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Augusta Webster (1837-1894)

Augusta Webster saw herself primarily as a poet, and poetry first as Art and second, a means for social change. For her, writing verse was a vocation, inherent to her nature. However, she was also an essayist: the most noteworthy articles she wrote for The Examiner during the 1870s were collected in a volume entitled A Housewife’s Opinions published in 1879. She was a reviewer, regularly contributing to The Athenaeum from the 1880s up until her death at the age of 57 in 1894. She had suffered from ill-health all her adult life and sometimes wintered in milder countries to alleviate recurrent symptoms of pleurisy. Webster was a dramatist and an accomplished translator due to her fluency in classical and romance languages.  Her intellectual and literary career was closely intertwined with the commitment to the late century’s Woman Question. From her service in the London Suffrage Society to her election to the London School Board in 1879 and 1885, Webster was always on the frontline in the period’s struggle for women’s rights.

Julia Augusta Webster, née Davies, was born in Poole, Dorset on January 30, 1837. Her grandfather was Joseph Hume, a close friend with William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, and William Godwin, and who had translated Dante’s Inferno into English blank verse in 1812. Her father was George Davies, Vice-Admiral of the navy, “a perfect and noble specimen of the British sailor,” and a hero, according to the British poet and critic Theodore Watts, later Watts-Dunton, who recalled Davies’s bravery at sea (355). Augusta experienced sea life, living for a time with her family on board the brigantine Griper.  The family moved to several places along the coast of England, such as Penzance, before finally settling in Cambridge in 1852, where her father was appointed chief constable. The echo of the sea would resurface in some of her uncollected poems, such as the 1881 “Gone Seaward” or “PLAGE DES FOUS,” the latter published in 1893, the year before her death, and in which she says she longs to hear once more “The coming and the voice of wave on wave” (32). As a young girl she studied Italian, Spanish, French, and Latin and began to take an interest in Greek as well, probably reading her brother’s “discarded schoolbooks” (“University” 102). She was then sent to school in Cambridge and later attended the South Kensington Art School in London only to be expelled for whistling.

In 1863 she married Thomas Webster, a fellow of Trinity College and a solicitor. Their only child, Margaret, was born in 1864. Under her husband’s benevolent guidance, as she would later say to John Stuart Blackie, professor of Greek at the University of Edinburgh, she studied classical languages. In 1866, Webster translated Æschylus’s The Prometheus Bound which was published that same year and drew praise from a number of reviewers, as did her second translation of another Greek masterpiece, Euripides’s Medea in 1868.

On the whole, Webster’s critics acknowledged her work’s scholarly quality and their remarkable ability – especially for those by a woman – to combine the accuracy of the letter with the faithful rendering of the “Greek spirit” in “a really marvellous performance” (Review 95). The classical inspiration carried over to her dramatic monologues “Circe” and “Medea,” included in Portraits and Other Poems (1870), and in two tragedies: In a Day (1882), with a Greek setting, performed at Terry’s Theatre in London in the Summer 1890 with her daughter Margaret playing the role of the protagonist, and The Sentence (1887) about the notorious Roman emperor Caligula. William Michael Rossetti, a devoted friend and admirer, was impressed by her talent as tragedian and defined The Sentence “a masterpiece of European drama” in his Preface to Mother and Daughter, Webster’s unfinished sonnet sequence published posthumously in 1895 (Portraits 338). Webster’s work as playwright also includes a Shakespearean comedy, Disguises (1879), and The Auspicious Day (1872), which Watts mentioned in his 1894 eulogy as the first tragedy on a “classical subject” (355).

In her short life, Webster authored a novel entitled Lesley’s Guardians (1864), published under the pseudonym of Cecil Home, as well as seven collections of poems, including Dramatic Studies in1866,  A Woman Sold and Other Poems in 1867, and Portraits and Other Poems in 1870 in which she experimented with the dramatic form. Her 1881 A Book of Rhyme included her attempt with the Italian rispetto form in English versification.

Webster’s main concern throughout her work is women’s condition and how culture and society impinge upon it. In her dramas, female identity appears as a multi-layered construction which defies widespread gender assumptions. Poetry, hence, serves a socio-cultural function, dealing with the most controversial issues of late-Victorian society, while never losing its artistic value. Webster’s poetry is a poetry of ideas, staging tensions, exposing sexual double standards, debunking myths, unmasking “ideology at work” (Leighton 174).

Deserted women, unfulfilled love, and thwarted intellectual ambition are tropes and themes at the core of her poems and essays, where a pervading irony, combined with formal strategies that give voice to different perspectives, reveals deep seated prejudices and the undergirding power structures that perpetuate oppression. The choice of the dramatic monologue form, in particular, is vital for Webster, in so far as in using different poetic voices she hoped to eschew the correspondence between poet and speaker, to go beyond the idea of poetry as spontaneous effusion of feeling, the Romantic inheritance that she saw as particularly limiting for women artists. Through her dramatis personae, whether male or female, speaking from the past, like Joan of Arc and Medea, or in the present, such as the future bride in “The Happiest Girl in the World” or the prostitute Eulalie in “A Castaway” (Portraits), Webster puts Victorian assumptions to the test.

