UNLEARNING ROMANTICISM, LEARNING REGENCY LITERATURE

As part of preparing for my Winter-Spring course on Romanticism, I have been reading Duncan Wu’s incisive 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). I’m inwardly smiling at how little the world may care for a crisis involving a middle-aged woman teacher suddenly discovering that she has to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Romanticism. But, well, this is the crisis I’m going through. I feel blessed and fortunate to be sharing it with my co-teachers, David Owen and Carme Font, who have been in charge of the course for several years. This crisis is already resulting in very fruitful discussion with them, and I am certainly benefitting from their experience and insights: David specializes in Austen, Carme is an expert on women writers of the 18th century, so you see what great company I keep!

I do not intend to comment here on all the thirty myths–a kind word for lies–that Wu destroys with his razor-sharp scholarship. Some are ideas which every self-respecting feminist has been battling for years (myth 25: ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein’); others are a matter of common sense, for it is obvious that myth 5, ‘the Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses’, is nonsense. Almost as barefaced as myth 6, ‘Romantic poems were produced by spontaneous inspiration’. Funnily, the myths about Byron are the ones I cannot stop thinking of, mostly because Wu is quite brutal with poor George Gordon. I accept with no problem, except Wu’s barely concealed homophobia, that Byron was a fat queen who preferred 15-year-old boys to women. Yet the demolition job applied to myth 19, ‘Byron was a “noble warrior” who died fighting for Greek freedom’, ends with a truly pathetic image: that of the poet dying in Greece not in the battlefield but at home, bled to death by incompetent physicians treating him for a fever caught from a tic in his dirty pet Newfoundland, Lyon. This is indeed the complete antithesis of Romanticism!

I must say that myth 14, ‘Jane Austen had an incestuous relationship with her sister’–Cassandra and the author shared a bed for 25 years, it seems–though improbably lurid made me reconsider again a nagging suspicion: Austen may have been a lesbian mocking the heterosexual women of her class, desperately seeking enslavement by the gentlemen of 1810s. An idea to consider when I teach Pride and Prejudice… with much care, for this is what Wu is attacking: using speculation and misinformation as the basis of scholarship. One thing is inviting students to consider ‘what if…?’ Jane Austen had been a lesbian, and quite a different matter is accepting with no proof that this was her sexual identity and, hence, this is how we should read her books. If you find this second option preposterous (which it is!) then you’ll be as surprised as I have been to discover that most assumptions about Romanticism are of that kind: empty bubbles very easy to puncture if only the right bibliography is read. For that is Wu’s main message–if scholars worried to check their sources, the myths would not be perpetuated. An extremely important point to make in the age of fake news.

I’ll quote two passages from Wu’s ‘Introduction’ that call for a profound reflection. ‘What we call Romantic’, Wu observes, ‘might more accurately be called Regency Wartime Literature were we to backdate the Regency, as some historians do, to 1788’ (xiv). Anyone who has studied the early 19th century knows that, properly speaking, it begins in 1789 with the French Revolution and includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). I read a while back the twenty-two volumes by Patrick O’Brien narrating the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin at sea during those wars, but even so I still find it problematic to connect Romanticism with war.

The problem also affects our understanding of Modernism (roughly 1910-1939) for similar reasons: the name attached to a particular movement is used for a historical period, thus breaking the neat monarch-based chronology of English Literature. ‘Victorian Literature’ (1837-1901) should be preceded indeed by ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’ but, then, it is also followed by a mess of labels in the early 20th century which contemplate Edwardian and Georgian as periods but then get lost into Modernism and Post-Modernism (rather than the Second Elizabethan Age!). The point not to forget, however, is that Romanticism belongs in the Regency Period and that this was beset by revolution and war, as was Modernism (WWI, 1914-18; Irish uprising, 1916; Russian Revolution, 1917).

