Articles

Mary Robinson and Your Brilliant Career[Record]

  • Judith Pascoe

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  • Judith Pascoe
    University of Iowa

Editor's Note

Pascoe's edition, Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, is available from Broadview Press (ISBN: 1551112019- Price: US$15.95; CDN$12.95). You can find more information about this edition at the Broadview Press website.

When I was not writing my first book (I was getting ready to write, thinking about writing, worrying about why I was not writing), a study of romantic era theatricality which foregrounded lesser known women writers like Mary Robinson, I began work on the single chapter that focused on a canonical writer—William Wordsworth—with great pleasure. No, that is not quite accurate. I began work on the Wordsworth chapter with the same anxious awareness of my own overwhelming ignorance with which I had begun to contemplate all the other chapters. But there was a difference. In beginning to construct an argument about Wordsworthian performances, I could draw on a storied assembly of Wordsworthian editions and compilations of all kind. Stretching out behind me (well, actually before me—I had not read them yet, after all) was a veritable battalion of distinguished Wordsworth scholars proffering the fruits of their labors. There were biographies for the choosing, chronologies of Wordsworth's every move, scrupulous editions of Wordsworth's poetry, letters, prose. There was an annotated compilation of every known Wordsworth portrait, as well as quirky reminiscences by people who had actually known the poet and recorded their impressions. The names of some of these people—scholars who had devoted large portions of their lives to deciphering manuscript letters or dating poems—took on a talismanic quality as I labored over my chapters: Frances Blanshard, Donald Reiman, Mark Reed, Mary Moorman, and, that most holy of the holies, Ernest de Selincourt. I had only ever met one of these people but each was a distinct entity, with considerable, if disembodied, authority. What is more, the work of these editors, chroniclers, and compilers had been enlisted by generations of literary critics so that it was possible to delineate distinct schools of Wordsworth scholarship. In fact, at that point what was new and exciting about romantic studies in general was a New Historicist critical practice that was applied most conspicuously to Wordsworth studies. When, caught in the thrall of Marjorie Levinson, Alan Liu, and Clifford Siskin, among others, I began to think about Wordsworth and theatricality, I was insinuating myself (however feebly) into a robust and boisterous critical conversation about this poet, a conversation that had been going on for a hundred years and showed no signs of lapsing into embarrassed silence for lack of anything new to say. I had a distinct sense of who might be paying attention if I tried to horn in on the conversation. ("Hey, look at me! Wordsworth was star-struck. Wordsworth was performing on Helvellyn.") When I began to draft chapters focusing on Mary Robinson, my situation was slightly different. Instead of feeling like an attention-seeking rube trying to hold my own at a lively party full of hyper-literate and soigné guests, I felt like an attention-seeking rube trying to impress ... my dissertation advisors, the most hyper-literate of them all, but still, just two people. Here are all the other people with whom I used to converse about Mary Robinson: an unfailingly enthusiastic independent scholar who had written the Robinson entry for Janet Todd's dictionary of women writers, a British librarian researching obscure details of Robinson's life for a biography that was eventually folded into a book on George IV's mistresses, and a woman of no discernible occupation who believed she was Robinson reincarnated and who was generous with her collection of fine Robinson editions and manuscripts. Part of the pleasure of working on Wordsworth was the ability to go to any research library and load myself up with an armload of pertinent books, books ...

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