Julia Wedgewood, The Unexpected Victorian: Q&A with Sue Brown

Author Sue Brown talks to us about her upcoming book Julia Wedgewood, The Unexpected Victorian. Julia Wedgwood (1833-1913) was a leading Victorian female non-fiction writer who ventured fearlessly into the reserved territory of the Victorian “man of letters”, writing about the Classical world, Darwinism, German Biblical criticism, moral philosophy, theology and science as well as literature and history.

1. Why did you choose Julia Wedgwood as a subject?
I first got interested in Julia Wedgwood when I read some of her letters to Robert Browning. I was curious to know more about this very bright, exceptionally well-read, sometimes funny but often melancholy young lady. I then read through their full correspondence assuming that this was a failed romance (which in a way it was) and wanting to know what had gone wrong (which wasn’t altogether clear either to me at first nor to Browning at the time.) That led me on to her writings about feminism, her biographies of John Wesley and her great grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter, and a collection of some of her articles called Nineteenth Century Teachers. Their range surprised me. And then I discovered that there were hundreds of her letters, mostly little read, in the Wedgwood Archive at Barlaston. The more I read of her, the more distinctive she seemed. On top of that was the fact that she was Charles Darwin’s niece. Her reactions to his work were more individual and unpredictable than most. Whenever I gave a paper about Julia Wedgwood, the reaction was always the same: “Why haven’t we heard of her?” It’s more than time to put that right.

2. Would you call Julia Wedgwood a feminist? Why?
Julia Wedgwood was not a classic nineteenth-century feminist, which may be why she rarely appears in dictionaries of Victorian feminists. Her deafness excluded her from the Kensington and Langham Place groups, friendly though she was with leading campaigners like Cobbe, Barbara Bodichon, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Emily Davies. Temperamentally she was also averse to appearing on public platforms and shied away from the moral purity questions that attracted feminists like Josephine Butler. She played an important role in the early days of higher education for women.

The case she made for extending the vote to women was based not on equality but equity and the social improvements that would result once women were recognized as having a stake in the national polity. Her early articles were couched in moderate terms and designed to convince the male audience that alone had the power to extend the vote to women. When it became clear that women would only get the vote in the context of universal suffrage, she turned against their campaign – so great was her distrust of majoritarian democracy-but still contributed to female suffrage charities.

3. How do you think she would inspire today’s women?
Julia Wedgwood was determined to realize herself and succeeded against considerable odds. She suffered from increasing deafness, ill health, severe migraines and depression. Despite ridicule from some members of her family, she maintained her persona as a female intellectual, reading widely and encouraging younger writers, always conscious of her obligation to the particular audience she had created through her books and articles. She also took bold decisions in her private life. She kept on writing to the end finding serenity in her later years and relishing her memories of the many great Victorians she had known. For all her authority as a writer she remained remarkably modest about her achievements.

4. Which according to you is the most remarkable work of Julia Wedgwood and why?
Undoubtedly, Julia Wedgwood’s most remarkable book was The Moral Ideal, which she worked on for twenty years. She described it as a history of human aspiration, something she traced from the earliest civilizations to her own times. For anyone operating outside the academic environment, let alone a woman, its range and confidence were remarkable. But the broadly Hegelian argument and resonant, rhetorical language identify it as a product of its times. More eye-catching than its general argument are its aphorisms and imaginative metaphors.

5. What effects do you think her notable companions have on shaping her life?
Julia Wedgwood knew a remarkable number of the leading writers of her day. The granddaughter of Sir James Mackintosh, the Scottish politician and philosopher, she was introduced as a child to Mary Somerville, Maria Edgeworth and Macaulay. Harriet Martineau followed her progress from infancy and always admired her work, unaware of Wedgwood’s increasing reservations about her as a literary model. As a teenager she became friends with Mrs. Gaskell’s daughter, Meta, and went to stay with the Gaskells in Manchester when Mrs. Gaskell was writing her biography of Charlotte Bronte. Copying out Bronte’s letters and talking to Mrs. Gaskell and Catherine Winkworth about her gave her the idea of writing a novel herself. Other family friends she knew from girlhood were Jane and Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Ruskin, she said, taught her how to see. Some of the resonance of Carlyle’s prose entered her own. Julia was lucky enough to be taught by three of the finest: James Martineau, F.D. Maurice and Francis Newman. The single-most important relationship of her life was her brief but intense friendship with Browning in his early days in London as a widower. She saw him as the main inspiration for The Moral Ideal.
She got to know the woman writer she most admired, George Eliot, at the time Eliot was beginning work on Middlemarch. Emma and Charles Darwin were a constant presence in Julia Wedgwood’s life. Modestly enough she concluded that given the people she had been close to she should have made more of herself, an appealing but unnecessarily self-deprecating admission given the limited expectations of women’s capabilities that she had to confront for most of her life in and out of her family.