‘We’ll Wear Out Great Ones’
Maria Pickersgill, Letitia Landon, and the Power of the ‘Improvisatrice’
If Romantic women poets, as Paula Feldman says, have ‘appeared in literary history at best as footnotes’, Maria Pickersgill has been a footnote to a footnote, and undeservedly so.  Her husband, Henry William Pickersgill, is said by Sidney Lee in the 1906 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography to have had ‘almost a monopoly of painting the portraits of men and women of eminence’ in his day as a Royal Academician, yet no exclusive biography has ever been written of his life.  His prominence in his own day is only weakly reflected in the few paragraphs devoted to him in larger biographical encyclopaedias. He is today most well-known as a footnote in the life of William Wordsworth, whose portrait he painted in 1832.  His wife, Maria, rarely appears in any of her husband’s short biographical blurbs, and when she does it is usually without her first name, as ‘Mrs Pickersgill’. She has, in fact, undeservedly been reduced to a footnote of a footnote in the history of the Romantic Period.
More recently, critics have taken Romantic women poets such as Hannah More, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Landon from the footnotes and moved them onto the title pages of literary history. Scholars have increasingly recognised women’s prominent role in the poetic world of the Romantic period and pointed out their place in the complex dialogue and interchange of influences among writers of the time.  With this recent rise in women poets’ prominence, perhaps a closer look at Maria Pickersgill and her work is overdue, especially since, as a cosmopolitan, published, London poet and as the wife of one of the most important artists of the day, Henry William Pickersgill, she can serve as a window into what was in many ways a white-hot centre of artistic life in England.
More specifically, Maria’s work itself is a complex commentary on this artistic world, a world which simultaneously encouraged and confined female artists. Wealthy and influential persons of this period were increasingly willing to patronise women’s art—with the full range of positive and negative meanings associated with the term ‘patron’. Maria Pickersgill actively sought such patronage and earned some success in publication in the 1820s and 30s, yet in her work she subtly criticised the very power structures she had manipulated to gain visibility. Her poetry uses ‘oriental’ settings to critique implicitly the male domination of the British literary scene while simultaneously celebrating female artists’ subversion of it. She compares the burgeoning society of female artists in her day to harem slaves, women who are usually forced to sing and perform in a manner pleasing to their male patron, the Sultan. When he is absent, however, they are able to create a method of storytelling uniquely their own, giving them the power to overcome his influence. Thus, Maria’s work is a furtherance of the same commentary on women’s proper artistic role found in the works of other Romantic poetesses and authoresses such as Maria Jane Jewsbury, Anna Maria Hall, Felicia Hemans, and, most especially, Letitia Landon.  It also, especially when viewed in light of Maria’s tendency to seek out female rather than male patrons, promotes the idea of a community of female artists, all producing work patronised by and intended for women.
Maria’s ambition was well served by her husband’s artistic position in London, which gave her ample opportunities to share her work with wealthy, influential, potential supporters. Exaggeration of the family’s connections in the art world of the British Romantic period is nearly impossible. Henry Pickersgill became an Associate Royal Academician in 1822 and a Royal Academician in 1826.  His fellow Academicians included prominent painters and portrait artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Constable, and the subjects of his portraits included such artists as Hannah More, Letitia Landon, and, of course, William Wordsworth.  He also painted several pieces after works of contemporary literature, such as his 1850 work Nourmahal: The Light of the Harem, which depicts a central figure of one of the tales in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, or his 1826 painting Medora, based on Byron’s The Corsair.  Indeed, the Pickersgill household was very much a part of the larger artistic conversation in Romantic Britain. They knew the stars of their day intimately, as portraits would usually take days or even months to complete, requiring their subjects to sit as a captive audience for hours on end. For those who lived in the country, Henry would travel to their home and stay for a week or so to paint them, as was the case with Wordsworth, with whom he stayed ten days. Wordsworth’s daughter said of that time, ‘The 10 days Mr Pickersgill was with us [were] the happiest and most memorable I had well nigh said, of my life.’ She referred to him affectionately as ‘Pick’,  an evidence of the kind of close relation a portrait artist such as Pickersgill could gain with his subjects and their families. For customers living in London, subjects would come to Pickersgill’s home studio several times a week over an extended period and sit for hours, creating a similar opportunity for intimacy and discourse as artists and friends. 
For the Pickersgills, at least, this discourse was one which included not only Mr Pickersgill, but also his wife Maria and their children as well. Maria played no small part in her husband’s success. She herself became a student at the Royal Academy, but not before guiding her husband into his own professional position there. John Constable, a fellow Royal Academician with Mr Pickersgill and a close friend, wrote about her in his journal on 31 May 1824: ‘[Henry] has a clever wife, who manages all matters for him.’  Mr Pickersgill, on the other hand, is described by Constable at one point as ‘involved in business—but almost dead with work & so nervous that when a knock came to the door he danced like a top & could not hold a limb still’.  This depiction of the Pickersgills’ relationship comes from a man who knew them and worked with them closely over a period of decades. 
