"An Interview with Anne Mellor"
University of California, Los Angeles
RE: So here we are in Anne’s living room, and I just wanted to open by saying how happy I am to be here, where I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with the UCLA Romantic Study Group. I thought that we would start with you talking a little bit about that group, how it came into being, how long you’ve been doing it, and which were the most notable talks you remember.
AM: Oh interesting. It started when I first came to UCLA, which would be 1985 or 1986. And actually I had been down here—my husband had been teaching here for 10 years before that—and I had come down and there had been a single such meeting (I think that it was at Reg Foakes’s house) and when I came back I expected this to be an ongoing thing, and no, it had dropped out, nobody had done it since. And so, I decided, oh, it was so great, let’s start it again. It has actually gone on now since 1986. We meet three times a year, in this living room; you were here many times. It is mainly for faculty and graduate students at all the related institutions, so people come from Santa Barbara, Irvine, Caltech, Pepperdine, and USC, of course. It is usually around 20 or 25 people. Someone comes and gives a talk and then there is wine and cheese and discussion before and after. Graduate students really like it because they get to meet the faculty at other institutions, and the graduate students at other institutions get to meet other graduate students, since there aren’t that many at other institutions.
So, best talks over the years, there have been so many good ones . . .
RE: I remember that one that Alan Liu gave about installation art in England and Wordsworth.
AM: Andy Goldsworthy’s work, yeah. [RE: Yes! I loved that talk.] I mean there have been so many good ones, I don’t think that I could possibly choose. Jonathan Sachs just gave a really good one on different modes of time in Romantic writing. I remember Nancy Armstrong gave one when she was out here, it was really good.
RE: I think that you’re right. [The Romantic Study Group] gave me the opportunity as a grad student to meet faculty. I remember that I met Kevin Gilmartin here years ago for the first time. In fact, it was through him that I met Orrin Wang, who came up with the idea for this interview.
AM: Kevin has given several talks here; the last one was on his work on Hazlitt. He also did one on conservative print culture, and way back when, on radical print culture. Meg Russett—I mean there are certain local faculty whose careers the group has actually tracked—Meg just did one on teaching Romanticism in Turkey, which was fascinating, [it was] on the defamiliarization of texts in a foreign language that I’m hoping that she’ll publish. Julie Carlson has given several talks . . .
RE: Giving talks here has always helped me develop material into something that I wanted to take further. We’re doing a group at UGA now. [AM: Oh good!] Chloe Wigston Smith started the 18- and 19-Century Colloquium in British Literature. Paul Hunter just gave a great talk on poetry and Paula Feldman is coming to talk on the Mary Tighe biography. Chloe asked me to help co-direct it and I did so in part because of my memories of the UCLA Romantic Study Group. It is a great thing.
So who is going to keep it going after you retire? [AM: It’s a question. It’s a question.] You could [still] do it Anne…
AM: Well, I said that I would continue to volunteer the space. I was just talking to my colleague Saree Makdisi to see about carrying it on, and asked him to help me locate speakers, since I won’t be traveling as much to conferences. Because we can’t pay anybody, it’s really people doing it out of the generosity of their hearts. So we really have to rely on people coming through Los Angeles anyway, typically to the Huntington. [Additional banter on the Huntington excised from transcript]
RE: I thought that we could turn to some of your recent work. The whole notion of you retiring or semi-retiring seems unbelievable to me and most other people.
AM: Well, it will sort of be a phased retirement. I am now scheduled to retire at the end of this year, June 2013, but I’ll go on teaching half-time after that for at least three years and more if the department needs me.
RE: Do you feel that your work comes out of the classroom or do you see it more of as an organic process between research and teaching?
AM: Interesting, whether it is organic. I mean, if you go right back to the beginning it came out of passions. You know, that I loved art history as much as I liked literature so I was looking around for something—a dissertation topic that would allow me to do visual culture as well as verbal culture. And that’s what led me to Blake, that and the fact that I had taken a fabulous graduate course when I was an undergraduate at Brown with S. Foster Damon, who was the great man who brought Blake into the canon. And then I was an undergraduate philosophy major, as well as English major, and so I had always been interested in philosophical questions, so that took me to the next project on Romantic Irony, which was really about a philosophical system, [and] what happens if you think of the universe as not having any order, as being profoundly chaotic.
RE: I was looking at Romantic Irony and I noticed that even there, your interest in visual culture is highlighted by the inclusion of a print at the opening [AM: Yes, right, right!] and you actually talk about the significance of that image . . .
AM: Yes, it is that great Thomas Bewick, little landscape, little man riding horseback through the landscape, and then his thumb print over it. Right, so, it exists but it doesn’t exist, and it exists as an authorial creation but it’s also a de-creation because he is erasing it. Yes, I was so happy [Laughing] when I found that little image, because it summed it all up.