Therefore, Webster’s poetical work must be read in the context of her commitment to the Woman Question, and, most importantly, to the causes of education and suffrage. After she moved to London with her husband and daughter in 1870, she joined the London Suffrage Society and, in the course of the 1870s, in her articles for The Examiner, she advocated women’s right to vote as well as to compete in the job market on equal terms with men. Her most thought-provoking contributions to The Examiner, selected for publication in A Housewife’s Opinions, emphasize with subtle irony the lack of opportunities and the innumerable social constraints bearing upon Victorian women, while passionately supporting economic independence.

Although Webster could not herself attend university, she welcomed – albeit with cautious enthusiasm – the new educational opportunities that were opening up for women students in the 1870s, like the establishment of colleges or the official open access to exams and qualifications for “students of the sex of Minerva and the Muses.” In 1878 the University of London allowed its female undergraduates to sit for public examinations and to earn official degrees: Webster celebrated such an event as “a sort of public proclamation of a repeal of the women’s mental disabilities acts, a Magna Charta authorizing them to possess abilities and to train them” (“University” 95). She knew, however, that this was only the beginning of a long process of emancipation from deeply engrained prejudices and expected further resistance. Apparently she was right, for women students at Oxford and Cambridge had to wait until 1920 and 1948 respectively to be entitled to a degree.

Webster was a prolific writer for the periodical press, contributing reviews to The Athenaeum from 1884 to her death, and poems to journals as diverse as Good Words, Macmillan’s Magazine, The Cornhill Magazine, and The English Illustrated Magazine.  Theodore Watts-Dunton recalled her affiliation with The Examiner as a delightful period of “literary comradeship” he shared with her (355). Watts-Dunton, one of her keenest supporters, foresaw the oblivion of his dear friend’s name, doomed to disappear from literary history, just like that of many contemporary poets.  Ten days after her death, writing her obituary, he anticipated that Webster would not achieve eternal fame, for the very notion of poetic immortality in a post-Darwinian era was inexorably vanishing. He knew that even a great poet like Webster would share the same fate. Indeed, Webster has been forgotten for a long time; however, in the last decade her work has drawn increasing critical attention and begun to be republished. Most recently, in the Spring of 2017, Victorian Poetry dedicated a special issue to the reappraisal of her writing with essays by Patricia Rigg, Tracy D. Olverson, and Herbert F. Tucker. Such renewed scholarly interest explores how Webster’s dramatic poetry throws into relief a new female subjectivity, one in quest for identity and voice, while facing a multiplicity of overlapping identities and voices that constrain and define her. Webster’s work gives fresh insight into the contradictions of late-Victorian women while bringing to the fore the pervasive power of cultural binaries.

Maria Luigia Di Nisio has completed a PhD in Human Sciences at Gabriele D’Annunzio University, Chieti (Italy), and currently works as a translator and researcher in English Literature. Her research interests include late-Victorian science and women poets.

Works Consulted
Augusta WebsterVictorian Poetry, vol. 55, no.1, Spring 2017. Project Muse,
Bianchi, Petra. “Webster, (Julia) Augusta (1837-1894).” Oxford Dictionary of National
            Biography, 2004.
Home, Cecil. Lesley’s Guardians.  Macmillan, 1864. Internet Archive,
Leighton, Angela. Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart. Harvester
            Wheatsheaf, 1992.
Review of The Prometheus Bound of Æschylus,” translated by Augusta Webster. The
            Illustrated London News,  28 July 1866, p. 95. Hathitrust,;view=1up;seq=103Watts, Theodore. “Mrs. Augusta Webster.” The Athenaeum, no. 3490, 15 Sept. 1894, p. 355.
Webster, Augusta.  The Auspicious Day. Macmillan, 1872. Internet Archive,
---.  A Book of Rhyme. Macmillan, 1881. Internet Archive,
---.  Disguises.  Kegan Paul, 1879. Hathitrust,
---.  Dramatic Studies. Macmillan, 1866.  Hathitrust,
---. “Gone Seaward.” Macmillan’s Magazine, vol. 45, 1 Nov. 1885, p. 164. ProQuest,
---.  A Housewife’s Opinions.  Macmillan, 1879. Internet Archive,
---. In a Day. Kegan Paul, 1882. Internet Archive,
---. “PLAGE DES FOUS.” Good Words, vol. 34, Dec. 1893, p. 278. ProQuest,
---.  Portraits and Other Poems.  Edited by Christine Sutphin, Broadview P, 2000.
---, translator. Medea. By Euripides, Macmillan, 1868. Internet Archive,
---, translator. The Prometheus Bound. By Aeschylus, Macmillan, 1866. Internet Archive,
---.  The Sentence. T. Fisher Unwin, 1887. Internet Archive,
---.  “University Degrees for Women.”  A Housewife’s Opinions.  Macmillan,
1879, pp. 95-104.  Internet Archive,
---.  A Woman Sold and Other Poems. Macmillan, 1867. Internet Archive,