Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1857 verse-novel Aurora Leigh entered the cultural and social-political life of the Netherlands in the 1870s and 1880s through the work of three Dutch people: a literary critic, a social reformer, and a novelist. Conrad Busken Huet, the country’s leading literary and cultural critic, first brought the poem to Dutch attention in 1873 by showcasing it as a model of great art with high social and moral purpose, from which Dutch contemporary poetry could learn. Hélène Mercier, one of the leading social reformers of the country, then translated the poem into Dutch in 1883 to inspire the country’s social reform efforts. Its prophetic voice, Mercier declared, spoke as directly to the social conditions of the Netherlands in the 1880s as it had to those of England in the 1850s. Arguing that it was not necessary to retain Aurora Leigh’s poetic form for this voice to have effect, she translated the poem as prose. But Dutch novelist Martina van Walcheren did not agree. She produced a poetic translation in 1885 that her publisher supported at least in part because he opposed the emerging art-for-art’s sake movement. All these literary, social reformist, and aesthetic developments or debates were also fueled or complicated by national and international book economies and copyright questions.
I first learned about a Dutch translation of Aurora Leigh while at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) in 2015. The ABL holds a copy of the same edition that Robert Browning received on 3 June 1888, three years after its publication in Amsterdam by P. N. van Kampen. Browning’s copy bears this inscription: “This translation of Aurora Leigh ‘found one happy morn’ at Dort [a city in the Netherlands] by Leonard and Kate Courtney, during a Whitsun holyday, is, to their singular felicity, presented to Robert Browning until now, as he informs them, unaware of its existence” (Kelley and Coley A0321). That Browning did not know of a Dutch translation of his deceased wife’s most famous work (he must have missed its brief mention in an 1883 issue of The Academy [Irving 135]) points to international copyright issues but also piqued my curiosity about what else transpired in the Netherlands regarding Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse-novel. Criticism on the transnationalist scope of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry has certainly been expanding: it includes, for instance, Alison Chapman’s analysis in Networking the Nation (a study of the internationalism and political commitments of expatriate Victorian women poets in Italy) of Aurora Leigh’s Italian reception; Helen Chamber’s analysis of contemporary German women’s responses to the poem, particularly Helen von Druskowitz’s Drei Englische Dichterinnen [Three English Poetesses, 1885], which insisted on Elizabeth Barret Browning’s relevance for German women readers; and Marjorie Stone’s discussion in BRANCH of the poem’s reception in Britain, America, France, and Italy, and, to lesser extent, Australia and Germany (“The ‘Advent’”). Yet the Dutch Aurora Leigh seems to have escaped notice, at least in English criticism.
However, research reveals that Aurora Leigh had significant presence in the Netherlands as well, for the version presented to Browning was not the first Dutch translation of the poem. Another translation had appeared two years earlier, through Haarlem publisher H. D. Tjeenk Willink. Further, the second (1885) translation was rendered as a poem, by Martina van Walcheren (1850-1929), while the first (1883) was rendered in prose, by Hélène Mercier (1839-1910). Why two translations, one prose, one metrical? Why the 1880s, some 25 years after Aurora Leigh’s original publication in England? Who else in the Netherlands was writing about Elizabeth Barrett Browning (hereafter EBB)? What was her cultural capital there in the latter nineteenth century? And how did the economics and legalities of translation and copyright factor in? With my own Dutch heritage further motivating my interest, I attempt here to answer these questions by reconstructing the presence and effect of Aurora Leigh in the Netherlands from 1870 to 1900.
I see this presence as an attempt initially to inspire Dutch literary culture in a period of perceived decline, then to leverage the poem for the benefit of Dutch social reform movements, and then to restore Aurora Leigh as “living poetry” in response to an emerging aestheticism in the Netherlands akin to that advocated by Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, among others, in England. Each of these moments is inflected by book economy issues. In the first, prominent Dutch literary critic Conrad Busken Huet and others like him criticized contemporary Dutch literature for failing to achieve the high standards of the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age, when writers like Joost van den Vondel, P. C. Hooft, Jacob Cats, and Constantijn Huijgens were producing the poetry and drama still considered the classics in Dutch literature. By contrast, nineteenth century Dutch literature, especially poetry, was far from vibrant (Meijer 231). After the French occupation of the Netherlands in the early nineteenth century, Dutch poetry tended toward a “retrospective nostalgia” (Weevers 148) that Huet deplored. He aimed in his criticism to invigorate Dutch literature again, partly by returning to the Dutch classics but also by drawing attention to works by contemporary international writers who could serve as models. EBB, particularly through Aurora Leigh, became one of those models.
For other Dutch writers—some of whom came to Aurora Leigh through Huet’s essays on the subject—achieving a new golden age of literature was not the primary concern in a period crying out for social reform. As in other places, the nineteenth century Netherlands faced the problem of the dire poverty of the lowest class of society. For Hélène Mercier, whose call for women’s education had as ultimate end the improvement of social conditions broadly, Aurora Leigh inspired reform efforts. Its prophetic voice, she declared, spoke as directly to the social conditions of the Netherlands in the 1880s as it had to those of England in the 1850s. In its insistence that individuality could unite with humanity—two spiritual forces becoming one—Aurora Leigh could even help the Netherlands navigate the tensions between the socialist and anti-revolutionary movements then competing for national, even parliamentary, prominence. With this cause superseding all others, Mercier was comfortable rendering the poem in prose, arguing that form and content were not unconditionally tied.
But Mercier’s purposes and arguments did not resonate with all, particularly not those with a keen interest in poetry. Responding at last to Huet’s critique of mediocre Dutch literature but rejecting his call for a moral aesthetic, a new literary movement called De Beweging van Tachtig [The Movement of the Eighties] arose in the 1880s that insisted on art for art’s sake. Like the English aestheticism of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, and others—aestheticism that rejected the social and ethical “burden of responsibility” that critics like John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold insisted art have (Helsinger 449)—the Dutch movement aimed to separate art from moral, social, or political purpose. But the principles of these artists displeased at least one leading Dutch publisher in Amsterdam, P. N. van Kampen. His response included the publication of a newly translated Aurora Leigh, this time as poetry, by popular novelist Martina van Walcheren, who stated that Dutch readers could only experience EBB’s genius if they encountered that genius through a poetry that came as close as it could to the original. That poetry, as Mercier’s essays and translation had already taught the Dutch public, married art with social and moral aims, and consequently countered the claims of the Movement of the Eighties. In all these discussions—literary, social, political—book economies and copyright questions played a role, such that the complex cultural sum that Aurora Leigh navigated and contributed to in the Netherlands in the latter 1800s paralleled the debates marking its publication in England thirty years earlier. It seems that no matter where Aurora Leigh appeared in the nineteenth century, it stirred action on multiple fronts.