The second passage: ‘The point is that the contemporary perspective was different from our own. Today Jane Austen is one of the most popular novelists of all time but in 1814 no one thought she would occupy that status, nor did they suspect an obscure engraver named Blake would 150 years later be hailed as a literary and artistic genius’ (xv-xvi). The writers that Wu names as popular, best-selling names in Regency Wartime Literature (let’s start using the label) are not at all part of the canon that has survived, in which mostly unknown names with some exceptions (Byron, Scott) shine. I suspect that Wu cheats a little when he claims that ‘The current popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner would have been unimaginable to the scattered few who heard of them when they first appeared’ (xvi, my italics), for I believe that their fame soon grew (or am I perpetuating a myth?). Yet the point he makes is equally relevant. What survives from the past is a haphazard selection no person then living could foresee. If we could bring back a handful of common readers from the early 19th century they would be as amused (or dismayed) by our preferences as we’re certain to be should we return from death in the 23rd century. What great fun it is to guess who will survive!! I wonder that gambling houses are not already offering the chance to bet, for the benefit of our descendants…

Why do the myths persist? Wu replies that ‘The limpet-like persistence of some myths may be related to the illusion they draw the Romantics closer to us’ (xviii) but I’m not quite convinced. It might even be the other way round: Wu’s presentation of Byron as a flamboyant homosexual feels somehow more relatable than his reputation as a heterosexual Don Juan; likewise, his middle-class Keats, the well-educated Medicine student, makes more sense than the working-class apprentice apothecary killed off by a review. Wu, then, is the one approaching the Romantics to our time while debunking old and new myths (lesbian Austen!). Rather, what seems to be happening is that since the instability of the label ‘Romantic’ makes it impossible to understand what Romanticism truly was, we clutch at the myths, even knowing they’re lies. At least they form a coherent body of knowledge, fossilized into respectability first by the Victorian critics and scholars, and later by all the rest until our days. The myths, in short, are convenient and, as we know both as students and teachers, they’re also a convenient way to keep undergrads interested as they swallow with immense difficulties the poetry and the novels (we don’t even touch the Romantic plays).

Wu is at his most sarcastic when he highlights the ‘nuttiness of the thesis’ defended among others by John Lauritsen, according to which Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Why? Because any scholar who bothered to check the two volumes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–17, edited by Charles E. Robinson (1996) could see that a) Percy contributed little and b) of no interest. Wu is specially annoyed because most of the textual evidence required not to blunder and perpetuate myths is easily accessible online. The point that he is making is transparent: all our knowledge of English Literature, beyond Romanticism, relies on bad scholarship; even worse, despite the efforts made in recent decades to correct the most glaring mistakes/lies/myths, they are still being perpetuated because nobody really cares about the truth. You may be thinking, ‘well, I prefer my Byron thin, handsome, and a woman-eater’ but apply lazy scholarship to other fields and we might get ‘Stalin was never as big a genocidal tyrant as Hitler’, a myth we should question. For, you see?, if the History of Literature is based on almost indestructible myths, surely this also applies to History, only too easy to sum up as a pack of lies. Not what you want to do in Trump’s era.

How should we, then, teach Romanticism? There is no introduction yet that follows faithfully Wu’s volume, which means that we’re bound to teach still a myth-based version of Romanticism (a mythical version?!). I see little sense in teaching the myth and the truth together to students who know nothing about Romanticism, yet I don’t feel ready to incorporate fat queen Byron into my teaching–I might be starting another myth, for all I know. Then, as Google tells me, with two exceptions in minor colleges, everyone still uses the label ‘Romantic Literature’ rather than ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’, though I’d be happy to re-name our course at UAB. What Wu has produced, then, is a sort of intaglio effect in cameo carving, by which you see the figure as concave or convex, depending on the light. I have reached the point when the effect is visible but, to be honest, I don’t know how to proceed.

Well, I do know: hard study. I doubt, however, that I have before February the time it will take to undo 30 years of knowing the Romantic in the standard, clichéd way. And this is how myths survive: by acquiring partial, biased knowledge we are later too pressed for time–or too plain lazy!–to undo.

