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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 56, November 2009

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/1001109ar

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Reviews

Mike Goode. Sentimental Masculinity and the Rise of History 1790-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN: 9780521898591. Price: US$90

John Regan

University College, Dublin


1

Mike Goode describes a Romantic tradition of historiography centred around feeling, impassioned rhetoric, and written techniques designed to make vivid the scenes and characters of history. Aiming at both the faithful registration of fact and the conveyance of passion, the Romantic historiographer’s craft involved the emotional arousal of the reader; his or her engagement in the scenes about which they read.

2

As Goode argues, Victorian writers of history reacted against the seemingly contradictory Romantic combination of feeling and impartiality. They urged a return to empirical models of written practice: “Victorian academics, reacting against a Romantic tradition of historiography that allied itself with literature and feelings, began modelling the study of history after the sciences” (1). Goode contends that this Victorian reaction against more passionate and less scientific methods was too successful in occluding the considerable worth of the previous, more emotive models. Romantic histories of feeling have, in Goode’s opinion, languished for too long in obscurity after the effacing sweep of historical theory from the mid nineteenth century onwards.

3

Despite this contention, Goode’s avowed objective is not a full revival of Romantic historicism in the contemporary academy. Rather, he wishes to “review it through the lens of its Victorian-era rejection, with an eye towards understanding the intellectual and political history of how historians’ desires, pleasures, and feelings first began to feel out of place” (2). This is a salutary aim, and one which preferences nuance and sober comprehension rather than simple juxtaposition and the lazy narratives of opposition which could so easily have subsumed Goode’s project.

4

Chapter One offers a vivid preliminary survey of the competing claims of history, historicism and historiography over the past 100 years, staking a very clear and persuasive claim for the current need for our re-acquaintance with the often-neglected histories of the earlier nineteenth century. Goode argues that strong currents of Romantic influence can be felt in the writing of the new historians and literary critics, especially in that of arch new-historicist Stephen Greenblatt whose desire ‘to speak with the dead’ seems to couch what is a notably Romantic tendency toward emotive historical revivification in the restrained language of recent literary criticism.

5

Having initially emphasised “the importance that the earlier Romantic tradition had placed on feeling’s role in historical inquiry and historiography’, Goode then orientates his discussion around the issues of early nineteenth-century perceptions of masculinity” (1). Goode wants to chart the development of a discretely Romantic tradition of thought which “grounds historical epistemology in a thinker’s manliness and his capacity for feeling” (5). Chapters four and six describe this “epistemological shift” in thought “at the time of its [modern historiography’s] emergence” (2). Goode states that he wishes to chart “how this epistemological shift was enacted, and the discipline of history ultimately consolidated an idea, through a complex political and philosophical struggle over the nature and social importance of feeling, especially over the feeling of manliness” (3).

6

This theme is explored in a chapter entitled “Edmund Burke and the Erotics Of Romantic Historicism.” Here, Goode shows how Burke espoused the Romantic correlation of good history with a feeling manliness, and how even the satirists of the age failed to divest the period’s historiography from this notably Burkean system of historical values:

Pamhpleteers and caricaturists opposed to Burke in the 1790s actually consolidated the historical epistemology he espoused. As they brought a variety of satirical character types to bear on his ideal of the historian as a chivalric man of feeling, they challenged but also entrenched that ideal.

5

For the most part, Goode’s explanation of the implications of Romantic historical discourses for ideas and feelings of masculinity and femininity ring true. The great achievement of these passages is Goode’s creation of a sense that the cultural construction of masculinity is locked in a fascinating relationship of mutual influence with historical writing. Goode shrewdly plays up the gendered vocabulary of Romantic historiography, and in so doing builds a strong sense of the interrelation of the written forms of history and the complex construction (and deconstruction) of male selves in the time.

7

Goode’s most and least persuasive suggestions occur when he writes about Walter Scott; his writing and his impact on the historicist landscape. He observes a parallel between Scott’s own recent reinstatement at the heart of high-profile, sophisticated historicist readings of literature, and the development of some of his Waverley characters from vapid antiquarian obsessions to sober thought and rigid intellect:

[...] much of the past century’s history of Scott criticism can be read as an ironic replaying of a Waverley novel. The same literary figure that began the twentieth century with a reputation for being too Romantic, sentimental, and boyish has since been brought into contact with so many “world-historical” thinkers and influences that he now assumes a more grave and manly stature in relation to the history of British literature.

87

This is plausible, and one is happy to go along with it, because Goode is right when he writes that “The Scott of the last three decades in particular, or what Tony Bennett and Wai Chee Dimmock would call the dominant ‘reading formation’ of Scott since the 1980s, is at least as much a historicist theorist as he is an author of sentimental fiction” (88). In a sensitive reading of Scott’s fascinating history in academic discourse, Goode shows how Scott, culturally and commercially almost ubiquitous in his time, has only really returned to academic prominence with the increasing encroachment of historicist readings into the domain of literary criticism.