Busken Huet: Aurora Leigh and Dutch Literary Culture
The attempt to revive Dutch literary culture via Aurora Leigh occurred, as far as I can tell and somewhat surprisingly, from afar, in the Dutch East Indies with a self-exiled Dutch literary critic named Conrad Busken Huet (1826-1886). Before his departure from the Netherlands, Huet (who had resigned from the ministry after adopting the higher biblical criticism) had co-edited the leading Dutch liberal cultural and literary journal, De Gids [The Guide], published by the P. N. van Kampen who also published van Walcheren. In De Gids, Huet promoted his view that literature had a moral as well as aesthetic purpose (van Werven 85). He respected writers who, in addition to “criticis[ing] mainstream society,” could also “inspir[e] that society and prophes[y] new developments in it” (van Kalmthout 37). Unfortunately, Huet’s caustic criticism, which “always involved the whole of a writer’s personality . . . including all available biographical and psychological data,” won few friends to his cause (Meijer 215). Huet rather scourged his Dutch literary contemporaries for failing to reach the artistic and philosophical height writers in other countries were achieving and that the Dutch had achieved in their past Golden Age. At the end of his life (in 1886), he was still asserting, “‘No Dutch author in the last fifty years has written any Dutch book, whether in prose or in verse, that is valued by the rest of Europe’” (qtd. in van Kalmthout 35). To address the failure of what he and others (such as E. J. Potgieter and Taco de Beer, Dutch critics who remained in the Netherlands) perceived as a not-yet-modern Dutch literature, Huet wrote essays bringing the literature of other Europeans to Dutch attention. From the British poets, Huet featured mainly Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His praise of Byron’s Don Juan (1824) as the most immortal work of English literature in the previous generation (van Kalmthout 38) recalls EBB’s own passion for Byron (Stone, “Critical,” pp. x-xi), though Huet did not associate the two when he later wrote on Aurora Leigh. Huet also wrote on British novelists: William Makepeace Thackeray, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot (the last of whom his writer-wife, Anna van der Tholl, translated into Dutch [van Werven 67]). About Dickens—translated widely in the Netherlands from the 1840s on—he concluded that his strength was as a social reformer, and his fiction, therefore, would not be read beyond the present generation (Dekkers 288-290); by contrast, he praised Eliot as a gifted novelist whose maturity of judgment, wide knowledge of human nature, and admirable style had much to offer Dutch readers and writers (van Kalmthout 36; Wellens 27). The two responses clearly show what Huet valued in literature.
Despite his prolific work in literary criticism (he is still regarded in the Netherlands “as one of the foremost literary critics and cultural historians of the 19th century” [van Kalmthout 35]), Huet eventually fell out with the other editors of De Gids and (having also upset the queen and government in one of his satires) departed to the Dutch East Indies, where he became editor of the colony’s leading Dutch paper, the Java Bode [Java Messenger]. In 1873, his final year serving that paper, Huet published a three-installment essay on EBB, with particular attention to Aurora Leigh. Given the poem’s original publication in 1857, Huet’s review seems extremely belated; but apparently he had not procured a British or American edition of the poem in the fifteen years of its existence, even though his sister Anne-Marie van Deventer-Busken Huet, still in the Netherlands, owned a copy by 1870 (NEWW). As far as Huet could see, it fell to a German firm (Tauchnitz) to make the English Aurora Leigh available in 1872 “outside England and its colonies in all the countries of the world” (132). Tauchnitz may have become aware of the poem through Hippolyte Taine’s Notes sur l’Angleterre, published in 1872 in France and America (in translation). In turn, the Tauchnitz edition may have led to the aforementioned analysis of the poem in Germany by Helen von Druskowitz in the 1880s. But Huet seems to have procured a copy of this German (but still English-language) edition while he was in the Dutch East Indies—perhaps he was even looking for it, if his sister had mentioned it in correspondence. Having read the poem, he deemed Aurora Leigh “the most important work of the best of the English poets of the new age” (132) and went on to praise EBB on multiple counts in his extended essay.
In Part 1, Huet observes that EBB conveys “her own opinion about poetry and life” through the “fictitious Aurora” (133). He then focuses on the element of EBB’s poetry that most closely resonated with his own literary efforts. First, he notes EBB’s long residence in Italy but ongoing emotional ties to England: Aurora Leigh shows in its author “the healthy self-disillusionment of an English person living abroad,” a person “heart and soul attached to her country and people” but as “independent” as Byron “with respect to his free opinions about England and the English” (134). The expatriate, Huet implies, can couple love of homeland with independent-mindedness to generate insights not available to home residents. Living and writing from the Dutch East Indies, passionate about elevating Dutch art and identity, but often scathing in his assessments of his homeland, Huet might have been characterizing himself instead of or alongside EBB. But if he was conscious of the connection, he did not say so. Instead, he quotes two passages from Aurora Leigh that demonstrate his point: in the first, Aurora compares English and French national character to the advantage of the French, whose aptitude for heroic and sublime dreaming is more inspiring than the English preference for fixed forms that match existing patterns of thought (Bk 6.1-66: “The English have a scornful insular way / Of calling the French light . . . / Freedom’s self / Comes concrete to us . . . / [But] this noble France, / This poet of the nations […] dreams on / . . . / after some ideal good / . . . / Heroic dreams!”). In the second of Huet’s comparative selections, Aurora contrasts English and Italian countryside to the advantage of the Italian, where nature produces thrills of eternity rather than tame domesticity (Bk 1.615-645: England has “Not a grand nature. Not my chestnut-woods / Of Vallombrosa, cleaving by the spurs / To the precipices / . . . On English ground / . . . / if you seek for any wilderness / You find, at best, a park”). Yet despite praising France and Italy respectively, Aurora uses first-person pronouns in both cases to align herself with England: “The special form, with us, being still the thing” (6.35); “my Shakespeare’s [land]” (1.1092). Huet greatly admires this combination of “self-awareness” and “national bias” (134). Contemporary Dutch literature, to his mind, had too much of the latter, not enough of the former. EBB’s poem, by contrast, models for Dutch writers literature that can criticize and inspire moral, social, and national life, while also remaining true art.