(PS: Now go and check myth 26, ‘Women writers were an exploited underclass–unknown, unloved, and unpaid’)

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

Romanticism: Doubts and Queries


Next semester I will be teaching again English Romantic Literature after a long lapse, spent teaching mainly Victorian Literature. I last taught Romanticism in the academic year 2004-5, which is really a long time ago–even though the 21st century produces this strange effect of making all yearly dates beginning with 20 seem just yesterday. Although to the layperson it might seem that the literary periods of the past stay static, the fact is that they are in constant turmoil because of expanding research. What Romanticism was back in 1988, when Prof. Guillermina Cenoz so beautifully taught it to my second-year undergrad class, is not the same Romanticism I taught in 2004. 14 years later, in 2018, Romanticism is, once more, quite a different construction. Or is it?

The way to gauge the changes in how a particular literary period is apprehended is to read the introductions aimed at students. In my undergrad years I learned Romanticism from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 2) and the truly splendid New Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford. The nine volumes are still in my office and I marvel at how dense they are–Ford and his collaborators assumed that undergrads were sophisticated readers, willing and happy to study what amounts to an extraordinarily long text. The last volume, if I am correct, was published in 1995 and put an end to a classic style of presenting information to students, before the emergence of theory seeped down to more basic levels and before identity politics wreaked havoc on the canon (or tried to). I’m not being nostalgic but just making a note of how academic fashions come and go.

We have been using as background reading for our second-year ‘Victorian Literature’ course Maureen Moran’s guide, simply called Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2007). When I write ‘using’ I mean that students are expected to read it in the first month and then pass a quiz. I must confess that my colleagues and I had great fun preparing the multiple choice questions, particularly the nonsensical option that should be discarded first (but that each year a handful of students do choose…). I have read, then, Sharon Ruston’s introduction in the same series, called Romanticism, to consider whether we could use it in a similar way. I have enjoyed it very much but there are a number of issues that worry me and that I would like to address here. One is the very construction of the books called introductions and the other is the resilience of the canon.

I have already written here two posts about the sub-genre of the introduction. One in 2011, on British theatre (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/09/like-a-crowded-party-reading-introductions-to-british-theatre/); the other just last year, 2017, about Scottish Literature (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/07/03/trying-to-catch-up-a-book-on-recent-scottish-literature/). I may be repeating, then, some of the arguments, though this topic always takes a slightly different angle depending on the material. Thus, last September 27, I attended the presentation of the volume edited by Teresa López-Pellisa, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española at Llibreria Gigamesh and you can see that the presenter, Prof. Miquel Barceló, spent a good deal of his talk wondering how such a dense volume should be read (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzgkedREkjg). I myself intervened to question whether a book is the ideal vehicle for an introduction, guide, or history but seeing Teresa’s concerned face (her publisher was in the room…) I quickly changed subject.

Historia… is very different from Ruston’s Romanticism yet they present similar problems because these are books that need to be studied, not just read. Miquel Barceló referred to Teresa’s excellent volume as a ‘reference book’ but this is not really what it is. His own Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura (the 2015 new edition based on his 1990 classic) is, for me, a reference book: you can read it from end to end or just dip into it for specific information. Of course, this is what he meant in relation to the 14 chapters in Historia… but even if you take each chapter separately, you still need paper and pen to make notes or, as I did, keep your tablet close by to check whatever you need to check. And here’s a problem (also with Ruston’s Romanticism): when I read books that survey a literary field, I need to see pictures as a memory aid–of authors, book covers, places, arts, you name it… Whether this is a thick 500+ page book (like Historia….) or a slim 150-page volume like Ruston’s, a survey which offers no illustrations is beginning to be problematic for me as a reader of the internet age. Imagine what the digital natives seating in our classrooms must think of so much print…

I’ll leave the ambitious Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española aside to focus on the introductions to literary periods for undergrads to claim that they should be offered, ideally, as hypertextual online resources most attractive to navigate. Now, the problem with the available resources (at least the ones I know of) is that either they are too basic, or too sprawling. Also, excuse me, antiquated. Look, for instance, at the very well-known Victorian Web. If you read the credits page, you will see that, basically the website’s configuration dates back to the mid 1990s. It has been growing magnificently in number of documents and now it offers versions in Spanish and French. But, although it is listed as one of the resources we recommend to our students, I’m very sorry to say that it is not really useful to them–it can even have the negative effect of overwhelming them. It is not my intention to criticize in any way what is, I insist, a wonder of the academic world but to question the inexistence of truly adequate, basic level introductions to literary periods and schools that can be safely recommended to undergrads.

