The Romance of Motherhood: Generation and the Literary Text
Jacqueline M. Labbe
University of Warwick
This essay discusses the deployment of maternal imagery in the writings of Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson, Mary Shelley, and Maria Elizabeth Robinson and situates it in terms of a Romantic-period idealization of the mother. It argues that for authors who were mothers, maternal imagery functioned both to validate and justify their writing, and to communicate a controlled image of themselves to their daughters and their readers. For daughters who both read and wrote, maternal imagery allowed the recreation of the (absent) mother in print. For both, the familial became a metaphor for the literary and a way of rewriting patriarchy, providing an alternative type of inheritance.
The Romantic mother has become a fashionable topic of discussion. As critical attention refocuses to include the vast number of women writing during the period, we are beginning to understand that the common assumption that only childless women had the time and energy to produce great art is flawed. Many Romantic women writers were indeed mothers and projected authorial identities based on their maternal duties. This in turn begins to challenge the stereotype that motherhood gained its cultural centrality in the nineteenth century, when the Angel in the House and the Maternal Queen were concocted. Queen Victoria's confinement to a femininity that depended on husband and children, her privileging of the maternal and domestic over the political, signify for many casual readers of history and culture the triumph of "family values." However, Victoria's ideological forebear, Queen Charlotte, is the unremarked but persistent matriarch of domestic ideology, and her subjects—among them the mothers who wrote during the Romantic period—embodied the use-value of maternity, both culturally and personally. For, as this essay suggests, mothers during the Romantic period were the forerunners of the angelic, queenly mother of Victorian stereotype, and their productions the stuff of futurity. This essay turns to writing mothers and interrogates their use of motherhood, their deployment of the maternal as a metaphor of respectability, and their self-aware proliferation of the possibilities of offspring. This entails a return to the body and a recognition that for the mother who wrote, generation encompassed not only parturition and the nurturing and raising of children, but also creativity and attention to oeuvre, the corpus that contained literary identity. In revisiting motherhood, this essay seeks to unravel its narrative of pro/creation; it reads the maternal metaphor as both bodily and textual, and it understands the appearance of daughters in texts, as well as the production of texts by daughters, as strategic. In writing the daughter, mothers make possible their own regeneration; daughters rebirth their mothers; the family romance is born.
The family romance could just as easily be written the romance of family, for while psychoanalysis has given a specific meaning to the first term, in this essay I propose a more fluid concept: the idea that the mother-daughter relationship can function to secure and stabilise the family unit. Further, once this relationship is textualized, then for each player the role assumed becomes historicized: that is, a family history underwrites both plot and reception. Michelle Boulous Walker glosses Lacan to suggest that "the mother" is "movement, flux and undecidability [. . .] The maternal acts as a metaphor for tension, ambivalence and ambiguity" (135). However, the maternal author does not follow this rubric. Instead, she uses "the mother" to fix meaning, inserting the maternal metaphor as a counter to the looseness and ambiguity of such a cultural picture. In writing herself as mother, the woman author offers a textual self-recreation, substituting "mother" for "author" and inscribing the writing self as mother: "the maternal is performed through the (public) act of writing" (Walker 210n4). When a woman writer foregrounds her maternal self in her writing, she sidesteps the public and offers the private and domestic in its place. And when a woman writer who is also a daughter reads this textual self-portrait, she literalizes it: mother=author=text, and daughter=reader=author. Even as the author-mothers discussed here use print to inscribe and hence fix their maternity, so too their author-daughters use the text both to receive and disseminate the maternal and the filial.
In this way, maternity, creative inheritance, and memory act as both literal and metaphorical constructs in both authorial self-representations as "mother" and the reception of the authors as writers by their daughters. While many authors, both female and male, write about the mother-daughter relationship in the Romantic period, fewer actually name themselves as mothers. Those that do, such as Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Robinson, in this way participate in a cultural reification of the maternal while also, crucially, elevating their positions as writers through such an emphasis. Robinson's subsequent re-creation by her daughter in The Memoirs of Mary Robinson and the collection The Wild Wreath results in a public figure divested of scandalous associations (her life as an actress, her affair with the Prince of Wales) and reincarnated as mother and artist; and Mary Shelley repeatedly returns to her mother's texts in what Mary Jacobus calls "the most famous of all mother-daughter literary transactions" (70). Thus domesticized, each writer finds in motherhood both a screen and an excuse for her publicity; hence, Smith discovers in the death of her daughter suitable subject-matter for her Elegiac Sonnets, Wollstonecraft in the potential loneliness of Fanny a source for the grief that underpins Letters Written. . .in Sweden, and Robinson a private audience for her Memoirs. In this way, writing mothers and reading/writing daughters bypass established lines of primogeniture and inheritance, substituting the sense of lineage and posterity realised by the written corpus. Intellectual and creative property is passed from mother to daughter; the lost body of the dead child or mother is reconstructed through the private act of reading and the public one of writing and publishing. Even as Smith reconstitutes her daughter's life and establishes her mother-love, she also creates a public memorial; and in their editing, reading, and writing of their mothers both Mary Robinson's daughter Maria Elizabeth and Mary Shelley re-work and re-present the lives and works of their mothers. Consequently, bequests and inheritance become metaphorical, versions of the daughter's/mother's body: the mother writes the daughter, and the daughter re-writes the mother. Literature thus facilitates the cross-generational establishment of familial, as well as creative, identity.
All of the women under discussion here straddled or passed beyond the margins of respectability adhered to by their cultures. Even Smith, probably the least scandalous, took especial care to construct herself as the sorrowing, needy female to mitigate the spectacle of herself as a public persona. Wollstonecraft, Robinson, and Shelley danced with scandal: through being publicly political and socially radical; through being an actress and a publicly-marked sexualised woman, a member of the demi-monde and the notorious Della Cruscans; through being, not just the daughter of radicals, but in her own way a radical thinker and a promulgator of radical sentiments through her novels and the editing of the works of Percy Shelley. Little is known of Maria Elizabeth Robinson, but she, like Shelley, was marked as the daughter of a sinning mother. These five writing women, famous as much for their lifestyles as for their writing, spend a significant part of their writing lives constructing and reconstructing themselves, their daughters, and their mothers, as justifications for and vindicators of those same lifestyles. The mother-daughter bond that is created is thus mediated through a more public, textual space; the relationship establishes itself as much through ink as blood. And while the viability of strictly separated spheres during the period is increasingly coming under question, nonetheless this kind of maternal imagery presents the text as itself domestic, almost private, an impression strengthened by the genres used by Smith, Wollstonecraft, and Robinson: the sonnet, the letter, the memoir. Each connotes intimacy, and each functions to draw the reader into a putatively homely and individuated world. Again, privacy, not publicity, is emphasized; the maternal and the domestic work together.