In Part II of his essay, Huet develops this point by praising EBB for her conviction that “living poetry” can be “a beacon” in the causes of “national salvation” and other “national matter[s]” (139, 140). He may have had in mind the famous passage of the poem wherein Aurora asserts the “full-veining, heaving, double-breasted Age” as material for a “burning lava of a song”: “This is living art, / Which thus presents, and thus records true life” (Bk. 5, ll. 216, 215, 221-222). As a literary critic who had also become an accomplished journalist in the Dutch East Indies (he traveled the colony extensively to report its life and concerns in the Java Bode), Huet was clearly moved by EBB’s passionate contemporary foci and national concerns. Though English reviewers frequently attacked EBB’s poems on Italian politics as elaborate opinions on insignificant subjects (see Dyck and Stone), Huet cites the last stanza of “Napoleon III in Italy” as well as the first and seventh stanzas of “Cry of the Children” to demonstrate the “energy of her English poetry” in opposing political and religious “small-mindedness” as well as “false philanthropies” (139, 140). Again, Huet’s message for Dutch readers is the value of literature for modern, national purposes: “today to inspire courage in a whole nation; tomorrow to speak to a whole society and ask for help from the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable; to do this with a mastery which does not tolerate argument, and drives away all fallacy and egoism, and goes straight to the heart of everyone” (141). But—in keeping with his preference for Eliot’s moral art over Dickens’ reformist goals—Huet is brief on the point of reform, using the two poems named above to gesture toward political struggle and child labor but naming none of the specific social or gender concerns represented in Aurora Leigh: no mention, for instance, of the turbulent masses at Romney’s aborted wedding hurling their rage over their perpetual hunger and mistreatment; or of the abduction, rape, and social ostracism of the working-girl Marian.
Instead, Huet returns from his brief excursion into “Napoleon III in Italy” and “Cry of the Children” to point out EBB’s insistence in Aurora Leigh that the purpose of poetry goes beyond “solving the questions of the day” (141). It should, Huet affirms, become a “redeeming power” in moving the soul beyond the temporal toward the spiritual (141). Aurora’s story breathes out this purpose, with Aurora declaring already in Book 2, “It takes a soul, / To move a body”; it takes a poet “to understand / That life develops from within” (479-480, 484-485). Huet devotes the rest of Part II and all of Part III of his essay to elucidating this point, mainly through paraphrase. From Book 1, he paraphrases the lines on the soul as a palimpsest (ll. 824-832) and the lines on the poet’s ability to turn common words into special revelation (ll. 901-911) before quoting one passage directly:
O life, O poetry,
Which means life in life! cognisant of life
Beyond this blood-beat,–passionate for truth
Beyond these senses, –poetry, my life,–
My eagle, with both grappling feet still hot
From Zeus’s thunder, who has ravished me
Away from all the shepherds, sheep, and dogs,
And set me in the Olympian roar and round
Of luminous faces, for a cup-bearer,
To keep the mouths of all the godheads moist
For everlasting laughters,–I, myself,
Half drunk across the beaker, with their eyes!
How those gods look! (ll. 915-927)
From Book 5, Huet paraphrases segments from the passage on the heroic poetry of modern times, though he inverts the order of the material (ll. 200-222, 141, 151-199), so that Aurora’s assertions that all men are possible heroes if one exerts a double vision to notice (ll. 151-199) follow rather than precede the “Never flinch” passage (“Never flinch / But still, unscrupulously epic, catch / Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age / . . . / ‘This bosom seems to beat still, or at least / It sets our beating: this is living art, / Which thus presents and thus records true life.’” ll. 213-222). Without identifying any shifts among the books he is summarizing within Aurora Leigh, Huet goes on to paraphrase from Book 6 the lines on Paris as a poem (ll. 89-99) and those on scientists as more attentive than most poets to the common or impure (ll. 161-185). He concludes his essay with long segments from two passages in Book 7 in which Aurora insists on natural and spiritual correspondences (ll. 761-794, including “Without the spiritual, observe, / The natural’s impossible”; and ll. 834-872, including “Art’s the witness of what Is / Behind this show”). Altogether, Huet sums up, adapting EBB’s phrase from her dedication to John Kenyon, Aurora Leigh expresses EBB’s “inmost convictions about Life and Art” (148)—and those convictions matched the ones he had for Dutch literature. The actual story of the poem Huet bypasses in favor of these higher subjects: he mentions the Aurora-Romney relationship in a single sentence and no other characters or episodes at all. For Huet, Aurora Leigh offered Dutch literary culture a model for uniting high art with moral depth and national purpose; he was not interested in the story as such. Still, from a critic whose “accent more often fell on ‘fault’ than on ‘beauty’” (Meijer 216), Huet’s essay was high praise—though it left plenty of room for Mercier to bring the poem’s social subjects to attention ten years later.
In delivering his praise to the well-educated Dutch colonial readers of the Java Bode, Huet did not translate his lengthy citations of Aurora Leigh into Dutch. He knew that this Dutch audience could read English. The Secondary School Act that had established the Hoogere Burger School, “with its emphasis on modern languages,” was only ten years in place, but it had given a “noticeable boost to English” in the Netherlands (van der Weel 28), after decades of poor Anglo-Dutch literary relations resulting from the Napoleonic wars, which had included British blockade of the Dutch sea trade (Verschueren 8). Between 1850 and 1879 (the Act fell in the middle of this span), the English language was finally being acknowledged in the Netherlands as “literary” in the way German long had been (Verschueren 9). As a result, British book and periodical imports to the Netherlands increased an astounding 760%—not counting “the extremely popular continental copyright editions by Tauchnitz in Leipzig” (van der Weel 29). Huet’s work in bringing nineteenth century British novelists and poets to Dutch attention was part of this wider awakening by the Dutch to British literature. With the international book trade turning to vernacular languages instead of Latin (in tandem with the rise of nation states) but with a small homeland market for vernacular Dutch, Dutch publishers after mid-century were eager to capitalize on the new interest in British books, alongside German and French (van der Weel 32). Yet while this broadened interest in English literature surely aided Aurora Leigh’s arrival in the Netherlands, Dutch-only readers still could not access it.
