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Romantic Couplings - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe

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  • Jacqueline M. Labbe
    University of Warwick

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While that most famous of Romantic partnerships, between Wordsworth and Coleridge, defines for many readers and scholars the idea of literary collaboration, the conference on Romantic Couplings that took place on 27 March 1999 at the University of Sheffield sought to demystify and to open up the notion of pairing and to explore less well-travelled ground. Starting from the premise that coupling is both tangible and insubstantial, textual and ideological, real and imaginary, the papers delivered at the conference enlarged on the strictures of collaboration provided by the Wordsworth/Coleridge model, both theoretically and in terms of the players. The essays in this special issue follow on from the conference; while Nora Crook's and Jane Hodson's were delivered on the day, Ashley Tauchert's and my own pick up the trail left by the conference participants. All four essays engage with the ramifications of coupling, textually, generically, sexually, and editorially. All four ask readers to see collaboration and pairing as an intimate, exposing process. Where Wordsworth ejected Coleridge from their dyad in the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, all the couples here discussed—Mary and Percy Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Wollstonecraft and Fanny Blood and their fictional counterparts, Della Crusca and Anna Matilda—depend on the continuation of their coupling, on the intermingling of textual production.

With the enlarging of the Romantic canon, couples are easier to come by: besides those under investigation here, we might also consider, for instance, Mary Robinson and S.T. Coleridge, or Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, or Wordsworth and Felicia Hemans, or Coleridge and William Lisle Bowles, or John Keats and Mary Tighe, or Byron and Letitia Landon, to name but a few (predominantly opposite-sex) couples. Thematically, many writers during the period mirror and rewrite each other (it is not a coincidence that plagiarism was so widespread at the time). Moreover, as the essays here suggest, many couples also interfere with each other, physically and textually. Words intermingle, bodies touch: textuality supports and encourages conjoining.

The essays in this issue revolve around the idea of intercourse, of conversation and interaction, a specifically mutual enterprise. Influence is only part of the project. The hierarchy implied by the influence model—where the 'master' guides and forms the 'pupil'—loses its meaning; partnership, a more fluid modality, replaces dominance. Even as 'old Romanticism' privileged the individual, the solitary genius alone in Nature with his thoughts and his poetry, so too influence presupposes inequality: both assume that there exists a grateful audience, or at least one that will come to be grateful. This conforms to the ideal of the prospect view, a superior stance both visually and socially, as I discuss in my book Romantic Visualities: Landscape, Gender and Romanticism (Macmillan, 1998). However, what it leaves out is the possibility of shared fortunes, of cross-influence, of equal footing. Given the French Revolution ideal of égalité, so attractive to so many in the 1790s and later, it is surprising that the dominance model has persisted for so long. What it points out is the contradictory nature of a position like Wordsworth's, whose work has been for so long the template for Romanticism. While Wordsworth may not have been able to reconcile his ideals of equality with his need for authority, it does not necessarily follow that isolation and solipsism underpin the Romantic period. The very ease with which couples can be named suggests that perhaps partnership, in a variety of forms, is more the basis for 'Romanticism'.

A new, more collaborative Romanticism chimes, of course, with the current critical and institutional emphasis on interdisciplinarity, an emphasis designed to facilitate the sharing of resources as well as the meeting of minds. History and Literature are a key interdisciplinary unit, as the many programs of study based around contributions from these departments attest. In a way, this partnership exemplifies the theoretics of coupling: similar enough to be able to communicate, different enough to show that a common vocabulary is not always the same thing as a common meaning (another good example might be the Anglo-American critical establishment). When literature specialists 'read' history, historians invariably feel the result is overly subjective and insufficient; when historians read literature, literary critics invariably feel the result is reductive and slight. And yet this particular pairing has seen the flourishing of the most dynamic critical approaches of the last decades: New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Comparative Studies. Even as we argue, we make advances. A new critical utopia, it seems, is arising from the ashes of the ivory tower. And in truth, even though for too many institutions interdisciplinarity is more a way to save money than to encourage intellectual creativity, the creativity has nonetheless appeared.

As the Academy, then, embraces collaboration, so too Romanticism is here remade as a collaborative experience. Fraternité and égalité are resurrected and the poet in isolation is relegated to an asylum to work on his social skills. As much as I have intimated a connection between critical approaches and institutional expediency, however, it is an intimation only, an inkling that 'coupling' can reflect as well as conceive. While the essays in this issue explore the nature of collaboration and discussion, then, they also represent a way of looking at texts that welcomes mixture and reflection and that thrives on interwoven references. In a way, it is that very tangling that characterises a successful coupling; as each essay suggests, it is as necessary to notice and understand the weft of a text as to account for its pattern. Threads—voices, influences, references, images—commingle, and a text recreates its multidimensional beginnings.

This is especially evident in the essays by Crook and Hodson. For each, it is as much the sexual partnership as the written traces of coupling that is significant. Crook's nuanced and original reading of the cross-influential nature of the Shelleys' literary relationship and its ramifications for their marriage (and vice-versa) offers a template for this issue. As she notes, there is a 'Nice version' of the Mary/Percy relationship that allows them both their 'strong characters' and that sees their relationship as 'symbiotic'. Crook elegantly demonstrates that the dominance model is irrelevant to the Shelleys, as much as their contemporaries, critics, and perhaps even themselves might have desired its relevance; for her, 'coupling' offers an image of mutuality. Hodson, too, sees in the linguistic theories of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft both complementarity and interaction. In an astute reading of their approaches to the perfectibility of language and the language of poetry, she demonstrates that 'coupling' can mean creative disagreement as well as cross-influencing.

The essays by Tauchert and myself concentrate on more imaginary forms of coupling. Tauchert's theoretically informed and intriguing exploration of 'indiscursibility' and lesbian identity in Wollstonecraft's Mary, A Fiction and in her relationship with Fanny Blood draws on the pliability of the imagery of coupling. For her, it is as much what is not said—what is unable to be said—as what is written down that implies intercourse. Tauchert's keenly perceptive reading of Wollstonecraft offers a necessary corrective to the common image of the writer undone by unrequited love. Finally, my own essay concentrates on the romantic trajectory of the purely textual intercourse between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda. Preferring to accept the viability of their created identities, rather than recurring to their 'real' alter egos, I read their poetic exchanges as an exemplary romance leading inexorably to a moment of literary consummation.

The issues opened up by the conference and explored in the essays contained here need continued attention. Especially as the canon enlarges and reforms itself, creativity and originality are more and more evidently impacted by collaboration, influence, imitation, and plagiarism. This issue investigates a style of coupling that is, by and large, benign; in other words, the couples herein work together. What happens when association is violent, or coercive, or secretive, or illicit? What happens when the romance goes out of Romantic couplings?