How is it that motherhood could carry a nugatory affect? Both Ruth Perry and Barbara Gelpi have explored what amounts to a sanctification of the mother in the Romantic period. The Victorian idolisation of the mother finds its roots in the 1780s-90s, when to be a (certain kind of) mother was to be forgiven any number of sins. The codification of the domestic sphere wherein "only mother's law orders life" (Gelpi 66) functions, on the one hand, to disenfranchise women, and especially mothers, in the public space of man-made and man-enforced laws; on the other, it conjures the Hannah-Morish world that glorifies woman's influence and substitutes a "little elevation in her own garden" for the active power available in public life. And maternal love, the motherly identity, has its secure place in the domestic sphere. There, woman approaches divinity: as William Buchan ponders in 1809,
The more I reflect [. . .] on the situation of the mother, the more I am struck with the extent of her powers, and the inestimable value of her services. In the language of love, woman are called angels; but this is a weak and silly compliment; they approach nearer to our ideas of the Deity: they not only create, but sustain their creation and hold its future destiny in their hands.
xiii; Gelpi 75
As Gelpi notes, the power granted the mother is contingent on her remaining fixed in her motherly sphere, and on her visible contentment with the limitations attendant on being an embodied divinity. And, further, this kind of deified motherhood also depends on its legitimacy: unmarried mothers could easily forfeit such respect. Wifehood, a clear prerequisite to motherhood, sets the domestic scene. And yet, motherhood, if properly written, can act even to mitigate illegitimacy: while the resulting maternal figure may not quite achieve sanctity, she can still attract sympathy, as Wollstonecraft does with her increasingly poignant references to Fanny in Letters Written ... in Sweden. When writers enlist mother-imagery, they appeal to the emotional force carried by the "mother"; in assuming the mantle of the Madonna, they cast out the spectacle of the Magdalen. The natural—that is, biological—link predicated by the mother-daughter bond reifies the attractiveness and power of the image.
Gelpi's analysis of the centrality of the mother-metaphor is complemented by Perry's reconstruction of its cultural affect. Even as a renewed emphasis on the fittedness of breastfeeding for all classes of mothers focused attention on the breasts, so too this connection to maternity led to a desexualisation of the female body. The erotics of the uncovered breast were transformed into a symbol of civic duty; as Perry remarks, "even Mary Wollstonecraft seemed to believe that a woman's claim to citizenship depended on her willingness to 'mother'" ( 187). As the breast was re-imagined as nourishing rather than ravishing, so too "the maternal succeeded, supplanted, and repressed the sexual definition of women. [. . .] Writers began to wax sentimental about maternity, to accord it high moral stature, and to construct it as noble, strong, and self-sacrificial. [. . .] Natural but learned, instinctive but also evidence of the most exquisitely refined sensibility, motherhood was celebrated in prose and poetry"; in short, "maternity came to be imagined as a counter to sexual feeling" (Perry 190-91, 188). Crucially, sexual feeling was still allowed to exist; the later nineteenth-century insistence on the absence of female sexual desire had yet to be firmly worked out. But because maternity acted to replace sexual desire with motherly care, this meant that motherhood, if properly presented, could also act to vitiate sexual transgression. Perry discusses the repressive effects of the growing cult of motherhood, but I am arguing for its liberating possibilities: if "motherhood functioned in this period to repress women's active sexuality" (Perry 188), then it could also be used as a cleansing metaphor. In other words, if a woman was burdened with a public reputation as a sexual being—as Wollstonecraft and Robinson, for example, were—then a reconstruction of her public persona into a mother, and a published insistence on her maternal acts of self-sacrifice, could result in a transformation from whore to angel.
The female line thus brought into being textualizes the family relationship; mothers write their daughters into existence, composing a role for them. In turn, the daughters can read their mothers: read their texts, their lives, and re-read themselves. Maria Elizabeth Robinson and Mary Shelley both read and re-presented their mothers to a new generation of readers, and in so doing confirmed both maternity and literary inheritance. Mothers bequeathed to their daughters their creation of those daughters; daughters inherit the fact of their creation. In justifying their writing selves and remaking their sexual selves through a textual self-presentation as mothers, Smith, Robinson, and even Wollstonecraft assert their own virtue, their daughters' legitimacy, their right to be read, and a self-respect contingent on their public identity as mothers. They transform what Perry calls "this new colonization of [women's] bodies" (207) into a declaration of self-determination, one that takes advantage of a cultural approbation of and hunger for public displays of mothering.
For example, in her Elegiac Sonnets (1784 and subsequent editions through the 1790s), Charlotte Smith expertly constructs a persona whose sorrows threaten to overwhelm both personal equilibrium and natural stability. Among the images of storms, shipwreck, opened graves, and lunacy, however, she turns several times to the deeply physical and emotional turmoil caused by the loss of her daughter Anna Augusta. Smith uses her daughter's death and her own unending grief to legitimize her work: sanctifying her dead child authorizes, in turn, her poetic self. Her dead child thus functions as simultaneously an instance of personal loss and an opportunity to strengthen her poetic persona, as poetry becomes the vehicle by which she expresses her grief. Smith solidifies her position when she utilizes botanical and artistic images in these sonnets; they offer visions of nature and permanence that naturalize Smith's position as bereaved, writing mother and suggest the value of her own art. For Smith, writing about her daughter performs a public duty: she demonstrates, repeatedly, her maternal dedication.