Encouraged by market consumption of international books, though, Dutch publishers also began translating these books into Dutch for the less well-educated or Dutch-only readers to procure, thus expanding cultural education and the book economy at the same time. Some evidence exists that Dutch publishers could even pay local translators less than original authors for their work—and with potentially less commercial risk, since foreign titles chosen for translation had often already proven their success among readers. These circumstances turned translations into a financially viable option for Dutch publishers (van der Weel 34-35). They also provided an additional option for women writers, whose writing and publishing opportunities were expanding but still lagged behind other countries due to lingering Dutch conservatism. That is, translations did not provoke male critics to the same critique of women’s work as did women’s attempts to establish an independent or leading critical voice. For instance, according to the still-in-progress New Approaches to European Women’s Writing (NEWW) project, approximately 150 of the 400 Dutch women writers of the nineteenth century worked as translators, novelists, and/or contributors to the periodical press, but only 26 as editors, 13 as journalists, and 9 as literary critics. Mercier and van Walcheren, like many of these women, may have added translations to their other genres of writing to increase their publishing options. But it is difficult to contextualize Mercier and van Walcheren any further as women translators in the Netherands; as Petra Broomans and Marta Ronne note, “The same mechanisms of exclusion are present in the field of cultural transfer and transmission [as elsewhere] . . . Male authors in the nineteenth century who were also active as translators are included, while women translators are often regarded as ‘assistants’ who need not be included in reception and/or literary history . . . [M]ore archive work has to be done . . .” (128). NEWW is doing such archival work, but the full network of women translators within which Mercier and van Walcheren may have functioned has not yet been uncovered.
What can be said for certain is that in the Netherlands as elsewhere, translations frequently joined same-language editions in being published internationally without the author’s permission. “By the 1830s,” writes Robert Spoo in Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain (2013), “the practice of reprinting British books and periodicals without permission had become widespread in the American book trade” (24). EBB, too, had her work pirated and was keenly aware of it, as both her correspondence and her fictional Aurora’s concerns about female literary property show. Across these same years, though, various international parties began agreeing that authors owned their works and therefore had the right to be paid for all editions and translations. Moves were made toward an international agreement on this point, but Dutch publishers protested. They felt that such an agreement would unfairly jeopardize book sellers like themselves, who relied on imports and translations but had little to export: they would have to pay for copyright without being paid in return. Despite Dutch protests, the agreement went ahead as the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The Netherlands refused (until 1912) to sign, a refusal that contributed to the perception of the Netherlands, “especially by British authors and publishers, as a nation of pirates” (van der Weel 34). However, at least one of Aurora Leigh’s Dutch publishers escaped this label: in 1888, the British Athenaeum characterized P. N. van Kampen as “highly respected for his great probity, sterling worth, and exact business habits” (“Literary” 665). But he retained this international respect, as far as I can determine, without bowing to copyright pressures—at least in the case of Aurora Leigh. Indeed, it seems no coincidence that both van Kampen and the other Dutch publisher of Aurora Leigh, Tjeenk Willink, brought out their Dutch translations of Aurora Leigh ahead of rather than after the Berne Convention. Their timing also explains why Robert Browning did not know of the Dutch translations: he had not been consulted, despite the heightened international sensitivities, including those of the Brownings, around these copyright questions.
Mercier: Aurora Leigh and Social Reform
Within this book industry context, a host of other interests contributed to Aurora Leigh’s Dutch appearance in the 1880s, not least the personal concerns of the translators. Lifelong resident of Amsterdam Hélène Mercier—who may have learned English through her friendship with Willem Doornbos, a Hoogere Burger School teacher in Amsterdam—was first to translate the poem (for Tjeenk Willink), sometime after reading Huet’s essay. Whether the Java Bode circulated to the Dutch homeland or Mercier otherwise obtained Huet’s essay, I have not been able to determine, but Mercier specifies in a footnote to her translation that Huet’s essay introduced her to the poem. She even acknowledges that her prose is, in places, “almost involuntarily intertwined” with Huet’s (45)—though this admission applies only to the portions of Books 5-7 that form the third installment of Huet’s essay. Perhaps her interest was aroused by Huet’s description of Aurora Leigh as a “social novel [discussing] the societal problems of the day (education, women in the labor force, relieving the distress of the laborers)” (133-134). Mercier herself had been writing about social questions since the 1870s, but her attention intensified from 1880 to 1884, when she declared she had found her life’s work in social reform. She subsequently became one of the founders of social work in the Netherlands, establishing food kitchens, housing projects, Folk Houses, and more (de Regt and de Wilde). She was also an active writer, publishing regularly in the periodical press and—later in life—publishing fiction and a biography of Octavia Hill as well. At some point, she was a member of the Leesmuseum voor Vrouw [Reading Museum for Women] in Amsterdam, a reading library founded in 1877 for mainly upper middleclass women (NEWW). Her writings and efforts across the rest of the century “guided an entire generation of women down the path of social work” (Grever and Waaldijk 99). Not coincidentally, to my mind, the four-year period preceding her 1884 declaration and greatest reform activity were also the years of her substantial attention to Aurora Leigh, particularly its social-economic concerns.
That attention emerged via three essays published in 1883, followed by the full translation of the poem the same year.
The first essay was written late in 1881 and published in 1883 as “Karaktervorming der vrouw” [“The Formation of Character in a Woman”] in the first issue of the biannual Vragen des Tijds [Questions of the Times]. It is the Dutch equivalent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (of the original, not of the 1796 Dutch translation, which was based on a conservative German version that had muted Wollstonecraft’s radicalism [van Dijk, “Rescuing”]). In it, Mercier argues that social reform would not happen until women were emancipated from the strictures that prevented their educational and professional opportunities. Only such opportunities would enable their character development or self-knowledge, which Mercier deemed important because “every person is the goal and not the means,” because only a conscious self can consciously act (4). Like her male peers, Mercier wrote, the gentlewoman ought to study the ancient Greeks in order to form her mind, soul, and personality. Such study, combined with the influence of a humanist love that acknowledges equality, would enable women to take up their social duties of education and reform. In this argument and elsewhere, Mercier situates women’s education within the larger (for her) question of social reform. She disliked gendering the social question (de Regt and de Wilde), and preferred, for instance, organizational names like Social Work Committee over Women’s Labor Exhibition (Graver and Waaldijk 109). In “Karaktervorming,” she does not elaborate which particular social question she means, but within months, she was working on two related essays that identify her central concern as the extreme poverty of the lowest class.
