This essay investigates an important stock scene of female peril and suffering from Victorian melodrama that I am calling the penitent woman tableau. I argue that this highly iconographic staged moment, where a sexually fallen daughter, fiancée, or wife sinks to her knees in remorse at the sight of the father, lover, or husband she has betrayed, derives its emotional energy and cultural force less from its representation of feminine terror and more from its equivocal portrayal of masculine authority. The penitent woman tableau spotlights a tense moment where violence against a woman could occur but doesn’t; it is a performance of masculine power where the man’s physical force is implicitly available but never literalized. Both visual artists and writers of the Victorian period were drawn to this scene, which I believe fascinated audiences because it spotlights the difficulty of representing masculine mastery in a society increasingly skeptical of physical force as a desirable means of domestic discipline. By examining the penitent woman tableau across several Victorian media and literary genres, including painting, poetry by Alfred Tennyson, and fiction by Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Joseph Conrad, I not only attempt to enrich our understanding of the unstable nature of masculine authority within the middle-class mid-Victorian family but also to illuminate the ways in which melodramatic conventions were crucial to the exploration of this urgent social question. Melodrama, often thought of as both feminine and conservative, offers a surprisingly complex depiction of masculinity within the penitent woman tableau.
In this essay, I freshly examine Coleridge’s late poems, asking how several respond to his abiding fear of authors and readers surrendering their free wills to the fashions and conditioned attitudes of nineteenth-century print culture. Connecting this anxiety to Coleridge’s views of personification, the Bible, and his own public image, I interpret his late poems as confessions of the conventional determination of writing and reading that he resisted in his critical prose. This late concession, I suggest, might also be an unexpected defense of free agency: by displaying their conventionality, these late poems appear—at least to several early and recent readers—to reflect the strategy of a self-aware and self-determining poet.
In this essay, I deploy the contemporary technical term avatar to interpret the functions of “the Ettrick Shepherd,” a character associated with James Hogg that originated in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and appears subsequently in Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). The notorious difficulty of Sinner, I argue, is due in part to the movement of the Shepherd, as an avatar, from one textual realm to another in a way that reveals the limits of meaning making in synthetic landscapes. I show how reading the Shepherd as an avatar furthers our understanding of the novel’s engagement with Blackwood’s, as well as the experience of readers in Romantic-era Edinburgh, whose literary culture thrived on dynamic representations of and relationships between people in print.
In George Eliot’s Romola, manuscripts represent the ability of objects to embody the past. Through various characters’ interactions with manuscripts, Eliot explores competing ways of using and valuing history, from Bardo’s obsessive collecting to Savonarola’s ideological co-optation. As the story progresses, however, manuscripts all but disappear and are replaced by printed texts. Through this depiction of technological change, Eliot advances her case for a particular kind of historical consciousness, one that engages critically—rather than fetishistically or opportunistically—with the past. Print, Eliot suggests, allows history to become widely accessible for public consumption, thereby weakening the aura of the past and allowing readers to simultaneously recognize its alterity and its intimate relationship to the present. Eliot suggests that the role of history is to guide and advance the interests of humanity in the present; as such, she uses Renaissance anxieties over the movement from manuscript to print to interrogate Victorian concerns surrounding the proliferation of inexpensive printed materials.
This article offers a criminological reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein based on the 1831 edition. It discusses the opposition between Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s physiognomic prejudice and the creature’s discourse designating social exclusion as the cause of its mischief. Frankenstein’s accusations rely mostly on its creation’s appearance, borrowing from Johann Kaspar Lavater’s principles. The monstrous creature counteracts its maker’s presumptions by interpreting its own criminal behaviour similarly to Christian Wolf’s self-analysis in Schiller’s short story “Der Verbrecher aus Verlorene Ehre.” A close reading of the circumstances of each of the monster’s four crimes demonstrates how deeply its criminality is interlocked with social rejection caused by its own external deformity. Both perspectives adapt tropes that can be found in criminal biographies still reprinted in the 1810s. Though both positions are credible, I argue that the storyline supports the creature’s view that the criminal might be a monster, but created by those it vengefully hurts. Throughout, I indicate when changes to Shelley’s 1816-1817 draft were made to arrive to the 1831 wording, paying also attention to who effected them.