And then it was—well, by then I was teaching at Stanford—it was the early 1980s. All through the Vietnam War I had been very caught up in anti-war efforts at Stanford and actually led the faculty move to get rid of ROTC on the Stanford campus, which they brought back last year [by the way]. And so time passes. [Anyway] out of that—out of all those liberation movements, you know, civil rights and the woman’s movement, and so on—in 1980 I made a professional oath, a political and personal oath to only work on women, because I hadn’t done much work on women, no one had in Romanticism. So that is when I started looking around for who were the under discussed and undervalued women in the period. Jane Austen of course, but there had been work on Austen. She wasn’t actually regarded as a Romantic but nonetheless there had been good solid scholarly work on her.
[So] I looked around and the next [author] was Mary Shelley and no one had actually spent much serious time thinking about Frankenstein because they had been dismissing it as a children’s book or science fiction, and therefore outside of the canon of Romanticism. And all the time I was in graduate school, I don’t think that I ever read anything by Mary Shelley except her notes on Percy Shelley’s poems. [RE: I’m quite sure that when I was an undergraduate I read absolutely nothing by any woman writer of the period].
Right. And the notion that Frankenstein [was ignored] in all of these courses on Romantic poetry as mythmaking [is amazing]; [and] I was teaching them myself . None of [us] thought about Frankenstein as the greatest enduring myth from the Romantic period. It is the only one that is really still with us every day.
RE: I just taught Frankenstein in a novel course, and my students couldn’t believe how deeply embedded their ideas about Frankenstein were. It is the one text that you come to in the Romantic period—maybe the other one is “I wandered lonely as a cloud”—where the students have really strong opinions [AM: Without ever having read the text.] Exactly. And in both cases, they have such a different sense of it once they finish reading. They are very interesting works to teach because you see the students’ perceptions changing as you talk about them.
AM: Yes, well just having the narrator and having the Creature speak—because they have all seen the [James] Whale movie where he never speaks and all the parodies of that, and just hearing the story from his point of view is an entirely different experience. And there is now the fabulous—have you seen it?—[Danny Boyle’s] National Theatre production of Frankenstein. It is absolutely brilliant. It was in London in the National Theatre and then it was one of their high-definition in movie theater telecasts, and I think that it will come back that way.
Benedict [Cumberbatch] playing the creature is just unforgettable. And you have to see it. It is just . . . It starts off from a big red bubble and then the Creature emerges from that covered in blood like a newborn baby but full-size of course.
RE: Do you see the effect of literary criticism on that production?
AM: Oh yeah, first of all that it is insisting on the Creature as the protagonist, and not Victor Frankenstein. And it clearly makes the issue of parenting and the failure of parenting central to the play. So Victor Frankenstein comes in, takes one look at this newborn baby, and says “Damn” and runs out again, and you don’t see him again until the second act. [Laughing]
So that emphasis on the Creature as human and struggling for human connection, I think that is the result of the feminist project.
RE: In looking over your bibliography—and I was very overwhelmed and immediately felt like I should sit down and write many, many articles—I was struck by the way that your interdisciplinary interests can be seen throughout your whole career, with visual arts and Blake, and now the recent work with Mary Robinson and portraiture, or your enduring interest in science, with Mary Shelley [and continuing with] your consideration of Gilbert Wakefield and Charlotte Smith.
[I was] struck by your real interest in what I think of as productively resonant binaries. Did that lead you to Blake first? Or did your interest in binaries grow out of your study of Blake?
AM: When I was an undergraduate I was taking courses in lots of different things, and I was interested in lots of different things and I didn’t see any reason to try to focus on just one, as long as I could sustain doing serious work in different fields. I said that I was a philosophy major—they really wanted me to go to graduate school in philosophy, the philosophers did at Brown—and it was a very strong philosophy department. But I realized talking to them that everything was at this level of abstraction and that they had eliminated all of the concrete, messy details that I really was interested in. If I’d not done a Ph.D. in literature it would have been in Art History. I just found so much pleasure in looking at works of art and still do. In fact, the last piece that I was working on—this one I haven’t published yet because it is getting harder and harder to publish anything with visual images because of copyright—but it is on Turner as a Romantic Ironist and re-reading all of his images of Venice.
RE: I saw you give a talk on that at NASSR a couple of years ago.
AM: Yes, I still have it back there [gesturing to her office] waiting to be finely shaped into something I could publish. But, as I say, as I get really old, I really lose interest in footnotes and permissions, and all that gritty stuff. I just want to go and look at the paintings and read the poems.
RE: And write something more impressionistic?
AM: Pleasurable. Just pleasurable—as opposed to having to document every assertion—but that is the indulgence of old age. So if I write anything—and I don’t know that I’ll actually publish anything more.