Let’s see if I can explain myself better. Take Ruston’s book, with its four sections: 1. Historical, Cultural and Intellectual Context, 2. Literature in the Romantic Period, 3. Critical Approaches, and 4. Resources for Independent Study (including a chronology, a glossary of key concepts, and a bibliography). This is about 125 pages of text (parts 1, 2 and 3) and about 30 for part 4–a reasonably brief text, of a size that would adapt very well to the website format. The moment I started reading, I could see where the links to other online resources could be placed and where the pictures should be inserted; their absence grew louder as I read on and what appeared to be basic information started thickening into a lovely but very thick broth.

Half-way into the book, I understood what the problem is: Ruston has a marvellous understanding of the Romantic period and an impressive ability to offer a synthesis but she thinks as an expert academic and not as an undergrad student. Her introduction made perfect sense to me–as does Moran’s to the Victorian Age–because I already know what she is writing about and can, thus, enjoy the new twists and turns she has introduced in the canonical story I was handed down back in 1988. But I’m sure that our second year students approaching the Victorian age or Romanticism anew must be mostly baffled.

In Ruston’s volume there is, also, a perceptible tension between what is relevant and irrelevant, which is part of all introductions. Thus, no matter how amazing the Lunar Society (a Midlands scientific league of the most advanced minds of the time) seems to the author, I doubt that our students find the 3.5 pages about it relevant to the study of Wordsworth and company. This tension is, of course, most palpable in Ruston’s attempt to undo the vision of Romanticism as a period dominated by the poetry written by the six male geniuses (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats).

Our syllabus, as you may imagine, is focused on their poems (30% of the course) with the other two thirds devoted to celebrating women’s fiction, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Reading Ruston, however, I felt positively guilty that we strike such a poor gender balance in the poetry segment; then, at the same time I wondered whether I really want to teach Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith or Joanna Baillie instead of any of the six men. We might correct this by including in our booklet more poems by women but classroom time is awfully limited as it is. I realize that for others the real sin lies in not teaching Walter Scott’s novels but, again, if we had one year instead of one semester, we might include one of his books. As things are now, neither Mary Shelley nor Jane Austen are replaceable (at least to me).

A problem, then, is that if we really follow the picture that Ruston draws of the Romantic period and we radically alter the syllabus we run the risk of giving our students an impression that would not agree with the standard view. I do realize that we are changing the syllabus all the time: Frankenstein would have seemed an odd choice for the 1988 course I took. At the same time, I doubt very much that students will criticize us for not telling them about Hannah Moore–and the other way round: the experiment last year consisted of including the anti-slavery autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) to emphasize that the Romantic period was a time of abolitionist agitation. From what I’m told, students failed to be enthusiastic.

In an ideal situation, I would have the 70 students in my Romanticism class produce their own study materials, not in e-book form (as I have done in other courses) but as a small, limited, accessible website. This, I know, is pure madness for it requires an investment of time and digital know-how that I simply lack–and also because, guess what?, the result would not count as a Ministry-approved merit for my CV. A friend told me recently that publishing an introduction in book form has many advantages because this is a kind of text often quoted. I must stress, however, that the Spanish Ministry of Education, or, rather, the ANECA agency, does not rate introductions as valid research. Two friends, each the author of a valued introduction to their fields, have confirmed this point after failing their personal assessment exercise.

We, then, simply need to make do with what we can purchase or check online–which is, besides, produced in the anglophone world with no consideration of whether it is adaptable to other cultures. And hope that this will do for our students.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/