August 2000

Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte

Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte. London: Macmillan, 1997.  xii + 268pp. illus: 8 portrait plates. £50.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-69580-1).

Reviewed by
Simon Bainbridge
Keele University

"The great historical event of 1817," according to Harriet Martineau, was the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte Augusta, the twenty-one year old heiress to the throne and the daughter of the Prince of Wales. Martineau described the reaction to what was seen as a tragic event as follows: "never was a whole nation plunged in such deep and universal grief. From the highest to the lowest, this death was felt as a calamity that demanded the intense sorrow of domestic misfortune" (1). In Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte, Stephen C. Behrendt provides an extensive survey and scholarly examination of the many and varied for&ms taken by the extraordinary outpourings of grief for Charlotte, investigating particularly the appropriation and "commoditization" of Charlotte's death by "writers, clergymen, politicians, artists, artisans and commentators" (2). For Behrendt, whose previous work in the period has often focused on the relation between history and myth, Charlotte's death is not only a "great historical event" in which a potential political disaster was transformed into a "normative, ultimately calming event by a variety of cultural forces" (2), it is also a subject which enables us to study mythmaking—"the ways in which historical figures and events come to be invested with qualities of myth, not just by an intellectual and aesthetic elite but also by the general public" (23). For Behrendt, mythmaking is a process central to both the Romantic period and our own times, and the outpouring of literary and extra-literary responses to the princess's death "reveals what prove to be not historically remote (and isolated) but rather perennially compelling intellectual, spiritual and cultural impulses, which drive the mythologizing of a popular subject in times of domestic instability and cultural or spiritual crisis" (26). Behrendt's claim for the contemporary relevance of his study was underlined by the death of Princess Diana and the subsequent mourning, appropriation and commodification of her in the same year as the publication of Royal Mourning and Regency Culture.

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Medicine and Culture Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii + 374pp. illus: 17 line drawings, 2 halftones. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-6225-6).

Reviewed by
Timothy Morton
University of Colorado at Boulder

"As a study of the geographical dimension of disease during the Romantic period, Romanticism and Colonial Disease examines the role played in the making and unmaking of national identities by ideas about the geographical distribution of diseases and what kind of people were susceptible to them" (17). This is a modestly stated plan. But Alan Bewell's project, while posed as the recovery of empirical information, has a grander view than this: it is a strong work of ecocriticism.

Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature

Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xii + 297pp. illus: 30 halftones. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-59195-3). $22.95 (Pap; ISBN 0-521-64460-7).

Reviewed by
Christopher Braider
University of Colorado at Boulder

Karl Guthke's The Gender of Death surveys portrayals of death in European art and literature since the Middle Ages. As the title indicates, the organizing theme is gender. In both literary and visual images of what Guthke styles the "unimaginable"—a misleading term in that, unknowable as death may be, it is hardly unimaginable—a means of choice has been personification, giving death a human form. One consequence of this prosopopeic humanation is to assign death a gender reproducing the gendered state of humanity itself. So are there definite rules, codes, or regularities governing which gender death takes? More specifically, to cite the theoretical question that opens the book, "is Death a woman?" And if death is not always a woman—and Guthke's survey amply documents that it is not—what determines which gender is chosen in any given instance? Is it, for example, a function of grammatical gender—the fact that death is a "feminine" noun in some languages and "masculine" in others? And once the mass of historical evidence Guthke marshals has compelled us to acknowledge that there is in fact no fixed correlation between grammatical gender and the gender of death, what other cultural influences might explain the relative emphases observed as we move from one culture or period to the next?

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. Ed. Iain McCalman

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. General Editor, Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  xiii + 780pp. illus: 110 halftones. $150/£85 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-812297-7).