You asked me what I’m working on now. I’m doing [a course] for the first time this spring [and] I’m a little anxious about it actually. It is a lecture course just on Jane Austen. And we’re going to read all her six novels as well as juvenilia. And I’m going to read her—this is me, this is my Jane Austen—through Wollstonecraft. Implicitly arguing that—well, explicitly arguing but the documentation just isn’t there—that Jane Austen read Wollstonecraft, absorbed her deeply, and thought through all of Wollstonecraft’s major issues in her novels. And I’m coming to this conclusion—partially because I’ve worked so much on Wollstonecraft—[because] I just keep hearing quotations [in Austen’s novels], never with quotation marks but the words are word for word from Vindication of the Rights of Woman and scholars have just ignored all this because there’s no evidence in her letters or anywhere else. Although Cassandra burned 80% of her letters we think. Maybe they were the ones that were Jane Austen being militantly feminist, who knows.
RE: The letters are so domestic, it seems as though since what is left has a particular narrative, it makes sense that what was taken out also had its own narrative.
AM: I’m sure that Cassandra took out all of the nasty bits every time Jane Austen was being—[RE: There are some nasty bits remaining]—there are some left, right, but I think that there were probably a lot more caustic comments on the people around them. But, you know, maybe some of her political or religious views that were more liberal than her family endorsed or thought was appropriate for the Victorian spinster-saint they were trying to promote.
RE: Do you see yourself taking this further than something like Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen book?
AM: Well, I think I would be more aggressive even than Claudia on the sort of radical politics that are embedded in Austen’s fiction. But I love Claudia’s book. I mean, I think that was the one that—for me—put Austen back on the map, and brought her into a canon I could teach.
RE: [Recently] you mentioned [to me] that you were thinking about Mansfield Park. So how do you see that novel? It is, I think, the thorniest novel for feminist scholars.
AM: The way I’m reading it—[and] I agree [that] you can read Fanny Price as an evangelical Christian heroine, or a patriot, or [as] Saree Makdisi wants to read her as a self-regulated heroine who promotes this heteronormative self-regulation—[but] I’m reading her through two texts really. Through Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman where Wollstonecraft talks about the slavery of parent-child relations producing the slavery of marriage and producing a personality—a female personality—that Wollstonecraft finally defines as abject.
So I want to read Fanny as abject and also as the grateful negro, reading her through Maria Edgeworth’s novella “The Grateful Negro.” And I want to make the argument that Jane Austen is fully aware of the fact that Fanny Price is a damaged personality. That the last line is an ultimate example of Jane Austen’s irony. We are meant to read that recognizing that this is through Fanny’s eyes. That she is telling us that everything is perfect within the patronage of Sir Thomas [but Jane Austen isn’t].
RE: So you’re reading [that last line] as free indirect discourse?
AM: Yeah, right. And I have a student who made the brilliant suggestion—we’re actually trying to write this up together -- that we should think about Fanny as suffering from what we’d call the Stockholm Syndrome.
RE: So where does Mary Crawford fit into this argument?
AM: Well, Mary Crawford is—she’s Elizabeth Bennet. And from that point of view of the abject and the regulated personality, she has to be eliminated. She is exorcised from Mansfield Park, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to have a very happy life in London, which is where she has returned to with her wit, and her irony, and her cynicism.
RE: And her sufficient independence. She possesses that independence of mind and financial power that Fanny doesn’t have.
AM: But I’m coming to appreciate more fully with Jane Austen there’s a real difference between the first three novels—which are the 1790s novels—and the last three which are really Regency period novels. And that Jane Austen is coming to recognize that her ideal heroine (who is Anne Elliot finally) is going to have to be able to mediate, control, manage in a way that we never see Elizabeth Bennett doing. Elizabeth Bennett is the feisty, Jacobin liberated heroine up to a point, although she feels enormous amounts of gratitude to Darcy always. But she is being inserted finally into an existing structure, she’s not going to change the running of Pemberley. Anne Elliot is going to create a new model of household management, not one that exists, although the model is Sophia Croft and Admiral Croft. But they don’t have children and they don’t really have a home, and that is what Anne Elliot is going to do in the future. That was my argument in Mothers of the Nation.
RE: And so, it sounds like your reading would harmonize nicely with William Deresiewicz’s argument about Austen and the Romantic poets. He has a great argument about Austen’s first three novels being written prior to Austen’s reading of Romantic poets.
AM: The book that I just read—Anthony Mandal—which is one of these histories of the book, documents that Jane Austen is responding very specifically to clusters of novels. In the first three novels [she responds] to the 1790s novels, those concerned with sensibility of course, and feeling, as in Sense and Sensibility. Then to the gothic novel in Northanger Abbey, and then Jacobin writing (I think) in Pride and Prejudice.
RE: And we know that she read periodicals, and periodicals would always have at least a précis of various novels and other prose works. Periodical culture is another way to make that argument about Austen, and what influenced her, because we know that she read those.
AM: And then when she comes to the next group, she is responding to the development of evangelical novels, Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife, and then also the novels that are really trying to deal with who is going to rule England in the future after the Napoleonic Campaigns are finished and not being terribly impressed with the options.
RE: Which brings her back into conversation with that later generation of Romantic writers—explaining [the presence of] Byron and Scott in Persuasion.