From Constable’s description, it seems as though the two complemented each other well: Maria ‘managing matters’ and Henry painting the portraits, but Maria had an artistic life and career which, though closely connected to her husband’s work, was still very much her own. Over the course of her life, Maria published a large book of poetry in 1827 entitled Tales of the Harem, as well as four smaller poems. Her first poem, ‘The Oriental Nosegay’, was published in 1825, and her last, ‘The Minstrel of Chamouni’, was printed twice in British annuals: once in 1830 and again in 1838. Her most popular poem, ‘The Oriental Love Letter’, was reprinted three times in 1828, 1833, and 1834. Her poems were reviewed in some of the most prominent periodicals in London. The New Monthly Magazine, which William Hazlitt considered among the two best review magazines of the time, published a review of Tales of the Harem in July 1827.  The review said Tales was ‘truly worthy to flow either from lip or pen of the sex’ and saw a likeness to it in the then-popular Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore.  La Belle Assemblée, a periodical ‘Addressed Particularly to the Ladies’, also published a lengthy review stating that the book’s verses were ‘Light, airy, and graceful […] evidently the productions of an elegantly-cultivated mind—of a mind richly imbued with Eastern lore—of a mind that luxuriates in all that is tender, and beautiful, and lovely in nature’.  The somewhat older and less prestigious (though popular) Gentleman’s Magazine, as well as the Repository of Arts also printed reviews, all of which were largely positive.  The Repository even went so far as to compare the authoress to two very prominent female authors of the time: Letitia Landon and Felicia Hemans. 
Since she was a woman, though, critics did judge her work to be of a lower style. Said one review in May 1828, ‘[Tales] is more distinguished for elegance than vigour, more like a graceful parody than instinct with original thought.’  Another review stated: ‘One does not expect in taking up such a volume, to meet with the higher moods of verse; no such thing is aimed at; its very name invites the mind to relaxation.’  Thus, Maria’s career, like so many other women poets’ of the time, was characterised by a struggle for a voice in a literary world which, as she was well aware, often limited women. 
Before pursuing that issue, however, it may be useful to describe the more basic details of Maria’s life. She was born in London, christened as an Anglican at St Andrews’ Holborn in about 1785 under the name ‘Maria Price’. Her parents’ names are unknown. In fact, virtually nothing is known about her life before her marriage to Henry William Pickersgill on 8 July 1805. Until about 1802, her husband-to-be had been involved in the silk trade with a Mr Henry Hall. However, when the silk trade declined, he began to seriously take up painting, studying under George Arnald from 1802 to 1805. On 28 November 1805, he was accepted into the Royal Academy.  Some of Henry’s earliest portrait work, including his own self portrait, began in the same year of his marriage to Maria.  In any case, the early years of Maria’s marriage were highlighted by her husband’s rise to national fame as a portrait artist. By the time Maria published her longest work, Tales of the Harem, in 1827, her husband had become a prominent figure in the art world.
It is as difficult to define Maria’s work out of the context of her husband’s paintings as it is to understand Henry’s work without reading her poetry. Henry and Maria are but one example of a small group of artistic male–female couples in the period, including the likes of Samuel Carter and Anna Maria Hall, John and Amelia Opie, and Charles and Mary Lamb. For each of these couples, art was a shared experience. The work of the one informed the work of the other. Scholars in the past, it seems, have been tempted to see Mr Pickersgill’s work as being done in a vacuum of a home, with no acknowledgment of his wife’s contribution, but a closer look reveals that the two were working as mutual partners and that each sought the other’s success. It would be foolish to ignore the array of influences running between John Opie, another, earlier Royal Academician, and his wife, or to read either of the Lambs without acknowledging the other. Similarly, an awareness that to look at a list of Mr Pickersgill’s works is, in many ways, to see a list of his wife’s influences, and to look at Maria’s poetry and connections is to see her husband’s, is vital.
Maria’s first published poem, ‘The Oriental Nosegay’, is a case in point. It was printed in 1825 in Letitia Landon’s The Troubadours. One may wonder how a previously unpublished and unknown poetess was found by Landon, whose editorial prowess apparently judged Pickersgill’s work worthy of being printed beside her own. The answer lies in the fact that two or three years earlier, in 1822 or 1823, Landon had had her portrait painted by Pickersgill, probably in his home studio in London, as she was a London local.  During Landon’s sitting for her portrait, it seems likely that Maria might have shown this popular writer and editor her own work, which Landon apparently liked enough to publish. In May 1825, the same year as the publication of The Troubadours, Landon’s portrait was shown publicly in the Royal Academy’s Gallery. Thus, 1825 marked a two-part public announcement of sorts regarding the relationship between Landon and the Pickersgills, an artistic relationship which was to continue for some time.  Landon’s works, in fact, are among Maria Pickersgill’s closest analogues.
This first work of Pickersgill’s, ‘The Oriental Nosegay’, begins with an idealised scene of a young woman languishing on a ‘silken couch, just fit to be | A snowy shrine for some fair deity’.  She is ‘lovely as those | Enchanted visions haunting the repose | Of the young poet’ (p. 273). However, Pickersgill makes it clear that this scene is ‘but dream’d as yet’ and that it is ‘A happiness but made for phantasie!’ (p. 273). All is not as it seems. The woman is holding a bouquet of flowers, a message from her lover, with each of the flowers in the bouquet being a part of the message. The blue flowers (representing absence) and the pale flowers (representing a lover’s pining) together represent her lover’s longing for her in her absence, while other flowers in the bunch are said to communicate ‘hope and constancy’ (pp. 275–76). Yet for all this romantic idealism, the poem ends on a dark note, urging the young woman to ‘Watch the bloom […] And read in the decay upon it stealing’ (pp. 276–77). The flowers, which will soon wilt and die, are declared ‘fitting messengers for love! as fair, | As quickly past as his [love’s] own visions are’ (p. 277). The woman is told in the final line to ‘Fling, fling the flowers away!’ (p. 277).
