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Feminisms and Romanticisms:Elizabeth Fay, A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism. Oxford: Blackwells, 1998. ISBN: 0-631-19895-4. Price: £17.70 (US$24.95).Judith Pascoe, ed., Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000. ISBN: 1-55111-201-9. Price: US$15.95 (£8.95).[Record]

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe

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  • Jacqueline M. Labbe
    University of Warwick

In 1988, when Anne Mellor's Romanticism and Feminism appeared, a 'feminist' approach to Romantic studies meant little more than identifying forgotten women writers, and as valuable and necessary as that enterprise was (and still is), it often lacked a theoretical base, an informed understanding of what women wrote, individually rather than as types. Mellor's collection, of course, introduced scholars to an inflected theorizing of women's writing as well as a new way of approaching the traditional canon. In the more than ten years since this groundbreaking volume, there has been a flowering of theorizing, and readers are becoming familiar with the need to read women in as individual and nuanced a way as we read men. In the two books that are the subject of this review, reading women is the focus and the impetus. Each author pursues her subject through the byways of history and literary culture. Both authors draw from a wealth of information. Judith Pascoe's Selected Poems of Mary Robinson is an exemplary case; Elizabeth Fay's A Feminist Introduction to Romanticism, alas, is not. Fay's book, as the title suggests, is addressed to the student reader (whether undergraduate or more advanced is not made clear). As such, she has the difficult task of both presenting 'Romanticism', itself an unwieldy category, to a broad audience and doing so following a specific critical agenda, while also not alienating readers who may be hostile to what they perceive as an unwarrantedly 'political' approach. She divides her chapters so they cover what she represents as the main Romantic concerns: 'politics, the Gothic, intellectuality, and visuality' (p. 233). She identifies 'two main attitudes of Romanticism, sincerity and irony', and adds a third which she discovers in women writers, 'critique' (p. 233). Each chapter sets out to show how women participated in the same kinds of thinking as the men did, and how they have been unfairly left out of the canon solely due to their sex. While few feminists would dispute this conclusion, it is nonetheless a very rigid one; moreover, this stance ensures that the women Fay studies are presented as thoroughly relational, reactionary to the men writing during their time, and hence never capable of originating an imaginative stance; indeed, Fay makes this plain when she positions women writers as thinking 'about themselves as poets speaking to men, and so to the nation' (p. 96). This sits uncomfortably in a chapter that has set up the Bluestockings as a coterie of women speaking to each other, but this is just one of the contradictions built into this book. For Fay, Romanticism is actually a rather easily defined period/movement, populated by male writers who devise and female writers who critique what the male writers have devised. While this provides an attractive binary on which to hang Romanticism, it does not serve its student readership well. Ignoring the complexities of Romanticism, it suggests to inexperienced readers that a feminist reading only ever seeks out how women react to men. The idea that men may react to women, or women to women, does not enter the picture drawn by this book. Furthermore, Fay runs into trouble whenever she attempts to generalise, whether about Romanticism, or feminism, or women writers. Sweeping statements of fact lead into general conclusions, none of which are adequately backed up. For instance, Romanticism itself is presented as a largely uncontested 'fact': women writers are described as reacting to Romanticism, to its themes and concerns, as if Romanticism itself was a fully defined entity during what we call the Romantic period. To be fair, Fay does acknowledge that Romanticism …