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Feminisms and Romanticisms:Elizabeth Fay, A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism. Oxford: Blackwells, 1998. ISBN: 0-631-19895-4. Price: £17.70 (US$24.95).Judith Pascoe, ed., Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000. ISBN: 1-55111-201-9. Price: US$15.95 (£8.95).

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe

…plus d’informations

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe
    University of Warwick

Corps de l’article

In 1988, when Anne Mellor's Romanticism and Feminism appeared, a 'feminist' approach to Romantic studies meant little more than identifying forgotten women writers, and as valuable and necessary as that enterprise was (and still is), it often lacked a theoretical base, an informed understanding of what women wrote, individually rather than as types. Mellor's collection, of course, introduced scholars to an inflected theorizing of women's writing as well as a new way of approaching the traditional canon. In the more than ten years since this groundbreaking volume, there has been a flowering of theorizing, and readers are becoming familiar with the need to read women in as individual and nuanced a way as we read men. In the two books that are the subject of this review, reading women is the focus and the impetus. Each author pursues her subject through the byways of history and literary culture. Both authors draw from a wealth of information. Judith Pascoe's Selected Poems of Mary Robinson is an exemplary case; Elizabeth Fay's A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism, alas, is not.

Fay's book, as the title suggests, is addressed to the student reader (whether undergraduate or more advanced is not made clear). As such, she has the difficult task of both presenting 'Romanticism', itself an unwieldy category, to a broad audience and doing so following a specific critical agenda, while also not alienating readers who may be hostile to what they perceive as an unwarrantedly 'political' approach. She divides her chapters so they cover what she represents as the main Romantic concerns: 'politics, the Gothic, intellectuality, and visuality' (p. 233). She identifies 'two main attitudes of Romanticism, sincerity and irony', and adds a third which she discovers in women writers, 'critique' (p. 233). Each chapter sets out to show how women participated in the same kinds of thinking as the men did, and how they have been unfairly left out of the canon solely due to their sex. While few feminists would dispute this conclusion, it is nonetheless a very rigid one; moreover, this stance ensures that the women Fay studies are presented as thoroughly relational, reactionary to the men writing during their time, and hence never capable of originating an imaginative stance; indeed, Fay makes this plain when she positions women writers as thinking 'about themselves as poets speaking to men, and so to the nation' (p. 96). This sits uncomfortably in a chapter that has set up the Bluestockings as a coterie of women speaking to each other, but this is just one of the contradictions built into this book. For Fay, Romanticism is actually a rather easily defined period/movement, populated by male writers who devise and female writers who critique what the male writers have devised. While this provides an attractive binary on which to hang Romanticism, it does not serve its student readership well. Ignoring the complexities of Romanticism, it suggests to inexperienced readers that a feminist reading only ever seeks out how women react to men. The idea that men may react to women, or women to women, does not enter the picture drawn by this book.

Furthermore, Fay runs into trouble whenever she attempts to generalise, whether about Romanticism, or feminism, or women writers. Sweeping statements of fact lead into general conclusions, none of which are adequately backed up. For instance, Romanticism itself is presented as a largely uncontested 'fact': women writers are described as reacting to Romanticism, to its themes and concerns, as if Romanticism itself was a fully defined entity during what we call the Romantic period. To be fair, Fay does acknowledge that Romanticism was created by critics beginning in the nineteenth century, but this occurs some way into the book; as with other terms ('High Romanticism', 'Bluestocking'), Fay has already used the term loosely by the time she defines it, and does not stop doing so after the definition. For a text aimed at students, this is problematic. It is a further problem that the individual readings of texts are so sketchy and incomplete, even oblique. Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman is flattened into a text only about 'rights', defined from a late twentieth-century perspective; in the discussion of Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story it is never even clear that Miss Milner, who in Fay's account retains that name until her death, marries Dorriforth; Austen's Northanger Abbey both points out the quiddity of the Gothic by asserting that women are no longer subject to its dangers, and shows the dangers to which they are subject to be 'Gothic' (a fair point but made so confusingly as to sound like a contradiction). Genre is also presented unsubtly: in her discussion on the Gothic, it has completely replaced sensibility and is asserted several times to be 'representative' of Romanticism (unfortunately, each time it is for a different reason). Even the helpful categories of Gothic that Fay develops are presented confusingly, invading each others' sections: hence, the 'psychological Gothic' first appears in the section ostensibly devoted to the 'social critique Gothic'.

