Margaret Russett is a writer possessed of a remarkably keen intellect, and Fictions and Fakes is an excellent book, one which deftly balances subtle and complex insights into the nature of identity and authorship with fascinating details about textual production and the construction of lyric and narrative voice in Romantic-period literature and culture.
The central claim of the study is that modern identity, which Russett reads as having its historical and ideological roots in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century representational strategies of romance and its “derogated forms…imposture, forgery, plagiarism, and delusion” (5), should be properly understood as the production of a textual self. As Russett notes, post-structuralist writers in the 1970s and 1980s advanced a similar argument about the constructed nature of the self, and one substantial thread of Fictions and Fakes is her engagement with psychoanalytic theories of identity formation, especially in a post-Lacanian context. What makes the theoretical frame that Russett invokes so effective is the fact that it always originates out of a nuanced and impeccably researched discussion of a particular historical moment or set of Romantic-period narrative complexities.
The first chapter of Fictions and Fakes directly engages throughout many of these theoretical subjects, but the methodology here and in the later “case study” chapters of the book is essentially historicist. While Russett considers at moments parallels with twentieth-century works by Freud, Copjec, Lacan, Foucault, or Genette, the “Romantic theory of imposture” (13) that she defines is firmly located in an analysis of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British texts. She moves, for example, from reflecting on the “recursive character”(26) of the ballad tradition and Chatterton’s instantiation of a Janus-faced poetic diction to the observation of a structural similarity with the primal scene of psychoanalysis in Laplanche and Zizek. She teases out of works by Richard Payne Knight, Richard Hurd, and Horace Walpole the idea that the “novel, like the imposter, seeks to elicit the reader’s sympathy with an unreal personality” (15), and the textual impulses of John Clare’s late insanity provide the occasion to reflect upon the “relationship between imposture and psychosis” (35). Perhaps most importantly for her later discussion of the Romantic lyric and its production of subjectivity, Russett provides her readers in this foundational chapter with a critical overview of Romantic-period theories of identity and their relationship to the textually mediated operations of memory, self-imitation, mimicry, and reproduction.
In the five chapters that follow, Russett offers a broad range of literary and cultural examples of Romantic imposture that complicate and refine the intersections between personal and textual authenticity. These chapters work Russett’s central tropes—the identity of literature, the literature of identity—in both directions, as she argues that the Romantic category of the literary (“real” or “authentic” literature, in counterpoint to “bastard” genres) cannot be disassociated from the strategies of self-making that seek to guarantee them. Thus, Russett’s second chapter focuses on Chatterton and on what Russett calls the primal scene of writing, a scene which she reads as a version of the family romance and the psychodynamics of identity formation. Tracing the imaginative influence of Chatterton’s verse on William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and John Keats, the argument is that a series of formal poetic decisions—about archaic diction and orthography, about the use of the Spenserian stanza—become a way of “stag[ing] the question of influence” (62) and canon formation.
The third chapter of Fictions and Fakes takes up the question of Coleridge’s plagiarisms and rereads the anxious relationship between “Christabel” and Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. Russett’s argument, that Coleridge defines poetic identity through untranslatable elements of prosody such as meter, is original and illuminating, as is her provocative, but entirely persuasive, claim that “Rather than steal Coleridge’s voice, Scott’s appropriation confers identity on ‘Christabel’”(89).
The next two chapters read the cultural and material history of the Romantic period more broadly, focusing on the story of Mary Robinson, the celebrated Maid of Buttermere, who married an impostor, and on the Regency hoax played by Mary Baker, the self-fashioned oriental Princess Caraboo of Javasu. Russett reads the celebrity of the Maid of Buttermere through its influence on both recognized Romantic-period writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, James Hogg, and Thomas DeQuincey and less familiar authors such as William Mudford and Charles Dibdin in order to make the point that the story of Maid of Buttermere is a textually mediated drama from beginning to end and one centrally concerned, as Russett would argue is the case more generally, with the role of authenticity and imitation in Romantic scenes of writing. The fifth chapter, which takes up the Caraboo hoax, is an exceptionally deft and engaging example of how Romantic studies can turn its attentions to material culture, and it succinctly illustrates the stakes in Russett’s argument. Here, Russett reads early nineteenth-century racial identity as an example of the same “return of the signifier’s repressed arbitrariness” (131) that inflects Romantic ideas of textual and personal identity.
The sixth and seventh chapters of Fictions and Fakes return to the study of imposture and authenticity in its literary contexts, focusing on John Clare’s textual impersonations of Lord Byron and on the complexities of anonymous and pseudonymous publication for Scott and Hogg. The short chapter on Clare proposes that the poet’s late and apparently psychotic obsession with Byron was an effort to negotiate the cultural intersection of literary authenticity and the authorial privileges of social class. Here, reading Clare’s omission of the titular terminal e and of the final Spenserian alexandrine in his Byronic poem Child Harold, Russett again demonstrates the characteristic quality of her work that I admire most—her ability to take a small and precise textual detail and to expand its significance in ways that open up the poem or novel in unexpected and smart directions. The final chapter of this study returns to the problem that is, in many ways, at the heart of the Romantic notion of authenticity that Russett demonstrates for her readers—the problem of identity as a mimetic sign without a referent, the problem of the discursive nature of the cognitive self. The “open secret” of identity performed by the anonymous “Author of Waverley” and James Hogg’s experiments with the appropriation of persona and voice provide a final occasion for Russett to unravel some of the complexities inherent in the borders and boundaries that instantiate the personal, national, and literary identities which comprise the focus of this very fine study.