Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Poetry, Ladies and Slang; or, when is Bushy just a dog?
Posted by

Charlotte Cushman, ambrotype, 1859 (wikimedia commons/Library of Congress)

As part of my completion of a book on the expatriate network of British and American women poets in Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, I’ve been looking again at the poetry of Isa Blagden. A poem I’d bypassed originally now intrigues me some more. But I’m not sure what to make of it. The poem is entitled “To dear old Bushie. From one who loved her.”

The poem was published posthumously in Emma Stebbins’ Charlotte Cushman: Her Life, Letters and Memories, pp. 126-7, as a elegy for Cushman’s cherished blue Skye terrier, who died in the Spring of 1867 as Blagden was visiting Rome. Cushman and Stebbins, who had a “female marriage” and lived openly together, were deeply fond of their dog, and Stebbins devotes several pages to Bushy’s personality and faithfulness. Blagden, too, loved her pet dogs (often rescued as strays), and her passionate investment in the welfare of animals was responsible for Frances Power Cobbe’s anti-vivisection campaign (Mitchell, p. 135).

Sharon Marcus’s discussion of Victorian “female marriages” discusses Blagden’s poem and asserts that she cannot have been ignorant of the slang implied in the dog’s name, which for the Victorians was a “pet name, so to speak, for female genitalia” (p. 197). Marcus reads the poem as a tribute both to the pet dog and also, tacitly, to the women partners who loved him so tenderly. In this reading, the poem pays homage to a dog’s fidelity and also to the fidelity of lesbian women partners.

Isa Blagden was part of the Cushman circle, but even more closely identified with the expatriate network of women writers in Florence, where she kept a weekly salon and often had female friends cohabiting with her for lengthy periods. Kate Field, who lived in Blagden’s villa for a time, called her “hubby”. While Blagden certainly advertised the benefits (political, material and spiritual) in her novels of female co-habitation and partnership, published in feminist periodicals such as The English Woman’s Journal, and was part of the Cushman circle, she was not as openly involved in a female marriages as her other friends, she didn’t dress unconventionally (unlike for example, members of Cushman’s circle), and she managed to pass as a conventional English spinster. Blagden, in fact, exploited the range of acceptable sexual identities for women in this period, and especially in expatriate circles in Italy. Her writing persona for the periodical press, in which she published a range of genres, always maintained and indeed marketed her lady-like persona.

Skye Terrier, from John Henry Walsh's The Dog in Health and Disease (1859), wikimedia commons

The problem with this poem for me comes down to raw historical probability versus an attractive critical reading of a poem’s doubled meaning. Would a middle-class lady have known that “bush” means pubic hair (OED gives the earliest date 1922), or that “Bushy Park”, (rhyming slang for “lark”) was low slang for female pubic hair (The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang gives the earliest date as c. 1860)?

Sharon Marcus, whose book Between Women makes a compelling argument for women’s Victorian homoerotic unions existing within the range of normative behaviours, states that “[i]t would be naive to think that the Victorians were so naive as to be unaware of the connotations of ‘Bushie'” (p. 197). But would Blagden have given a poem with a vulgar play on a beloved pet’s name to a dear friend if she had known the usage, and would Emma Stebbins in turn have published it in her chaste memoir of her female lover if the slang had been obvious to her (or if she thought it was obvious to her readers)?

Perhaps this is all immaterial, as Blagden’s poetry as well as her persona plays with passing: passing as an English poetess (when she was in fact half-Indian and illegitimate) and passing as a lady spinster (when she was in fact part of an all-female domestic ménage). And worrying about whether she actually knew the low slang meaning of “bushy” as she wrote the poem may make me guilty of a crass intentionalism, especially when we know how fond Victorians were of playful double poems. But I don’t think it’s a naive question. Rather, as we found out with the debate about Jane Austen, knowing what women writers knew is not a straightforward issue.

To dear old Bushie.

From one who loved her.

Much loving and much loved, dare I,
With my weak, faltering praise,
Record thy pure fidelity,
Thy patient, loving ways;

Thy wistful, eager, gasping sighs,
Our sullen sense to reach;
The solemn meaning of thine eyes,
More clear than uttered speech;

Thy silent sympathy with tears,
Thy joy our joys to share;
In weal and woe, through all these years,
Our treasure and our care;

Thy dumb, adoring gratitude,
Noble, yet tender too,
Resplendent to each varied mood,
Not human, but more true?

They say we are not kin to thee,
Thy race unlike our own,–
O that our human friends could be
Like thee, thou faithful one!

The wondrous privilege of love,
Love perfect and entire,
Was thine, true heart; to naught above
Can human hearts aspire!

From all our lives some faith, some trust,
With thy dear life is o’er;
A life-long love lies in thy dust;
Can human grave hold more?

Works Cited

Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton UP, 2007)

Sally Mitchell, Frances Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer (U of Virginia P, 2004)

Eric Patridge, The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, Abridged by Jacqueline Simpson (London: Penguin, 1972)

Emma Stebbins (ed.), Charlotte Cushman: Her Life, Letters and Memories (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1878),

Leave a Reply