Romantic Circles Reviews

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?

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.

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.

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).

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.

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).

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).

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.)

Jane Girdham, English Opera in Late-Eighteenth Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane

Jane Girdham, English Opera in Late-Eighteenth Century London: Stephen Storace at Drury Lane. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.  xiv + 272pp. illus: 5 halftones, 8 tables, 29 score samples. $89.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-816254-5).

Reviewed by Alex J. Dick
University of Toronto

Scholars of Romantic-period theater have done much of late to demystify artistic creation by highlighting the material contingencies of stage production. Those processes of theatrical production are now seen, in turn, to havebeen instrumental in forming the ideals and ideologies that we associate with Romanticism. Theater does not represent culture; rather, it is a culture industry. Theatrical music, by contrast, has remained for the most part something of an enigma. Jane Girdham's study of the life, career, and works of Stephen Storace, the de facto composer-in-residence at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane from 1787 until his premature death in 1796, goes a long way toward clarifying the dynamics and the importance of music to early Romantic theater. The rigorous historical and archival orientation of this book does not achieve the critical potential apparent in many of its findings.  Nevertheless, it provides a clear and useful view of just how complex stage performance and theatrical management were in the late eighteenth century.

Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth's Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production and John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s.

Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth's Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. xii + 454 pp. illus. $49.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-2902-6).
John Rieder, Wordsworth's Counterrevolutionary Turn: Community, Virtue, and Vision in the 1790s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997. 273 pp. $41.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87413-610-5).

Reviewed by
Margaret Russett
University of Southern California

The theses of John Rieder's and Thomas Pfau's recent books present striking parallels, a fact that reflects at least as much on the theoretical climate both critics inhabit as it does on their shared topical focus. Although it may be unsurprising to find similarities between two studies of Wordsworth—each of which, moreover, concentrates on a limited number of works from early in the poet's career—more notable are the ways each positions itself as post-New Historicism, even while insisting on the rigorous articulation of historical context. For both critics, this stance involves a renewed attention to the category of the aesthetic, defined not as the evasion or mystification of history but as the precise and determinate response to questions posed at the level of material circumstance. The cultivation of aesthetic (i.e., "literary") experience, argue Pfau and Rieder, constitutes the particular ideological project of the middle class in its late-eighteenth century period of consolidation. What Pfau calls the "virtual commodity" of "unselfconscious aesthetic interest" (1, 65) surfaces in Rieder's account as, more simply, the "literary community held together . . . by poetry itself" (Rieder 216–17). The construction of literature as an autonomous domain thus solves a "problem of cohesion or social totality" which (Rieder 46), because it cannot be addressed by the available modes of political representation, instances the modern concept of class itself.