The first of these related essays Mercier had completed by May 1882. It was published in two installments as “Elizabeth Browning,” in De Amsterdammer: Weekblad voor Nederland [The Amsterdammer: Weekly for the Netherlands], nearly simultaneously with “Karaktervorming der vrouw” in Vragen des Tijds. Mercier opens “Elizabeth Browning” with reference to Georg Brandes (1842-1927), the Danish literary critic Huet had also praised for bringing Scandinavian literature to European attention. Brandes, Mercier notes, described poetry as taking either a psychological form, akin to science, or a prophetic form, akin to religion. Mercier aligns the former with George Eliot, the latter with EBB, about whom she then continues. Installment I of her essay gives the usual, excessive nineteenth century attention to EBB’s “sickroom” (94) in order to emphasize the “genius” that made EBB “strong” (96). Mercier admires at length the characteristics of EBB that shaped her life and poetry: woman, artist, poetic soul, heroic soul, well-educated mind, human heart. Installment II of the essay then examines some of the poetry more closely, presenting quotations from or commentary on Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), Casa Guidi Windows (1851), “Cry of the Children” ( which “cuts the reader to the soul” ), and Aurora Leigh. Of the last, Mercier writes,
Because this work, which is too large, too encompassing and too significant, warrants a separate treatment, I will not go into it more here. I just want to pay attention to one of its features. It is written in 1856, five years before El. Browning’s death: we are more than a quarter of a century removed from the conditions and happenings portrayed in it—the book is as it were a mirror of the society of those days. Nevertheless, apart from a few exceptions, it is as if it were written in the smallest details for our own tumultuous days. They are our needs, our opinions, our demands, our interests; it is our struggle, our hopes and fears, upon which the poetess shines the light of her higher spirit. Up to now not a single question raised in it has been solved; it seems as if we have not come one step further in society in twenty-six years. (103-104)
Mercier could hardly have been more direct in asserting that Aurora Leigh’s confronting of major social problems pertained as much to 1880s Netherlands as to 1850s England.
Mercier elaborated on this point in her next essay, which she titled “Aurora Leigh.” Dated November 1882, the essay appeared in the second 1883 issue of Vragen des Tijds, possibly as a sequel or companion piece to the previous issue’s “Karaktervorming der vrouw.” In “Aurora Leigh,” Mercier compares EBB’s themes to those of the French novelist George Sand (whose novel Le Compagnon du Tour de France  she adapted in translation in 1887); both writers attended to the struggle to achieve justice for all classes but mainly that of the fourth class (the poorest level of society). Mercier then gives long prose translations and summaries of sections of Aurora Leigh. Like Huet, she does not name or discuss Marian, nor translate any portions of the narrative about this young girl betrayed by an aristocratic woman into rape and its social and economic consequences. The omission is puzzling, given that Marian’s story so powerfully illustrates the gender and class challenges that Mercier elsewhere addressed in writing and action. Perhaps, as with her “Karaktervorming” essay, she subsumed gender into socio-economic concerns; perhaps she was less certain how to discuss every person as goal not means when the person was lower-class instead of middle-class; perhaps she worried that the conservative literary culture Huet had decried still had sufficient influence to create a backlash against any mention of Marian’s story; (in 1848, for instance, Geertruida Toussaint, a woman writer with sufficient standing to be part of Huet’s literary network, was still required by the publisher of her novel Maidenon de Mauléon to rewrite the birth of an illegitimate child as the birth of a child via a secret marriage [van Dijk, “Schrijfster”]); or perhaps she felt that mentioning such a shocking instance of brokenness would distract readers from the larger point she wished to make, namely, that Aurora Leigh represents social and economic struggle as a contest between two spiritual (rather than social, economic, or gender) forces.
According to Mercier, the poem demonstrates that these spiritual forces “could be each other’s allies, yet face each other in enmity” (59). One force is the desire for justice for the poor, represented by Romney, who labors to assist the oppressed working-class. Such reformers deserve praise because they are looking “for a counterweight to the supremacy of possessions and for an organization of society which also lifts up those who possess nothing” (60). But this social justice drive is resisted, Mercier continues, by those who see it (wrongly) as a threat to their happiness or “inner wellbeing” (60). Mercier then queries whether Aurora, in rejecting Romney’s marriage proposal, represents this drive for happiness, this second spiritual force: is her pursuit of poetry rather than social work an egoism opposed to socialist ideas? Mercier says no: Aurora is correctly defending “her right to be herself” rather than merely Romney’s assistant; her individualism is not egoism (61). Then why does she resist Romney? Because, says Mercier, as a poet Aurora (echoing EBB) believes that the two great forces need not subsume one to the other but can unite as equals: both originate in a human soul (the drive for happiness) that achieves its highest strength when serving others (the drive for justice); and both aim for “the kingdom of man on earth,” to “full enjoyment of life” (83-86). The poem insists that individuality can marry humanity without losing itself. Such “lofty individualism,” Mercier concludes, “prepares our time for social reform” (86). To serve the poor, to desire and enable their full enjoyment of life, will not, she insists, threaten (middle-class) individuality but spiritually complete it. For her, Aurora Leigh is the manifesto of this view.