Smith's letters refer to her financial hardships in terms of her children and demonstrate her sense that she alone is responsible for them, both in childhood and once grown: in 1804, three years before her own death and when her youngest child is 19, she describes herself as still "chained to the oar" of writing (letter to Sarah Rose, June 15, 1804) and a year later laments "the expense of my family are [ sic ] so high that they take away every resource for myself" (letter to Sarah Rose, July 30, 1805). Clearly, for Smith "the child" was a material, tangible, demanding being who never, it seems, grows up rather than, for instance, "an ideal image of uninhibited, expressive self-hood which does not carry with it the penalty of isolation or exile" (Cook 45). Her children, living, provide her justification for publicizing her legal plight in her prefaces to the Sonnets and her other works of poetry and excuse her forays into the legal intricacies surrounding the delayed settlement of her father-in-law's will. Her child, dead, provides the subject matter for several of her most accomplished sonnets. And because Smith's society valued maternity as one of woman's most suitable, most attractive states—indeed, Gelpi notes that, at this time, pregnancy "was so desirable that women, regardless of age or marital status, were pretending to be so by wearing a garment called 'the six-month pad'" (35)—these sonnets place Smith as acceptably feminine, a grieving mother whose sorrows flow outwards to form a proper sphere of loss rather than inwards to focus on the self, the stricken and isolated individual who inhabits most of the sonnets. By being filtered through a child's death, they exemplify maternal feeling and register Smith's grief not as that of a single woman, but as that of a mother, that social figure defined by her children, or their absence. Alicia Ostriker says that "the advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption"; however, as she also notes, a mother "no longer belong[s] to [herself. Her] time, energy, body, spirit and freedom are drained" (106). This is the image of Smith derived from her letters: far from regeneration, unity with nature, or opportunity, her children represent work to her. And yet, as her reaction to Anna Augusta's death shows, they also represent worth to her, confirming her maternal—and hence feminine—status despite her frequent and public lamentings.
Anna Augusta died in 1795, age 21, from an illness resulting from childbirth. Smith's preference for this daughter seems to have lain in Augusta's difference from her father; as late as 1806 Smith still referred to her as "the only one who had not the remotest resemblance of him " (letter to Sarah Rose, April 26, 1806). Smith mourns this loss for the rest of her life, framing her grief as a bodily decline: "the loss of my loveliest and most deserving child, is slowly undermining not only my frame but the few powers of mind I possess'd" (letter to Joseph Cooper Walker, May 18, 1800); "Every mention of my Augusta, tho almost ten years are gone by since she was torn from me, (under circumstances that pour'd vitriol and aquafortis into a wound otherwise incurable;) Every mention of my Darling Child, tears my heart to pieces" (letter to Sarah Rose, February 14, 1804). Such language suggests that Smith's grief mirrors the birth process itself, and it resonates with the romanticized tone of Wollstonecraft's Letters : Augusta functions as a lover-substitute, ironically most attractive in her difference from Benjamin. Gelpi points out that the construction of the maternal in the late eighteenth century meant that fathers were considered simultaneously to be on a level with their own children and to be their own children's rival. Certainly, that Augusta has nothing in her to remind Smith of Benjamin reifies Gelpi's observation, while Benjamin's well-documented efforts to secure money from Smith and from his father's estate at the expense of his children cast him as the "scoundrel father" whose lack of parental feeling creates Smith as "angelic mother" (Gelpi's terms, 62), images familiar from, for instance, novels of sensibility. Moreover, Smith's continued invocation of Augusta as "my child" furthers Augusta's position, not as an adult who has died, but as an everlasting child whose loss both intensifies Smith's grief and gives it a proper expression. Smith's sonnets to her dead daughter, then, find their genesis in a wholly tangible, dutiful, even beautiful concentration on what is here rendered as particularly womanly grief.
Smith carefully embodies her mother-love in the "daughter-sonnets." Walker, following Kristeva, notes that "the poetic is a kind of metaphorical relation with the mother's body" (117). Smith exemplifies this: in the sonnets, the mother's body is solely available through metaphor. Historically, "women's art-making [has been seen] in connection with the home, the family and [. . .] caring duties" (King 17). In sonnet 91, "Reflections on some drawings of plants," Smith conforms to this scenario but imposes a new violence and publicity. "Reflections" figures Smith's loss as comprehensible, if not appeasable, through an extended artistic metaphor. She devotes the first seven lines to an assertion of her artistic expertise combined with an intrusive suggestion of the loss of her visual work and its substitution by words. This foreshadows the topic she turns to in line 8, Augusta's death, and the second half of the poem makes plain the bereavement that is the focus of the poem. At the moment she establishes herself as skilled maker of flowers, Smith leaves behind her flower painting; those very drawings over which she exerted such steady control evoke the memory of a daughter whose death she "with fond regret, and ceaseless grief deplore[s]" (12). Here, the permanent representations of nature only emphasize the evanescence of human life, while the ease with which she captured nature's hues in her drawings underscores her sorrow that, "save the portrait on my bleeding breast,/ I have no semblance of that form adored" (8-9). Yet, as we see by the poem's end, she is not entirely without her child's "semblance." Indeed, almost sanctifying the art by which the image is engraved, Smith offers her own body, first the maternal breast that "bleeds" from its loss, and then her "Mother's heart" as the canvas on which the portrait is reproduced. Alongside the Christian overtones suggested by the bleeding heart of the combined images rests the fact that this image is not "composed," "caught," or "copied," as the flowers were, but rather carved onto her body, an engraving more permanent than the tints (that may fade) and the paper (that may, significantly, decompose) which make up her flowers. Gelpi has noted that the ideology of the family leads to the mother's body being "invaded, zoned, and manipulated both literally and figuratively," and that "attention [. . .] is focused most particularly on the breasts" (44). But the nurturing maternal breast described by Gelpi finds its alternative in "Reflections," for here we see blood instead of milk, and self-mutilation instead of self-celebration: a mother's violent grief that ends the poem by ensuring that the dead daughter's image painfully and permanently, "with too faithful art/ [rests] Enshrined [. . .] in thy Mother's heart" (13-14). The "ceaseless grief" that renders an image more painfully permanent than "arrested" nature could be also inscribes the mother: the reader sees not only a drawer of flowers but a woman who both engraves her child's portrait and is the surface upon which she engraves.