8

Chapter Four is dominated by several compelling readings of Scott’s entertaining 1816 novel The Antiquary. Goode reiterates Lukacs’s suggestion that:

[...] Scott did not plot each of them [his novels] around the history-making exertions of an exceptional “world-historical” individual but rather around a “mediocre hero.” Such a hero comes into contact with and mediates the various conflicting social forces of a particular historical moment and, in so doing, comes to stand in for the inevitability of human progress through “the antagonisms of classes and nations”.

87

Indeed, Jonathan Oldbuck, that most memorable central character of The Antiquary, is a fallible, pompous man of gratuitous antiquarian tastes. In the words of Scott’s near contemporary Hugh Blair, to focus on the obscure ancient forms of literature “ranked low among occupations” but, as Goode suggests, Oldbuck is someone for whom the reader can feel sympathy despite his overbearing demeanour and withering tendency toward antiquarian pedantry. Because of his fallibility, he is a curiously modern-feeling protagonist in a modern-feeling novel, and Goode is right to bring The Antiquary to further prominence.

9

Goode is not always so successful with his suggestions. At various points, he states that the vocabulary of Romantic-period historiography suggests not only a critical revivification of the figures of history, but a desire for an actual corporeal resurrection. At the outset of Sentimental Masculinity he quotes the “Dedicatory Epistle” from Ivanhoe, in which the author equates writing historical novels to bringing back to life “a body whose limbs had recently quivered with existence, and whose throat had but just uttered the last note of agony” (1). Goode goes on to state that “[H]is image of the archive as a battle field strewn with barely deceased corpses indicates how much more the Romantic historiographer wanted from the dead than mere speech” (1).

10

This couches too suggestively the idea that the Romantics wished for nothing less than actual, real rehabilitation of historical figures: “Scott may at times describe historical representation as a process of cultural translation, but he also speaks of it at length as a process of revivification and resuscitation of the dead for the living” (89). Despite acknowledging the metaphorical nature of these Romantic claims, Goode repeatedly strains after a more literal reading, and this in turn strains credulity. There is much mention of “the body” and literal, bodily rehabilitation, as Goode associates the “feeling” (102), “manly” (165) tradition of historicism with an actual corporeal presence:

I read the “Dedicatory Epistle”, Scott’s justly famous meditation on the epistemological and methodological problems facing the historical novelist, as his effort to defend his authority at the expense of antiquaries by establishing the greater sentimental and sexual propriety, and in turn the greater manliness, of the historical novelist’s body.

91

One feels that Goode’s argument would have been better served if this point had been made with rather less reference to actual physical presence. In a book filled with nuanced and subtle suggestions and intuitions, a preponderance of suggestions about actual corporeality unfortunately blunts our sense of the veracity of Goode’s claims.

11

In a stimulating coda, Goode widens and contemporises his discussion, recovering for interrogation the twenty first-century “heritage industry” and its implications (172). What are we doing when we visit the “gigantic historical museum, archaeological preservation site, and reconstruction project encompassing more than 500 buildings in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg?” (175). What do we hope to find there, and what in actual fact do we find there? At the very least (and Goode is careful at various points throughout to state that his aims in Sentimental Masculinity are modest, if always meaningful), Goode wishes to challenge the assumption that the “heritage industry” is more often than not involved in the reification of safe, reactionary political treatments of history. Ultimately he undermines the idea that visiting an historical site is always an ideologically safe option, and asks whether we might not more suitably view places like Colonial Williamsburg as sites at which a more progressive, radically interrogative historical sense might be allowed to emerge. These questions feel vital, if somewhat tangential to the concerns of the book as a whole.

12

Sentimental Masculinity is a valuable addition to the post-new-historicist literary landscape in which we all write. It encompasses issues of historical theory, gender, periodicity and genre, and feels both wide-ranging and specific. It is yet another fascinating addition to a series (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism) which has in recent years been virtually unfailing in its objectives of widening, and profitably complicating, our sense of the long eighteenth century.


Biographical Notice

Dr. John Regan has recently completed teaching and research at the University of Cambridge and is preparing to begin an IRCHSS funded post-doctoral position on Romantic-period historiography at University College, Dublin.

Author: John Regan
Title Reviewed: Mike Goode. Sentimental Masculinity and the Rise of History 1790-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. ISBN: 9780521898591. Price: US$90
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 56, November 2009
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1001109ar
DOI: 10.7202/1001109ar

Copyright © The authors, 2011

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