Reviewed by
Alex Benchimol
University of Glasgow

It is the subtitle to An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age that signals its intended function as an introduction to the cultural history of the period from the American Declaration of Independence to the Great Reform Act. In the breadth of its investigations into all manner of cultural practice in the Romantic age, this new volume serves as a fitting culmination to the recent trend towards multidisciplinarity in Romantic period studies. Through general editor Iain McCalman's judicious assemblage of over forty major essays that bring together literary,cultural, social, economic, and art historians under one cover, this critical companion avoids offering a reductive definition of Romantic cultural practice, and thus the volume might be considered the first post-Romanticist scholarly companion for the Romantic age;that is, while taking up the material of the period we have called "romantic,"the volume moves beyond the Romantic ideology mapped by Jerome McGann and embraces the new inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the field, beyond the standard Romanticist focus on textual issues in canonical poetry. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Agecaptures the conflicted intellectual spirit of the field, as recent work has unsettled the traditional sense of "Romanticism" as a privileged area of study focused on the canonical work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Blake. By institutionalizing the pluralist trend in Romantic period studies, this volume marks a key moment in the struggle to redefine our understanding of the culture of the Romantic age.

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. Eds. Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. 8 volumes. General Editors, Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee.  London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1999.  3,200pp (chiefly facsimile). £595.00/$950.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-851-96513-0).

Reviewed by
Charlotte Sussman
University of Colorado at Boulder

Few political movements can have spent so much energy worrying about the relationship between literature and other kinds of materials than the British antislavery movement, or invested so much faith in their forceful interaction. In the course of "Slavery. A Poem" (1788), for example, Hannah More undertakes an investigation of the power of poetry alongside her indictment of British slavery. She calls upon not only "Liberty" and "Freedom," for inspiration, but also upon the author of the dramatic version of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn's narrative of slave rebellion: "O, plaintive Southerne! whose impassion'd strain / So oft had wak'd my languid Muse in vain! / Now, when congenial themes her cares engage, / She burns to emulate thy glowing page[.]" More thus implies that her poem's political efficacy will spring from its ability to carry the emotional impact of a play. A few lines later, however, she rejects the affect of "bright invention": "For no fictitious ills these numbers flow, / But living anguish, and substantial woe; / No individual griefs my bosom melt, / For million feel what Oroonoko felt." Even here, though, it seems as if the millions of actual slaves merely mimic the feelings of the fictional hero. The poem suggests that an understanding of "real" suffering depends on the powers of representation, even as its narrator insists on the primacy of experience: "Rhetoric or verse may point the feeling line, / They do not whet sensation but define." In this way, More, along with many in the antislavery movement, implicitly celebrates print culture, and the inherent value of the written record. Of abolition, she says "What page of human annals can record / A deed so bright as human rights restor'd? / O may that god-like deed, that shining page, / Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!"

Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.  xi + 278pp. $34.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8262-1221-2).

Reviewed by
G. Kim Blank
University of Victoria, British Columbia

Quite early in his writing career, Percy Bysshe Shelley came to accept, with varying amounts of resignation, resentment, and disappointment, that he was more or less writing for posterity—not that this ever stopped him from wanting to reform his own world, or from confronting hypocrisy, injustice, and tyranny. Once an idealist, always an idealist—well, it helps considerably if you die young. Shelley knew this very well, fatalistically prefacing his first mature poem, Alastor (1816), with a few lines from Wordsworth's Excursion (1814):

                    The good die first,
And those whose hearts are as dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.

Shelley ironically turns Wordsworth's own words against his older and now disappointing contemporary, who, as Shelley laments in his sonnet to Wordsworth, was as good as dead anyway; as for those dry-hearted survivors, Shelley may well have had in mind his contemporary reviewers. Kim Wheatley's Shelley and His Readers examines the relationship between Shelley and his contemporary reviewers, sensibly noting that in his early writing Shelley's radicalism is openly oppositional, resulting in equally oppositional reviews, while later poems, like Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, remain radical but sometimes manage to subvert or divert the reviewers' reactionary responses with their highly aestheticized form. The result, then, of poetry like Shelley's might be to encourage readers to separate the political from the aesthetic.