Carol Smart has noted that the nineteenth-century culture of the family held that "mothers could not be free-thinkers; mothers follow their maternal instincts" (22). Indeed, one could say that Smith poeticizes those instincts in her child sonnets—but that would be to re-present her as an emotion-fraught, thought-free female subject. Instead, it is the very strength and violence of her grief that implies free thought: while Smith's other children figure prominently in her letters and are the beneficiaries of her literary work, only Augusta appears in the sonnets, a kind of muse and an indication of her importance to Smith when we remember the importance of poetry in her conception of her writing self. The domestic sphere romanticized as a mother's fitting place, the "barrage of admonitions" directed at her to submerge herself in the life of her child, the popularity of the picture of, in Gelpi's words, the "blameless wife and mother, morally superior to her scapegrace husband [. . .who] devote[s] total, loving attention to her child, usually a daughter" (62), combine to create a world wherein "only mother's law orders life" (Gelpi 66). When Smith poeticizes her dead daughter, she poeticizes a part of herself and alleviates the impropriety of so publicly poeticizing an individual, grieving, female self. As she writes about her daughter, she also composes that daughter, textually recreating a connection broken by death but which lives beyond physical decomposition. Augusta inherits the poetical love of her mother because she is the poetry of her mother. The poetry in turn acts partly to support Smith's complicated self-representation as grieving mother and needful woman. Writing, for Smith, re-establishes the mother-daughter bond even as it allows her to provide materially for her other children, and, tautologically, justifies itself. The maternal love that cements filial inheritance thus depends, not on the untrustworthy lawyers negotiating a flawed will—the masculine world— but on the preservation of a publicly-private world wherein the daughter rescues the mother. For this daughter, however, there is no writing back.
Augusta signifies for Smith both loss and need, the one defined by the other. Wollstonecraft's Letters Written … in Sweden (1796) begins to make up for the scandalous events of her earlier life. Although for many readers it is the romance underpinning Letters that makes its author into a heroine to be admired—her many pointed references to her isolation and lovelorn situation positioning her as a textbook romance heroine—Wollstonecraft balances her abandonment with an increasingly poignant self-placement as mother. Indeed, the Monthly Mirror calls her "an unhappy mother, wandering through foreign countries with her helpless infant." Fanny occupies a central place in the Letters, through both her presence and, more often, her absence; she functions as a soothing agent for Wollstonecraft's tortured soul and, perversely, contributes to that agony by being a constant living reminder of Wollstonecraft's love for the unnamed Imlay. Fanny focuses her mother's emotions and justifies them:
Fate has separated me from another, the fire of whose eyes, tempered by infantine tenderness, still warms my breast. [. . .] the rosy tint of morning reminds me of a suffusion, which will never more charm my senses unless it reappears on the cheeks of my child. Her sweet blushes I may yet hide in my bosom, and she is still too young to ask why starts the tear, so near akin to pleasure and pain?
Even as Fanny embodies Wollstonecraft's lost love, she also replaces him; her presence both inspires and soothes Wollstonecraft's tears. Wollstonecraft can cast her relationship with Imlay as a proper romance partly because Fanny exists: this gives the affair a legitimacy, a family feel, that the Letters encourage. Their dreamy atmosphere and the persistent refusal to clarify the mystery of the figure Wollstonecraft addresses conjure a family romance that, for many readers, transforms the hyena in petticoats into a woman in need.
In discussing Wollstonecraft's other writings, Laurie Langbauer notes that "for Wollstonecraft, maternity is crucially linked to women's sexual experience—maternity is especially sexuality's sign, what makes it manifest" (212). This applies to Fanny's presence in Letters as well: through her existence the reader understands the depth of Wollstonecraft's relationship with her lover. But Fanny also makes manifest Wollstonecraft's sensibility, her maternal attachment to a daughter she can claim even in the face of her lover's abandonment. Jacobus asserts that "the death of love threatens the subject with loss of meaning altogether" (71). Hence, the loss of Imlay must be countered with the presence of Fanny. Wollstonecraft replaces the Imlay romance with one focused around Fanny; as Langbauer also remarks, in Wollstonecraft's writings "romance [is] aligned not with the paternal but with the maternal. [. . .] mothers and daughters enjoy a union and happiness denied the men" (209). Thus we witness a progression in the intensity of Wollstonecraft's descriptions of Fanny: as the romance becomes more clearly theirs, and Imlay retreats further into silence, Wollstonecraft moves Fanny from her initial, shadowed position as the tacit reason for the presence of "poor Marguerite" (66) and the playful sprite whose "gaiety [. . . is] unmixed" compared with her mother's and who remains "regardless of omens or sentiments" (67) to a more overt emblem of her mother's feelings. Forced to leave Fanny behind at Gothenburg, Wollstonecraft's "weak melancholy that hung about my heart at parting with my daughter for the first time" (97) transmutes into full-blown romanticising: "Light slumbers produced dreams, where Paradise was before me. My little cherub was again hiding her face in my bosom. I heard her sweet cooing beat on my heart [. . .] and saw her tiny footsteps in the sands. New-born hopes seem, like the rainbow, to appear in the clouds of sorrow, faint, yet sufficient to amuse away despair" (127). In her dark hour, it is her daughter who rescues Wollstonecraft from despair, performing even in absentia the hero's role; black thoughts are lightened, even replaced, by memories of Fanny. The covenant suggested by her association with a rainbow of hope situates Fanny as the object of Wollstonecraft's affections; Imlay has disappeared from the text, even if only temporarily.
