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Let me take our session’s contestably fixed period markers for granted, and cut right to the chase with “Romance” and “Realism.” Each of these nouns, along with cognate adjectives like “romanticizing” and “realistic,” displays the same ambiguity: in the pressurized chamber of this room, each names a literary genre or mode as firmly as, out there in the street, it names an attitude or outlook. For reasons good and bad, the attitudinal sense of “romance” and “realism” as stances of orientation towards the world bleeds into their technical, generic sense all the time, which is why as teachers we find them such convenient flags to plant, and catch attention with, on the broad undergraduate terrain of literary history; and also why we then have to spend so much time weeding their progeny out of the root balls that nourish our students’ dissertation chapters. No matter with what sophistication we learn to denote “romance” and “realism” as tools of the trade, the former continues to connote something ideal, utopian, thrillingly expansive; the latter something pragmatical, compromised, a resigned if not a diminished thing. It is moreover hard not to regard the latter as the matured form into which experience converts the hopeful youth of the former; and it’s just about impossible not to do so when you are thinking about romance and realism in the company of, predominantly, 20-somethings. Don’t they tell the story of our lives? Victorianism is what happened to Romanticism when it grew up, right? Got sense or got co-opted, but at all events got real?

The circle of reciprocal validation that engirds such a pedagogical-historical matrix is so strong that little we say this evening can do much to affect it. Yet, by the same token, to intervene in the naturalizing mutual reinforcement of received ideas is our calling, and where better than at MLA, at the start of a new year? For me, at least, the grip of custom slackens when I focus on a point, maybe it’s the point, where 19th-century romance and realism converged: namely, the marriage-plotted end of the bourgeois-domestic narrative to which the literature of the century was addicted. The conjugal news, as I read it, tends to reconjugate our two periods in a refreshingly counter-intuitive way: Romantic authors stand out as the realists of desire, Victorians as the dewy-eyed romanticizers of its fulfillment. A decision to mate represents the triumph of hope over experience, or so the old joke about second marriages puts it, and by 1800 it’s probably fair to say that any wedding performed among the reading classes stood sequel to a lot of espousals vicariously experienced by each principal beforehand in books. Given the steadily sentimentalized Victorian march toward the altar, the stubbornness with which, as a rule, Romanticism held back from such a commitment underscores its deeper commitment to the reality principle – or, if you prefer, to ever-resurgent realities that the pleasure principle entailed.

What a cursory review of canonical authors’ marital status has to report on this topic – think Miss Austen/Mrs Gaskell; Lord Byron/Lord Tennyson; the Lambs/the Carlyles; the Shelleys/the Brownings – the literary evidence more signally ratifies. On one hand “The Mental Traveller” and “Dejection” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: poems showing that, if there’s anything worse than isolato strandedness, it must be the pangs of an ungratifying requital. On the other hand The Princess and Aurora Leigh and The Angel in the House: poems bent at last on nothing short of hierogamy, wherein wedlock turns the key to harmonies cosmic in their courted resonance. Where the stakes of the Victorian wager on marriage went so high, small wonder if the collapse of a marriage, or of the intimate spousal bonding whose breakage precipitated In Memoriam, should intimate the end of the world. That’s why the stain of adultery goes viral in Modern Love and Idylls of the King; the foreclosure of love brings down the whole House of Life in Rossetti’s sonnet sequence because that’s what it manifestly would have done to Sonnets from the Portuguese too. I leave unmentioned the rosy bubble-inflation on which Victorian novel after novel floats out of its realist world, and merely invite you to suppose what might have been said about that convention by the author of Don Juan, or of Lamia, or of Epipsychidion – all of whom would have raised an archer eyebrow at the matchmaking in Dickens and Trollope than at the circumspection with which Edward Waverley and Emma Woodhouse give cool hands to their respective marriages, if not of convenience, then of comparatively sober pulse.

But I can hear you murmuring already. Austen suppresses behaviors in order to stoke wants; all that fudge topping at the end of the story, as any Victorian not a fool knew all along, was there to palliate and channel anxiety and despair, not quell them; the skinny on realism is that it is and always was insatiable romance by other, sustainable means; desire and satisfaction constitute the alternating current that powers the system of the text, and what Dickens called the romantic side of familiar things was, being a Möbius strip, 19th-century literature’s most versatile appliance . Once you’ve said that, you’ve taken the words right out of my mouth. So let me end my 5 minutes with Arnold’s words instead, from the final strophe of “Dover Beach”:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

Conjugate that, Anthony Hecht and Ian McEwan, if you can. The honeymoon scene along the beach is quintessentially connubial, but where is the romance? Not in that land of mere dreams the world that “lies,” in a double sense, before us. Nor, I submit, in the marital fidelity for which, admittedly, the key phrase “let us be true / To one another” seems so conventionally to petition. No, the durable romance on Arnold’s darkling plain abides in the promise of realistic candor which the key phrase, read once again, discloses: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another.” That realism on this scale is a tall order the Romantics and Victorians knew as well as we do; whether the initial “Ah” bespeaks disappointment or encouragement is just the sort of question that keeps us all reading.