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Hemans [née Browne], Felicia Dorotheafree

(1793–1835)
  • Nanora Sweet

Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793–1835)

by William Holl, pubd 1837 (after William Edward West, 1827)

Hemans [née Browne], Felicia Dorothea (1793–1835), poet, was born on 25 September 1793, at 118 Duke Street, Liverpool, the daughter of George Browne and his wife, Felicity Dorothea, née Wagner (1766–1827). Her paternal grandfather was George Browne of Passage, co. Cork, Ireland; her maternal grandparents were Elizabeth Haydock Wagner (d. 1814) of Lancashire and Benedict Paul Wagner (1718–1806), wine importer at 9 Wolstenholme Square, Liverpool. Family legend gave the Wagners a Venetian origin; family heraldry an Austrian one. The Wagners' country address was North Hall near Wigan; they sent two sons to Eton College. Of three daughters only Felicity married; her husband George Browne joined his father-in-law's business and succeeded him as Tuscan and imperial consul in Liverpool.

Felicia Dorothea Browne was the fourth of six Browne children (three boys and three girls) to survive infancy. Of her two sisters, Elizabeth died about 1807 at the age of eighteen, and Harriett Mary Browne (1798–1858) married first the Revd T. Hughes, then the Revd W. Hicks Owen. Harriett collaborated musically with Felicia and later edited her complete works (7 vols. with memoir, 1839). Her eldest brother, Lt-Gen. Sir Thomas Henry Browne KCH (1787–1855), had a distinguished career in the army; her second brother, George Baxter CB, served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers 23rd foot, and became a magistrate at Kilkenny in 1830 and chief commissioner of police in Ireland in 1831; and her third brother, Claude Scott Browne (1795–1821), became deputy assistant commissary-general in Upper Canada.

Their business disrupted by war and wartime panic, the Brownes resettled at Gwrych near Abergele, north Wales, from 1800 to 1809. Felicia's father emigrated to Canada about 1806; he sent irregular remittances and died some time after April 1812. Felicia learned French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, drawing, and music at home; a 'gentleman' tutored her in Latin, lamenting '“that she was not a man to have borne away the highest honours at college!”' (Chorley, 1.20); her parents took her to London at the age of eleven and twelve, her only visits there. By 1807 she had written a book of poems whose 'simplicity', 'richness', and linguistic attainments 'quite surprised and delighted' William Roscoe, Liverpool's literary leader (Roscoe, 920 NIC 29/4). In 1808 her Poems appeared from Roscoe's publisher Cadell and Davies, with 978 subscribers and a dedication to the prince of Wales. One subscriber, Thomas Medwin, showed her work to Percy Shelley, who corresponded with her under a pseudonym, opposing the 'sanguinary' wartime enthusiasm of her second 1808 volume, England and Spain, or, Valour and Patriotism (Barker-Benfield, 25). Felicia's mother intervened to discourage the correspondence.

In 1809 the Brownes moved to Bronwylfa in the cathedral town of St Asaph, Flintshire, gaining the patronage of Bishop Luxmoore and Dean Shipley. In 1812 Felicia published The Domestic Affections, and on 30 July of that year she married Captain Alfred Hemans (b. 1781), a wounded veteran of Peninsular and Low Country campaigns. The son of John and Alcey Morrison Hemans (pronounced Hemmons), Alfred had been schooled in north Wales in the care of the Wynnes, with whom he had family connections. As adjutant to the Northamptonshire local militia he took his wife to Daventry in 1812. On his release with no pay he returned to Bronwylfa early in 1814 with Felicia and their son Arthur Wynne (bap. 1813, d. 1837). Four more sons followed, George Willoughby (1814–1885), Claude Lewis (1815–1893), Henry William (1817–1871), and Charles Isidore Hemans (1817–1876). The Hemans separated in 1818, perhaps because of the demands of her work, or the embarrassments of his finances, or through a combination of both factors. Captain Hemans appeared in London on business for his wife in 1819 and 1820, but settled permanently in Rome. In resuming her career, Felicia Hemans published in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1815, and gained John Murray as a publisher for The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (2nd edn 1816) and Modern Greece (published anonymously, 1817). Byron admired the former (and echoed it in Childe Harold, 4), but criticized the latter, which opposed him on the issue of the Elgin marbles.

