Romantic Circles Reviews

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!"

Tags: 

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.

Tags: 

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?

Tags: 

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.

Tags: 

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.

Tags: 

James Watt, Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764–1832

James Watt, Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 33.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.  x + 205 pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-64099-7).

Reviewed by
Diane Long Hoeveler
Marquette University

In a valuable new study of the gothic, Watt claims that he wants to "take issue with received accounts of the genre as a stable and continuous tradition." His stated intention is to depict the gothic as a "heterogeneous body of fiction, characterised at times by antagonistic relations between various writers or works" (i). Given the mass of critical studies published in the past five years or so on the gothic that adopt a historicist perspective, such as Emma Clery's The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), this is not as original or startling a claim as Watt seems to believe, but Watt's book does bring some exciting archival material to the project, and for that reason alone the book is new and grounded in historical material we have not seen before. His stated foci are: 1) "Walpole's attempt to forge an aristocratic identity"; 2) the "loyalist affiliations of many neglected works of the 1790s"; 3) the "subversive reputation of The Monk"; 4) "the ways in which Radcliffean romance proved congenial to conservative critics"; 5) the status of Scott within the gothic; and (6) the "process by which the Gothic came to be defined as a monolithic tradition" (i).

Tags: 

Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, eds., Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion

Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, eds., Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.  xii + 475 pp. illus: 19 halftones, 7 score samples. $69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8223-2077-0).   $24.95 (Pap.; ISBN: 0-8223-2091-6).

Reviewed by
Bridget Keegan
Creighton University

Subtitled "A Critical Companion," the Lessons of Romanticism, edited by Thomas Pfau and Robert Gleckner, does not accompany any new anthology of Romantic "primary" works (although a glimpse at the table of contents reveals a more expansive understanding of what constitutes a Romantic text). Rather, the volume serves as a worthy companion to anyone engaged in the advanced study or teaching of the field. This collection of essays powerfully illustrates the variety, vitality, and continued viability of the study of a period that has—somewhat perilously of late—tended to define itself precisely by questioning its very status as a period. Without ignoring that (un)defining question, Lessons of Romanticism ought to put to rest any remaining questions about the future of the field. Such questions seemed particularly acute in 1994, the year during which the papers that became the Lessons of Romanticism were first delivered at the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism conference. That very November, only five positions out of the several hundred advertised in the MLA Job Information List had designated "Romanticism" as an area of specialization, granting a new urgency to the question of not just how but whether Romanticism could still be taught or studied.

Tags: 

Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush

Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.  ix + 197pp.  illus.  $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8223-1903-9).  $17.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8223-1895-4).

Reviewed by
Laura Mooneyham White
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Mary Ann O'Farrell's Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth Century English Novel and the Blush extends an already burgeoning line of Foucauldian analyses of the connection between the social and somatic through a study of the blush, that physiological response so readily employed in nineteenth-century novels as a sign of a character's real feelings—shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, or erotic interest. O'Farrell works throughout to distinguish between the expressive blush, a sign of "deep personal truth (expressive of character, of self, of the body)" and the mechanistic and/or social blush, a blush that arises as "the appropriate local response to and inevitable product of the pressure of social circumstance" (111). She argues that the use of the blush in the nineteenth-century English novel becomes increasingly complex, undermined, and reconfigured as authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James work through their growing awareness of the blush as mechanical, concomitantly losing a faith in the more innocent expressive blush, as well as losing faith in the blush as novelistic device. Extending her discussion to other forms of somatic telling (stumbling, swooning, the scar), O'Farrell argues that each new device which attempts to reclaim a simple expressivity becomes convoluted with cultural twists almost as soon as it is deployed, whether the device at issue is the scar on Rosa Dartle's mouth in David Copperfield or the recurrent stumbles and fumbles of Margaret Hale, the heroine of Gaskell's North and South. O'Farrell is particularly adept at showing this authorial discomfort with the blush as device in her discussion of Dorothea in Eliot's Middlemarch, rightly noting that Eliot describes Dorothea as blushing more than several dozen times in the novel while nonetheless maintaining as narrator a contradictory belief that Dorothea is a character who does not blush, or blush much: what Dorothea's "blush tells is what the silliest of novelistic blushes have long been known to tell . . . [but] Eliot's desire to assert the rarity of Dorothea's blush registers her own irritation with a blush that has been debased and robbed of expressivity by convention" 120–21).

Tags: 

Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition

Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.  xii + 278pp. illus. $64.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-57259-2).

Reviewed by
Michael Scrivener
Wayne State University

The question with which Janowitz begins her very stimulating consideration of Romantic literature—"Can we extricate ourselves enough from romantic presuppositions to produce a history of romanticism?"—does not lead her to an epistemologically oriented inquiry under the sign of either Derrida or Althusser or Foucault. Her study is neither a self-conscious performance of a Romantic and futile attempt to escape a Romantic logic (deconstruction), nor a strenuous act of intellectual disciplining whereby the wheat of scientific knowledge can be separated from the chaff of ideology (ideological critique). Rather, she draws a new map of Romanticism that includes these—and other—recent approaches within a "unified field" whose coordinates are determined ultimately by "debate" and "unrelieved tension" (1).

Tags: 

Jonathan David Gross, ed., Byron's "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne

Jonathan David Gross, ed., Byron's "Corbeau Blanc": The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.  xiii + 488pp. illus. $24.95 (Pbk; ISBN: 0-89263-351-4).

Reviewed by
William D. Brewer
Appalachian State University

Lord Byron met Lady Melbourne (1751–1818) when she was sixty and he was twenty-four, and he came to regard her as his only "confidential correspondent on earth," "the best friend [he] ever had in [his] life, and the cleverest of women." He found her conversation delightful and declared that her letters were "the most amusing—the most developing—and tactiques [sic] in the world" (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 3:141–42, 3:209, 3:153). Jonathan Gross's edition of Lady Melbourne's correspondence makes her numerous letters to Byron, the Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), Caroline Lamb, her niece Annabella Milbanke (Lady Byron), and others widely available for the first time. He supplements the letters with an informative introductory biography, extensive headnotes and endnotes, a helpful "Glossary of Personalities," and sixty-five illustrations. The illustrations alone make this a valuable book: they include portraits of Lady Melbourne, her family members, and associates; photographs and drawings of her various houses; and political cartoons. Gross also provides the reader with a "Scale of Bon Ton" printed by the Morning Post which ranks Lady Melbourne and other upper-class women on a scale of 0–19 in the following categories: beauty, figure, elegance, wit, sense, grace, expression, sensibility, and principles. (Oddly, Lady Melbourne only scores a three in wit.)

Tags: 

Pages