Jean Ingelow Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jean Ingelow 1820-1897

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Orris) English poet, novelist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Ingelow from 1897 through 1998. For additional information on Ingelow's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 39.

Highly esteemed as a poet in both England and the United States during the late nineteenth century, Jean Ingelow celebrated nature, romantic love, and childhood in her poetry and was most often compared to contemporary Christina Rossetti. Though Ingelow's verse is not widely known to modern readers, its popular appeal during the Victorian era was second only to that of poet laureate Lord Tennyson. Ingelow's poetry was held in such high regard by some nineteenth-century American scholars that in 1892 they appealed to Queen Victoria to name Ingelow as Tennyson's successor to that post. Most modern critics, however, consider her to be a minor poet while acknowledging her achievement as a skilled and popular writer. Today she is most often remembered as the author of the children's fantasy novel Mopsa the Fairy (1869).

Biographical Information

Ingelow was born in 1820 in the coastal town of Boston in Lincolnshire to Jean Kilgour and William Ingelow, a banker. The eldest of nine children (some sources say eleven), Ingelow was schooled by her mother with the occasional help of tutors. At home Ingelow learned several languages in addition to studying literature, history, and geography. A shy child with a fanciful imagination, Ingelow experienced an early inner conflict triggered by her strong desire to express herself creatively and the demands of conformity upon which her parents insisted. This internal quarrel would inform some of her later works. Ingelow began writing while still a child, composing songs and verses reflecting her appreciation of nature. When she was fourteen, she relocated with her family to Ipswich and eventually moved with them to London in 1850. That year her first poetry collection, A Rhyming Chronicle of Incidents and Feelings, was published anonymously. Although the volume was dismissed by many readers as overly sentimental, it drew praise from Tennyson, who, in a letter to a mutual friend, indicated that the work showed promise.

Extremely reserved, Ingelow was encouraged to continue writing by her family, who provided both financial and moral support for her career. Over the next decade she published Allerton and Dreux; or, the War of Opinion (1851), a novel about religious controversy and tolerance, as well as several children's stories under the name of Orris in The Youth's Magazine. In 1863 she published Poems, hailed as the work of a talented new poet and eliciting recognition from such literary giants as Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Ruskin. The collection's popularity prompted more than twenty-five editions over the next several years, and Ingelow soon became one of the most famous poets in England and the United States. Ingelow, however, shunned publicity, preferring instead to remain quietly at home as her Victorian upbringing dictated. Moving with her mother and two of her brothers to Kensington, she rented a flat near the family's home to use as a studio and began to earn a living as a writer. She published the children's novel Mopsa the Fairy in 1869, adult novels including Off the Skelligs (1872) and Sarah de Berenger (1879), and a second and third series of poetry collections. By this time she had made the acquaintance of virtually every American and English writer of note, including English art critic and writer John Ruskin, who, scholars speculate, was attracted to Ingelow's poetic and narrative renditions of innocence. Ruskin, who began quoting Ingelow in his works as early as 1866, met frequently with Ingelow and remained her close friend throughout the rest of her life. After the death of Ingelow's most beloved brother in 1886 she stopped writing, and although she continued to publish some of her remaining manuscripts, her works gradually declined in popularity. Ingelow died in Kensington in 1897.

Major Works

Ingelow's works reflect her overall acceptance of the prevailing moral and social order. She was branded a conformist by those who rejected the confinement of Victorian society. Nevertheless, Ingelow's verse has been praised for its clear and simple language and musical rhythms. Her poems most often celebrate the English landscape, particularly the pasturelands, the changing seasons, the wind, the birds, and the seashore. “The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire,” which critics almost unanimously describe as her finest poem, evokes the seascape of her childhood in Lincolnshire. Published in the 1863 volume Poems, “High Tide” describes in ballad form the events surrounding an enormous tidal wave that swept over the peaceful pasturelands of her native village in 1571. The poem rejoices in the beauty of nature while expressing awe at its destructive potential. This narration of a story in verse typifies many of Ingelow's works. Her allegorical poem Gladys and Her Island (1867), for example, turns on the desire of the title character, a young governess, to discover her inner self. As Gladys allows her poetic imagination to roam free, she is able to embark on a fantastic journey to such exotic locales as the Garden of Eden and the ruins of ancient Egypt. Among Ingelow's most ambitious efforts (although dismissed by critics) is the epic A Story of Doom (1867), which centers on the fictional conflict between the biblical Noah and his wife, Niloiya, who strongly opposes his involvement in his religious mission.

In general, Ingelow's novels center on family life and the emotional and imaginative lives of children. Her celebrated fantasy Mopsa the Fairy involves Jack, an ordinary boy, and the title character whom Jack first encounters in a nest of fairies. Jack, a mortal, kisses Mopsa, and as a result she does not grow into maturity but remains a child along with Jack until eventually she becomes the powerful ruler of a fairy land. Sarah de Berenger depicts a young mother's struggle to provide her children with a stable and loving home despite the fact that their father is a criminal. Off the Skelligs traces the moral development of two intellectually precocious children who are cared for by tutors and a nurse while their mother pursues a literary career.

Critical Reception

Ingelow's fame as a writer was long in coming: she was forty-three years old before she earned the respect of such esteemed critics as F. T. Palgrave. Initially her poetry was praised as charming and simple, expressing love and delight in natural landscapes and revealing beauty in an obscure and unintelligible world. Her works began to fall out of favor around the turn of the century, however. Critics have theorized that the emerging emphasis on the self toward the close of the nineteenth century caused many readers to rebel against what was viewed as submission on the part of Ingelow to the established religious and social order. Her reputation was damaged, too, as a result of Eric S. Robertson's 1883 critical biography of her included in his English Poetesses. Emphasizing Ingelow's intense interest in “homely subjects,” Robertson claimed she was inferior to her male counterparts, who in their writings ventured far beyond simple family matters. Critical discussion of Ingelow ceased until 1940 when Gladys Singers-Bigger published an essay regarding Ingelow's poetic imagery. By the mid-1950s, American scholar Edith Hamilton had considered Ingelow's role as a forerunner to the modern school of poetry, focusing in particular on how Ingelow's poetic method and technique foreshadowed that of Dylan Thomas.

A thirty-year critical silence ensued until 1987 when Brian Attebery briefly looked at the initiation rites of Ingelow's Mopsa the Fairy and compared them to similar circumstances in the works of major modern fantasy writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip, and Suzette Haden Elgin. In 1992 scholars Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher pointed out the unconventionality of Mopsa the Fairy's ending: the male character returns to ordinary domestic life while the female character becomes the powerful leader of an entire nation. However, unlike Jack, whose memories of his escapades fade quickly, Mopsa is haunted and saddened by memories of her lost childhood. As Auerbach and Knoepflmacher have contended, Ingelow was demonstrating the danger of the female imagination, since it has the power to cause women to most acutely feel the intense separation and loss of freedom upon becoming adults. Jennifer A. Wagner further explored Ingelow's emphasis on Victorian social and economic conditions in her 1993 study of Gladys and Her Island. Finding that Gladys's imagination offers her a psychological release from her figurative imprisonment, Wagner concluded that Gladys's inner vision also provides her with a source of power against the confines of reality. In 1998 Knoepflmacher returned to the question of cultural confinement in Ingelow's writings, claiming that Ingelow revealed not only her resentment over her inferior and restricted position but also her acceptance and even encouragement of the status quo.