Mary Elizabeth Coleridge Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge 1861-1907

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Anodos) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and critic.

An esteemed novelist in turn-of-fhe-century England best known for her historical romance The King with Two Faces (1897), Coleridge is largely remembered for her relatively small but significant contribution to English verse. In short, lyrical poems she wrote of personal loss, human identity, and the facts of urban existence with a characteristically reserved and dignified voice. Additionally, the pithy, inventive style of Coleridge's many essays and other prose writings—particularly her journals, diaries, and criticism—is valued alongside her poetry and remains a source of critical interest in this versatile writer.

Biographical Information

Coleridge was born in London, the daughter of Mary Anne Jameson Coleridge and Arthur Duke Coleridge, a lawyer, amateur musician, and grandnephew of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Relatively shy and reserved, she was educated at home under the instruction of a private tutor, read eagerly, and learned a variety of languages, including French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. She traveled widely throughout Europe but lived with her parents for her entire life, never marrying. At the age of thirteen Coleridge—typically surrounded by the literary and artistic acquaintances of her parents: John Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Anthoy Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others—had taken an interest in painting and begun to write poetry. By age twenty her essays started to appear in periodicals such as the Monthly Review and later the Times Literary Supplement. Coleridge published her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, in 1893. Two years later she opted to spend a portion of her time teaching at the Working Women's College in London, a position she held until the end of her life. In the meantime Coleridge continued to write poetry, fiction, and essays. She published her first collection of verse, Fancy's Following, under the pseudonym Anodos in 1896 and a companion piece, Fancy's Guerdon, the following year. In 1897 her second novel, The King with Two Faces, appeared and firmly established Coleridge's popular reputation in England. She also wrote several more novels, poems, and an assortment of prose, as well as a biography of the painter Holman Hunt, written at the artist's request. This last work was published posthumously in 1908, the year after Coleridge's death due to a severe attack of appendicitis.

Major Works

The majority of verse Coleridge published during her lifetime is contained in the slight volume Fancy's Following. This collection includes her notable piece on the subject of estrangement from one's self, entitled "The Other Side of the Mirror," along with forty-seven more poems that meditate on themes of love, personal loss, and human identity. Fancy's Guerdon, her second collection, contains only seven additional pieces of verse, while The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, published posthumously in 1954, extends this number to almost two hundred. In her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Coleridge offers a dream-like depiction of the adventures of several young men. She followed this work with a trio of historical romances, The King with Two Faces, The Fiery Dawn (1901), and The Shadow on the Wall (1904). In the first, her most popular, Coleridge evokes a fictional world based upon the life of Sweden's King Gustav III. Her introspective novel The Lady on the Drawing Room Floor (1906) is recounted by a middle-aged male narrator as he explores the intricacies of deeply hidden emotions that resurface from his past. In this story of romantic constancy, the narrator recalls a woman he once loved but never pursued, and a letter she wrote to him, now lost, that he never opened. Examples of Coleridge's essays, criticism, journal entries, short fiction, and other writings are contained in her Non Sequitur (1900) and Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (1910). The former includes several articles on literary subjects and travel, while the latter demonstrates her characteristically imaginative, humorous style in essays on various topics—literature, art, and spirituality among them—and in a handful of short stories.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Coleridge was widely hailed as a novelist and essayist. Since her death, however, critics have tended to emphasize the importance of her poetry, which is thought to bear affinities to that of the PreRaphaelites and to stylistically prefigure the writings of the Imagists in its lyrical austerity. Coleridge's fiction, on the other hand, has most recently been deemed of secondary importance to her verse, and many commentators have agreed that her novels and short stories are marred by weaknesses of plot and execution. Her essays, furthermore, have been valued more for their historical significance than their literary merit, though many are still studied and appreciated, particularly as documents suitable for feminist inquiry.