Karen Fang, Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs: Periodical Culture and Post-Napoleonic Authorship

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Karen Fang, Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs: Periodical Culture and Post-Napoleonic Authorship (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010). 248 pp. (Cloth; ISBN: 978-0-8139-2874-6; $35.00).

Reviewed by
Luke Iantorno
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.

In Chapter Two, “Deciphering the Private Memoirs: James Hogg’s Napoleon Complex,” Fang examines a different side of periodical culture by examining French imperialism under Napoleon, as well as the tribulations of Hogg’s collaboration with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Fang divides this chapter into two parts. First, Fang discusses the “exotic materialism” (67) in Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824); second, she discusses the defamation of Hogg in Blackwood’s “Noctes Ambrosianae” (1822), which caricatured Hogg as “an unlettered figure, incapable of writing anything of literary merit” (82). The main point of this chapter is Fang’s contention that current scholarship on Hogg’s Memoirs does not significantly realize the novel as an allegory for his “Chaldee Manuscript,” which Hogg wrote for “the first issue of Blackwood’s” (66-7). Fang places the Memoirs in the context of her discussion of British imperialism by examining certain imperial and material tropes of the Napoleonic Empire that, similar to Lamb’s “Old China,” bring a form of exoticism to British periodical culture (67). In contrast to Lamb’s exoticism of the Orient, Hogg evokes “Napoleonic Egyptology” (68) in his “Manuscript” that Fang understands as a result of Hogg’s “Scottish nationality and the power that Egypt exercised in the British national imaginary” (76) after Napoleon. Thematically, one aspect of this Egyptian exoticism is invoked with the appearance of “the mummified body of Robert Wringhim”, the main character of the novel (67). In Fang's very clever analysis, Hogg reinvents Scotland in his “Chaldee Manuscript” as an exotic artifact that induces a Biblical mystique (71-2). Fang supports this view by claiming that Hogg’s evocation of “Napoleonic Egyptology” in the “Manuscript” registers in his use of “verbal ciphers to reference Edinburgh personalities by replacing their proper names with oblique descriptions” (75). Interestingly, Fang contends that the “actual text formally resembles the Rosetta Stone by ingeniously evoking Egyptian hieroglyphs” (75). The examination of Hogg’s “Manuscript” as a Rosetta Stone-like artifact makes for a compelling read, as Fang frames it within representations of Scottish nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars. Fang points out that Scottish participation in the British Empire in North Africa “marked a shift […] toward British occupation, and hence a shift in Scottish interest in Egypt” (76), which lead to Hogg’s appropriation of imperial triumphalism and the figure of the Rosetta Stone to construct his own authorial identity (90-1).

Chapters Three and Four, “’But Another Name for Her Who Wrote’: Corinne and the Making of Landon’s Giftbook Style,” and “Only ‘a Little above the Usual Run of Periodical Poesy’: Byron’s Island and the Liberal,” focus again on the “conflat[ion] [of] geography and textuality” in post-Napoleonic periodicals (142). Fang’s discussion of Letitia Landon focuses primarily on the author’s “work in the giftbooks and literary annuals”, and maintains that Landon is “not known for […] topical or political commentary” (104). This willfully de-politicized stance might seem to make Landon an awkward fit--yet it allows Fang to foreground the other side of the “empire of signs.” Fang accomplishes this with her assertion that Landon “cannot be identified with a distinct imperial position”, yet Landon’s adaptation of Madame de Staël’s Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807) illustrates the “domesticating and diffusing [of] Napoleonic history” (105-6). Likewise, as with Lamb and Hogg, Fang is quick to show that Landon still “capitalizes upon current imperial and political motifs to advance her profile within the contemporary periodical press” (106). Similar to Hogg’s use of the Rosetta Stone to propel his own authorship, Landon’s adaptation of de Staël’s “Napoleonic novel” illustrates the continuing appropriation of the exotic for British consumption (107). This ongoing discussion of consumer culture and the periodical is examined further in the chapter by explaining how “giftbooks and annuals traffic in a fundamentally value-added aesthetic” (109). Fang examines this “aesthetic” in the annuals by providing readers with a brief, yet informative overview on the costs of giftbooks, as well as their propensity of bringing “conceits of material value” to consumers (110). The types of conceit manifested in such giftbooks include “material emblems” such as flowers or jewels that exemplify the “material tendencies underlying much late Romantic periodical culture” (110). Fang draws the reader’s attention to just such conceits in Landon’s Corinne. Landon’s adaptations of de Staël for English audiences are reminiscent of Lamb and Hogg, whose literary exploits in “Old China” and the “Chaldee Manuscript” pay special attention to an exotic object of desire. Just as the giftbooks are devoted “to a beautiful or precious object” for British readers to consume, Landon’s use of Staël’s novel as a “Napoleon-era artifact” to build up her own career as a writer brings the exoticism of Italy into British parlors (116-7). Fang’s inclusion of Landon’s less explicit “motifs” places her contributions in the framework of the “empire of signs,” as well as offering readers new scholarship on Landon’s work in annuals.

Fang contextualizes Byron’s work for the Liberal by pointing out “the journal’s history as an English periodical largely composed and edited outside of British shores”, which “reversed the usual trajectory of the form to a nation’s readers” (143). Byron’s composition of The Island while abroad in Italy illustrated the importation of the exotic to British consumers in the form of text. At the same time, Fang turns her attention to the anti-imperial aspects of Byron’s life and his Island, which includes his “anti-imperial involvement with the Carbonari” during the Greek War of Independence (145). This anti-imperial facet of Byron’s life resonates in The Island, as the poem itself echoes the detrimental nature of empire, yet at the same time “relies on a timeless romantic notion” of the exotic (155). Similar to the importation of China and Egypt as exotic ideals in English periodical culture by Lamb and Hogg, Byron brings the exoticism of the South Seas to consumers. Byron’s poem, which retells the 1789 mutiny on the HMS Bounty, juxtaposes the exotic and the imperial. Fang emphasizes this idea further by examining the historical implications of the mutiny itself, as the South Seas represent a “modern emblem of undisturbed nature," while "also portraying the inescapable power of contemporary imperialism” (157). It is this construction of the exotic as an ideal, yet ultimately corruptible state which Byron critiques in The Island. Byron’s anti-imperial sentiment arises from the concept that the South Seas, while subject to British imperialism after Cook’s voyages, were viewed as a “prelapsarian Eden” which provided “abundance without labor and consumption without commerce” (154-160). It is this “prelapsarian” ideal that Byron evokes in The Island for a British audience, and ultimately wishes to defend from imperial expansion.

Fang’s impressive and thought-provoking examination of post-Napoleonic periodical culture in Britain offers Romantic scholars insight into the lives of writers who internalized their experiences of empire, no matter how direct or oblique, and capitalized on those encounters for professional advancement. Fang’s Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs not only provides readers with an overview of periodicals in Britain, but offers fascinating biographical and historical information that will undoubtedly prove useful for scholars of print culture, empire, and commodity culture in the later Romantic period.

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