Literature

Nicholas Mason - Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Review by Kelli Donovan-Condron

Nicholas Mason, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 216 pp., 26 b&w illus. (Hdbk., $49.95; ISBN 9781421409986).

Kelli Donovan-Condron
Babson College

The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Part Five

June, 2016
Based on extensive new archival research, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Five: 1816-1818 publishes for the first time Southey’s surviving letters from a period of considerable upheaval in his own life and in wider society. These were years that saw Southey get to grips with the ambiguities inherent in his role as an ambitious, reforming Poet Laureate, face public controversy and the ghost of his younger, radical self with the illicit publication of Wat Tyler in 1817, and combat private despair over the death of his son. The 537 letters published here are proof that, despite the numerous demands on his time, Southey remained in mid life a vigorous and indefatigable correspondent. They cover a massive variety of subjects – literary and non-literary, public and private, local and global. They shed new light on Southey’s views on literature, politics, religion and society; his work as Poet Laureate and his engagement in public life and public controversy; his relationships with his contemporaries, including Coleridge, Caroline Bowles, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Samuel Rogers, William Wilberforce and Wordsworth; his domestic life in Keswick; his extended family and social networks; his extensive reading; his working practices; his prolific output of poetry and prose; and his interactions with publishers and negotiation of the literary marketplace. The letters show Southey’s career in progress, reveal that it was more complex than has previously been thought, and provide compelling evidence about how his works were shaped and reshaped by external pressures that he could not always control or defeat. They thus make it possible to refine our understanding both of Southey and of the ways in which Romantic writers came to terms with the complex and contentious culture of the mid-late 1810s.

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Gavin Budge - Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789-1852. Review by Neşe Devenot

Gavin Budge, Romanticism, Medicine and the Natural Supernatural: Transcendent Vision and Bodily Spectres, 1789-1852 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 304 pp. (Hdbk., $105.00; ISBN 9780230238466).

Neşe Devenot
University of Puget Sound

Kirstin Collins Hanley - Mary Wollstonecraft, Pedagogy, and the Practice of Feminism. Review by Katherine Gustafson

Kirstin Collins Hanley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Pedagogy, and the Practice of Feminism. (Routledge, New York: 2013). 188 pp. (Hdbk., $145; ISBN 9780415893350).  

Katherine Gustafson
Indiana University Northwest

The Cenci: Gothic Shelley

According to the period’s dominant imaginary conspiracy was ‘totalizing’; it explained everything. Against this was the urgent task of imaging a form of agency that could effectively countermand the spirit of tyranny. Why was the Gothic necessary for Shelley? Part of our answer lies in the fact that Gothic precedents addressed both these crucial points. At the heart of the post-Walpolian Gothic’s ‘symbolic constitution’ lies the ‘dead hand of the past’, a metaphor for the way the past not only reaches into the present, but holds it in its palsied grip. The Gothic is a means of imagining vicious circles of transgression and violence repeating themselves down through the generations. As we shall see, the inherited vicious circle is precisely the crux that motivates The Cenci. But by the time Shelley started his Gothic experiments crucial modifications had been made to its symbolic constitution that made it even more eligible for his purposes. These changes were instigated by Friedrich Schiller, in Der Geisterseher (1789; translated as the Ghost-seer, 1795) and William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794).

Schiller’s primary contribution to the Gothic was to provide a narrative form for representing the threat of conspiracy, whether revolutionary or Counter-Reformational.     

It was Godwin who urgently raised the question of historical agency. When he refers to the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” he is just one of many radicals responding to Burke’s defense of the Gothic constitution and chivalry, the legal and social customs he celebrates as the ties that bind the English present.

All these constituents of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution (as it stood in the late 1810s) come together in The Cenci:

As a work of abstracted Gothic, The Cenci explores the problematic nature of modern systems of power by drawing upon the symbolic constitution of the Gothic as it stood post-Schiller and post-Godwin. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley references the key elements of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution that will concern him: the dead hand of the past; the baleful influence of Gothic institutions that live on in the present; the tendency of this influence to leave us living in vicious circles of abuse; a moral antinomy that prods the reader into analytical action as a way of rising above such circles; the self-defeating nature of conspiracy; a belief in the totalizing power of tyranny; the strenuous difficulty of regaining historical agency; the delusive glamour of the sublime; and, finally, and certainly not least, critique of Burke. After noting these key Gothic elements, Shelley’s thought takes a surprising turn. Rather than freeing us ‘self-anatomy’ is shown to lead to more Gothic entrapment. The Cenci suggests that the way to lighten the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” is through the austere prescriptions of the categorical imperative.

In effect Shelley is telling us that he has moved on from his juvenile, jejune understanding of conspiracy (the sublimity of the secret societies) to a more abstraction proposition in which counterproductive conspiracy (any literal endeavour) is compared unfavourably with a conspiracy to make the reader think.

November 2015

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