AM: Absolutely, and [also] a culture of consumption. That is really what she is working towards in Sanditon, this new emphasis on capital and the economics of governance—the new town—the new resort.
[We broke for lunch here, eaten in Anne’s sunny kitchen. Her husband, Ron Mellor, a retired UCLA classicist amused me with the tall tales he takes delight in recounting.]
RE: So I’ve been reading a lot of your early writing. I really loved an article that you wrote about Ursula LeGuin in 1983. [In that article] you conclude by talking about The Left Hand of Darkness as an ideal text—LeGuin’s ideal text but—I think—also yours. [Particularly] in its representation of what you call biological androgynes. You made your commitment to writing about women writers right after that article appeared. How does [your interest in biological androgynes] resonate with that distinction you make in Romanticism and Feminism and Romanticism and Gender between masculine and feminine romanticism?
AME: I got interested in feminist science fiction back in the early 80s when it was modeling all sorts of alternative utopian possibilities for gender relations, [and] for sex identity. And it really got me thinking about what sex-based characteristics are really located in biology and which ones are social constructions. And that was when I was very much caught up with feminist theory and founded the Feminist Studies program at Stanford University. I had a reading group where we were—Nan Kahane was in it, I remember, and Shelley Rosaldo—where we were really actively interrogating all sorts of classical assumptions about sex differences. And I was reading Wollstonecraft at the same time –I was working on Mary Shelley but obviously reading a lot of Wollstonecraft in preparation for that—and Wollstonecraft herself is constantly interrogating the differences and the fact that there are really no significant differences between males and females. In fact I used Wollstonecraft in that article on Ursula LeGuin because I was really thinking about how you represent political utopias—sexual-gender utopias.
So, Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness: what fascinated me was that a person goes into a kenning house—a mating house—and becomes male or female depending on the person they happen to be sitting next to. One time you can be male, one time you can be female. And I thought that was really revelatory of the fact that we play different roles in relationships. Nothing is fixed [or] static through one’s whole lifetime. So that really helped me to then later think through the issues that I wanted to raise in Romanticism and Gender and also Romanticism and Feminism.
RE: . . . and really to think of it as a “gendering,” so the ability of Keats to occupy the position of feminine romanticism.
AM: Right, that femininity is a social construction, it’s not based on biology and the same with masculinity and that they change over time, and of course different cultures have different concepts of what is masculine and feminine. Now, of course, even at the level of biological sexuality, we now know about intersex in a way we didn’t years ago. So, all along, I’ve been thinking these are not things that are fixed in time or the body, although the body enacts them, performs them, as Judith Butler has taught us.
RE: The other thing that I read from early on, was an article from 1989 “The Politics of Literary Study” and I was fascinated to learn that—[AM: Now you’ll have to remind me about what that one was about.]—well what you said was that your next book would be called “The Two Romanticisms,” and so that got me thinking: Did you mean Romanticism and Feminism or Romanticism and Gender? but also what was at stake in changing your title . . .
AM: Well, the two Romanticisms were going to be masculine romanticism and feminine romanticism—it was Romanticism and Gender. Because how I was thinking through it—I mean—what I was struck by, of course, coming back to the whole canon of romanticism from a feminist perspective was a) the absence of women writers most strikingly and b) the absence of any discussion about what difference sex [and] sexual identity—the fact that these were all male writers—made to their writing.
So, the project of Romanticism and Gender was really twofold. It was to unpack what difference gender made to the writing of male Romantic writers, how they tended to promote—in very subtle ways—a masculinization of the universe. I mean, most tellingly perhaps in Wordsworth’s Prelude. In the final book of the Prelude, where nature has been female all the way along and been something that resists the male poet, and then suddenly becomes the brother of the male poet, the moment at which he, in effect, whatever word you want to use, colonizes, cannibalizes or at least authorizes himself to speak for Nature.
RE: Incorporates . . .?
AM: Yes, although at the very end of the book, Nature returns as the female—something that cannot be entirely incorporated comfortably. But I was interested in exploring that, the whole ideology of masculinity, which not only represented nature as female and appropriate-able, but also took the heroic masculine quest narrative as central. Privileged the individual encountering the sublime, something eternal, infinite, outside himself and his own relationship to it. Privileged the imagination as that which could, in a sense, create a world unto itself. Privileged political revolutions as acts of individuals overthrowing any kind of oppression, restraint.
And then when I started reading the women writers of the period realized that these were not their values at all. And that’s when I started thinking about the existence of a second—a feminine romanticism—one that was much more based on the individual in relation to other individuals, on families, on communities. Not political revolution, because it caused too much damage to families and children and mothers, but gradual evolution. And a notion of nature as—because nature was female—someone—a mother—but also someone with whom one collaborated, cooperated, rather than fought against or tried to take over. An ethic of care as opposed to an ethic of justice, and a whole different way of seeing the world.