In fact, during her separation from Fanny it is her daughter who occupies Wollstonecraft's attention: Imlay reappears as a more specified auditor, but it is the romance of motherhood that engrosses Wollstonecraft. She fears Fanny will forget her; she repeatedly describes her impatience to be reunited. As her separation from Fanny nears its close, we again glimpse Imlay the lover, but by this point he is always filtered through Fanny and usually accompanied by an emphasis on Wollstonecraft's motherhood. Tellingly, Fanny begins to lose her substantiality the closer Wollstonecraft's journey nears its end: as Wollstonecraft is forced to confront the fact that she is returning to an uncaring Imlay—and thus must also relinquish her romance of the family—Fanny herself retreats; Wollstonecraft's maternity and its mitigating force becomes less and less tenable. Jacobus says that "transference-love resists 'the death of absence'," and that Fanny, "like writing, [has stood] between her mother and death" (79, 73). But this has been predicated on distance: the physical distance between Scandinavia and Britain, Wollstonecraft and Imlay; and the emotional distance Wollstonecraft achieves when she writes herself as mother rather than as lover. As the journey nears its end, neither distance can be maintained: not even motherhood can stave off the emotional pain and public humiliation represented by Imlay's betrayal. Even as the Letters cast Imlay as the villain and Wollstonecraft as the abandoned mother, so too they publicize the situation. Where Smith was able to parlay her failed marriage into literary success and present Augusta, even in death, as a more than suitable substitute for her husband, Wollstonecraft can only sustain this as a fiction. In "real life"—that is, the space after the final Letter—Fanny is more a reminder than a comfort. Her increasing ethereality implies Wollstonecraft's awareness of the transience of the motherhood metaphor: confined to a text, it affects readers but cannot replace reality. Letters serves to write Fanny's infancy into being, and Fanny's infancy in turn rights Wollstonecraft's unsteady reputation. The inheritance Wollstonecraft bequeaths her daughter is a written record of her motherly reliance, but beyond that the Letters portray mother and daughter as of the same stamp. As Walker says, "when a woman gives birth she does so to a child, yet in another sense also to her self" (161). Not only do Wollstonecraft and Fanny share an imperviousness to seasickness (182), Fanny also inherits her mother's tendency to depression, and she serves to confirm her mother's forebodings of "hapless woman's" fate:
You know that as a female I am particularly attached to her—I feel more than a mother's fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed state of her sex. I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or principles to her heart. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish delicacy of sentiment, lest, whilst I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard—I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit—Hapless woman! what a fate is thine!
In this way Fanny becomes a daughter of Eve as well as Mary.
Smith's Augusta could not write back, and Wollstonecraft's Fanny chose not to, beyond the anonymous publication of her suicide note. Written into her mother's text, Fanny writes herself out of the story:
"I have long determined that the best thing I could do was to put an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate and whose life has only been a series of pain to those persons who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare. Perhaps to hear of my death will give you pain, but you will soon have the blessing of forgetting that such a creature ever existed as—"
St. Clair 411
Enclosed in her mother's stays—marked "MW"—Fanny succeeds in the suicide her mother only attempted and in this way composes her own conclusion, one predicated on de composition and the loss of the body who writes. Fanny's place as object of her mother's maternal identity gives way to Mary Shelley's place as re-creator of her mother's textual identity. One could say she mothers her own mother, giving her a new existence as the inspiration for many of Shelley's own writings. In re-establishing the textual line Shelley bypasses a literal writing of her mother—it is a critical commonplace how few viable mothers inhabit her texts. But this does not mean she ignores her mother's existence, of course; her maternal "failures" and authorial "rejection" of mothers are balanced by her re-presentation of her mother's texts. As Jacobus notes, Shelley took her mother's Letters with her when she eloped with Percy (70). The Letters function as a template for Shelley in both her "real life" and her textualized romances. She rewrites the romance trope in her first travel narrative, History of a Six Weeks' Tour, simultaneously confirming and disabling Wollstonecraft's structural use of the romance in Letters. She also offers a kind of fictionalised Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Frankenstein. Shelley reproduces her mother at least as often as she does her husband or her father; in "doing what her mother did—she wrote" (to paraphrase Kate Ferguson Ellis 222), Shelley perpetuates the literary connection that allows motherhood to be both of the body and of the pen. In her position as daughter, Shelley reads her mother-as-text; she in part establishes a sense of self through the mother she gleans from books. Even as the mother gives birth to herself when she bears a daughter, so too "a woman will experience the continuity between herself and her mother in her literary mythologies of self-birth" (Walker 162). When Shelley writes, she does so with an imagination that has relied on her mother's works: Wollstonecraft is part of, if not the foundation for, her "literary mythology." Wollstonecraft's Letters may write about Fanny, but they are read and recontextualized by Mary. Jacobus calls this "recapitulation" (70) and reads Frankenstein as Shelley's reworked Letters, focussing on the central matrix of death and love in each text. Likewise, History refocuses Letters, "recapitulating" not plot (Shelley's lover is very much present) but genre: Shelley also traverses the land of romance. Similarly, Frankenstein rehearses variations of feminine behavior patterns as detailed in Vindication, albeit translated to an inhuman Creature. But Wollstonecraft presents woman in her Vindication as precisely this: creatures robbed of their humanity by masculinist culture, "things put together" by social convention. As much as Wollstonecraft finds in Fanny a suitable symbol of her own cultural regeneration, Shelley finds in Wollstonecraft her literary legacy. Body becomes corpus becomes source material—and mother becomes muse.