By 1820 Felicia Hemans was cautiously welcomed in tory circles, corresponding with William Gifford and H. H. Milman, and associating with Reginald Heber (Dean Shipley's son-in-law). Her work was praised in the October 1821 Quarterly Review by John Taylor Coleridge. To poems on the deaths of Princess Charlotte (Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1818) and King George (1820) she added prize poems and commissions: 'The Meeting of Bruce and Wallace on the Banks of the Carron' (Wallace's Invocation to Bruce, 1819), Dartmoor for the Royal Society of Literature (1821), and A Selection of Welsh Melodies for the Cymrodorion Society (with John Parry, 1822). Most noticed was her The Sceptic (1821): like The Domestic Affections, it defended domestic and religious values, though chillingly and from their 'necessity' (Coleridge, 135). In Superstition and Revelation she attempted a more liberal synthesis of paganism and Christianity, but after Heber's critique, this was abandoned as a fragment. Milman superintended her verse play The Vespers of Palermo through production at Covent Garden (12 December 1823); it failed, in part because an ingénue was miscast as its heroine. An Edinburgh performance on 5 April 1824 fared better, promoted by Joanna Baillie and Sir Walter Scott, and starring Harriet Siddons.

Hemans was more comfortable writing as an international liberal than as a British patriot, especially in her adaptations of Germaine de Staël and J. C. L. Sismondi in Translations from Camoens (1818), Tales, and Historic Scenes (1819), The Siege of Valencia: the Last Constantine (1823), and The Vespers of Palermo (1823). These works brought Staël's and Sismondi's interpretations of Italian destiny to bear on post-war developments, including the Mediterranean revolts of 1820–21. Other sources for this work were Plutarch, Petrarch, Gibbon, Schiller, Herder, Byron, Coleridge, and Baillie. By 1825 three prominent American Unitarians, Andrews Norton, William Ellery Channing, and George Bancroft, hailed Hemans's work as forwarding a liberal, disestablished protestantism. Norton superintended copyright publication for Hemans in Boston (1826–8), and offered her a magazine editorship, which she declined. Her last long poem, The Forest Sanctuary (1825), was inspired by the protestant conversion of the Anglo-Spanish émigré priest Joseph Blanco White. Two suppressed poems of this period oppose Benthamite reform ('Reform, a Poem' and The Tale of the Secret Tribunal), while lyrics in the New Monthly Magazine promote the Italian republicanism of Roscoe and Sismondi. Hemans published over 350 poems in magazines and verse annuals, many from sequences like Records of Woman, her most successful book (1828). She corresponded regularly with other women writers, especially Mary Howitt and Mary Russell Mitford, and entertained Maria Jane Jewsbury during the summer of 1828 at Rhyllon outside St Asaph and later in Wavertree.

On 11 January 1827 Hemans's mother died, and by autumn 1828 the extended Browne household had dispersed. Hemans sent her two elder sons to their father in Rome and took the others to suburban Liverpool, visiting first with Henry Park and his daughter Eliza at Wavertree Lodge, and renewing connections with Rose Lawrence of Wavertree Hall (the wife of Liverpool's whig mayor). Taking modest lodgings at a house later numbered 17 Wavertree High Street, Hemans contended with child care, contagious disease, autograph seekers, and constant literary business, her health plagued by mood swings and heart or lung complaints. Her renewed studies in German literature (Goethe, Tieck, Novalis, Körner, Oehlenschlaeger) and recent music (by Weber, Mozart, Pergolesi, and Paganini) fed the fevered production of Songs of the Affections (1830). Collaborating with Jewsbury and the Chorley family on verse annuals and with John Lodge on musical arrangements for her poetry, she also visited Roscoe, received the Nortons, and met John Bowring, free-trade advocate, among other travellers and linguists. Now the nation's most noted woman poet, she visited Scott at Abbotsford and Francis Jeffrey in Edinburgh in July 1829 (see Jeffrey, Edinburgh Review, 1829), and Wordsworth in the Lake District in the summer of 1830. She returned to Scotland in August of 1830 and visited Dublin later that year.

Advised by her doctors against another winter in Liverpool, Hemans moved to Dublin in 1831; her brother George was in Kilkenny, and she had made friends with the Graveses, a prominent family there. Young Robert Perceval Graves in particular, a clergyman-to-be, brought warmth to Hemans's religious faith and encouraged the interest in Wordsworth evident in her Scenes and Hymns of Life (1834) and 'Sonnets Devotional and Memorial' (Graves was to edit her sonnets posthumously for Blackwood's). Graves tutored her youngest son, Charles, and Hemans enlisted Wordsworth in finding Graves a curacy in the Lake District. In Dublin she gained the friendship of William Rowan Hamilton and Maria Smith, and the support of Archbishop Whately and Colonel d'Aguilar, Rose Lawrence's brother and adjutant-general of Ireland. She continued, however, to reserve a non-sectarian sympathy for Ireland's Catholic martyrs. Early addresses for her in Dublin are 2 Upper Pembroke Street and 36 St Stephen's Green, but by 1833 she had moved to 20 Dawson Street, in Dublin.