This essay identifies and explores the intertextual relationship between Browning’s crucial mid-career poem, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” and Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” affirming the latter as the crucial inter-text for the former. “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” is revealed as a metatextual commentary, providing an interesting mid-nineteenth-century perspective on Keats’s ode, where we can see aspects of the tension in Browning’s sensibility between “Hebrew” and “Hellene” playing themselves out.
This article examines Percy Bysshe Shelley’s interest in contemporary possibilities of text dissemination in order to reconcile the normally opposing tendencies of gradualism (“slow reform”) and “violent” revolution in his life and writings. I offer a close reading of two parallel cultural events, both of which produced a national commotion that widely disseminated radical views—the “Peterloo” massacre at Manchester and Lord Eldon’s copyright rulings as Lord Chancellor. In both instances, the government’s attempts to control expression had the opposite effect due to the consequences of press coverage and political activism. In combination with nonviolent textual piracy, I argue that the circulation of the belief in poetry’s power concomitantly with the formation of a radical canon encouraged the latter’s circulation as propaganda, de facto establishing a common cultural heritage for the growing radical movement. Since Shelley’s writings became a fundamental component of the cultural glue that encouraged cohesion of the expanding radical class as soon as one decade after his premature death, I suggest that a reading of Shelley’s political strategies that moves beyond “ineffectualism” can highlight the continuing relevance of Shelley’s aesthetics and political thought.
This article argues that, in a culture that focused on either essentializing or universalizing women’s bodies, Frances Burney’s 1811 Mastectomy Letter and Jane Cave Winscom’s 1793 Headache Odes utilize physiologically specific language to challenge these dominant ideals. By giving their readers graphic accounts of their procedures and pain, these authors bring their specific bodily experiences to light. Circulating their accounts, respectively as letters and in a local newspaper, Burney and Winscom also negotiate between the intimate sphere of their bodies and the more public space of letters and print.
More provocatively than her contemporaries, Mary Robinson argues in The Natural Daughter that women must establish their voices in the public sphere to enact change while separately attending to the influential roles of wife and mother. She argues for financial independence and personal satisfaction by entering the public sphere through intellectual productions, such as writing. By examining Robinson’s concern for converging public and private spheres, we see a unique argument for women’s intellectual worth to be free of their reputations.
In several poems, Wordsworth considers the active representation of absence-- a stone circle, a zero, an “O the difference to me!”-- as a response to violence. Absent histories create our own involuntary misreadings, well-rehearsed in New Historicist debates surrounding Tintern Abbey, and Three Years She Grew, but present absences can heighten the descriptive violence as in a Hitchcock film where one only hears the scream as a camera cuts away, or as in Wordsworth’s lesser-known Alice Fell, wherein the violence reeked upon a girl is displaced onto surrounding objects making it at once more palatable and more subversive. This paper’s method is to consider Ovid, Wordsworth’s favorite poet as a young man, as a likely template for this trope. I show that certain of Wordsworth’s poems emerged as exercises in Ovidian imitation, and that he used the erasure of this poetic father to add darkness and suggestion to poems that are often misread as innocent.
This article examines the early nineteenth century connections between human, animal and plant by placing Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791) and The Temple of Nature (1803) in conversation with Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). I argue that the Romantic versions of heredity described in Darwin’s poetry tended to reinscribe traditional gender roles. Brontë’s Tenant, on the other hand, revises earlier notions of heredity and motherhood via Helen Huntingdon, the wife of an alcoholic who tries to prevent her son from activating his genetic taint. By reconfiguring the supposedly natural connections between patriarchal inheritance of the land on the one hand and biological traits on the other, and by reclaiming and reinscribing popular metaphors of breeding, Anne Brontë’s female protagonist creates and attempts to implement a maternalist version of heredity while remaining entrenched within the nineteenth-century cult of motherhood. Whereas the Romantic and romanticized poetry of Erasmus Darwin and his contemporaries’ approach to natural history bestowed human characteristics on plants in order to make their reproduction more comprehensible, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does the opposite. Without a satisfactory framework in place to express the anxieties surrounding human heredity, Brontë turns the tables on the metaphor and applies the language of breeding and agriculture to a human child. In doing so, she creates an alternate version of heredity based on maternal strength and power rather than one predicated upon patriarchal structures of kinship and economic inheritance.