Friday 15 December 2017

The Heart of Westminster Abbey? Poets' Corner and Writing Women by Fay Bound Alberti

Westminster Abbey 

In October I had the opportunity to visit Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, before the doors opened and the tourists poured in. I was recording with the Rev. Giles Fraser, who was presenting a series of programmes on Radio 4 about the heart. Giles had recently undergone major heart surgery, and it had got him thinking about all aspects of the heart in history and culture. Other guests included Rowan Williams and Susie Orbach, and I had the pleasure of talking about the heart in science and medicine and history. You can listen to the programme here.

It was extraordinary to be in the Abbey when it was virtually empty, save for the occasional hum of a vacuum cleaner. We visited Poets' Corner, the name traditionally given to the South Transept of Westminster Abbey because of the high number of poets, playwrights and writers buried and commemorated there. The first poet to be interred in Poets' Corner was Geoffrey Chaucer, and the site has become famous for the number of romantic poets, interred or commemorated there.

In my interview, I talked about the meanings of the heart as a romantic organ, still connected to authenticity, truth and emotion, even though we now place emotions in the mind. And the ways in which we still regard ourselves as driven by heartfelt feelings, even though the tyranny of neuroscience insists the brain is first. I wrote a book about the 'two hearts' that exist, the poetic and the medical, and you can find out about that here.

Writing women are lacking at Poets' Corner - a problem I have written about here. The photos below (permitted by a kind security guard), show the commemoration of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Shakespeare, amongst a wall of marble white men. We stopped for a time at the plaque to Shelley, because his mythology, as a radical, a poet and a Romantic, is so bound up in his heart.

Adele Geras and Anna Mazzola have both written in this blog about Shelley - whose heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and kept, it is said, by his wife in a silken cloth for many years before being buried with their son after Mary Shelley's death. There is no memorial to Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, though she was a successful writer in her own right, best known for her novel, Frankenstein.

Shelley's plaque, visible top right 

Of the few women who did make the cut, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1851) is an interesting case because she, like many Romantic and Victorian writers, suffered with heart complaints, in addition to believing that the heart was the centre of emotions, the self and even the soul.

Born in Durham, Elizabeth was a successful poet, having written since the age of six years old. Like many early feminists, she was a social reformer and campaigner against the slave trade, and an avid admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems (1844) brought the poet great success, and attracted the attention of the poet Robert Browning, with whom she eloped, much to her family's displeasure, despite the fact that she was then 40 years old, Elizabeth suffered from numerous ailments, including spinal problems, lung problems and heart trouble.

The nineteenth century was a time when scientific medicine identified many different kinds of heart defect, and Barrett Browning was not alone in suffering from heart complaints. She discussed her cardiac trouble with her friends, including the feminist writer and early sociologist Harriet Martineau, who also believed that she suffered from a heart defect. I have suggested in another article that it was better to be diagnosed with a cardiac complaint than with the gynaecological condition that seems to have caused Martineau's debilitating symptoms.

Besides the shame Martineau felt at her 'women's troubles' being openly discussed, there was something rather prestigious in her day about having a weak heart: it was the mark of a sensitive and creative soul in an age where the heart was still seen as the emotion centre; only with the birth of Cardiology in the early twentieth century was heart disease principally associated with poor living, fatty food and too much stress. Unfortunately, Martineau is not memorialised anywhere in the country, let alone at Poets' Corner, despite her remarkable contemporary influence.

And what of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Despite periods of intense ill health, Elizabeth lived happily with Robert in Italy, though she was disinherited by her family. They had one son, called Pen. Elizabeth died in 1861, apparently in her husband's arms. Her family refused to allow her remains to be buried with Robert, when he died in 1889 and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Her name, however, is inscribed on the base of her husband's headstone.

I will leave you with Barrett Browning's poem, 'My heart and I', which seems remarkably apposite, given the subject of the heart, and because she had suffered for so many years before her death.

ENOUGH! we're tired, my heart and I.
We sit beside the headstone thus,
And wish that name were carved for us.
The moss reprints more tenderly
The hard types of the mason's knife,
As heaven's sweet life renews earth's life
With which we're tired, my heart and I.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's inscription at the foot of her husband's stone. 
I won't be posting until the new year now, so I wish you all much love and happiness and heartfelt feelings over the festive period. You can visit my website and find out more about my writing and research here.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

What an interesting post! I'm glad Elizabeth had happiness with Robert - but how shocking that there are so few women writers there.