Mercier’s interest in Aurora Leigh as a poem addressing broken social and economic structures had a larger national context. The problem of extreme poverty preoccupied many in the Netherlands (and beyond) across the second half of the century. John Bolt summarizes the factors that heightened the problem as well as various responses to it (416-419): not only had the Industrial Revolution driven rural laborers to cities in hopes of work they then could not find, but the new, liberal constitution established in 1848 emphasized individual rights and liberties that clearly were not reaching the lower classes. The unrest led to multiple developments. Initially, in the 1860s, Dutch cooperatives and workers’ groups began forming. Most of these moderate-minded groups united as a general Dutch workers’ association in 1871, but the more radical-minded members, influenced by the International Working Men’s Association (founded 1864), left the group in 1878 to form the Social-Democratic Association, which later morphed into the party that in 1888 seated the first socialist politician in the Dutch parliament. Across these same years, in response, anti-socialist sentiment increased. In 1876, another group left the general workers’ association to form a more specifically Protestant workers’ alliance named Patrimonium. A wider Christian social movement led to the forming three years later of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first Dutch political party, one strenuously opposed to socialism as the answer to poverty. The party leader was Abraham Kuyper, whose newspaper—De Standaard—had been addressing social, political, and religious questions since its beginning in 1872. Working together with Patrimonium, the Anti-Revolutionary Party convened the first Dutch Christian Social Congress in 1891. The Congress hoped to find a “Christian alternative to both liberal individualism and socialism’s dependence on revolutionary class conflict” (Bolt 419). At its meeting, Kuyper—who was also a leading theologian and, since 1880, a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, and who became Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1901—gave an address titled “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.” In it, he argued that neither liberal individualism nor collective socialism nor even the Christian socialism inspired by Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley in Britain were suitable responses to the current social-economic problems, but that a Christian approach required “a proper understanding of the human person, respect for civil society, and realistic and sober appreciation for the role of government” (Ballor xiii). Within this framework, Kuyper called Dutch Christians to unite spiritual ministry and sacrificial charity with social and political action in support of fair wages, property rights, and other goods that would help “row against the current of suffering in society” (82). In his newspaper, Kuyper noted the all-pervasiveness of this social question: the “biggest questions that keep the thinking minds busy are the ones about social issues . . . [E]ven the most ‘conservative’ man is interested in the lot of the laborer” (“In ’t Sociale Teeken”).
Within this larger and rather volatile public debate about poverty, liberty, and society—a debate that also entered English poetry in the 1880s and 1890s through writers such as William Morris and Louisa Bevington (Hughes 215-216, 226-229)—Mercier’s translation and promotion of Aurora Leigh clearly functions as part of a national and international conversation, even though it includes no introduction to position it as such, and in her preface Mercier herself does not allude to these contexts. Still, read in light of competing public perspectives, Mercier’s argument about Aurora Leigh as ultimately calling for the marriage of individualism with humanity reads as a moderate voice between liberalism and socialism, while her focus on competing spiritual forces registers the religious element of the conversation. This broad approach appears also in a footnote to her “Aurora Leigh” essay, where she indicates that by “socialists,” she means “not only the followers of Fourier and other founders of today’s socialism,” but all who “oppos[e] the selfish individualism of the economic school of [the early century],” or who attempt “to improve the conditions of the fourth class,” or who give “their all to solve the social problem” (52). Mercier’s singling out of French socialist Charles Fourier not only points to the international nature of the question but also echoes EBB’s own activity in Aurora Leigh: Aurora’s declaration to Romney that his “Fouriers failed” (Bk. 2, l. 483), and Romney’s later concession that yes, “Fourier’s void” (Bk. 9, l. 868), constitute EBB’s critique of Fourier’s effort to form “society around communal associations of producers, called ‘phalanges’ or ‘phalanxes’” (Huseby 2). According to Amy Kahrmann Huseby, Aurora Leigh responds to such Fourierism by advocating for a social-mathematical model of loose collections that retains a plurality of voices rather than a model of aggregation that overrides the individual (1-2). But Mercier seems less hostile than EBB toward Fourier, less concerned with precise models; she deems anyone a socialist who supports social reform. Her approach seems to have enabled her cause: on the one hand, she could be a member of a non-socialist society whose individually signed petition for funds in the fight against unemployment Kuyper printed in De Standaard in 1894 (“Bestrijding”). On the other hand, she could observe the Dutch Aurora Leigh attracting the attention of both moderate and radical socialists.
Attracting widespread attention to the poem was Mercier’s stated goal in the short preface she provided to her translation (v-vi). She could not leave the poem untranslated, she wrote; she wished the poem to “be known by many in the Netherlands,” but to date it “has had very few readers.” She has “no other explanation for that than this: this poem, in the original language, also because of the verses in which it was written, cannot be appreciated sufficiently by many people” (v). Though the poem has “too many themes, and lacks the usual classic calm of poetry,” its principal theme—that “the renewal of society must come from the spirit and heart of individuals . . . out of which morals and laws should spring forth” (v-vi)—must reach more (Dutch) people. She adds, probably referring to her “Aurora Leigh” essay, “Though I tried elsewhere to draw the attention of others to this principal theme, I hope that by translating the whole book, many others will share my awe of the stars in the heavens, of which this sun is its center” (vi).
Evidence exists that Mercier’s efforts were not in vain, as people in her network of reformers read her work. Willem Treub, for instance, a University of Amsterdam professor and social-liberal politician who was also the editor of Vragen des Tijds (in which Mercier published “Karaktervorming der vrouw” and “Aurora Leigh”) read her translation and later praised it in his 1910 biography of Mercier (5). As Christianne Smit observes in her study of social reformers in the Netherlands during this time, quite a few of them were inspired by fictitious heroes and heroines, including Aurora Leigh. Smit names, in addition to Treub, Emilie Knappert (the leading reformer for popular education, who also knew Mercier) and Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (the first socialist in the Dutch parliament, a translator of Karl Marx into Dutch, and a later promoter of anarchist ideas) as equally enthusiastic about “the story of Aurora’s morally charged choice for independence, her concern for the poor Marian, and the social leanings of Romney” (51-52). (The inclusion of Marian in this list of interests suggests Smit may have read contemporary responses to the poem that I have not been able to find for translating.) Nieuwenhuis, in fact, invited Knappert to guest lecture on the poem for a socialist audience in Amsterdam in 1897, after Knappert declared that the poem had set her aflame for reform work (Smit 53). These engagements with Aurora Leigh by people committed to her same principles would no doubt have gratified Mercier, whose translation occasionally recast EBB’s language to connect more directly with reform-minded readers. For example, Mercier turned EBB’s phrase “And fatten household sinners” (Bk 1, l. 440) to the Dutch equivalent of “be good to hungry stomachs” (“en hongerige magen ten goede komende,” 12); she made EBB’s “The civiliser’s spade” (Bk 2, 265) into “The reformer’s spade” (“De spade des hervormers,” 37); and she transformed EBB’s bowling green (“one green for men to play at bowls / with innings for them all,” Bk 2, 464-65) to an agricultural green (the equivalent of “one green pasture, a playground for humanity, where everyone can find life,” 42). In such small ways, the translation reveals Mercier’s hope that it would support or inspire reform movements for the poor.