Now one could argue, and I did subsequently argue, that feminine romanticism actually was very similar to eighteenth-century enlightenment values, the privileging of reason over the imagination, and of course led directly, almost seamlessly into what we think of as Victorian literary culture. Hannah More being central to this project. So feminine romanticism doesn’t stand out uniquely from what went before or what comes after.
RE: Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that you’ve argued elsewhere that we need to continue this research and not arbitrarily or precipitately stop working [on women writers].
The more you read Hannah More, the closer you came to Mothers of the Nation from Romanticism and Gender. So, in effect, proving the point that you’ve been making about the need to keep developing our ideas about the period rather than standing still. And that is something you first invited us to do in Romanticism and Gender. You said there that what you were doing was setting up a binary—you called it an “initial mapping”—an invitation to get other people into the conversation, and to challenge that binary as well. I know that [your construction of that binary] was one of the things that attracted more attention than you expected. Did you expect it to be as controversial as it has been?
AM: No. It always seemed so obvious to me. Obviously there were some males who shared these feminine ideological values; Keats most notably. I had done less work or was less successful in finding the writings of women at that point who promoted the masculine romantic ideology, but I now think that Charlotte Dacre Byrne would be a good example of that, and some of the [other] female Gothic writers.
RE: Do you think Anne Bannerman?
AM: Anne Bannerman, quite possibly. Right. No, I had to go to Emily Bronte, who was late for the argument at the time. But I think, now, one could find many more writers. Adriana Craciun’s The Fatal Women of Romanticism is a very good place to start. Some of the really Jacobin writings of Mary Robinson or Mary Hays would promote a masculine romanticism.
RE: The Plumptre sisters . . . but it is [still] hard to get [to the materials]. The importance of doing archival research is so clear.
AM: There are huge archives there that no one has really put the time in to look at. You think of these really major writers of the time, acknowledged at the time to be powerful literary presences that we still don’t know very much about. Well, you’re doing the much-needed biography of Amelia Opie. But there are lots of other women that we don’t have either biographies—or—what I really want are good single author studies, which we used to get. When I went to graduate school that was what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to pick one writer, and master that writer’s work from beginning to end and you had to know the biography as well as the trajectory.
RE: Grad students are now discouraged to do single author studies.
AM: And it is such a shame because we all then started out on single authors. I started out on Blake, and then there was a circle of Blakeists and we all knew each other and argued back and forth but really felt that we were competent to discuss this writer’s work in great detail. But now students—because we force them to work on three or four writers simultaneously—they come out with rather superficial knowledge of each of those writers. And it doesn’t give them expertise.
RE: Time to degree has been shrunk as well.
AM: Well, yes and no. I mean our students still take six or seven years. I did mine in three. So . . .
RE: You did yours in three? Anne, you’re a prodigy. Grad students reading this will be horrified by that information.
AM: [Laughs] Well, okay, I don’t expect that. Well, I didn’t finish my dissertation in three but I finished my graduate work and started teaching full time in three.
RE: Was your dissertation the Blake book?
AM: Yes, and I had started some work on that even as an undergraduate so, I went [to graduate school] with a chapter in effect. But that was what you did if you were just trying to do one writer.
RE: But Blake?
AME: There was a lot of Blake to read and a lot of visual images to look at. Blake was more challenging than many another would have been. But Carl Woodring—who was my dissertation director—that was what he said, you pick your writer. So, he had a Hazlitt man, a Leigh Hunt man, a Percy Shelley . . .
RE: . . . the Blake woman
AM: The Blake woman.
RE: What was that like? Are there many Blake scholars who are women even now?
AM: Tristiane Connolly. Helen Bruder.
RE: Were you alone in your group?
AM: No, actually not. Janet Warner was my generation. Irene Taylor. There were three or four others, but it was dominated by men, obviously. And the real resistance I had from the Blake community was once I raised the issue of Blake’s sexism. They really—to this day—do not want to acknowledge it.
RE: Blake and free love, which is one of the mythos around Blake.
AM: I mean they just want to read it as part of his revolutionary resistance to any kind of constraint. But why is it that all the female characters in all his poems end up playing these maternal, subservient, secondary roles to the originary imaginative creative male poet?
RE: I just taught America to undergrads and they were fascinated by the representation of gender and [violent] passion in Blake.
AM: Well, he is all for free love, but its free love for men, and women servicing them.
RE: Well, this brings up a question. In looking over your bibliography, I noticed that you’ve worked extensively on all of the [Romantic] writers. One writer that you haven’t written an individual essay on, although you’ve talked about him a great deal, is Percy Bysshe Shelley. Do you want to talk about your relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley?
AM: [Laughs] The irony of it all is that Percy Bysshe Shelley is the poet I fell in love with as a freshman at Brown University, and persuaded me to become a romanticist.
RE: What was it?
AM: It was Prometheus Unbound and it was Epipsychidion.