‘The Oriental Nosegay’ is very similar to Maria’s third published work, ‘The Oriental Love Letter’, which was first printed in the Bijou, a British annual, in 1828. This latter poem describes a painting by Mr Pickersgill of the same name (or perhaps it is the painting which depicts his wife’s previously-written poem?), which was exhibited in 1824. Henry’s painting portrays a young woman (probably one of his daughters, as he is known to have used them as models in such paintings) lounging on a couch beside a window with a minaret clearly visible in the background. The woman is thus presumably in a harem. She is in oriental dress and is holding a bouquet of flowers in her lap—her ‘love letter’.
The poem Maria writes to accompany this painting, like ‘The Oriental Nosegay’, contains a hint of warning—the idea that all is not as it seems on the surface. The woman, who ‘Though close within her Harem bower | They [the Sultan and his men] deem’d […] safe from Love’s fond power,’ is sending a secret message to a lover through a bouquet of flowers.  Her lute, her perfumes, and the luxurious setting of the harem, which are intended to distract her from such pursuits and to entertain her, are ‘neglected’ and their efforts are all said to be ‘in vain’:
For e’en within a flow’ry wreath
Young love his first fond vows may breathe
And in bright emblem flowers declare,
Joy—absence—thraldom—hope—despair! (pp. 341–42)
The entire poem thus parallels ‘The Oriental Nosegay’ in its subject matter, yet in ‘The Oriental Love Letter’ the message is much more positive, probably because in the latter the woman is the sender of the ‘letter’, while in ‘The Oriental Nosegay’ she is the recipient of it. The contrast involves power—there is more power for the woman in sending the letter than there is in receiving it. Thus, the message of the second poem is one of a young harem woman’s power to undercut and subvert the many playful distractions around her through her own ‘artistic’ creation, a simple message sent via an innocent-looking bunch of flowers, something whose significance the men watching her would not recognise or respect.
Maria’s description of ‘flower-letters’ is part of a long tradition arising from stories told by travellers to the Middle East, as Joan DelPlato states in her book, Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the Harem, 1800–1875:
The earliest reporters claimed that harem women, who were often thought illiterate, communicated by means of flower symbolism with their outside lovers. In 1718 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu sent a sample of a Turkish loveletter to a female friend; it included flowers, fruit, spices, and other small objects—all with specific, detailed meanings, which she explained. Popular nineteenth-century guidebooks on flower symbolism referred to the turkish tradition of symbolic readings of flowers. 
With this in mind, Maria’s poem takes on a whole new level of meaning and of subversion. Like most Englanders in her day, Maria’s idea of the oriental world was probably one in which the women residing there were, as DelPlato says ‘illiterate’ and ‘communicated by means of flowers’. Such seemingly innocent flowers could, according to contemporary beliefs, communicate in absolute defiance of the powers to which harem women were to be submitting themselves. DelPlato, speaking only of Henry’s painting (she seems to have been unaware of his wife’s accompanying poem) sees the subversive nature of the woman’s activity with the flowers. Still, she says that:
[The young woman’s] passion would need to be powerful indeed to break her confinement, suggested by the great volumes of rich, embroidered silk curtain that all but cover her window in this scene and shield her from the outside world. Pickersgill paints a ‘luxurious prison,’ from which a pathetically meager floral arrangement offers only the slimmest hope of escape. (p. 141)
DelPlato’s reading of the painting is insightful in placing the young woman’s action with the flowers in the context of European views of harem women, but her characterisation of the woman’s tools and efforts as ‘pathetically meager’ and offering only ‘the slimmest hope of escape’ seems inaccurate in light of the more subtle points of Maria’s writing—points which can only be seen through a close look at her largest published work, Tales of the Harem, and at her depiction of the role of women’s poetry and performance.
First, however, some context is in order. Female poets in the Romantic period were often subjected to their own ‘luxurious prisons’,—confining sets of social rules which prohibited them from taking on certain roles as writers. As Glennis Stephenson writes:
The predominantly male critics who controlled the literary journals and magazines during the early nineteenth century had the power to define the nature of women’s poetry; more importantly, they had the power to define the woman herself: the ‘poetess’ was overtly assigned a number of the characteristics that more usually remained within the subtext of nineteenth-century constructions of ‘woman’. 
The definition of a female ‘poetess’ in the nineteenth century was largely one which confined her to ‘lesser’ poetry focusing on the feelings rather than on reason.  Thus, as Stephenson says, ‘Readers generally assumed that there was little, if any, conscious artistry in the women’s works; they were often seen to exemplify a debased Romanticism—Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, which, rather than being recollected in tranquility, are immediately spewed out upon the page.’  As Behrendt puts it: ‘men compose and direct […] what women perform’ (p. 17).
It is becoming increasingly apparent to scholars, however, that female poets of the time were adept at confronting the challenges presented by participating in a largely male profession. Letitia Landon herself was a master of negotiating her own public position as a female poet. She was able to present herself overtly as a poetess following the rules of her sex while at the same time subverting them.  In her 1824 poem The Improvisatrice, Landon took on the persona of an ‘improvisatrice’—a ‘female improviser’ or ‘extemporaneous performer’. As Stephenson says of Landon: ‘improvisation is the core of her declared female poetics and the feature which most clearly distinguishes her from the male Romantics’ (p. 5). Like Pickersgill’s flowery love letters, it was a role which seemed harmless and innocent, yet allowed her a powerful poetic voice.
