Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt, eds. Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ISBN: 0-8131-2107-8. Price: $34.95.[Record]

  • Laura Mandell

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  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University of Ohio

While collections of essays have been published over the last decade that focus on Romantic women writers, in 1999, two collections have appeared that focus on women poets: Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, and Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edited by Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen Behrendt. Unaware that the former was in the works, the editors of the latter claim that theirs is the first collection 'to look exclusively at the poetry produced by women writers in the Romantic era' (p. 5), and yet they remain partly correct. Armstrong and Blain's collection spans the long eighteenth century, while Linkin and Behrendt's focuses on Romantic-era writing. Both works present crucial information for serious scholars of Romanticism, but there is a compelling reason, I believe, why Linkin and Behrendt's collection absolutely must be read. What we might call 'first-wave criticism' of Romantic women writers answered the question, 'Were there any?' by discussing the difficulties of writing as a woman during that era and by producing new anthologies to show that in fact there were myriad women writers, and then answered the question 'Why didn't we know there were any?' For Mellor, it is because they were feminine and so ignorable, for Ross because they were intellectual Amazons, masculine almost, and so ignorable. Second-wave feminist criticism of Romantic writers focuses on problems in the work of recovery, beginning with Margaret Ezell's Writing Women's Literary History, who noticed in 1993 that feminist literary historians from Virginia Woolf through Gilbert and Gubar were only interested in recovering women writers who expressed feminist ideas, or at least feminist rage. Armstrong and Blain tell us in the preface to Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment that they are interested in the question of recovery, but that the essays collected in their volume do not respond to the third question which arises naturally, it seems to me, after the first two above: 'are the Romantic-era women writers any good?' (p. vii); such a question, they insist, 'is an ideological rather than an aesthetic one' (p. viii). Rather than dismiss that question, as do Armstrong and Blain, Linkin and Behrendt have collected essays that delineate the history of the answer to the question 'are women writers, Lamb, Opie, Barbauld, Southey, Smith, Tighe, Hemans, and L.E.L. among them, any good?' These essays trace out when in the history of reception the answer has been 'no,' when 'yes,' and why, up through the present time. These essays all agree with Armstrong and Blain that the question is ideological, and they struggle to show, in the various histories of reception that each delineates, how the ideological is imbricated in the aesthetic. This volume therefore has significance not only for those interested in women writers but for those who work on canonical (male) authors. A new consciousness of the prejudicial assumptions weighing down the work of recovery of women poets helps further that work, but it also importantly reveals the assumptions informing literary theory past and present, illustrating the fact that gender categories are a heuristic device for prying all kinds of aesthetic valuations apart from their ideological foundations. The history of any cultural imaginary is overdetermined, and this collection of essays offers numerous conflicting plots, all of them no doubt true, about why Romantic-era women poets have been forgotten. Paula Feldman's very moving prologue to the collection, 'Endurance and Forgetting,' raises the question of the relation between popularity and canonicity. She describes her first assessment of Landon's work as 'unimpressive,' …