Mary Robinson and her daughter Maria Elizabeth offer another, more mutual version of the mother-daughter text. Together, they construct a version of Robinson that challenges and eventually rejects her sexualized public stature as Sappho, Perdita, and Laura Maria. Jan Fergus and Janice Farrar Thaddeus speculate that "to have her image [. . .] sexually impaled [in Gilray's satirical cartoon] published throughout fashionable London must have caused unimaginable torment to the genteelly nurtured Robinson," and they go on to note that "at her death she was working on an autobiography whose chief purpose was to explain why she had succumbed to the Prince [of Wales]" (194). The chivalric speculation offered by Fergus and Thaddeus—that Robinson "must have" felt torment—testifies to the strength of the persona Robinson creates in her Memoirs (1801): even as these critics discern an "intention" they also justify and ratify that intention by sympathizing, even identifying, with Robinson and her sorrows. Certainly, Robinson does seek to explain and contextualise her lapse, casting it as a romantic, ultimately doomed passion and herself as buffeted by the winds of romantic fate. Even her birth foretells her troubles: "during a tempestuous night [. . .] I first opened my eyes to this world of duplicity and sorrow. I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered. [. . .] Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow" (18). Thus established as a textbook romantic heroine, Robinson solidifies her hold on her readers' emotions as she describes a life of torment, repression, and disappointment. But as much as she wants in Memoirs to regularize her liaison with the Prince—and Robinson gives over many paragraphs to the reasons why, few if any of which are carnal—it also portrays a woman devoted both to her mother and to her daughter, creating a female community connected by blood as well as trouble. From the opening pages of Memoirs, Robinson privileges the maternal: after describing her birth, she gives only a single paragraph to her male forebears followed by seven either about her mother or her mother's mother—and four of these open with the words "my mother." Like any romance heroine, Robinson is a good and faithful daughter, a good and faithful wife, and a good and faithful mother whose surviving daughter, Maria Elizabeth, takes on the role of the "Friend" who completes the Memoirs. Despite Robinson's assertions that "these are the pages of truth, unadorned by romance," she, like Smith and Wollstonecraft, manipulates an emotive vocabulary in order, in Felicity Nussbaum's words, to "convert the reader to a belief in a version of [her] character as innocent" ("Heteroclites" 158). This "permanent change in identity" (Nussbaum, "Heteroclites" 158) is facilitated by Robinson's deployment of the jargon of motherhood and daughterhood throughout the Memoirs. She "links authorship to a [. . .] feminine plot [. . .] of the good mother and daughter who faithfully cares for her family" (Peterson 36).
Associating her literary labors with her maternal and filial body infers the maternal-creative association I discussed earlier, and in redefining herself as "mother," Robinson literalizes the presence of her daughter: her readers learn of Maria Elizabeth's existence textually, then are handed over to that very daughter in her completion of the Memoirs. Maria Elizabeth confirms and affirms Robinson's status as "good mother" and "faithful daughter," victimized by an uncaring world; "in the daughter's account, maternal devotion pays off in literary production" (Peterson 44). Moreover, Robinson's literary work pays off in the textualisation of the mother-daughter relationship it makes visible. Maria Elizabeth's double life as both the "Friend" who concludes the Memoirs and the daughter who inhabits them results in a narrator who eventually writes her own "beloved" status, and a devoted mother, back into the text:
the indisposition of her daughter, who was threatened by a consumptive disorder, obliged [Robinson] to withdraw to a situation of greater retirement. Maternal solicitude for a beloved and only child now wholly engaged her attention: her assiduities were incessant and exemplary, for the restoration of a being to whom she had given life, and to whom she was fondly devoted.
Robinson's textual nursing is matched by Maria Elizabeth's textual rehabilitation of her "kind [. . .] skilled [. . .] affectionate mother" ( 132); that Maria Elizabeth also continues to use Robinson's own heightened and romanticized language when describing Robinson directs the reader to see her as either a maternal being or a young and lovely one. Maria Elizabeth does not so much rewrite her mother's life as accept a ghostwriting commission: in Memoirs, Robinson's bequest to her daughter is to allow Maria Elizabeth correctly to compose her mother. As Peterson concludes,
Given her alignment of motherhood and authorship, [Robinson] would have viewed her Memoirs as a legacy to her daughter. Begun on her deathbed in 1799, it was a final literary production to provide financial support for Maria, who edited, completed, and published the text in 1801 after her mother's death. [. . . I]t was a model of the woman artist's autobiography, one showing her (literary) daughter(s) how to become an author.
Even as the mother-daughter relationship, then, is reified in the mother's text, so too the daughter recomposes the mother in her own texts. Shelley, the unwritten daughter, seized and reorganised her mother's genres; Maria Elizabeth, the daughter who is simultaneously audience for, character in, and author of Robinson's Memoirs, appropriates and reorders her mother's works. The Wild Wreath, which appeared in 1804, arranges, under Maria Elizabeth's editorship, a number of Robinson's poems interspersed with works by Southey, Seward, Coleridge, Robert Merry, and other writers familiar with Robinson. In it, Maria Elizabeth gives us Robinson the innovator (in selections from Lyrical Tales, 1800), Robinson the Della Cruscan, Robinson the sorrowing maiden, Robinson the satirist, et cetera. Her attributed works, under the names of Mrs. Robinson and the "late" Mrs. Robinson, are mixed indiscriminately with unattributed selections the Robinson reader would nonetheless recognise. But The Wild Wreath as a collection presents some intriguing and so far unaddressed issues that are especially significant in a discussion of mother-daughter literary transmission. Maria Elizabeth can be seen to be infiltrating Robinson; as she "reads" her mother's works, she also reinscribes her mother's texts—a new take on Walker's observation that "it is in and through writing that [daughters] seek to speak with rather than for the mother" (162). The bulk of Maria Elizabeth's inheritance consisted of her mother's words, and in The Wild Wreath she seeks to capitalise on this bequest.
Maria Elizabeth learned how to "become an author" from her mother, and she solidified her literary name through editing this and other collections of her mother's work. However, neither on the title page nor in the dedication ("by Permission") to the Duchess of York does Maria Elizabeth mention her mother, or the apparent reason for the publication. Designating the contents of the volume "these sketches of unclassical Poesy," she creates a mother-substitute in the Duchess; the laudatory language of the Memoirs is directed at the Duchess, herself an unconventional mother, and the "permission to subscribe [herself]" the Duchess's "most faithful and devoted humble Servant" is flagged as "the most honourable and flattering event of [her] life" (n.pag.). The "M.E. Robinson" of the title page and the Maria Elizabeth Robinson who signs the dedication situate the daughter in place of the mother, and the very first poem, "The Foster Child, a Tale," is designated as by "the late Mrs. Robinson" (3). By literally consigning her mother to the grave with a poem about fostering, Maria Elizabeth also calls into question her own matrilineage. Even as she rearranges and re-presents Robinson, then, Maria Elizabeth opens a textual space for herself. No matter, now, the volume's purpose; within the first few pages Maria Elizabeth establishes herself as the authority in this text. She does so literally on pages 160-162 with her appropriation of the poem "Winkfield Plain." First published in the Morning Post in 1802, according to Jerome McGann's anthology (228-9), and in 1800 according to Judith Pascoe and Andrew Ashfield, under the title "The Camp," in rhythm, imagery, and overall style it bears a strong resemblance to Robinson's "January 1795." Stuart Curran unhesitatingly notes that "['Winkfield Plain'] was published in the Morning Post and reprinted after Robinson's death in an anthology edited by her daughter [ The Wild Wreath ]" (206n6).
