A Celebration of Women Writers

Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1793 - 1835)

Biographical Information:

Felicia's father was George Browne, a Liverpool merchant. Her mother, Felicity Wagner, was the daughter of the Austrian and Tuscan consul to Liverpool. Felicia Browne was born on September 25, 1793, in Liverpool. She was the fifth of seven children. When her father's business failed about 1800, the family moved first to Gwrych, an isolated Welsh seaside house; then, in 1809, to St. Asaph, Wales.

Felicia was a clever child who began to read at an early age and did so voraciously from the well-stocked family library. She read novels and poetry, learned several languages, and studied music, primarily under the direction of her mother. According to her sister, Felicia "could repeat pages of poetry from her favourite authors, after having read them but once over." When she was eleven or twelve she spent two successive winters in London, where she was awed by the paintings and sculptures. Her first book of Poems was published in 1808. It was remarkable work to come from a fourteen-year-old, but it received some harsh reviews. A postumous commentator stated: "... our little heroine was exposed to the lash of a public critic - a useful animal enough, but one whom the superstitious infallibility of print exalts to a divinity."

Two of Felicia's brothers had entered the army, and one was serving under Sir John Moore in Spain. Her poem England and Spain; or Valour and Patriotism (1808) was written in an impassioned adolescent imitation of Campbell, probably inspired by her brother's service. Also serving in Spain was Captain Alfred Hemans, whom she had briefly encountered when he visited in the neighborhood. Her adolescent infatuation did not fade with his absence. On Captain Hemans' return in 1811, the relationship continued to develop.

The Domestic Affections and other Poems was published in 1812, just before her marriage to Captain Hemans. After a brief time in Daventry, Northamptonshire, where Captain Hemans was adjutant to the local militia, the Hemans returned to St. Asaph. There, all but the first of their five sons were born. Hemans continued to write prolifically. Her style from this era is coloured by her reading of Byron. He was not displeased by her adoption of his style, and wrote to his publisher that The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816) was "a good poem - very" and that he planned to take it with him in his travels.

In 1818 Captain Hemans went to Rome. He left behind his wife and five small sons, all under 6 years of age. There seems to have been a private agreement to separate, because they never saw each other after that. No reasons for the separation were ever stated. Captain Hemans spent the rest of his life abroad, and Felicia Hemans never visited him. Letters were exchanged, particularly to consult about the children, but Felicia was left to support herself as best she could. She and the children continued to live with her mother in Wales. Her love of Wales was reflected most strongly in a collection of Welsh Melodies which included a tribute to "The Rock of Cader Idris", seat of poets.

Hemans was deeply distressed by her mother's death in January 1827. (See "Hymn by the Sick-bed of a Mother"). From then until her own death she was an invalid. Her two eldest sons were sent to Rome to be with their father, and she moved to Liverpool. It was not a successful move: she thought the people of Liverpool were stupid and provincial; they thought she was uncommunicative and eccentric. She visited Scotland in 1828, staying with Scott for a while. (See "The Funeral Day of Sir Walter Scott"). She returned to Liverpool, but the following summer was in the Lake Country with Wordsworth (See "A Farewell to Abbotsford" and "To Wordsworth").

Hemans moved to Dublin in 1831, where she could be near one of her brothers. She died there on the 16th of May, 1835, at the age of 41. Her death was attributed to a weak heart, which may have been the common affliction of rheumatic fever.

During her life, Hemans made several attempts at writing drama, none of which were successful. The only play to be performed, The Vespers of Palermo (1823), failed dismally in its Covent Garden debut, despite having the Kembles' managing and acting. A few months later it was produced in Edinburgh and well-received. Sir Walter Scott wrote a prologue for the Edinburgh performance. Her second effort, De Chatillon, or The Crusaders, was also unsuccessful.

In contrast, her poetry was popular and sold well: on the basis of her work, Hemans was able to support herself and her children. Frederic Rowton gives a contemporary's assessment of her work in The Female Poets of Great Britain (1853). A Prefatory Notice by W. M. Rossetti, from one of many collections of Hemans' work, is interesting for the view it gives of Mrs. Hemans' life, and the attitudes towards women and writing that it indicates.

George Eliot commended "The Forest Sanctuary" as 'exquisite'. Scott, however, criticised her poetry for being 'too poetical' and for having 'too many flowers' and 'too little fruit'. While Hemans confidently used a variety of metrical effects and narrative structures, much of her popular appeal lay in her ability to write emotional verses expressing the sentiments of her time. Her memorials to George III and to Princess Charlotte treat George III's madness, and emotional responses to the royal family, with considerable sensitivity.

In many poems, Hemans responded to the concerns of women of her time by idealizing and romanticizing woman's role and relationships. Her portrayal of cultural ideals offered comfort and support to those who found them meaningful. She wrote "To the New-Born" for the child of her eldest brother. Her poem "The Better Land" was copied by Florence Nightingale for a cousin. It touched on concerns which were particularly significant in a culture with high child and maternal mortality rates, where survivors sought comfort in religious belief.

Hemans' strong support of familial ideals was one reason why contemporaries accepted her in the roles of loving daughter and parent, and treated her separation from her husband sympathetically, as an unfortunate circumstance which reflected poorly on the Captain rather than on her. While a number of Heman's poems indicate the attractions and rewards of creative work, and the desirability of intellectual powers, the same poems are often framed to suggest that love, strong familial relationships, and faith are ultimately more important and lasting than fame (See "Properzia Rossi" and "Joan of Arc in Rheims"). This does not imply, however, that creativity and faith are necessarily opposed. Both her juvenile poem "Lines Written in the Memoirs of Elizabeth Smith" and "Thoughts During Sickness: Intellectual Powers", written late in her life, describe genius and imagination as divine gifts, which will be regained and fulfilled in heavenly life.

Hemans spent her life with her family in Wales, rarely travelling. She read extensively, and sought inspiration and detail for her descriptions of Greece, Spain, and the new world, in the writings of other authors. Her work suffered from her restricted experience, as she relied too much on the impressions of others and often used stereotypic images. Still, she captured much of the ethos of her day in her poetry. Today her best-known poems are probably "The Homes of England" and "Casabianca" (better known as "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck").

See also:

Selected Works:

Collections of Felicia Heman's work appeared frequently until the 1920's. Unless otherwise indicated, the following poems were proof-read against The Poetical Works of Felicia Dorothea Hemans London: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Bibliography (Selected):

Editorial Credits