American Egyptomania Search


World-Noted Women; Or, Types of Womanly Attributes of All Lands and Ages

New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1858

The 1850s saw an explosion of American interest in the figure of Cleopatra. Poems, paintings, sculptures, and novels all were written with the Egyptian queen at their center, but the main form accounts of Cleopatra took during this decade was biography. Short or book-length, praising or damning, sanitized or scandalous, biographical studies of Cleopatra were hugely popular and sold regularly, and the availability of such studies meant that even amateurs could endeavor to write studies of their own.

Mary Cowden Clarke was no amateur, however. British, a friend of John Keats and Charles Dickens, Clarke was already known for producing several popular concordances to the works of William Shakespeare, including a fanciful attempt at creating fictional biographical backgrounds for the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays called The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Clarke took a proven approach to narrativizing the life of Cleopatra, one which had several years earlier been popularized by her countrywoman Anna Brownell Jameson: she included a relatively long biographical account in a book-length collection of several such biographies, all featuring, as its title indicated, World-Noted Women. Biographical collections such as these were originally based on models from much earlier, especially Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus of 1362, but these women-authored, women-centered collections of the 1800s were read primarily by women, and were intentionally offered as female versions of male-centered studies of “great men.” Sappho, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale – all these famous women were studied and included in Clarke’s collection as worthy of study alongside Cleopatra, and as such Clarke, like Jameson, is an important figure in nineteenth-century feminist historiography.

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