Jacqueline M. Labbe, Romantic Visualities: Landscape, Gender and Romanticism. London and New York: Macmillan and St Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN: 0 333 71449 0. Price: £40 (US$55).[Record]

  • Tim Fulford

…more information

  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

According to Thomas De Quincey, 'the Sublime . . . in contraposition to the Beautiful, grew up on the basis of sexual distinctions.' These distinctions are the subject of Jacqueline's Labbe's detailed and authoritative book. Taking her cue from the work of John Barrell, Labbe begins her treatment of Romantic landscape with the prospect view. She argues that the commanding and panoramic prospect served, on the ground and as a figure in aesthetic and political debate, to confer authority upon men. The view from the top, possessed in practice only by gentlemen landowners, became exclusively theirs in theory too. The capacity to take disinterested general views became, by virtue of this socially-rooted metaphor, the exclusive preserve of men. If Barrell and others have traced the progress of the prospect view, nobody has investigated its consequences for women, and its influence on gender stereotypes, as thoughtfully as Labbe. Eschewing over-general formulations, Labbe makes illuminating distinctions between the different men who used the prospect view in their poetry, as well as between men and women writers. She reveals 'the anxieties attendant on a strongly-gendered aesthetics and the unsteady nature of that gendering' (p. 65). She uncovers the unease and instability within the versions of the sublime produced by Wordsworth and Coleridge. She does so in carefully weighted and judicious readings of 'Tintern Abbey' and 'Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement,' readings which set the standard for feminist criticism of male Romanticism in that they neither exculpate nor dismiss the poets for their treatment of the feminine. Whereas Anne Mellor, for one, has written of Wordsworth cannibalising and enslaving the feminine, Labbe shows both that he was perpetuating a gender stereotype and that he was registering 'an anxiety at so doing' (p. 6). It was, I would argue, an anxiety that opened a space within which the gender stereotypes could be questioned. Wordsworth himself—although Labbe does not pursue this point—questioned them in poems which by the standards of their day were remarkably feminist. 'The Thorn' and 'The Song of the Forsaken Indian Woman' gave voices to female speakers. In these poems women spoke in ways that did not conform to cultural stereotypes. They were admired as well as pitied for doing so, and they challenged the assumptions of the men who viewed them (including male readers). It is to Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes rather than to his Lyrical Ballads that Labbe turns, in a chapter which demonstrates that the aesthetics of gender were further complicated in the Romantic period by the picturesque. She argues that, as a hybrid aesthetic, the picturesque mixed masculine and feminine, sublime and beautiful, in a way which made it attractive to male poets who wished to escape from the image of authority produced by the prospect view. Equally, it was attractive to women writers who could use it to colonise the traditionally masculine sublime, as Labbe shows of Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. For both it contained dangers: women risked being attacked for encroaching on men's territory, language and power; men risked losing their position at the top. Wordsworth solved the problem only by an uneasy sleight of hand: he used the picturesque without admitting that he was doing so. Labbe's discussion of the picturesque includes Gilpin, Uvedale Price and, briefly, Richard Payne Knight as well as Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft. It serves to remind us how influential an aesthetic it was, precisely because it was loosely enough formulated to accommodate tensions and contradictions. But Labbe's focus is narrow: emphasising gender differences in the picturesque leads her to neglect the social and political …