KeywordsPoetry Women’s employment Social action Catholicism Feminism
Combining her interest in feminism with her commitment to Catholicism, Adelaide Procter (1825–1864) wrote poetry designed not only to engage a wide audience of readers but also to increase her readers’ spiritual devotion and social action as she encouraged them to pay closer attention to the inequities in their society and work to address them.
Adelaide Anne Procter was born in London on October 30, 1825. Her father, Bryan Waller Procter, trained and worked as a solicitor but was also a well-known author, publishing poems and essays under the pseudonym of Barry Cornwall. Her mother, Anne Skepper Procter, was an engaging hostess who became known for her literary salons frequented by authors and artists such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anna Murphy Jameson, Fanny Kemble, the Rossettis, and Robert Browning (Gregory 1998). Adelaide Procter, then, was raised in a home that was permeated by literature and the arts. Dickens, in fact, records in his introduction to Procter’s collected works that, as a little girl, Procter carried around a “tiny album” into which her mother had copied Procter’s favorite poems (Dickens 1902).
Procter read widely as she was growing up, and she began writing poetry at a young age. As she began to think about submitting her works for publication, Procter, like her father, decided to write under a pseudonym. Rather than utilizing her father’s influence or receiving help from any of his friends, she wanted to make sure that her poems were evaluated on their own merits, so she submitted her work as Miss Mary Berwick and proved to be quite successful, having 25 poems published in Dickens’s journal, Household Words from 1853 to 1854. Procter, however, eventually felt compelled to reveal herself in December 1854 when Dickens, on one of his visits to her family home, brought along one of Miss Berwick’s recent poems to show the family. As Dickens records, he discovered the next day that he had “spoken of the poem to the mother of its writer, in its writer’s presence” (Dickens 1902).
Procter continued to publish her poems not only in Household Words and All the Year Round but also in other journals such as The Cornhill Magazine, Good Words, and The English Woman’s Journal. She, in fact, became the most published poet in both Household Words and The English Woman’s Journal. In the late 1850s, she became part of the Portfolio Society (a group of writers and artists who met in Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s home to share their work), and she also began publishing her collected poems with Legends and Lyrics, First Series appearing in 1858, and Legends and Lyrics, Second Series appearing in 1861. She followed these collections with A Chaplet of Verses in 1862: a volume of religious poetry that was designed raise funds for the Providence Row Night Mission in London. Her works sold well, and when Procter died of tuberculosis 2 years later on February 3, 1864, she was, as Margaret Maison recounts, more popular than any other Victorian poet except for Tennyson (Maison 1965). Procter’s fame, however, did not persist into the twentieth century, for her poems, like the poems of many other Victorian writers, were dismissed by later readers as being too simple and sentimental. Other than her poem “A Lost Chord,” which had been set to music by Arthur Sullivan, her works were generally forgotten until they were rediscovered, along with the works of many other women writers, as scholars in the late-twentieth century began to turn more of their attention to uncovering a tradition of women writers.
Feminism and Social Action
As scholars have begun to realize, while Procter might appear to be a conventional Victorian woman writing sentimental poetry, she was actually quite interested in challenging the status quo. Dickens, in fact, when crafting a fictional persona for her in his frame story for the 1859 Christmas number of All the Year Round (to which Procter contributed her poem “The Ghost in the Picture Room,” which was later titled “A Legend in Provence”) remarks on her passion “for Woman’s mission, Woman’s rights, Woman’s wrongs, and everything that is woman’s with a capital W” (Dickens 1859). Procter became actively involved in the fight for woman’s rights in 1855 when she worked with Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Bessie Rayner Parkes, and other women to lobby support for the Married Women’s Property Act. Although this act failed to pass, the women continued to work together for social change and became known as the Langham Place Group since The English Woman’s Journal, which they established in 1858, had its offices at 19 Langham Place in London.
The Langham Place Group, which has been called “the first organized feminist group” in Britain (Herstein 1985), used The English Woman’s Journal to promote women’s rights, particularly surrounding issues of employment. They also founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) in 1859, which provided not only a job register but also job training for women. Procter was deeply involved in the work of the Langham Place Group, writing poems and articles for The English Woman’s Journal, becoming the secretary of SPEW, and editing a collection of works entitled Victoria Regia, which was published to help promote the skills of the women compositors at the newly established Victoria Press, run by Emily Faithfull. In her obituary for Procter, one of the other members of the group, Jessie Boucherette, recalled, “In almost every committee there is a leading person, an animating spirit, some one, in fact, who does more than a fair share of work and does it well, and thus gains influence over the rest; this was the part taken by Miss Procter” (Boucherette 1864).