This hope appears to have been realized even beyond the reformers whose enthusiasm I have noted. A range of Dutch national papers took note of Mercier’s work and at least one international organization featuring Dutch speakers claimed her significant influence over the reading public. This reading public was large, and getting larger: in 1850, the Dutch had an 80% literacy rate and by 1900, 97%; so Mercier was not wrong in thinking a Dutch Aurora Leigh would go farther than an English edition in reaching the general population. Indeed, one of the first printed responses to her translation stated that Dutch readers could now stop objecting that English readers had left them behind (“Kunst”). Notices of the translation appeared in newspapers, the newsletter for bookstores, the national linguistic magazine for Dutch teachers, and, at regular intervals, the weekly paper for social questions (Delpher). At the 1899 International Congress of Women, a “Mrs. Kapteyn” (Dutch-born Londoner Geertruida Kapteyn-Muysken, who knew Mercier personally and who wrote for both English and Dutch magazines [Meertens and Kloosterman]), in an address on “The Work of Dutch Women in Literature,” identified Mercier’s translation, alongside the essays, as having had “widespread influence” in the Netherlands, particularly in “introducing a more distinct social and moral element in literature” (Kapteyn 149). Some evidence for this claim of influence exists in that Mercier’s publisher released a second edition of her Aurora Leigh in 1894, then a third in 1906.
None of these readers lamented Mercier’s choice of prose. Possibly, they agreed with Mercier’s assertion in her preface that the “content of poetry . . . is not unconditionally connected to the form of art into which the poet poured it” (vi). For Mercier, the content of Aurora Leigh—its insistence that “the renewal of society must come from the spirit and heart of individuals”—must reach Dutch readers no matter what loss ensued from her not being “capable of poetry” (v). For Huet, Aurora Leigh represented great art. But for Mercier, great art could, where necessary, yield to great social good. Perhaps Mercier felt able to take such a position because of the low critical view of contemporary Dutch poetry explained earlier. Mercier and her publisher may have felt converting Aurora Leigh into prose was not a serious risk, especially compared to the good its inspiring social vision might effect. Or perhaps Mercier’s decision simply fits within early and continuing debates over Aurora Leigh’s mixed form (see Stone, “The ‘Advent’”; also Hughes, 21-24, 263-64 and 274), with Mercier identifying more with the “novel” than the “poem” of what EBB herself had projected as her novel-poem (Letter 1852).
Van Walcheren: Aurora Leigh and Poetic Genius
But, in fact, Mercier was downplaying poetry’s form just as poetry was beginning to revive in her country under new aesthetic interests not limited to the Netherlands but provoking its own national response there. The early 1880s saw a group of poets and critics coalesce as De Beweging van Tachtig [The Movement of the Eighties]. These writers, like Huet, vilified the preceding generation of Dutch poets as mediocre and provincial, but they responded further by producing a new kind of poetry for the Dutch, in which they stressed not moral truths but “sensory perception of nature as the poet’s source of inspiration” (Meijer 233, 234). Further, they promoted the view that art must be “‘the most individual expression of the most individual emotion’” (qtd. in Bank and van Buuren 141). Under this subjectivist aesthetic, they deemed art and society to have little to say to each other. Such an aesthetic had little in common with the views Huet (or, in England, Ruskin or Arnold) had promoted. Huet’s former publisher, P.N. van Kampen, likewise had no sympathy with this separation of art from social purpose and refused to publish work by the members of the De Beweging van Tachtig in his De Gids. Consequently, the new writers put out their own journal, De Nieuwe Gids [The New Guide]. Despite their fervor—or perhaps because of it—the new movement broke up within a decade because of internal disagreement over its exhausting impressionism and individualism. But it had succeeded in vaulting Dutch poetry back onto the national literary stage (Bank and van Buuren 141). Strong feelings about poetry resurrected across literary circles. In other words, the 1880s was precisely the right time for Aurora Leigh to emerge as Dutch poetry, not only prose. Though Huet had a decade earlier recognized EBB’s “powers of expression and the richness of her imageries” alongside her cultural value, only now did all those united qualities seem important to bring to Dutch readers.
That cultural transfer came via Martina van Walcheren, a pseudonym for Martina van der Feen, later Hoyer. Surprisingly, van Walcheren was not a poet, but a novelist. Prior to her translation of Aurora Leigh, she had published three novels, all of them through the same P. N. van Kampen just discussed as opposing the new movement in poetry. Though none were a critical success, they were quite popular, with new editions emerging across the 1870s and 80s. By the time she translated Aurora Leigh, therefore, van Walcheren was a trusted writer by her publisher and a recognized name among Dutch middle-class readers. In fact, the first advertisement that De Gids carried for her translation linked her name to her three novels (553). Conceivably, then, van Kampen had at least two motives to publish a poetic translation of Aurora Leigh: as a Huet-minded literary critic, he was countering the De Beweging van Tachtig’s manifesto of art for art’s sake by bringing out a poem for Dutch readers that united art with social purpose; and as a business man, he was combining a new translation opportunity with a recognized name to ensure financial viability. Having already published van Walcheren’s translation of Book 1 of Aurora Leigh in De Gids in 1884, he followed it the next year by the full translation as an independent volume—identifying it in the advertisement already mentioned as a metrical translation, to distinguish it from Mercier’s. Still—like Tjeenk Willink with Mercier’s translation—he did not provide or solicit anyone else to provide an introduction to the work. Like Mercier’s, van Walcheren’s translation includes next to no contextual information: only a short preface by van Walcheren herself.