From the very beginning of The Improvisatrice, Landon describes her struggle, saying, ‘I am a daughter of that land, | Where the poet’s lip and the painter’s hand | Are most divine.’  She continues:
My power was but a woman’s power
Yet, in that great and glorious dower
Which Genius gives, I had my part:
I poured my full and burning heart
In song, and on the canvass made
My dreams of beauty visible;
I knew not which I loved the most—
Pencil or lute,—both loved so well. (p. 3)
Here again, Landon carves out a niche for herself by comparing her ‘pencil’ to a ‘lute’, an instrument used more for performance than for composition. She also describes her method as one of ‘pour[ing] out [her] full and burning heart | in song’, again firmly planting herself in the culturally-legal poetic territory of impromptu, emotional writing. At the same time, she legitimises her role as a poet by claiming that she has her own share or ‘part’ in ‘Genius’.
Pickersgill’s depiction of the role of women’s poetry and performance is closely connected to Letitia Landon’s. A year before Mr Pickersgill’s portrait of Landon was shown in the Gallery of the Royal Academy, he revealed another painting entitled ‘L’Improvisatrice’ or, as it was later, alternately titled, ‘L’Improvisatrice; Portrait of a Lady, Said to be the Artist’s Daughter, in Neapolitan Dress’.  The painting is an obvious allusion to Letitia Landon’s The Improvisatrice. It depicts a young woman holding a lute and dressed, as the title says, in Neapolitan attire. The woman is, again, presumably one of the Pickersgills’ daughters, a fact which prominently underlines the extent to which the family respected Landon’s work and engaged in a mimicry of her role, something which becomes even more apparent when one reads Tales of the Harem.
Tales of the Harem, which was published in 1827,takes the form of a frame tale, in which one over-arching story ‘frames’ several others. As such, it is part of a long tradition of tales, including works such as Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.The central story is set in Istanbul, in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan. The Sultan and his favourites have all left the palace to see newly-conquered lands, leaving the other inhabitants of the harem, the odalisques, to their own devices. The women left behind are from many different parts of the Ottoman Empire. Some of them were captured and taken into the harem when they were very young, while others were not taken until they were much older, and remember days when they were free. As the evening approaches, the women gather under a kiosk overlooking the sea and tell stories. Tales of the Harem relates stories told in this setting by four women over three nights and a day. The four stories are ‘The Witch of Himlaya’, told by a woman from Kashmir; ‘The Cave of Gulistan’, told by an Afghani; ‘The Hetæria’, told by a Greek; and ‘The Indian Maid’, told by an Indian woman.
‘The Witch of Himlaya’ begins as a wealthy Hindu woman named Zeneib and her slave, Novara, arrive at the Ganges River on a special night for a ritual cleansing. The woman has brought her newborn infant with her to participate as well. As they begin the ritual, another infant floats down the river on a wreath. Zeneib swears to care for the child and considers it a gift from one of the gods. As she leans over the wreath-child, however, a venomous snake emerges from the wreath and kills her own child.
In an effort to protect her mistress, Novara takes both the child from the wreath and Zeneib home and tells the Rajah that his wife is merely distraught because she was nearly bitten by a deadly snake. She mentions nothing about the death of his child, and the entire palace believes that the child brought home is the same one that went with Zeneib that night—their lord’s infant daughter. Zeneib, meanwhile, has lost her reason and, overcome with grief, commits suicide one year after the incident by throwing herself into the Ganges.
The infant girl, Aza, is raised by Zeneib’s slaves. As she grows older, she develops a strong relationship with the Rajah’s son, Zelindah, whom she believes to be her brother. The Rajah tries to persuade Aza to marry some young warrior, but she has romantic feelings for Zelindah. She refuses all suggestions of marriage and is torn by her forbidden love. Eventually, she meets a mysterious woman, a witch who lives in a cave high in the Himalyas near the palace. The woman tells her that Zelindah is not her brother and explains that Aza is her own daughter. She says that she lost Aza while she was on the run to avoid being burned on her husband’s funeral pyre. She had been pushing her across the Ganges on a floating wreath when a snake attacked her, forcing her to let go and see her daughter disappear downriver. When the Rajah hears this news, he arranges for Aza and Zelindah to be married and considers the ‘witch’ his own sister.
The other three stories are considerably shorter and less complex. ‘The Cave of Gulistan’ is about a knight on a quest to retrieve the sword hidden inside the Cave of Gulistan that grants victory to whomever wields it. He feels he must get the sword in order to win his love’s hand in marriage in a tournament. The knight overcomes many obstacles, including a swamp which sinks and kills his horse, several Siren-like enchantresses, and a sword-bearing giant. The moment he takes up the magic sword at the end of his quest, however, he finds himself lying in a wide plain near his home with his horse beside him, alive, and the sword in his hand.
‘The Hetæria’ is told by a Greek woman who is a recent inmate of the harem from the Sultan’s wars in her homeland. The story describes a woman living in Greece who, despite living under Ottoman rule, refuses to give in: ‘Revenge’ is ‘the first, the last | Fond cherished vision of her breast!’  She meets regularly in a ‘dark and secret cave’ with others whom ‘the chain | Of Turkish thraldom could not quell’ (pp. 144–45). One meeting held in this cave is described in which another young woman, who ‘grasps in her hand the deadly blade’, sings a song urging the men gathered there to fight for freedom (p. 145). The group resolves to regain freedom ‘Or share a new Thermopylae!’ (p. 151).
