Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webster, Augusta

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747313Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 60 — Webster, Augusta1899Elizabeth Lee

WEBSTER, Mrs. AUGUSTA (1837–1894), poet, was born at Poole, Dorset, on 30 Jan. 1837 (her full christian names were Julia Augusta). Her father, Vice-admiral George Davies (1800–1876), attained great distinction for services in saving lives from shipwreck (O'Byrne, Naval Biography, pp. 266–7). Her mother, Julia (1803–1897), was the fourth daughter of Joseph Hume (1767–1843) of Somerset House, the intimate friend and associate of Lamb, Hazlitt, and Godwin. Hume was of mixed English, Scottish, and French extraction, and claimed descent from the Humes of Polwarth. He was the author of a translation in blank verse of Dante's ‘Inferno’ (1812) and of ‘A Search into the Old Testament’ (1841).

Augusta's earliest years were spent on board the Griper in Chichester Harbour and at various seaside places where her father, as lieutenant in the coastguard, held command. In 1842 he attained the rank of commander, and was appointed the next year to the Banff district. The family resided for six years in Banff Castle, and Augusta attended a school at Banff. After a short period spent at Penzance, Davies was appointed in 1851 chief constable of Cambridgeshire, and settled with his family in Cambridge. In 1857 he was nominated also to the chief constableship of Huntingdonshire. At Cambridge Augusta read widely, and attended classes at the Cambridge school of art. During a brief residence at Paris and Geneva she acquired a full knowledge of French. She studied Greek in order to help a young brother, and subsequently learned Italian and Spanish.

In 1860 she published, under the name of Cecil Home, a volume entitled ‘Blanche Lisle, and other Poems.’ Under the same pseudonym appeared in 1864 ‘Lilian Gray,’ a poem, and ‘Lesley's Guardians,’ a novel in three volumes.

In December 1863 Augusta Davies married Mr. Thomas Webster, then fellow, and afterwards law lecturer, of Trinity College, Cambridge. There was one child of the marriage, a daughter. In 1870 they left Cambridge for London, where Mr. Webster practised his profession. Meanwhile Mrs. Webster published in 1866 a literal translation into English verse of ‘The Prometheus Bound’ of Æschylus. This, and all her subsequent publications, appeared under her own name. She was not a Greek scholar, but her translations—in 1868 appeared the ‘Medea’ of Euripides—obtained praise from scholars, and proved her a sympathetic student of Greek literature. Her views on translation may be found in two excellent essays contributed to the ‘Examiner,’ entitled ‘The Translation of Poetry’ and ‘A Transcript and a Transcription’ (cf. A Housewife's Opinions, pp. 61–79). The latter is a review of Browning's ‘Agamemnon.’ Mrs. Webster's first important volume of original verse, ‘Dramatic Studies,’ was published in 1866. It contains ‘The Snow-waste,’ one of her best poems. In 1870 appeared ‘Portraits,’ Mrs. Webster's most striking work in verse apart from her dramas. It reached a second edition in the year of publication, and a third in 1893. A remarkable poem, ‘The Castaway,’ won the admiration of Browning, and deserves a place by the side of Rossetti's ‘Jenny.’ Her first effort in the poetic drama was ‘The Auspicious Day,’ published in 1872. It is a romance of mediæval English life of small interest. ‘Disguises,’ written in 1879, is a play of great charm, containing beautiful lyrics.

Mrs. Webster took as keen an interest in the practical affairs of life as in literature. In 1878 appeared ‘A Housewife's Opinions,’ a volume of essays on various social subjects, reprinted from the ‘Examiner.’ She served twice on the London school board. In November 1879 she was returned for the Chelsea division at the head of the poll, with 3,912 votes above the second successful candidate; she owed her success to her gift of speech. She threw herself heart and soul into the work. Mrs. Webster was a working rather than a talking member of the board. She was anxious to popularise education by bringing old endowments into closer contact with elementary schools, and she anticipated the demand that, as education is a national necessity, it should also be a national charge. She advocated the introduction of technical (i.e. manual) instruction into elementary schools. Her leanings were frankly democratic, but in the heat of controversy her personality rendered her attractive even to her most vigorous opponents. In consequence of ill-health, which obliged her to seek rest in the south of Europe, she did not offer herself for re-election in 1882.

During earlier visits to Italy Mrs. Webster had been attracted by the Italian peasant songs known as ‘rispetti,’ and in 1881 published ‘A Book of Rhyme,’ containing rural poems called ‘English rispetti.’ She was the first to introduce the form into English poetry. In 1882 she published another drama, ‘In a Day,’ the only one of her plays that was acted. It was produced at a matinée at Terry's Theatre, London, in 1890, when her daughter, Miss Davies Webster, played the heroine, Klydone. It had a succès d'estime. In 1885 she was again returned member of the school board for Chelsea. She conducted her candidature without a committee or any organised canvassing.

‘The Sentence,’ a three-act tragedy, in many ways Mrs. Webster's chief work, appeared in 1887. The episode of which the play treats illustrates Caligula's revengeful spirit (cf. Rossetti's introductory note to Mrs. Webster's Mother and Daughter, pp. 12–14). It was much admired by Christina Rossetti (cf. Mackenzie Bell's Christina Rossetti, p. 161). A volume of selections from Mrs. Webster's poems (containing some originally contributed to magazines), published in 1893, was well received. She died at Kew on 5 Sept. 1894. In 1895 appeared ‘Mother and Daughter,’ an uncompleted sonnet-sequence, with an introductory note by Mr. William Michael Rossetti.

A half-length portrait in crayons by Canevari, drawn at Rome in January 1864, is in the possession of Mr. Webster.

Mrs. Webster's verse entitles her to a high place among English poets. She used with success the form of the dramatic monologue. She often sacrificed beauty to strength, but she possessed much metrical skill and an ear for melody. Some of her lyrics deserve a place in every anthology of modern English poetry. Many of her poems treat entirely or incidentally of questions specially affecting women. She was a warm advocate of woman's suffrage—her essays in the ‘Examiner’ on the subject were reprinted as leaflets by the Women's Suffrage Society (cf. Mackenzie Bell's Life of Christina Rossetti, p. 111)—and she sympathised with all movements in favour of a better education for women.

Works by Augusta Webster, not mentioned in the text, are:

  1. ‘A Woman Sold, and other Poems,’ 1867.
  2. ‘Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute: a Chinese Tale in English Verse,’ 1874.
  3. ‘Daffodil and the Croäxaxicans: a Romance of History,’ 1884.

A selection from her poems is given in Miles's ‘Poets and Poetry of the Century’ (Joanna Baillie to Mathilde Blind, p. 499).

[Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit. vol. iii. and Suppl. vol. ii.; Athenæum, 15 Sept. 1894; private information.]

E. L.