But I now realize that the reason I fell in love with those poems was because I fell in love with my teacher of those poems, D.J. Hughes, and those were his two favorite poems. He taught them with so much energy and enthusiasm and insight that I just became fascinated by Percy Shelley’s—way before the moment we had the language for it—deconstructive concept of language: how language creates the universe and creates its own next sentence: the infinite deferral of language. So, that’s what made me into a philosophy major. I got into thinking about all sorts of epistemological and ontological issues through Percy Shelley. So I actually owe my career to Percy Shelley.
RE: And I wonder too, from my perspective of you, [that] you are a political idealist in a lot of ways, [AM: Oh yeah.] and that’s clear from reading what you’ve written over the years. There is an aspect of [Shelley’s] Prometheus Unbound in your writing—it is so utopian—the difference is that you aren’t content with a retreat to the cave in the end.
AM: No, and I’m also not content with the unborn soul and the return to the originary chaos of Act IV of Prometheus Unbound. I want to see actual social improvement on the ground in the world in which we actually live, not withdrawing into a cave either. And also, the more I worked on Mary Shelley, the more critical I became of Percy Shelley’s concept of gender and sexual relations, as well as of his personal biographical behavior to his wife and children.
RE: How were you taught Epipsychidion? You taught me the poem.
AM: I was passing on the way I had been taught. D. J. Hughes was a poet himself [and] completely identified with Percy Shelley, so he read it as a great celebration of the power of metaphor. He has a wonderful article on coherence and collapse in “Epipsychidion” and so it was always how a metaphor generates another metaphor. Metaphor is never adequate unto itself. It really led me to the whole concept of Romantic Irony, which I got through Frederick Schlegel as well, but when I started thinking about it in relation to Epipsychidion, that there is no stability in language finally but it is just the poet who creates the world, but then also undercuts it by creating another metaphor. So, that was the way I was originally reading Epipsychidion and Prometheus Unbound and finally Romantic Irony as such.
Going back to Epipsychidion, its that sister-spouse incest metaphor that now fascinates me because I think one of the things that’s going on there, is, if you think about incest as a primary Romantic trope, and think of it as the trope that is the dark underbelly of the overt political utopian thinking. When you have a celebration of hierarchy and patriarchy then the dark underside of that, of course, is father/daughter incest and Mary Shelley explores that and Percy Shelley explores that in The Cenci.
But if you move to democracy as your alternative to patriarchy [and] to monarchy then the dark underside becomes—if everyone is created equal, if brothers and sisters are equal, we’re having liberty, equality, fraternity—then the dark underside becomes brother-sister incest; that the brother can only love Mary, the woman who is just like him. This is Manfred [too], the narcissist projection of the self as the one who completes the self. And this is also Percy Shelley in the essay on love: the prototype finding its antitype. And this is where Epipsychidion ends, [with the] sister-spouse. So finally, all of those metaphorical accumulations come back to this narcissistic projection of the primary self.
RE: Who is the object of desire for the feminine romantic writer?
AM: Well, one of the things that always strikes you when you read a lot of women’s writing in this period, is how many of the protagonists—well, first of all, the authors are either unhappily married or never married—the protagonists are all in courtship novels. And then you have to look at exactly what kind of men they end up married to but often the marriages seem, at least from a modern feminist perspective, as somewhat ….
RE: . . . unsatisfying?
AM: [Laughs] Well, not egalitarian anyway, not quite companionate marriages that we hope for now. So I keep going back to that wonderful Wollstonecraft image in Vindication of the Rights of Woman where the ideal woman is finally the widow, with her children, who has gotten rid of the husband and carried on quite successfully without him.
The object of desire is always the idealized partner, the male who is going to be the perfect partner who is going to consult you, and respect you, and give you equal authority in the household, but even beyond the household. The novels are all sort of moving towards that but never quite confident that they’ve gotten there, so they never quite represent those marriages in any kind of long term way.
RE: And the novels that do represent marriage tend to represent failed marriages or marriages of confusion or . . .
AM: . . . or abusive marriages one way or another.
RE: It seems that Gaskell’s North and South has an attractive hero in a way that is so rare to find. But that is a novel that ends again without the marriage being represented
AM: Right, and all the Jane Austen ones where you don’t get the marriage represented. [Additional banter on Austen excised from transcript]
AM: Let me say one more thing about what women desire. It depends on the genre of course, if you go to the Gothic novel, you know, they are actually desiring the mad, bad dangerous to know man. And there is this whole issue of female sexual desire. [RE: . . . [desire] for the father?] Yes, female sexual desire getting mapped onto existing hierarchical relations. Or, and I’m really thinking now about Zofloya, getting mapped onto the totally inaccessible exotic other, whether he is Moor or Satan, as the novel finally wants you to think. I actually think he is the Moor, and then just because she is trying to impose a good conventional Christian ending, making it acceptable to her readers, so she turns him into Satan. But she is really desiring the racial other, the cultural other, the one that is really not available.
RE: I just taught The Italian and what struck me there were the scenes of yearning for something else that isn’t contained by any of the figures in the text. All of those scenes of the sublime! Whatever is outside the window is really what is desired and it is nebulous.