The final story, ‘The Indian Maid’, is about a warrior who hears the woeful cries of women as he travels through a foreign land. He learns that Alia, the daughter of the ruler of the land, is being forced to marry. Her father has gone mad in his old age and her husband-to-be is marrying her in order to gain her father’s land. The warrior swears that ‘To-morrow’s sun shall see her free’ (p. 167). As the tyrant-groom is feasting with friends and awaiting the bride’s arrival, the warrior bursts in with a small force and slaughters them all. In doing this, he gains the hand of Alia in marriage.
Pickersgill wrote Tales of the Harem at a time in which another well-known frame tale, Arabian Nights, was immensely popular. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, stated that he loved the book as a child, and that his father had burned the book, probably to keep him from what he considered questionable morals.  An English version of the tales had been in publication as early as 1708, and it was usually thought of as a children’s book, but many people, including but not limited to writers such as Coleridge, were in love with its tales. 
Lady Elizabeth Belgrave, to whom Pickersgill dedicates her Tales, was one such person. She refers to Arabian Nights frequently in her diaries. On a visit to St Petersburg, she wrote, ‘It is impossible […] to describe the magnificence and striking effect of this most beautiful city […] [it] is more like a scene in the Arabian Nights than anything else.’  The fact that Pickersgill offers a dedication page to Lady Belgrave is perhaps a clue that Belgrave offered a security to the publisher should the book not sell well. Maria Pickersgill’s husband painted portraits of Lord and Lady Belgrave in 1824.  Perhaps his wife approached them with a piece of her work as they were sitting for Henry and negotiated some kind of support for its publication.
Pickersgill’s Tales has a format very similar to that of several other orientalist works of its day. Each of the stories it tells is based on a ‘true story’ related by some traveller to the east, such as John Malcolm and James Ford, which anyone of the time could have read. Whenever she refers to some odd, eastern term, she has a note in the back of the book with a quote from an orientalist scholar explaining what is meant by the term: for example, at one point, she refers to a ‘simoom’. In a footnote, she quotes the traveller Carsten Neibuhr: ‘The effects [sic] of the simoom is instant suffocation to every living creature that happens to be within the sphere of its activity.’  This style was widely popular in books of oriental poetry, such as Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh and L. G. MacDonnell’s Maid of Araby, two books which were, significantly, published by Longmans, the same publisher which published Tales of the Harem. 
Among orientalist poems, Tales possibly bears the most striking resemblance to Lalla Rookh. Both books of poetry are largely written in rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter (the same meter, incidentally, used in Landon’s The Improvisatrice). Both were published by Longman and both contain a considerable number of notes to explain foreign vocabulary. Lastly, both contain parallel descriptions of the interior of the harem itself. For example, Tales’ description of the inmates of the harem mentions in its list of nationalities ‘Maids from the West […] | […] whose golden dyes | Vied with the sun’s last setting beam (p. 10). Moore’s description of the inmates in ‘The Light of the Haram’, one of the stories told by the suitor in Lalla Rookh, similarly mentions ‘Maids from the West, with sun-bright hair’.  Both stories list and describe the array of young beauties from around the world which have been gathered by the Sultan.
All of these similarities, however, serve to make the differences between these two publications stand out all the more, further revealing Maria Pickersgill’s personal poetic persuasions. Moore portrays the Harem as an absolute heaven on earth. One of the beauties inside even sings a song to her master with the repeated refrain: ‘[…] if there be an Elysium on earth, | It is this, it is this’ (p. 222). All of the women in his story are directing all of their attention to the man present, entertaining him in the most seductive, titillating way possible. Moore’s narration of the inmates’ relation to their Sultan is not unlike Byron’s description of the seraglio in Don Juan, when Don Juan sneaks into a harem as ‘Juanna’ and ogles at the women around him. In Byron, as in Moore, women are described in terms of their relationship to the Sultan. They are said to be ‘a thousand bosoms | Beating for love, as caged birds for air’ and ‘a den of beauties […] | Where all passions have, alas! but one vent’. [43 ] Thus, in the male artistic world, the harem represents a place in which art created (and embodied) by women exists solely for male pleasure, and any expression or ‘venting’ of theirs must be the result of a desperate desire for male partnership.
Pickersgill’s Tales portrays the women of the harem and their art in a very different light, one which highlights her belief in the power possible in female artistic expression within a community created for and by women. The harem slaves in her poems do not exist merely to entertain their lord. He is far away and at war. All of his favourites are gone with him, and only those women who, presumably, are at the bottom of the harem hierarchy remain—those who are least likely to have devoted themselves completely to the Sultan’s entertainment. Their situation is described using poetry that echoes Hannah More’s 1788 ‘Slavery, A Poem’ in its portrayal of the slaveholder’s unnatural, merciless state and of their slaves’ doom.  Pickersgill says that ‘[…] ne’er beyond that proud Serai, | Had their chained hopes once dared to stray’, and that ‘never yet did Moslem zeal | The heavenly touch of Mercy feel!’ (pp. 7–8). The male captors are portrayed as lacking ‘natural’ feelings of mercy and any innate desire for all to have liberty. As she states, comparing the natural beauty of the East to the evils of slavery in a subtle commentary on gender: ‘Nought seems degenerate save Man!’ (p. 1).
Unlike Byron’s, Pickersgill’s harem women clearly have more than just ‘one vent’ for their passions. Their every desire does not bend toward their Sultan. In his absence, although at first the women try in vain ‘To charm the long and tedious hours’, eventually one of the women, an Indian captive, sings a song (p. 11). The extemporaneous act chases away the dark memories many of the women have of their capture and sorrows, but only momentarily—‘still they [seek] | To chase away the demon, Thought’ (p. 16). One woman, an ‘Arab maid’, makes a proposition: ‘Let us […] some spell invoke, | that we may this sweet scene prolong, | By legend wild or dulcet song’ (p. 17). It is at this point that the women begin to meet at night to tell stories and sing not to the Sultan, but for themselves. They view each others’ poetry and music as a kind of magic spell that helps them chase away the sadness that comes from long, lonely hours of satiety and the captivity of constant pleasures—if indeed they are ‘pleasures’ to them at all.