Whereas "The Camp" is signed "Oberon," one of Robinson's well-known pseudonyms, in The Wild Wreath the poem is reassigned by Maria Elizabeth to herself : it closes with her own initials. Curran also says that the poem "was not included in the Poetical Works of 1806, presumably on the grounds of decorum" (206n6). What style of "decorum" Curran refers to is not clear; certainly the proposed author-list for The Wild Wreath caused at least one potential contributor some unease in this area.
I have a wife, I have sons, I have an infant Daughter—what excuse could I offer to my own conscience if by suffering my name to be connected with those of Mr Lewis, or Mr Moore, I was the occasion of their reading the Monk, or the wanton poems of Thomas Little Esqre? [. . .] Is it not an oversight—a precipitancy—is it not to revive all which Calumny & the low Pride of Women [. . .] love to babble of your dear Mother, when you connect her posthumous writings with the poems of men, whose names are highly offensive to all good men & women for their licentious exercise of their Talents?
Coleridge, in Griggs 904
Coleridge's horror at being associated with the wanton Lewis and Moore is only matched by his repugnance that Robinson should be put in this position posthumously; Maria Elizabeth thereby risks sullying "the memory of a MOTHER—of all names the most awful, the most venerable, next to that of God!" In the event, Coleridge did consent to contribute, and his "The Mad Monk" shares space with Lewis's "The Felon" and "Excess," among others. At least in The Wild Wreath, Maria Elizabeth seems unconcerned with literary "decorum." There is a tantalizing alternative explanation: that Maria Elizabeth wrote "Winkfield Plain," published it originally under one of her mother's familiar pseudonyms (here, speaking "as" rather than "with"), and reclaimed it in The Wild Wreath. Having done so, it seems unlikely she would hand it back to Robinson when she edited her mother's Works. The poem's similarity to the uncontested "January 1795" conjures a scenario wherein Robinson's literary legacy manifested itself in Maria Elizabeth's initially emulating her mother's style, as she emulated her novelistic flair in her one novel ( The Shrine of Bertha, 1794). In this way, her mother acts as her muse as well as her source in a more direct and tangible way than does Wollstonecraft for Shelley. Maria Elizabeth's literary gamble, however, may well have backfired. Certainly no Robinson scholars have yet untangled this poem's provenance, but, I suggest, an uncomplicated attribution to Robinson is too easy given Maria Elizabeth's conscientious editing of The Wild Wreath.
The Wild Wreath 's other oddity is even odder. The collection is ornamented with several engravings, again with an intriguing attribution. We are asked to believe that "Mrs B. Tarleton" supplied the drawings for a memorial collection of poems by her husband's cast-off mistress, edited by that mistress's daughter. Robinson and Banastre Tarleton were together for 16 years, but he left her to marry the heiress Susan Bertie. According to Robert Bass's The Green Dragoon, Bertie was a woman of elegance and accomplishments and as such would have been a capable artist. The same, however, applies to Robinson. The possibility exists that Maria Elizabeth, in keeping with the legitimising self-representation Robinson follows in the Memoirs, here recasts her mother not as the mistress of Tarleton, but as his wife. This would cement Robinson's respectability as well as Maria Elizabeth's own. No longer the daughter of a notorious member of the demi-monde, public mistress of at least three prominent men, Maria Elizabeth is now the offspring of a tragic, properly-married mother (the fact that, if this were true, Robinson would presumably also be a bigamist, is, understandably, not dwelt on ). In this way "poetic language [. . .] recover[s . . .] the maternal body" (Butler 80), and artistic invention rehabilitates the scandalous mother.
Maria Elizabeth intervenes directly, and in this way she mothers her own mother, fulfilling Walker's assertion that the mother gives birth to herself by assuming, textually, both her own and Robinson's position. With her strategy, Maria Elizabeth rebirths her mother only to rewrite her completely. Even though Shelley explores much new ground in her writing, when she involves herself with Wollstonecraft it is in dialogue, Walker's "speaking with" rather than "speaking for." The romance created by Wollstonecraft with Fanny culminates in the romantic regard enacted by Shelley over her mother's texts. For both Maria Elizabeth and Shelley, the maternal functions as a generating metaphor, allowing them to write and supporting their texts. In this way each acknowledges her mother's implementation of the maternal. For their part, Wollstonecraft and Robinson open a space that facilitates writing itself; for both, their daughters underwrite the plots of their texts. Without Fanny, Wollstonecraft's Letters collapse into a void; with her, "the lover is converted into [. . .] a mother" (Jacobus 72) and the text refocuses. Likewise, Robinson uses motherhood throughout her Memoirs to counterbalance her unconventional life: she may be a bad woman but she is a good mother. Smith, too, proves her maternal worth by returning compulsively to her daughter's memory. It is no great insight to remark that "the belief that women are 'ultimately responsible' for their young endures [. . .]; they are seen to be responsible for the preservation, growth, and social acceptability of their children" (McMahon 234). But the sustainability of this belief is enhanced when writers use the maternal for the "preservation, growth, and social acceptability" of their texts.
Mitzi Myers rightly observes that women writers and readers recognise the "textual constructedness" of subjectivity and that they do so "as makers of narratives and models of reality that contribute in turn to the reality of their participants" (110). During the Romantic period, the signifying spaces of the separate spheres and the cult of the mother grew from the reality of a flourishing reliance on and expectation of maternal virtue. Intelligent and creative women like Wollstonecraft, Smith, Shelley, and the Robinsons recognised and utilised this aspect of their culture in their work. What better way to diminish the risks of publicly declaring one's desires than to filter those desires through the respectable, admirable, indispensable web of motherhood? As Perry, Gelpi, and others make clear, to be a mother, visibly, during these decades was to declare one's propriety and virtue (not to mention one's sense of what was fashionable). In writing their daughters into their work, these mothers exploited the ideology that equated femininity, probity, and the maternal. In reading their mothers' work, their daughters found inspiration. A cross-generational, knowing utilisation of a culturally-loaded trope, an exchange of the romance of love for the romance of motherhood: in the maternal marketplace, metaphor begets reputation, text entwines with body, and production mirrors labour.
