986.

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    Bell lists Webster’s date of birth incorrectly as 1840, a myth she seems to have perpetuated herself. The essay reflects Bell’s 19th-century biases in his praise of Webster’s “virility” in writing, but his discussion of her work to demonstrate this quality is helpful to researchers interested in contemporary criticism.

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  • Boos, Florence. “Augusta Webster.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: Victorian Poets After 1850. Edited by William E. Fredeman and Ira B. Nadel, 280–284. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 1985.

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    Boos summarizes biographical information, offers brief abstracts of Webster’s work, and indicates key ways in which Webster moves from her derivative early work to her more sophisticated later work, contextualizing her discussion of Webster as a dramatic poet in reference to Robert Browning.

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  • Hays, Frances. Women of the Day: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Contemporaries. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1885.

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    This is an expansive article on Webster that includes pertinent details about her early life and early writing habits.

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  • Lee, Elizabeth. “Augusta Webster.” In Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 20. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, 1026–1027. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917.

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    This is a catalogue of basic biographical facts and literary history.

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  • Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.

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    The entry for Webster is an excellent place for scholars to begin work. The site gathers bibliographic details, reception history of Webster’s work, and some compilation of articles published. It is most helpful in its cross-references to other writers, Victorian institutions, and related topics stored on the database.

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    • Sackville-West, Vita. “The Women Poets of the ‘Seventies.’” In The Eighteen-Seventies. Edited by Hartley Granville-Barker, 111–132. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1929.

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      Sackville-West comments on Webster’s early life and on her early works, emphasizing her more feminist and activist focus in these years.

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    • Stedman, Edmund Clarence. “Some London Poets,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 64, May 1882, 885.

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      The reference to Webster as a poet and School Board member is brief and mainly meant for a popular audience, but the article puts Webster into context with other leading male and female poets.

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    Editions and Anthologies

    Original editions of all of Webster’s work exist, but they are scattered throughout England and the United States. With the exception of Webster’s three-volume novel Lesley’s Guardians, which, along with the rest of Webster’s oeuvre, is held at the British Library, all of Webster’s work is available through interlibrary loans. The only current selection of Webster’s poetry and essays is Sutphin 2000, a Broadview anthology.

    • Sutphin, Christine, ed. Portraits and Other Poems by Augusta Webster. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2000.

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      This anthology includes selections from Dramatic Studies, A Woman Sold, Portraits, A Book of Rhyme, and the Examiner essays, as well as the complete Yu-Pe-Ya’s Lute and Mother and Daughter. There are also representative reviews of Webster’s work and an introduction by Sutphin.

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    Historical and Cultural Background

    Webster’s involvement in the fight for women’s suffrage and her work on the London School Board make documents that pertain to the Suffrage Society and the London School Board important to those interested in Webster. During the 1880s until her death in 1894, she was one of the main poetry reviewers for The Athenaeum.

    Suffrage Society

    Webster worked with Helen Blackburn, who recorded Webster’s participation as a speaker at London suffrage meetings open to the public (see Blackburn 1902). Other suffrage records are held mainly by the Women’s Library in London. The best synthesis of Webster’s suffrage work to date is to be found in Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (see Rigg 2009 under Biography).

    • Blackburn, Helen. Women’s Suffrage: A Record of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the British Isles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1902.

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      This first-person account by Webster’s friend and colleague is helpful not only in terms of factual details about specific meetings but also in terms of explaining the nuances of the movement overall.

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    London School Board

    Using the Proceedings of the London School Board (Volumes 12–17 and 24–27), which are available in the London Metropolitan Archives, and The Schoolboard Chronicle and The Schoolmaster: An Educational Newspaper and Review, both held by the British Library Newspaper Library, Patricia Rigg summarizes Webster’s contribution to the London School Board in Rigg 2009 (see Biography). Gautry 1937 is the most comprehensive review of the Board’s history, limitations, and accomplishments, and because he served on the Board with Webster, his review offers the most intimate look at her London School Board work. Spalding 1900 is a more general overview. Webster is mentioned briefly in both Lewis 1982 and Martin 1999 in the context of Board economics and feminist politics, respectively.

    The Athenaeum

    The marked Editor’s Files of the Athenaeum held by City University London identifies Webster’s reviews. Rigg 2009 includes a detailed discussion of Webster’s reviews. Marysa Demoor offers a comprehensive perspective on women, including Webster, involved with the Athenaeum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Demoor 1997 and Demoor 2000).

    • Athenaeum. Editor’s Files. City University, London.

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      This is a complete set of the Athenaeum in which original work, literary reviews, and articles that appeared anonymously are attributed to the authors.

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    • Demoor, Marysa. “Power in Petticoats: Augusta Webster’s Poetry, Political Pamphlets, and Poetry Reviews.” In Voices of Power: Co-operation and Conflict in English Language and Literature. Edited by Marc Maufort, 133–140. Liège, Belgium: Language and Literature for the Belgian Association of Anglists, 1997.

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      This brief article is a good place to begin for someone interested in Webster’s work for the Athenaeum, but most researchers will want to consult Demoor 2000.

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    • Demoor, Marysa. Their Fair Share: Women, Power and Criticism in the Athenaeum, from Millicent Garrett Fawcett to Katherine Mansfield, 1870–1920. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000.

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      A culmination of Demoor’s work on the journal and specifically on women contributors to the journal. Demoor situates her discussion of individual reviewers in the broader context of the politics of this significant journal.

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    • Rigg, Patricia. Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.

