MLA Cluster ''Romantic Realism/Victorian Romance''

Romantic Realism, Victorian Romance: Conjugations[Record]

  • Herbert F. Tucker

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  • Herbert F. Tucker
    University of Virginia

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 …