Consecrating the romantic pen: Hemans and Abdy in the literary annual

Virginia Hromulak, Fordham University


This study attempts to reclaim Maria Smith Abdy, a major poetess of the Romantic and early Victorian periods, to the expanded Romantic canon by locating her within the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace, particularly that segment of the market given over to the literary annual, and by casting her work in relief against the oeuvre and rhetoric of Felicia Browne Hemans. In laying out my argument for Abdy's reclamation, I make several specific claims applicable to both Abdy and Hemans that serve as the spine of the project: namely, that their respective poetic aesthetics were impacted by the influence of the gift book market; that in meeting editorial demands of the annual, both were forced to write a self-reflexive poetry (an aesthetic dynamic born of the commercial exchange between writer and reader that reinscribed gender roles for women living under patriarchy); and that any social or political rhetoric informing their poetic contributions to the annual is inscribed with an overarching religious aesthetic that both empowers and circumscribes their respective voices. I argue that the literary annual served as a major mitigating force to the careers of Hemans and Abdy in that it provided the dominant culture with a means of channeling the burgeoning number of new female writers into a second-tier literary venue in order to restore equilibrium to the market. My argument speaks to the response of these poetesses to editorial pressure to write within annual guidelines – to prescribed themes, to length requirements, and to engravings. I maintain that in their ostensible complicity with the limitations the market imposed on them, both Hemans and Abdy were compelled to write a poetry of self-reflexivity – one in which both poetesses reflected an idealized domestic experience onto the readers who, in turn, refracted back onto each poetess the desire for more poetry of the same type. In so doing, both poetesses appear complicit not only with the marketplace itself but also with the cultural mores it fostered; however, in the case of Hemans, for whom death is the means of transcending patriarchy, and in Abdy's, who seeks religious transcendence as a means of escape, criticism of patriarchal authority is made evident by the very need for transcendence. The argument takes on finer contours in its examination of religion as both restrictive and enabling for Hemans and Abdy by demonstrating how it both served as an internal censor to their imagination as well as a shield that enabled them to write political criticism. Overall, my argument follows the following schema: The first chapter places both Hemans and Abdy within the intersecting histories of the poetess tradition and the rise of the literary annual, treating the literary marketplace, the rise of print culture, and the commercial imperative influencing the production, consumption and reception of the annual; the second and third chapters deal with Hemans and Abdy's respective responses to the ideological expectations imposed upon them by annual editors and readers, claiming that their tendency to seek transcendence from the masculine hegemonies of cultural and annual governance incites them to write a self-reflexive poetry; the final chapter explores these poetesses' struggles with religious ideology on a personal and professional level. Throughout the study, emphasis is given to aspects of Abdy's life and work that clearly set her apart from other poetesses of the period; i.e., her uncanny ability to read the abuses of her culture toward marginalized groups with acute accuracy and her potential for social and political activism. Indeed, while Abdy's work is informed by empirical, religious, and commercial influences, her ability to subvert these forces within so many of her poems distinguishes her as a compelling poet of the period.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Hromulak, Virginia, "Consecrating the romantic pen: Hemans and Abdy in the literary annual" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3416000.