One effect of maternal metaphorics is to substitute a mother-daughter romance for a heterosexual one. It is telling that all the authors under discussion in this essay use romance imagery to describe their daughters or themselves as mothers and daughters.
While my choice of authors may seem arbitrary, I have tried to focus on and thereby combine two strands of literary identity: writers well-known to modern readers (Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley), and writers well-known to their contemporary readers (Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson). Maria Elizabeth Robinson, almost invisible to both audiences, stands out as an anomaly. These authors and their manipulations of the maternal are offered as exemplars of a technique; others await discussion.
Barbara Gelpi summarizes the prevailing history of the late-eighteenth-century turn to the domestic as the mother's (and the infant's) proper, "natural" space in chapter 2, "Her Destined Sphere," of Shelley's Goddess. See especially 35-43. See also Gilroy.
She also faced criticism for her pro-Revolutionary sympathies, as expressed in Desmond, The Old Manor House, and "The Emigrants." For a fuller discussion of Smith's poetic technique, see my forthcoming book, The Culture of Gender: Charlotte Smith, Poetry and Romanticism (Manchester UP).
For instance, see Anne Mellor, and Elizabeth Eger et al.
After Fanny's birth in 1794, Wollstonecraft came to advocate the special place mothers held in creating and nurturing, not merely children, but proper citizens. See also Mary Jacobus, "Incorruptible Milk: Breast-Feeding and the French Revolution."
At present the best place to find Smith's letters is in Rufus Paul Turner. Judith Stanton's long-awaited edition of the letters is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. See also Lorraine Fletcher.
Besides sonnet 91, they are sonnets 65, 74, 78, 89, and 90.
Gelpi, Jacobus and Felicity Nussbaum all note the political and social importance breastfeeding assumed during the late eighteenth century: in an age of wet-nursing, breastfeeding one's own child was both a social duty and a social faux pas. Smith's use of this imagery in a sonnet describing an adult child is arresting—apparently, the child never outgrows its need for the mother's breast—but her bloody transformation of the "Maternal breast" suggests an underlying conflict in Smith's devotion to her children's needs.
Smith considered poetry her highest literary achievement; she wrote novels for money, but poetry for posterity. See Stanton.
Jacobus, 81n8, cites Mary Favret's Romantic Correspondence (129) as her source for this quote.
As she says, "At Gothenburg I shall embrace my Fannikin ; probably she will not know me again-and I shall be hurt if she do [ sic ] not" (136).
See Labbe, "A Family Romance: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin, and Travel."
For a discussion of the Creature as the embodiment of a specific feminine role, the wife, see Labbe, "A Monstrous Fiction: Frankenstein and the Wifely Ideal."
She endures her husband's infidelities and publicly leaves him rather than cuckold him in his own house: a truly idealized, if perverse, vision of faithfulness to the marriage bond.
Conversely, Smith uses her sonnets to literalize her daughter's absence, although this also to a certain extent re-presents her.
"Winkfield Plain" begins "Tents, marquees, and baggage wagons;/ Suttling houses, beer in flagons;/ Drums and trumpets, singing, firing;/ Girls seducing, beaux admiring"; "January 1795" opens "Pavement slip'ry; People sneezing;/ Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;/ Nobles, scarce the Wretched heeding;/ Gallant Soldiers-fighting!-bleeding!"
Pascoe also notes this (294n1), but goes no further than to call it an "attribution."
Coleridge's letter to Maria Elizabeth insists that Robinson "had indeed a good, a very good, heart-and in my eyes, & in my belief, was in her latter life a blameless Woman." Partly as a result of her motherhood, Coleridge believed that "the latter age of your Mother would be illustrious & redemptory-that to the Genius and generous Virtues of her youth she would add Judgement, & Thought-whatever was correct & dignified as a Poetess, & and all that was matronly as Woman " (final emphasis added). Clearly, for Coleridge the maternal, the feminine, and the virtuous were closely linked (Griggs 903-906).
All the engravings in the volume are designated as painted by "Mrs. B Tarleton." Here is an example:
The mystery of "Mrs. B. Tarleton" needs thorough investigation and discussion, which is beyond the scope of this essay. To complicate the matter further, several poems in Wild Wreath are designated as by "Susan." If the real Mrs. Banastre Tarleton did indeed contribute to Wild Wreath, it opens the intriguing scenario that Maria Elizabeth sought to find replacement mothers (as in the Duchess of York), rather than to rehabilitate her own.
Bass, Robert. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. London: Redman, 1957.
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Jacobus, Mary. "Incorruptible Milk: Breast-Feeding and the French Revolution." Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution. Ed. Sara E. Melzer and Leslie W. Rabine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 54-78.
King, Catherine. "Making Things Mean: Cultural Representation in Objects." Imagining Women: Cultural Representations and Gender. Ed. Frances Bonner, Lizbeth Goodman, Richard Allen, Linda Janes and Catherine King. Cambridge: Polity P, 1992. 15-20.
Labbe, Jacqueline M. "A Family Romance: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin, and Travel." Genre 25 (1992): 211-228.
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Nussbaum, Felicity. Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
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Peterson, Linda. "Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson's Memoirs and the Origins of the Woman Artist's Autobiography." Re-Visioning Romanticism. Ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994. 36-50.
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Smart, Carol. "Disruptive Bodies and Unruly Sex: The Regulation of Reproduction and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century." Regulating Womanhood: Historical Essays on Marriage, Motherhood, and Sexuality. Ed. Carol Smart. London: Routledge, 1992. 7-32.
Stanton, Judith. "Charlotte Smith's 'Literary Business': Income, Patronage, and Indigence." The Age of Johnson. Ed. Paul Korshin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. 375-396.
Turner, Rufus Paul. "Charlotte Smith (1749-1806): New Light on her Life and Literary Career." Diss. U of Southern California, 1966.
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|Auteur :||Jacqueline M. Labbe|
|Titre :||The Romance of Motherhood: Generation and the Literary Text|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 26, mai 2002|
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