The Critical Perspective of Matthew Arnold's Sister
Written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1996,  for Literary Theory class at Cal Poly under Professor Larry Inchausti

"I seldom have one hour undisturbed in which to sit down and write. Men who can, when they wish to write a document, shut themselves up for days with their thoughts and their books, know little of what difficulties a woman must surmount to get off a tolerable production." 
--  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1922

"When she saw this rigid system close about her ... that sense of darkness and suffocation ... took possession of her."  --  Henry James, Portrait of A Lady, 1881

       The forty-year gap between “The Study of Poetry” and “Shakespeare’s Sister” encompasses the changing of the centuries, the first World War, the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, the right of married women in England to own property, the invention of the automobile, and (perhaps more important for housewives) the invention of the electric washing machine. Juxtaposing Matthew Arnold and Virginia Woolf raises a question:  How would Arnold’s theoretical sister construct her own culture criticism in the late 1800s? Intended as homage to Woolf’s modernist-feminist essay, I have creatively revamped Arnoldian theory from a woman’s sensibility.
      As I review Matthew Arnold’s critique of the ordinary self, I imagine, since bibliographic entries fail to mention siblings beyond a younger brother, that Arnold had “a wonderfully gifted sister” named Matilda. In addition to "the quiet drudgery of school inspecting," Arnold became "something of a social lion among Oxford men," frequented the all-male Athenaeum Club, and "filled notebook after notebook with meditations of an almost monastic tone."  Matilda, in contrast, stayed in the family home, reading the Bible under her mother's stern guidance and studying stylebooks for ladies. Mastering the fine art of watercolors and embroidery by day, Matilda would later tip-toe into Matthew's bedroom while he slept to run her fingertips down the leather-bound, masculine volumes on his shelves. She also believed in education, but society trained her to be a proper wife in a suitable, even profitable, marriage -- rather than to be a schoolteacher or radical reformer. The family invested heavily in dance gowns and satin slippers; for this, she must be grateful. 
        Finally talent overcame convention, as Matilda escaped the family home one midnight with her diaries packed up neatly and three polished poems protected by her pocketbook. In London, the first publisher "guffawed" and the second offered overnight accommodations at a boarding house in exchange for certain sweet promises. Yelling "Philistine" at the lecher, Matilda escaped to the warm embrace of the National British Woman's Suffrage Association. The widow Lucinda Agnes Parsons expressed a quite different version of that warm embrace and Matilda soon discovered the underground love which remains unnamed. Such affection freed Matilda from the bitter suicide so common in women of genius (and also freed her from any risk of childbirth). She found a wealthy patroness with funds to print a series of critical pamphlets, which Matilda would distribute outside the finest banks and taverns for the remainder of her forgotten but deeply satisfying life. 
       Although less familiar to modern students than the work of her brother, Matilda's version of Victorian culture criticism also set high discerning standards for literature. She adopted as touchstone the verse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "The angels would press on us and aspire/ To drop some golden orb of perfect song/ Into our deep, dear silence."  In these lines, Matilda saw the liquid muse, the balance of solitude and communion, the potential for divine expression. Matilda knew that poetry interprets life and shapes life; she dreamed of inspirational poetry furthering the liberation of culturally-restricted women who so desperately needed to envision other ways of being. 
       Recognizing how suppressed women's voices had been throughout history, Matilda did not ask how does literature compare to "the best that has been thought and said in the world," but rather how does the poem transcends both class and gender mythology. The "truly excellent" poetry, she believed fervently, must help society see the potential "best" in each individual and, as a result, move each of us toward grand fulfillment. Worried that the chaos of industrial modernization would further degrade the status of women, Matilda defined the "best self" as expansive, inclusive, holistic, and maternal. If, as brother and sister agreed, poetry serves as the only form of knowledge adequate for  exploring the quality of our lives, then poems accessible to women could be revolutionary. Although Matthew sought a return to the virtues of patriarchal Greek civilization, Matilda remembered more fondly the single-breasted Amazons battling for sheer survival even as they wrote lyrics praising female wisdom. 
       Matthew Arnold must have found his sister's secret notebook for Matilda in fact conceived the Arnoldian categories of evaluation long before he presented them to the world. She argued first for universal truth in poetry, for words that address the shared "high destinies" of  women as well as men. She insisted on serious moral topics, such as freedom for the genderless soul and equality for the voiceless. She based her literary espousal of movement and fluidity on the physical curves and natural cycles of a woman's body. While Matthew, content with male privilege, could plead for disinterested criticism, his sister knew that politics underlie artistic judgment, that social change requires application of the good, true, and beautiful to women's lives as well. When Matilda sought "strength and joy"  through poetry, her heart moved beyond the female and toward the fully human. 
Historic references confirmed in the chronology appendix of the Norton Anthology of American Literature and the textbook preface to Woolf’s essay.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M.H. Abrams, 6th ed., vol. 2,  (New York: WW Norton, 1993) section 22: lines 6-10, page 1032.
Stanley Kunitz, editor, British Authors of the Nineteenth Century (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1936) 16-18.

Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
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