Susan J. Wolfson, Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism and Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action
University of Parma, Italy
Although published six years apart, these two volumes belong in the same multifaceted critical mosaic. Both studies address the distinctive concerns which have been central to Susan Wolfson’s critical practice since the 1980s—her preoccupation with gender, her focus on literary form, and her indefatigable search for an increasingly detailed, as well as historically attuned, approach to the stylistic materiality of literary works. As with her previous works, these books require us to read intensively into texts, and we cannot escape this demand as we gradually explore their largely shared literary terrain: Hemans and Byron, mostly, but also Wollstonecraft, the Wordsworths and Keats. Wollstonecraft, in particular, plays a major role in Wolfson’s presentation of her argument in the earlier Borderlines, and its discussion of the continuities and discontinuities within Romantic-period gender debates between the 1790s and the 1830s.
Both books perform a series of distinctive critical gestures to which the author has accustomed us over the years. They stand on solid, clearly laid out theoretical and methodological foundations, which Wolfson constantly tests, revises and updates. One of the mainstays in these volumes is, of course, the neo-formalist agenda that Wolfson has been promoting through such contributions as Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997) and “Reading for Form” (MLQ, 2007). Both books present repeated instances of what may be defined as an invigorating form of wrestling with different intersecting textual layers. In addition, these books convey a general impatience with established, conventional “Eng Lit” stylistic registers and lexicon. This translates into a penchant for neologisms which never allows us to sit back into the lull of ready-made phrases. In fact, some of these neologisms may not be to everyone’s liking, but they undoubtedly contribute to Wolfson’s corrective critical approach.
These volumes also share common structural features. Borderlines is divided into an introductory chapter; a section on women (Felicia Hemans; the “Masculine Woman”; Maria Jane Jewsbury); one on men (Byron and Keats); and a final coda on sex in souls. Romantic Interactions presents an introductory chapter; a section on women and poetry (Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith); one on the “two Wordsworths,” that is, on William’s and Dorothy’s “interactions”; and a third on Byron and those interactions in which he took part directly (in his own life and works), and those through which he influenced the lives and works of other (especially female) authors.
Wolfson locates both volumes within the narrative of her own development and growth as a critic. And more explicitly so in the preface to Borderlines, where she places herself and her book within the critical trajectory that gradually led to the renovation of Romantic-period scholarship in the US and Britain from the early 1980s on. This volume, in particular, makes plain Wolfson’s intention to take stock of this itinerary and reflect on its origins, current status, and further evolutions. Taking up the cumbersome inheritance of Romantic-period gender criticism in order to set it on a new course, Borderlines paints a panorama of interrelations between “he-texts” and “she-texts”. It delineates a map of shifting gender categories in order to cast new light on their textual manifestations and cultural significance. Wolfson’s aim is to capture the formally specific coordinates of these categories—their being-in-the-text—that enable us to perceive their presence and agency in their times, yet also to verify their continuing activity in our own. In this respect, Wollstonecraft stands at the beginning of a tradition of debate that her works continued to enrich well after the waning of 1790s radicalism. And Wolfson’s reconstruction and discussion of later reprises of Wollstonecraft is undoubtedly one of the most striking and valuable offerings in this book. Readers will be particularly delighted to find a chapter on the brilliant and combative Maria Jane Jewsbury, one of the most fascinating of Wollstonecraft’s disciples, as well as one of the most unjustly sidelined writers and intellectuals in the later Romantic period.