In each of the tales told, music of the ‘improvisatrice’ kind has a magical quality. For example, in ‘The Witch of Himlaya’, when the Rajah’s wife has been mad with grief at the loss of her child for over a year, it is a song which momentarily brings back her reason and the clear memory of the loss of her child. When she hears this song—the same one which she heard on the night her child died—Pickersgill says:
It seem’d as though at the same hour
Her own lost infant there had died,
Reason again resumed its power,
And with it woke sad memory’s dream,
Of her who perished on the stream. (p. 33)
It is also music that the ‘witch’ uses to gain her reputation in the mountains:
[…] her sweet voice seemed to possess a power
To lure them [young Kashmirians] to her lonely cell,
E’en at stern Midnight’s dreary hour;
For then ’twas deemed, by potent spell,
She would e’en Fate’s dark secrets tell. (p. 51)
When Aza hears this witch-woman’s song, it brings back shadows of memories she did not know she had: memories of her mother, ‘whom time nor absence ever | Could from her youthful bosom sever!’ (p. 59). The music’s power draws her to its source, and when she sees the woman singing the song, she immediately recognises her as a figure from her infancy and falls at her feet (p. 60).
In ‘The Cave of Gulistan’, as the knight approaches the cave, he hears ‘enchanting lays’ which lure him in and warn him of the obstacles he will face before gaining the sword (p. 109). One of the obstacles is a siren who tries to seduce him with a song which nearly succeeds in causing him to falter (pp. 121–23). Lastly, in the cave-meeting of ‘The Hetæria’ it is the freedom song of the young woman which serves as a kind of ritual precursor to the ‘deadly vow’ to destroy the ‘Moslem foe’ (p. 150).
Extemporaneous music’s magical power in Tales, however, is not merely a recurring theme in each of the individual stories, it is also a major force in the main story which frames the entire book—the overarching story of the women trapped in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem. Each time these women gather at night to tell a story, something changes in them and in the world around them. After the first story, when the sun begins to come up, the women return to their beds and sleep through the day. When they awake at night, ‘fairer seems each youthful brow | Each cheek reflects a brighter glow’ and nothing can keep them from gathering again to tell tales. One of the women looks out at the view of the sea coast their harem offers them and says:
Look there […]
On the high mountain’s shadowy side,
Amidst the gloom one well might deem
Some giant strides the mountain stream;
See his tall form and turbaned brow
Wreath with the wild crag’s drifted snow. (p. 96)
Her description of the mountain as a gigantic, turbaned Turk figure sets up a striking metaphor. She says that the mountain Turk has a ‘dread, malignant power’ which keeps anyone who is out at night from ever ‘beholding the ray | Of morn illume his homeward way’ (pp. 96–97). One woman wonders if fairies gather in the vales and ‘weave their flowery spells | Dancing beneath the moon’s pale ray, | Till chased by the first star of day’ (p. 96). Her description of the fairies’ activities is remarkably similar to those of the women in the harem—at night they gather and tell stories to ‘break the spell’ of boredom and sorrow, only to retreat to their beds when the day comes. Perhaps, like others who are out at night and under the ‘malignant power’ of the turbaned figure (which seems to represent the Sultan, or perhaps the Ottoman Empire), they are cursed to never see the ‘ray of morn illume [their] homeward way’.
If so, however, all of that changes after the third story told on the third night: ‘The Hetæria’. After the Greek girl’s story, which is the most ardent of them all in its calls for freedom and for feminine resistance against the Turks, Pickersgill says that ‘night and storm have wrapped in gloom | The mountain’s brow, the distant shore’ (p. 154). While ‘the tempests, threatening clouds, and rain’ seem to have clouded the vision of the turbaned figure, even the sun that follows ‘has not chased the dew, | Which glittering hangs on each light stem, | Like Eastern gems of every hue’ (p. 154). The description of the dew as ‘Eastern gems’ bears remarkable similarity to traditional descriptions of harem women decked out in jewellery. In this way, nature seems to be reflecting reality. The Ottoman Turk, represented by the mountain, is ‘wrapped in gloom’, while the harem women, represented by the plants glittering with dew, have emerged victorious. Through their storytelling, the ‘malignant power’ seems to have been overcome, and the women of the harem, instead of coming out at night, come out in the daytime to tell their stories. The final story, ‘The Indian Maid’, is the only one told during the day.
In this way, the story communicates the subversive power of musical poetry and storytelling and taking on the role of an ‘improvisatrice’. Through their songs, the women are able to form a community of comfort outside of the male world. Men and women in each of their stories are themselves aided and guided by the power of the songs they hear. Through song, one woman finds her mother, another regains her reason after losing her child, and another gives her country resolve to fight for freedom from tyranny. And although the women telling the tales remain locked up, their storytelling clearly has a subtle power that subverts and outlasts the Empire around them.