AM: Right, Vivaldi certainly doesn’t live up to it, or Valencourt.
RE: I think Godolphin is an interesting object of desire in Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, where we have a double hero. The unattractive hero fortunately dies midway through and then we have Godolphin associated with the sublime landscape, and his own kind of solitude, which seems a [better] possibility.
AM: What these women writers realize, starting with Wollstonecraft, and all the way through, it that there is a real crisis of masculinity in the Romantic era. On the one hand, you have the libertine rake, leftover from the eighteenth century, and the aristocratic Byronic figure, who is attractive but totally unsatisfying as husband material. Then you have the man of sensibility, who is weeping all of the time, ineffective and impotent in lots of ways, and so that’s not going to work, and they are really trying to imagine something else . . .
RE: . . . or the tyrant . . . and they often morph into each other over the course of a three-volume novel . . .
AM: They are really trying to define a new type of man. What Wollstonecraft defines as the modest man, the middle-class bourgeois professional, robust, benevolent figure, but they come across as kind of stick figures because [the writers] don’t have a lot of experience of such people. I’m thinking of Maria Edgworth’s Belinda. Mr. Percival is clearly the ideal man, but there aren’t a lot of him around and her heroine doesn’t get one. She gets a reformed rake in a way. Clarence Hervey, nice guy, but not very responsible or reliable and prone to make terrible mistakes. Mr. Knightley is sort of in that category, but he is a little too overbearing, and he lectures and hectors [Emma]. Wentworth is clearly Jane Austen’s attempt to define that new professional self-made man, but he also is capable of pride and jealousy and vindictiveness.
RE: He isn’t quite ready to forgive at the end of the novel.
AM: Well, almost but not entirely.
RE: So Austen’s attempt to mediate between that man of sensibility and the rake [since] Wentworth is so associated with potential rakishness and piracy.
AM: Piracy in his professional life and then rakishness in his private life, with Louisa.
RE: Let’s conclude by thinking about where you see the field going. Where do you see the most promising work in the field of women writers? One thing that struck me was just how important the work in critical theory was during the 1990s when I was at UCLA with you. Romanticism and Gender comes out of Anglo-American and French feminism, but also deconstruction and post-structuralism. Do you think we have a period like that now? Do you see one coming? Where is the promising work?
AM: I don’t know. I’ve been a little frustrated actually. I had thought by now there would be more systematic work on the women writers, the single-author, really in-depth researched projects ongoing and appearing and not as many have come along. We’ve gotten some good biographies of Hannah More, like Anne Stott’s biography of Hannah More. A lot of work on Mary Robinson because you can market that to a more commercial audience. But there are so many women writers in the period that don’t have this work. We don’t even have a really good single-author book detailing the entire career of Maria Edgeworth. Which is really amazing, if you think about it, since she was right up there with Jane Austen then, and even now widely read but not widely studied. Partly because she has been confined to Irish Studies and read from a particularly negative view.
RE: [She is there in] histories of education . . .
AM: …with her children’s writing. But not the major novels, for the most part. So, I think there is an enormous amount of work still to be done. Joanna Baillie? We don’t have a really good overview of her entire career. There is a biography now but not [enough] critical work. Catherine Burroughs’s book is excellent but it only goes so far. Women playwrights, women poets. We don’t have a really good book yet on Felicia Hemans, I mean an overview book. We have good editions of her poems, of The Siege of Valencia, but not a biography. Charlotte Smith! We still need a really good interpretive study [of her work].
RE: Why do you think that is? Is there a bias against writing about a domestic life? Biographies of male authors focus on the career. Is it because we would end up having to write about the domestic? [AM: Well, you’d write about the domestic, but you’d also write about their career . . .] Is the biography of a woman different from that of a man?
AM: Well, I think that has been the assumption, except that we have biographies of Queen Catherine of Russia and Cleopatra. The interest in women writers has been in the exceptional women and the political leaders of one kind or another. I don’t know…
RE: I’m grappling with this in the Opie biography. She is always part of the public landscape but her biography also has to take into account her care for her father, and care of her aunt. There is a lot of quotidian management of other people that is outside of her writing life, always part of that life, but perceived as being separate from her writing life.
AM: Well, I think that means that when you do a biography of a woman, you have to take very seriously Nancy Chodorow’s argument in The Reproduction of Women that women have a relational self rather than an autonomous self, and that is the theoretical interest of such biographies, that they actually map how relationships actually are created and sustained and finally end over a lifetime, and make the argument that it is human relationships that matter rather than individual acts.
RE: I’ve found that the recent work in sociability studies has really assisted me in thinking about this.
AM: Yes, yes, and I think that is a really interesting move, both in Romantic writing but elsewhere, to think about writers as embedded in larger communities. And I think that will go on; a lot of the race theory and postcolonial theory insists on the priority of the community and how writers serve it.
RE: [Do you see] Transnational Romanticism [as part of that theoretical trend]?
