Webster, Augusta (1837–1894)
Webster, Augusta (1837–1894)
English poet, dramatist, and essayist . Name variations: Julia Augusta Davies; (pseudonym) Cecil Home. Born Julia Augusta Davies on January 30, 1837, in Poole, Dorset, England; died on September 5, 1894, in Kew, London, England; daughter of George Davies (vice-admiral in the British navy) and Julia Augusta (Hume) Davies; studied at the Cambridge School of Art; married Thomas Webster (a lawyer), in 1863; children: one daughter.
Blanche Lisle and Other Poems (1860); Lesley's Guardians (1864); Dramatic Studies (1866); A Woman Sold and Other Poems (1867); Portraits (1870); A Housewife's Opinions (1878); A Book of Rhyme (1881); In a Day (play, 1882); The Sentence (play, 1887); Mother and Daughter (1895).
Augusta Webster was born Julia Augusta Davies in Poole, Dorset, England, in 1837, the daughter of Julia Hume Davies and naval officer George Davies. She grew up in several areas of England, including a stint on board a ship docked in Chichester Harbor. In addition to attending the Cambridge School of Art, Webster studied French in Paris and Geneva. She expanded her language studies to include Italian, Spanish, and Greek, the last of which she taught her younger brother.
Webster began her career as an author in 1860, with Blanche Lisle and Other Poems, which she published under the masculine pseudonym "Cecil Home." Three years later she married Thomas Webster, a law lecturer at Trinity College in Cambridge with whom she would have one daughter, and began publishing under her married name of Augusta Webster. The poem Lilian Gray and her only novel, Lesley's Guardians, both published in 1864, were followed by Dramatic Studies (1866), a collection of dramatic monologues. These eight monologues, including three spoken exclusively by women, drew heavily from poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and marked Webster's first important contribution to poetry. That same year, she issued a well-received translation from the Greek of Prometheus Bound; a translation of Medea would meet with equal success in 1868. (Her maternal grandfather, Joseph Hume, had earlier translated Dante.) Webster's 1867 collection A Woman Sold and Other Poems showed more diversity in her poetic forms as well as the influence of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. She returned exclusively to the monologue form in Portraits (1870), which highlighted her feminism through an exploration of the predicaments faced by women in the mid-1800s, particularly regarding marriage and the dilemma of the single woman. Vita Sackville-West would later praise "A Castaway," the monologue of a prostitute, and another monologue drew comparisons with the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Portraits proved so successful that it went into a second edition before the year ended.
In 1870, Webster also moved with her family from Cambridge to London, where her husband practiced as a lawyer. Despite the success with which her poems had met, she wrote less poetry after the move, although in 1881 she did introduce to English audiences the risputti or stornelli, an Italian stanza poem, in A Book of Rhyme (1881). Instead, she focused on plays and essays, and also devoted her energy to the campaign for better education for women. As part of this effort, she was twice elected to the London School Board, serving from 1879 to 1882. Among her plays were The Auspicious Day (1872) and Disguises (1879), neither of which received performances, and In a Day, written in 1882 and produced with her daughter in the starring role in 1890. Christina Rossetti and her brother William Michael Rossetti were among those who thought highly of Webster's The Sentence (1887), a three-act tragedy detailing the life of Caligula; the latter poet called it "one of the masterpieces of European drama."
A firm supporter of women's suffrage, Webster wrote a series of essays on the issue which were published in the Examiner and reprinted by the Women's Suffrage Union in 1878. The Examiner also published her series of essays on married women, published in book form as A Housewife's Opinions (1878). Webster was unable to complete her last work, a sonnet sequence, before her death on September 5, 1894. It was published posthumously as Mother and Child the following year.
Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1936.
Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Ann M. Schwalboski , M.A., M.F.A., University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, Wisconsin