Karen Fang, Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs: Periodical Culture and Post-Napoleonic Authorship
University of North Texas
Karen Fang’s examination of post-Napoleonic periodical culture in Britain focuses on the works of Charles Lamb, James Hogg, Letitia Landon, and Lord Byron, their individual experiences with imperialism, and how they translated those experiences for British periodicals. Periodical culture, according to Fang, was the nexus of empire and capital, consumption and commodification–a privileged formation that brought imperial exoticism to the domestic consumer, in the “visual and textual representation[s] within newspapers and magazines” (2). Jon Klancher’s work figures heavily here, especially his sense that “the professionalization of the early-nineteenth-century periodical marketplace” constituted a “fundamentally different cultural economy”: as such, Fang follows Klancher in reading the semiotics of the imperial project, an “‘empire of signs, a phrase he derives from contemporary Romantic metaphors of the mind” to develop her own examination of the more material, “geographical exoticism” in British periodicals (7).
Chapter One, “China for Sale,” is concerned with Charles Lamb’s contributions on the “mercantile trade” in his “Elia” essays for the London Magazine beginning in 1820, composed in response to his long-term employment with the East India Company (37). Lamb’s London essays, which create a “link between literary and imperial writing”, illustrate a propensity for the unknown and “exotic objects” procured for England by its imperial endeavors (37-8). Fang refers to this representation of imperialism and exoticism in Lamb’s “Elia” essays as “opportunities for Romantic wonder” (38). Yet Fang teases Lamb’s “wonder” out of the apparently banal, especially in “Old China,” which figures the “aesthetic and cultural significance of [Oriental] porcelain” in Britain’s imperial and consumerist society (39). Fang claims that “[b]y including porcelain among more familiar Romantic pleasure of drama and painting”, “Old China” is converted from “a household item usually trivialized as a decorative – and therefore minor – art” into an object of a “contemporary consciousness with which imperial commodities are treated by Lamb in the London” (38-9). This arises from her observation that Lamb treats porcelain as “symbolic of the upward mobility possible through imperial expansion” (41). This idea of “imperial expansion” in “Old China” is strengthened by a brief, yet crucial analysis of Marx. Fang draws from the concept of commodity fetishism to advance her examination of the teacup as “symbolic” of the British Empire’s dependence on foreign expansion and commodities, which is subsequently rendered a fetish by Elia, providing an “ekphrastic pleasure … as he gazes upon its ornamental decorations as if it were a telescopic window into China itself” (46-7). This vision of the Orient as Lamb renders it in “Old China” lends itself to a new vision of England’s expansion.