Before I trust my Fate to thee,
Or place my hand in thine,
Before I let thy Future give
Color and form to mine,
Before I peril all for thee, question thy soul to-night for me. (Procter 1902)
Trust no prayer nor promise;
Words are grains of sand:
To keep your heart unbroken,
Hold it in your hand. (Procter 1902)
For Procter, the hope for romantic love is inevitably embedded within the social, political, and economic realities of Victorian society in which women who lack not only opportunities for employment but also the ability to control their own money after marriage must be extremely careful when they decide to “peril all” for love.
In “Three Evenings in a Life,” Procter develops this danger even further by illustrating that it is not simply romantic love that may be treacherous for women, for Alice, the main character in the poem, wastes much of her life by repeatedly sacrificing herself for her brother: “Her heart, her life, her future,/Her genius, only meant/Another thing to give him” (Procter 1902). While Procter ends the poem with the hope that “[a]n earnest, noble part” waits for Alice (Procter 1902), readers are still asked to mourn the many wasted years that Alice has spent ignoring her own life in order to care for others. Throughout her poetry, Procter calls into question the sacrificial love so often associated with the middle-class Victorian woman.
Procter’s critique of her society’s treatment of women extends even further than this, however, for she recognizes that while middle-class women throughout her society are struggling with their lack of power, lower-class women are in even more danger. Procter’s work with the Providence Row Night Mission familiarized her with the most vulnerable in her society: the lower-class women and children who had fallen victim to economic challenges and become homeless. In several of her poems, she asks her readers not only to sympathize with the plight of these women but also to try to do something about it. In “The Homeless Poor,” for instance, she creates two personas, the Angel of Prayers and the Angel of Deeds, to illustrate the importance of moving from prayerful piety to social action. In this poem, the Angel of Deeds draws the Angel of Prayers’ attention to a woman “In the bitter air and drifting sleet/Crouching in a doorway…/With her children at her feet” (Procter 1902). This woman is sheltering outside the home of the devout middle-class family whose prayers the angel is carrying to heaven. Those prayers, however, never reach heaven, for they are revealed to be “worthless tokens” that cannot take the place of the family’s lack of concern for this woman and her children (Procter 1902). Through this poem as well as others, Procter asks her readers not only to see the homeless women and children who surround them in London but also to do something to help them, and in the introduction to A Chaplet of Verses, she even provides them with the address to the refuge should they wish to make their own donations.
Much of Procter’s concern for social action was fueled by her devotion to Catholicism. Procter converted to Catholicism in 1851, and after her conversion she attended not only the traditional St. James’s Church in Spanish Place but also the revivalist London Oratory, which focused much more on social action, particularly for the poor Irish Catholics flooding into London. Procter draws attention to their plight in her introduction to A Chaplet of Verses, remarking that “the very poorest and most destitute are in many cases Catholic” (Procter 1902) and that the Providence Row Night Refuge, which would receive the proceeds from the volume, is the only refuge for Catholics in England (Procter 1902). With this volume, Procter put her own religious faith into action as she used her skill at poetry to help provide shelter for the poor, but with these particular poems she also, as Karen Dieleman argues, revealed “a poetic aesthetic and practice deeply informed by her worship” (Dieleman 2012). The volume begins with “The Army of the Lord” in which Procter encourages her readers “[t]o fight the battle of the cross” (Procter 1902), and throughout the rest of the volume, Procter guides her readers through the spiritual devotion, particularly to the Virgin Mary, that will strengthen them for this fight.
This juxtaposition of Catholicism and social action permeates not only A Chaplet of Verses but also many of Procter’s earlier poems such as “A Legend of Provence,” which presents a poignant and powerful representation of the way that Procter saw hope for all in the love of the Virgin Mary. Originally, published as “The Ghost in the Picture Room” in the 1859 Christmas number of All the Year Round, “A Legend of Provence” recounts the story of a young nun who, falling in love with a soldier, leaves the convent only to see “each day and hour, more worthless grown / The heart for which she cast away her own” (Procter 1902). After years of living as “an outcast” (Procter 1902), she returns to the convent, desiring simply “to look upon her home—and die” (Procter 1902). What she discovers, however, is that the Virgin Mary has taken her place, saving it for her so that she can return and live her life just as if she never left. As scholars such as Cheri Larsen Hoeckley have argued, Procter often uses “a Catholic understanding of Mary to introduce secular and Protestant readers to the possibility that a heavenly order critiques Victorian gender ideology’s power structures” (Hoeckley 2007), and with the Catholicism in this poem, Procter presents a powerful and perhaps radical view of the grace and mercy that should be offered to “fallen” women in her own society (Colón 2005).
While Procter’s life was cut short at the age of 39, her career as a poet was quite remarkable. She was able to chart a path that allowed her to be both a popular poet and an ardent activist as she drew her readers’ attention to social and economic inequities in the world around them and encouraged them to address these problems. Her poetry, then, provides not only an interesting perspective on the social activism of the Victorian age but also a glimpse of how one female poet managed to successfully negotiate the challenges of publishing for a wide audience while also expressing her potentially radical ideas.
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