Prior to writing that preface, van Walcheren had intimated in a footnote to the translation of Book 1 that had appeared in De Gids that she, too, knew about the new interest in poetry, especially poetry as form. In that footnote, van Walcheren acknowledges Mercier’s prose translation, then adds, “In order for the Dutch reader to get to know not only the contents, but also the original form of the poem, I humbly offer him this rhythmic translation” (339). A year later, in her preface to the full translation, she elaborates upon the need for Dutch readers to receive Aurora Leigh in poetic rather than prose form. She declares that although “most of [her] educated countrymen understand English and can read the original,” if they could read the poem in their “mother tongue,” they “could be brought closer to the living poetry, the genius of ‘Aurora Leigh,’ as Mrs. Browning gave her to us” (n.pag.). Despite this curious argument (that a poem could convey its power better to second-language readers when translated into their first language, despite their ability to read the original), van Walcheren’s point seems to be that even educated Dutch readers could not experience the full power of the poem when its content was separated from its original form (as in Mercier’s work); nor could they do so when the effort to understand EBB’s language prevented their full experience of the form. Only through a Dutch poetic translation could Dutch readers feel the genius of the poetry as simultaneously—inextricably—content and form. Van Walcheren was not alone in making this point. Her contemporary Leendart A. J. Burgersdijk (1828-1900), who during this decade was translating Shakespeare into Dutch directly from English (rather than from French), was also advocating the unity of form and content in translations, against an earlier view that privileged mechanical precision over musicality (Schoneveld 175-177). Though Burgersdijk published his Shakespeare translations with Brill, he published other translation work in van Kampen’s De Gids, where van Walcheren possibly read his views. But whether or not she knew it, van Walcheren’s Aurora Leigh preface points to a larger conversation in Dutch poetry circles.
Early reviews affirmed van Walcheren’s claim that bringing Aurora Leigh to Dutch readers as a poem rather than in prose allowed them to experience EBB’s true genius. Het Nieuws van de Dag [The News of the Day], for instance, said Mercier had acquainted readers with the poem’s content, but van Walcheren now rendered the fine and “truly female thought of this comprehensive life story” (“Letterkundige”). Since both translations told the same story, the reviewer’s unelaborated expression “truly female thought” may refer to EBB’s poetic mode rather than material: to the distinctiveness of EBB’s poetic language, perhaps. In the Dutch East Indies (to return to our beginnings), the Java Bode went further in declaring that Huet’s essay had failed to make the poem widely known, that Mercier had helped via a “serviceable” translation, but that van Walcheren now “displaced everything else” with her “excellent” metrical translation (“Letteren”). Back in the homeland, the reviewer in De Gids similarly deemed van Walcheren’s translation admirable. Like most reviewers, he focused on the Romney-Aurora narrative, citing passages from Book 2 to demonstrate their respective sense of calling: Romney’s to alleviate social misery and Aurora’s to write poetry. He describes how these ideals drive Romney and Aurora apart, but how Aurora ultimately yearns for love to complete her labor, while Romney yearns for a spiritual dimension to complete his. He then describes their coming together in ideals and marriage. He writes nothing of other characters and only in the most general way points to the poem’s important social questions (he names “social misery”) and the role of art, particularly poetry, in life. A single sentence in his conclusion suggests that he, like Mercier, had read Huet’s essay on EBB, though he cites no one when remarking on the “broadness of opinion” manifested in EBB’s comparison of the English with the Italian landscape and of the French with the English national spirit. Though he points out a few “limping five-footers” and extra syllables in van Walcheren’s translation, he concludes that the work will be appreciated and admired for its own beauty and may also lead to the reading of the English original (Sillem, passim). Apparently, Dutch readers did admire it, at least sufficiently that a second edition appeared in 1901, with a subsequent notice describing it as “intended for a very extensive readership” (Lapidoth 287).
Van Walcheren later reflected that while her novels had absorbed her attention, they had not “taken possession of [her] soul” the way Aurora Leigh had (qtd. in “Martina”). This confession of the poem’s power upon her does not prove that Aurora Leigh took possession of the Dutch soul at large in the final decades of the nineteenth century—even though Dutch critics have established the strong influence of Aurora Leigh on the late-century Dutch poet Hélène Swarth (1859-1941) (see Vandenbussche 61-62); and NEWW, in its reception history of the poem in the Netherlands, lists one person as having read Aurora Leigh via the circulating library in Leiden in 1884 and four members of the Reading Museum for Women in Amsterdam as having read it in 1886. Though I have not been able to see the catalog to verify details, the dates strongly suggest these libraries had acquired the Dutch versions of the poem. Beyond these individual readings, it seems clear that EBB’s poem contributed in multiple ways to literary and social developments in the Netherlands during those years, perhaps even to a larger struggle then occurring between liberal and religious views on the nature of the individual and the right structures of society. Who of today’s EBB scholars will be surprised? We are almost accustomed to discovering that Aurora Leigh permeated yet another international sphere than we had known yesterday. No doubt, as a non-reader of Dutch with limited ability to turn up Dutch sources, and trusting to a bilingual family member to translate what I did find, I have caught here only the edges of this presence. But they are fascinating edges that testify again to Aurora Leigh’s high place in the international literary and reform cultures of the nineteenth century.
published October 2018
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 All Dutch resources named in this paper were translated for my use by Rita Kuik, whom I sincerely thank for her hours of labor. I acknowledge Trinity Christian College for grant support of this project. I also thank the two reviewers for BRANCH for their valuable advice.
 See Crossing Cultures.
 See Hoeckley.
 Compare Huet’s Dutch for the segment on a poet’s double vision (“Dichters behoorden altegader dubbelzieners te zijn: met oogen om het nabijgelegene even breed op te vatten alsof zij hun gezigtspunt in de verte genomen hadden, en het ver verwijderde even scherp te onderscheiden alsof zij het met de hand bereiken konden”  with Mercier’s (“Maar dichters behoorden dubbelzieners te zijn; oogen te hebben om het naastbijgelegene even breed op te vatten, alsof zij het van verre beschouwden, en het verwijderde even scherp te onderscheiden, alsof zij het met de hand konden bereiken” ).
 Van Walcheren novels and editions are Penserosa: 1874, 1875, 1877, 4th unfound, 1886, 1898; Van Kind Tot Vrouw: 1876, 1878, 1881, 1886, 1894; and Zijn Zuster: 1880, 2nd unfound, 1883, 1888, 1899.