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      This biographically informed book traces Webster’s life and literary output chronologically, placing her developing aestheticism in context with her work for women’s suffrage, her tenure as a member of the London School Board, and her professional reviews

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    General Critical Studies

    To date, Rigg 2009 is the only book-length study of Augusta Webster. The book makes use of archived letters and family records in the United Kingdom and the United States to construct biographical information and identify family members. This comprehensive account of Webster’s early family connections, marriage, motherhood, activism, and professional reviewing work traces Webster’s development as an aestheticist poet. Leighton 1992 includes a whole chapter on Webster’s poetry within the context of her feminism and activism. Webster is mentioned in passing by several contributors to Bristow 2000. She is also mentioned by Armstrong 1993 and Mermin 1993. In all cases, the emphasis is on Webster’s dramatic poetry. Carney 1928 is unique in its recognition of William Story’s possible influence on Webster. Bianchi 1999 and Cheng 2000 offer more contemporary perspectives, with Cheng focusing on Webster’s children’s novella and Bianchi on biographical context.

    Dramatic Poetry

    Webster’s dramatic poetry has been the subject of journal articles that reflect the steady interest in Webster’s work. Sutphin 1998 discusses “Medea” and “Circe.” Sutphin 2000 focuses on “A Castaway,” as does Slinn 2003. Fletcher 2003 discusses “Sister Annunciata” and Rigg 2001 pairs “A Castaway” and “The Happiest Girl in the World.” Brown 1991 pairs “A Castaway” with Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Brown 1995 discusses “A Woman Sold.” Byron 2003 discusses Webster and the dramatic monologue.

    • Brown, Susan. “Economic Representations: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny,’ Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway,’ and the Campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts.” Victorian Review 17.1 (1991): 78–95.

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      This early essay brings the two poems together in the context of prostitution. It is well researched and offers insight into the intersection of Webster’s literary and activist interests.

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    • Brown, Susan. “Determined Heroines: George Eliot, Augusta Webster, and Closet Drama by Victorian Women.” Victorian Poetry 33.1 (1995): 89–109.

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      Brown discusses Webster’s “A Woman Sold” as closet drama. The article includes a helpful discussion of this dramatic genre.

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    • Byron, Glennis. “Rethinking the Dramatic Monologue: Victorian Women Poets and Social Critique.” In Victorian Women Poets: Essays and Studies. Edited by Alison Chapman, 79–98. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2003.

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      Byron includes Webster in her discussion of 19th-century women poets who write dramatic monologues.

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    • Fletcher, Robert. “Convent Thoughts: Augusta Webster and the Body Politics of the Victorian Closet.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.3 (2003): 295–313.

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      Fletcher carries out an analysis of “Sister Annunciata” from a feminist perspective.

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    • Rigg, Patricia. “Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama.” Victorian Review 26.2 (2001): 75–107.

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      Referring to “The Happiest Girl in the World” and “A Castaway” from Portraits, Rigg argues that Webster’s dramatic poetry is more accurately termed “monodrama” than “dramatic monologue.”

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    • Slinn, E. Warwick. Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

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      Slinn discusses Webster’s “A Castaway” in the context of cultural attitudes toward prostitution and the economic realities of 19th-century women.

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    • Sutphin, Christine. “The Representation of Women’s Heterosexual Desire in Augusta Webster’s ‘Circe’ and ‘Medea in Athens.’” Women’s Writing 5.3 (1998): 373–393.

      DOI: 10.1080/09699089800200063Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      This essay treats these two female speakers from Portraits as anachronisms of Victorian patriarchy and is a good place to begin discussion of the poems and of Webster’s feminist work.

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    • Sutphin, Christine. “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000): 511–531.

      DOI: 10.1353/vp.2000.0045Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Sutphin expands on Brown 1991, situating “A Castaway” as a poem central to poetic discourse on prostitution after the Repeal Act of 1870.

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    Dramas

    Rigg 2004 considers Webster’s four lyrical dramas from a feminist perspective.

    • Rigg, Patricia. “‘Present in the Drama’: The Literary Drama of Augusta Webster.” Australasian Victorian Studies Journal 10 (2004): 110–127.

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      This essay situates all four of Webster’s poetic dramas—The Auspicious Day, Disguises, In a Day, and The Sentence—within the context of Webster’s feminist activities.

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    Translations

    Webster’s two well-received translations are the focus of Rigg 2010.

    • Rigg, Patricia. “‘Enter into the Genius of Him’: Augusta Webster and the Discourse of Translation Theory.” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 6.1 (Spring 2010).

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      Rigg discusses Webster’s translations of the Prometheus of Aeschylus and the Medea of Euripides within the context of contemporary 19th-century translation theory and Webster’s activist interests in the 1860s.

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    Lyric Poetry

    Van Remoortel 2008 and Linker 2008 suggest that Mother and Daughter has become of recent interest. Rigg 2004 discusses “The English Rispetti.”

    • Linker, Laura. “Mother and Daughter: Augusta Webster and the Maternal Production of Art.” Papers on Language and Literature 44.1 (2008): 52.

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      This essay considers Webster’s sonnet sequence within the context of Schiller’s integration of the artist and the child within the artist.

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    • Rigg, Patricia. “Augusta Webster and the Lyric Muse: The Athenaeum and Webster’s Poetics.” Victorian Poetry 42.2 (2004): 135–164.

      DOI: 10.1353/vp.2004.0042Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Rigg discusses “English Rispetti,” originally titled “English Stornelli,” from A Book of Rhyme within the context of Webster’s poetics expressed in her Athenaeum reviews.

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    • van Remoortel, Marianne. “Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s House of Life and Augusta Webster’s Mother and Daughter.” Victorian Poetry 46.4 (2008): 467–486.

      DOI: 10.1353/vp.0.0036Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      This is an interesting discussion of Webster’s reworking of the maternal metaphors in Rossetti’s sequence contextualized by a broader discussion of the implications of Webster’s focus.

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    LAST MODIFIED: 02/06/2012

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199799558-0056

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