Volumes of lyrics, songs, and hymns by Hemans appeared in Boston and Dublin (1827, 1833, 1834). Despite failing health she expressed ambitions 'to concentrate all my mental energy in the production of some more noble and complete work' worthy 'of a British poetess', namely 'The Christian Temple', to be introduced by her 1834 'Despondency and Aspiration' and modelled on Schiller's Die Götter Griechenlands (Chorley, 2.257–8, 343). She resumed translations and commentaries on foreign literature (Edinburgh Magazine, 1820–21; New Monthly Magazine, 1832, 1834), and planned a book of childhood reminiscences.

In the early autumn of 1834 Hemans contracted scarlet fever, which triggered a ‘consumptive’ decline. On 2 February 1835 Sir Robert Peel offered her son Henry a clerkship and granted her £100, referring to her 'embarrassing pecuniary circumstances' (Peel, BL, Add. MS 40413, fol. 291). (This is in contrast to P. R. Feldman's description of her 'comfortable income' (p. 149); it also conflicts with her family's claims of support (Leslie, 15.6).) Felicia Hemans died at 20 Dawson Street, Dublin, on 16 May 1835. She was buried on 29 May in the vault of St Ann's Church, Dawson Street, the place marked by a plaque and a stained-glass window featuring women of the scriptures, the latter commissioned by subscription in 1865. Her brothers provided a plaque (which mistakenly gives her age at death as forty) at St Asaph Cathedral, where a stained-glass window portrays the biblical Miriam and Deborah in war and peace. Another memorial is the annual Felicia Hemans poetry prize at the University of Liverpool.

Among Hemans's sons, Willoughby, a graduate of the military college at Sorèze, France, joined the Ordnance Survey in northern Ireland and later became a prominent civil engineer in Ireland and England. Claude joined the customs office in 1835, and went to America in 1836. Henry was appointed a clerk in the Admiralty in April 1835, just as Peel's ministry fell; thus he did not serve. He later clerked under the accountant-general at Somerset House and in 1864 became British consul at Buffalo, New York, where he contributed to the North American Review in 1870 and 1871. Charles Isidore became a historian of Rome and its archaeology.

Important literary portraits of and tributes to Hemans include Maria Jane Jewsbury's Egeria in The Three Histories, 'the Italy of human beings' (1830), and Letitia Elizabeth Landon's 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs Hemans' (1835) and 'Felicia Hemans' (1838). L. E. L. was answered (in 'Stanzas …', 1835) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who remained ambivalent about Hemans. Wordsworth's 'Extempore Effusion' of 1835 portrays Hemans as an insubstantial 'Spirit' (Moorman, 2.519), while W. S. Landor's 'The heroines of England' and 'To the Author of Festus' (1849) capture the substance and heroism in Hemans's work. Landor mentions in particular 'Casabianca' (1826), Hemans's tribute to the boy martyr of the battle of the Nile, a popular and much parodied recitation piece (rehabilitated by Elizabeth Bishop in 1946). Musical settings of her work continued through the nineteenth century, and include 'The Swan and the Skylark: a Cantata' by Arthur Goring Thomas and C. V. Stanford. Noël Coward's high parody of her 'Stately Homes of England' appears in Operette (1938).

With twenty volumes and nearly four hundred poems published in magazines and annuals during her lifetime, Felicia Hemans was the most considerable woman poet of the Romantic period. Her work was republished frequently in Britain and America until the First World War, almost yearly through the mid-nineteenth century. Hemans's poetry ranged formally from sonnets and lyrics to narratives, dramas, and even polemics. Some readers find her floral and topographical language and frequent allusions to history and literature purely decorative, while others propose that these elements reflect a systematic and critical study of politics and gender. Hemans's characteristically insistent rhythm and insinuating tone appear to support the latter argument, as do her pointed revisions of sources such as the work of Gibbon or Byron.

Hemans's influence is traceable in nineteenth-century verse, especially in new forms of dramatic lyric in the Brownings, Tennyson, and Kipling in Britain; Sigourney, Longfellow, Whittier, and Harper in America; and Droste-Hülshoff in Germany. Even Wordsworth's 'Extempore Effusion' reflects Hemans, for in its draft title, 'The Graves of the Poets' (Moorman, 2.518), and catalogue form, it echoes her 'The Graves of a Household'. Most Victorian editions and reissues of her work omitted her learned notes and long poems, however, and helped to cast her as a 'parlour poet' and the very type of the 'sentimental poetess'. Oxford University Press included her in its Standard Authors series in 1914, but modernism, with its masculinist and anti-Romantic bent, put her into eclipse for over half a century. In the 1970s and especially the 1980s feminist critics began to find value in her studies of women's situations and women's creativity. In the 1990s historicist critics took up questions of style, poetics, and politics, arguing that these reveal Hemans as a critic of conventions such as patriotism and female self-sacrifice. Hemans is now recognized by many literary historians as the most notable British poet flourishing between the death of Byron and the rise of Tennyson and the Brownings.