Tales also, in many ways, reflects the paradoxical position Maria found herself in as a female artist in a male world. At a time not long after writers for women’s rights such as Mary Wollstonecraft were comparing Englishwomen’s condition to that of harem slaves, Maria took the same metaphor a step further—comparing female, English artists to harem performers. This comparison would, on its surface, seem a very dismal one, yet Maria’s portrait of these women’s power as performers for other women communicates a profound hope. In the image she paints of slavewomen enabled through shared art, one can see a mirror of her own situation as an artist. In a world where Englishwomen’s art was judged for the most part by men, as much as she could, Maria sought female patronage, developing one relationship with Landon to enable her first publication and another with Lady Belgrave to disseminate her longest. Even with this patronage, Maria was still part of a male-dominated artistic community, yet she was able to use her prowess and connections to navigate this community and achieve publication and recognition. Her oriental metaphors enabled her to critique this community without offending. Male reviewers, too focused on Tales’ lack of ‘high moods of verse’, seem utterly ignorant of her allegory, and so much the better for her. She is not performing for them.
On the title page of Tales, Maria Pickersgill quotes a passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘So we’ll live | And pray and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies.’ The quote comes from act five, scene three, when Cordelia and Lear have both been captured by Edmund and are being sent to prison. Cordelia asks Lear whether he thinks they should ask their sisters for mercy, but Lear responds (and this is the entirety of the quote):
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon. 
Lear, here, seems to understand the simple, subversive power of storytelling. He would rather ‘tell old tales’ in a prison than turn to the powers that be—his daughters Regan and Goneril—for help. He sees that in prison he and Cordelia can ‘wear out […] packs and sects of great ones’. In the same way, the women in Pickersgill’s Tales of the Harem are telling ‘old tales’ which, over time, symbolically allow them to outlast their own ‘packs and sects of great ones’.
Pickersgill’s harem women also legitimise Landon’s ‘improvisatrice’ role. Each of their extemporaneous performances mimics the role of the narrator of Landon’s The Improvisatrice. They take up the lute and they play, and they sing, and ‘tell old tales’, and their seemingly innocent, improvised performances have a magic which subverts and outlasts the male establishment around them. Although they are literally slaves, and, in the context of then-current European beliefs regarding harem women, illiterate, they are able to overcome oppressive power structures through the simple means of storytelling through song and performance or, in the case of Pickersgill’s ‘The Oriental Love Letter’, through messages hidden in bouquets of flowers.
Maria’s life as a poet was short-lived. Her last published poem would appear in the British annual Remembrance in 1838. By that time, a few of her children had become artists in their own right. Her second-born, Mary Anne Arundale, began exhibiting miniature paintings at the Royal Academy in 1834 and continued doing so until 1862.  Mary Anne also published a few poems in British annuals.  Maria Pickersgill’s oldest son, Henry Hall Pickersgill, also exhibited at the Academy from 1834–1861.  Maria herself died in London in 1857. 
Pickersgill never attained the fame of Letitia Landon. For one thing, she did not have Landon’s genius with regard to classical metaphor and allegory. For another (and this may be a more relevant reason), as a married woman with a well-known husband, she did not have the allure of being an unknown, mysterious, unmarried woman—all features that Landon did have.  Landon, however, had her own struggles with the male-dominated artistic world. As an unmarried woman, she relied completely on her writing for her support and was unable to fall back on her husband’s gains, as Maria was.  Ironically, it was in many ways Landon’s necessity what led to her comparative success.
Maria also occupies a unique place in comparison with other women of the period married to artists. Unlike Amelia Opie and Anna Maria Hall, who were both wives of prominent artists, she was unable to write voluminously, as, unlike them, her marriage produced several children who lived to maturity.  The responsibility of caring for them simply would not have allowed, in this period, the kind of output seen in both of these other authoresses. Felicia Hemans, who approached Landon in terms of popularity as a poetess in this period, like Maria Pickersgill, had several children, but, unlike Maria, could not rely on her husband, who left her in 1818 only six years after their marriage, for support.  As literary success, recognition, and popularity is dependent on a combination of a writer’s opportunity to write (on having ‘a room of one’s own’, as Virginia Woolf puts it), and her personal need for income, Maria’s ability to rely on her husband’s support and her inability to focus on her work because of her children are both possible explanations for her small output.
Whatever the reasons are behind Maria’s burial in the literary heap, her place as a woman poet responding to and engaging with Landon’s (and others’) work renders her deserving of a second look. Hers is a story full of paradox. She was woman who sought success as a writer through the patronage of other women, and who subtly criticised the male-dominated art world even as she benefited from her husband’s connections within it. Hiding her criticism of society in an ‘oriental’ shroud allowed her to paint a picture of what she saw as the confined nature of the female artistic world. Yet even with this metaphor of harem slavery, Maria’s work is full of hope, a belief in the ability of women to overcome confinement through art made by and for women.
1. Cited in Stephen C. Behrendt, British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), p. 29.
2. James Hamilton, Fields of Influence: Conjunctions of Artists and Scientists, 1815–60 (Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2001), p. 158.
3. Christopher Kent Rovee, Imagining the Gallery: The Social Body of British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 10.
4. Behrendt, British Women Poets,p. 8.
5. For more on each of these women and their commentary on women’s poetic roles, see Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love—The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle (London: Routledge, 1990).
6. William Vaughan, ‘Pickersgill, Henry William (1782–1875)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Online edn ed. by Lawrence Goldman (2009). Online: Internet (accessed 21 November 2009) <http://www.oxforddnb.com.library.unl.edu/view/article/22216>.
7. William T. Whitley, Art of England, 1821–1837 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), p. 169.
8. Algernon Graves,The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 8 vols (London: Henry Graves, 1905–06), VI, 143–46.