AM: Yes, though that seems to be more a product of an interest in book history. It has really been about the circulation of texts across the Atlantic or ideas as embodied in texts. And there is a lot of new work being done on publishing firms and publishing practices. And that actually will be very important to studies of women writers. Because how did their books get published? And did they hold copyrights? Did they publish on commission? How much did they actually earn from their writing? What sort of trends were they responding to? What literary fashions were they responding to? We have a lot more evidence now, ever since William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation, as to how to think through a lot of those issues. So I think that is a field that is going to go on.
I just hope that feminist theory, per se, doesn’t get shunted aside as old-fashioned. You know, oh we have done all that already, because I don’t think that we have.
RE: And that’s a pretty dangerous precedent as any feminist knows, then you just end up recreating . . .
AM: . . . male hierarchies. And unfortunately, I think that is what is happening in a lot of women’s studies departments. Ours just changed its name from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies, and you understand why that is happening because it is an inclusive move, but it then focuses as much attention on gay males as on females, and heightens discussions of intersex, which moves away from that huge category of women.
RE: Which seems to be of political importance right now, given the recent return in rhetoric at least to a fifties ideal.
AM: . . . of domesticity and of … oh god, do we need to go into Rick Santorum?
RE: That would be so wrong. We certainly don’t want to end there.
AM: No, but the threat is there.
AM: [Sighing and rubbing her hands together]. Work to be done: editions, biographies, single author studies of women writers certainly.
But a lot more work to be done in Romanticism particularly around religion. Because one of the things I’ve come recently to appreciate is how strongly different religious alliances impacted on women writers, more so than on male writers. Again, it is a sense of being involved in a community. But if you start out in the Unitarian community, as Anna Barbauld, Lucy Aikin, and Amelia Opie did, you end up in a very different place than when you start out say in Scotch Presbyterianism, which had an enormous impact—and we haven’t really understood this—on Joanna Baillie, on Elizabeth Hamilton, Susan Ferrier, partially because Scotch Presbyterianism was quite egalitarian. There were female presbyters in the eighteenth century. A very different sort of way of modeling human relationships and sex relationships comes out of the Church of England, [which is] a much more hierarchical and oppressive model to follow. So we need to think through that—and missionary work in relation to religion. So that is a big area that I think people will spend more time on in the future.
Science. Women and Science. Women’s active engagement and knowledge of science. The way scientific metaphors impact on all of Romantic writing. There is a lot more work to be done on that. I actually have a graduate student right now, Fusan Wang, who is doing really interesting work on inoculation and vaccination and how that . . .
RE: . . . which has a fascinating relationship to gender in England . . .
AM: Well, because it starts with Mary Wortley Montagu and smallpox vaccination and then goes to Thomas Jenner. But once it gets to Thomas Jenner and cowpox being the vaccination for smallpox, you get this human/animal divide. A binary being broken down and all the complex and anxious responses to that notion of introducing the animal into—an animal poison—into the human system is really an interesting problematic for the period.
RE: And it opens up potential ways of thinking about Romantic representations of nature and animal life more generally. Which makes me think of John Clare, a fascinating addition to the Romantic canon . . .
AM: . . . just for that obsession with nature . . .
RE: So what do you see yourself doing post-retirement?
AM: When I retire, can I stop writing books? Could I stop writing at all?
RE: Can you, Anne Mellor? Actually, I have that question. Can you? That would be a question for you. I guess the question is will you stop?
AM: I think I will. [RE: Will you stop writing articles?] Well, I’m committed to write at least two more, so I guess I’ll write those. And then I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’ve always wanted to paint, so I think about retirement as a time when I could maybe dismantle my study and turn it into a studio. Probably not. Probably I would I hire a room somewhere else to paint in.
RE: Well, you have great light right here.
AM: I have great light but I don’t think I can fill up the living room with easels and paint.
RE: Maybe a painting studio outside…
AM: A painting studio outside, maybe. I don’t know, my husband thinks this is total fantasyland, and it may be. I’ll go on teaching for sure. I don’t know. The writing part is less interesting, partially because of the lag time. You know, you write something, and by the time it gets in print, and by the time someone actually responds to it, it is a long way away. So for me, the interim has always been teaching the material and then going to conferences, but my conference going energy is declining. So I don’t know. I’ll fade away into the sunset here on the west coast.
RE: Well, it is a nice place to fade into the sunset. I predict that it will be harder for you to give up writing than you think it will.
AM: We’ll see, we’ll see.
RE. Maybe it will be a different kind of writing.
AM: Maybe, maybe. Saree Makdisi was just asking me if I would write a memoir. And I said no, this interview plus what will appear in NASSR around the seminar on romanticism and gender. And whatever happens at the Clark [conference in Anne's honor in October, 2012] although I don’t have to speak, I just have to attend.
RE: It will be the twentieth anniversary of the appearance of Romanticism and Gender, won’t it? 1993?
AM: It will! I hadn’t connected that.
RE: So, it is a nice way to sum up.