Sources

  • H. F. Chorley, Memorials of Mrs Hemans with illustrations of her literary character from her private correspondence, 2 vols. (1836)
  • M. I. Leslie, ‘Felicia Hemans: the basis of a biography’, PhD diss., University of Dublin, 1943
  • [H. B. H. Owen], ‘Memoir of Mrs Hemans’, The works of Mrs Hemans, 7 vols. (1839), 1.1–315
  • R. Lawrence, ‘Recollections of Mrs Hemans’, The last autumn at a favourite residence, with other poems and recollections of Mrs Hemans (1836), 231–419
  • W. L. Roscoe, note to Matthew Nicholson, 10 Jan 1807, Lpool RO, 920 NIC 29/4
  • F. Nicholson, ‘Correspondence between Mrs Hemans and Matthew Nicholson, an early member of this society’, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, 54/9 (1909–10), 1–40
  • B. C. Barker-Benfield, ‘Hogg–Shelley papers of 1810–12’, Bodleian Library Record, 14 (1991–4), 14–29
  • Sir Robert Peel, letter to Felicia Hemans, 7 Feb 1835, BL, Add. MS 40413, fol. 291
  • P. R. Feldman, ‘The poet and the profits: Felicia Hemans and the literary marketplace’, Keats–Shelley Journal, 46 (1997), 148–76
  • M. Moorman, William Wordsworth, a biography, 2: The later years, 1803–1850 (1965), 518–20
  • [J. T. Coleridge], review of The restoration of the works of art to Italy, QR, 24 (1820–21), 130–39
  • B. D. Taylor, ‘Felicia Hemans: professional poet’, unpublished paper, 1995
  • G. T. Shaw, ‘The Liverpool homes of Mrs Hemans’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 48 (1896), 123–34
  • private information (2004) [M. Nott, E. Chitham]
  • Extracts from the correspondence of Mrs Hemans with Mr Robert Perceval Graves, Alexandra College, Milltown, Dublin

Archives

  • Alexandra College, Milltown, Dublin, corresp. with Robert Perceval Graves
  • Lpool RO, corresp. and literary MSS; letters and literary MSS
  • BL, letters to Dr Samuel Butler, Add. MSS 34585–34589, fol. 275, etc.
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and MSS
  • Boston PL, corresp. and MSS
  • Duke U., corresp. and MSS
  • Hist. Soc. Penn., corresp. and MSS
  • Hunt. L., letters; literary MSS
  • Mass. Hist. Soc., corresp. and MSS
  • McGill University, Montreal, corresp. and MSS
  • NL Ire., corresp. and MSS
  • NL Scot., corresp. and MSS
  • NL Scot., MS poems and letters to Blackwoods
  • NL Wales, corresp. and MSS
  • NYPL, Berg collection, corresp. and MSS
  • NYPL, Pforzheimer collection, corresp. and MSS
  • Princeton University, New Jersey, corresp. and MSS
  • TCD, commonplace book
  • TCD, corresp. with Robert Perceval Graves
  • U. Edin., corresp. and MSS
  • U. Lpool, special collections and archives, letters
  • Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, letters; letters to Dorothy Wordsworth
  • Hamwood, Dunboyne, Meath, letters to Charles Hamilton of Hamwood

Likenesses

  • W. E. West, portraits, 1827, priv. coll.
  • A. Fletcher, marble bust, 1830, NPG; plaster cast, NPG
  • E. Robertson, miniature, 1831, priv. coll.
  • E. Smith, line engraving, 1836 (after E. Robertson), BM; repro. in Chorley, Memorials of Mrs Hemans
  • collotype, 1837 (after medallion by E. W. Wyon), BM, NPG; repro. in H. F. Chorley, Authors of England (1837)
  • W. Holl, stipple (after W. E. West, 1827), BM, NPG; repro. in Christian Keepsake (1837) [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

no evidence of surviving wealth, but rather of need; in last months was occupied in situating youngest sons: Peel, letter to Hemans, BL, Add. MS 40413, fol. 291

possessions distributed at death consisted mainly of books: C. Graves to Mr Graves, Extracts, 270

Quarterly Review