9. Rovee, Imagining the Gallery, p. 152.
10. Gervas Huxley, Lady Elizabeth and the Grosvenors: Life in a Whig Family, 1822–1839 (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 61.
11. Whitley, Art of England, p. 157.
12. Vaughan, ‘Pickersgill, Henry William’.
13. Constable’s friendship was more than a professional one, as evidenced in part by personal and touching letters exchanged on Constable’s wife’s death. See John Constable, et al., Autograph Letters, Historical Documents and Authors’ Original Manuscripts (London: Maggs, 1927), p. 57.
14. Alvin Sullivan (ed.), British Literary Magazines. Vol. 2: The Romantic Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 331.
15. ‘Critical Notices’, New Monthly Magazine, 21 (July 1827), 279.
16. Sullivan (ed.), British Literary Magazines. Vol. 2, p.40; ‘Monthly View of New Publications, Music, the English and Foreign Drama, The Fine Arts, Literary and Scientific Intelligence, &c’, La Belle Assemblée, 5 (June 1827), 270.
17. Alvin Sullivan (ed.), British Literary Magazines. Vol. 1: The Augustan Age (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), pp. 138–39.
18. ‘The Literary Coterie’, Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics, 10.55 (July 1827), 46.
19. ‘Review of New Publications’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 98 (1828), 429.
20. ‘Critical Notices’, p. 279.
21. Behrendt, British Women Poets,pp. 18–19.
22. Vaughan, ‘Pickersgill, Henry William’.
23. I know of no portrait of Maria, though it seems unlikely, with all of Henry’s paintings anonymously entitled Portrait of a Lady and his tendency to use his daughters as models later in their marriage, that one does not exist.
24. F. Sypher, Letitia Elizabeth Landon (Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 2004), p. 295.
25. Ibid., p. 296.
26. Maria Pickersgill, ‘The Oriental Nosegay’, in The Troubadour and Other Poems (London: Hurst, Robinson, and Co., 1825), p. 273.
27. Maria Pickersgill, ‘The Oriental Love Letter’, Bijou (1828), 342.
28. Joan DelPlato, Multiple Wives, Multiple Pleasures: Representing the Harem, 1800–1875 (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), p. 139.
29. Glennis Stephenson, ‘Letitia Landon and the Victorian Improvisatrice: The Construction of L.E.L’, Victorian Poetry, 30.1 (1992), 1–2.
30. Anne Mellor argues that the Romantic poetess’ role was much more diverse than the performance-oriented role I focus on here. She does, however, agree that Landon, at least, fits this role of improvisatrice. See Anne K. Mellor, ‘The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780–1830’, Studies in Romanticism, 36.2 (1997), 261–62. As Landon appears to be Pickersgill’s chief influence, I will largely focus on the ‘improvisatrice’ definition of poetess.
31. Stephenson, ‘Landon and the Victorian Improvisatrice’, p. 4.
32. Ibid., p. 3.
33. Letitia Elizabeth Landon, The Improvisatrice and Other Poems (London: Hurst, Robinson, and Co., 1824), p. 1.
34. Graves, Royal Academy of Arts, VI, 142. For an example of this title in popular use, see ‘Henry William Pickersgill on artnet’ (Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 2009). Online: Internet (accessed 16 December 2009) <http://www.artnet.com/artist/13495/henry-william-pickersgill.html>.
35. Maria Pickersgill, Tales of the Harem (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Browne, 1827), p. 141.
36. Marilyn Gaull, English Romanticism: The Human Context (New York: Norton, 1988), p. 51.
37. Ibid., p. 51.
38. Cited in Huxley, Lady Elizabeth and the Grosvenors, p. 139.
39. Graves, Royal Academy of Arts, VI, 142.
40. Pickersgill, Tales of the Harem,p. 188.
41. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 133.
42. Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1895), p. 218.
43. George Gordon Byron, Don Juan, in The Works of Lord Byron Complete in One Volume, 3rd edn (London: John Murray, 1837), VI, 26, 32.
44. Hannah More’s portrait by Mr Pickersgill was made public in 1822 (see Graves, Royal Academy of Arts, VI, 142). As a gift of gratitude for Pickersgill’s work, More sent him and his family copies of her Christian Morals and Sacred Dramas. See Nicholas Smith, The Literary Manuscripts and Letters of Hannah More (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), p. 96.
45. King Lear, V. 3. 9–20.
46. See Graves, Royal Academy of Arts, VI, 148 and i, 70.
47. She published two poems: ‘The Bride of the Danube’, in Forget-Me-Not in1826, and ‘The Shepherd Boy,’ found in the 1828 edition of Amulet—see Harry E. Hootman, British Annuals and Giftbooks (CongareeBooks). Online: Internet (accessed 4 February 2010) <http://www.britannuals.com>.
48. Graves, Royal Academy of Arts, VI, 140–41.
49. Vaughan, ‘Pickersgill, Henry William’.
50. Stephenson, ‘Landon and the Victorian Improvisatrice’, pp. 2–3.
51. Clarke, Ambitious Heights, p. 96.
52. Gary Kelly, ‘Opie, Amelia (1769–1853)’, Dictionary of National Biography. Online: Internet (accessed 19 Nov 2010) <http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.library.unl.edu/view/article/20799>; Peter Mandler, ‘Hall, Anna Maria (1800–1881)’, Dictionary of National Biography. Online: Internet (accessed 21 Nov 2010) <http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.library.unl.edu/view/article/11940>.
53. Clarke, Ambitious Heights, p. 45.