But most troubling of all are the sheer number of errors in the text. Clearly, Fay has had to do a vast amount of reading to write this book, but one wonders if she has done enough, and had enough time to double-check the volume before publication. Setting aside problematic or questionable statements: Angelica Kauffmann is called the only founder of the Royal Academy not to be made President, and this is set down to her sex (p. 21; what about Mary Moser?); Mansfield Park is dated to 1874 (p. 32); Charlotte Smith is said to have married at 15 because her father died (p. 84; actually, he remarried); 'Beachy Head' is said to refer 'to a landing point on the Channel crossing from France' (it is, of course, a famous headland) and is also called a 'beach summit' (p. 85); Smith is stated to have written six novels (p. 84; she wrote 10, which total itself does not include her narratives for children or her translations); 'Beachy Head' is said to 'represent a confidence that Britain can present a strong defense against Napoleon' (p. 85; as Matthew Bray and others have shown, it is more concerned to validate France to the British than the reverse); Felicia Hemans's poem 'Arabella Stewart' is said not to show Arabella's madness (p. 130; it does); the American Revolution is presented as a 'contemporary event' to 1793 (p. 132); Victoria and Zofloya in Charlotte Dacre's novel are said to become lovers and have 'sexual relations' (p. 136; they don't); Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men is called a 'second manifesto for women's human rights' (p. 168); Reynolds's portrait of Sarah Siddons, while identified correctly in the picture's caption, is said to be by George Romney in the text (p. 191); Anna Letitia Barbauld is presented as a champion of women's rights and aware of her marginality as a woman writer on p. 87, but by p. 169 Fay can state that Barbauld 'does not see herself within a female literary tradition of women writing against gender constraints….[she] ignores women's condition'; even the actress is first described as popularly identified with the prostitute and then as immune to the male gaze (pp. 198, 227). There are more. The reader is left with a picture of too many misinformed students. While Fay's book can present good, persuasive and interesting readings and make good points about feminism, this is not enough to make up for its shortcomings. In the end, a feminist approach to Romanticism, as introduced by this book, can only seem to see women writers as adjuncts to a male literary tradition, forever critiquing, never creating.

It is a relief to turn, then, to Judith Pascoe's meticulously researched, intelligent, informed and nuanced edition of Mary Robinson's poems. A far more effective feminist introduction, Pascoe's edition shows Robinson to be a poet at the center of a Romanticism that is never easily defined, even as Robinson herself couldn't be. Poet, novelist, courtesan, celebrity, philosopher, and social critic, Robinson, like many of her female contemporaries, wrote in most of the genres popular at the time; she helped in the resurgence of the sonnet's popularity; she contributed to the Della Cruscan rage; she reformulated the poetic persona as endlessly flexible and hugely creative. Pascoe includes selections from all Robinson's poetic publications, including her newspaper poetry, which in itself represents much original research and many hours spent in newspaper libraries. The accomplished sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon (1796) and the riposte to the Lyrical Ballads, Lyrical Tales (1800) are presented in full, allowing the reader to gain an informed understanding of two key Romantic texts. Pascoe's footnotes to the poetry are helpful and informative, while never taking over from Robinson's own intelligent, self-aware, and elegant poetry. The appendices allow the reader to gain an enhanced appreciation of Robinson and her importance to her contemporaries, reproducing letters to her publisher, to Godwin, and to the author Jane Taylor; Coleridge's poetic responses to Robinson; and key reviews of her works. The volume is also well-illustrated with Maria Cosway's illustrations to 'The Wintry Day', engraved by Caroline Watson. Finally, the publication histories of Robinson's poems are included, representative of years of literary detective work and of massive importance to scholars who want to place Robinson alongside her contemporaries.

Pascoe's authoritative Introduction, however, may well be (beside the poems themselves) the edition's masterpiece. Full of extracts from letters, many of them available only in manuscript at a variety of archives, this introduction is not only elegantly and fluently written but represents the best kind of literary history. All the essential facts are there, and speculation is well-supported; Robinson's literary life is laid out succinctly and yet thoroughly. Pascoe's knowledge of Robinson is grounded in her scrupulous and methodical investigation of the primary sources; she has probably done more with these sources than any other scholar studying Robinson today. But the Introduction is not simply a wealth of factual information; it also contains some astute analysis of Robinson's poems and especially her poetic relationships with the Della Cruscans and with Coleridge.

Broadview editions are rightly recognised as containing the best of both worlds: they are appropriate for use in the undergraduate classroom, since they are affordable and accessible, and they give scholars the opportunity to consult texts that would otherwise be available only in specialist collections. Pascoe's edition adds to these considerations a structure and editorial content that is critically rigorous and intellectually admirable. Without making an overt point of it, this text serves as an especially effective feminist introduction to Romanticism. A woman's writing is given back to us, creativity intact, centrality evident. Not merely reacting to a style always already in place, Robinson emerges as a leading, even founding voice of what we now recognise as Romanticism.