Romance as a genre has been reclaimed, re-invented, and revitalised by critical reconstructions of romanticism in as many diverse ways as the Romantics themselves sought to rediscover, remould, and redefine its contours of desire. Romance’s endless transformations of creative, sexual, and political passions have assured this literary mode a centrality to both the romantic movement and our critical reconfigurations of its artistic and social ambitions. Yet often conceived of as a literary form with an ambivalent over its lengthy reception history, the literary romance has had its share of detractors and defenders. Romance’s complex historical development is the subject of a recent Blackwell volume — A Companion to Romance (2004) edited by Corinne Saunders — as well as a source of continued fascination for Jacqueline Labbe’s current work on Romance and Violence in Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales and Other Gothic Poetry (2004). Yet some recent positive re-mappings of the romance terrain, notably David Duff’s Romance and Revolution (1994) and Laurie Langbauer’s Women and Romance (1990), exhibit a certain unease with the negative connotations of ‘romance’ that extend to literary inferiority, feminine sensibilities, public appeal and commercial readership. Such tensions are, Labbe contends, in The Romantic Paradox: Love, Violence and the Uses of Romance, 1760-1830, inherent in the romance genre, itself a product of historical and ‘cultural unease’, which finds expression in a ‘literary violence’ (4) that violates the generic boundaries of the form in acts of self-confessed cultural sabotage.
These conflicting forces that precipitated the genesis of the romance and how they play themselves out in romantic poetry and prose constitutes the main focus of Labbe’s study. Romantic writers of romance test, subvert, distort, and decimate the generic conventions of the romance world but, paradoxically, continue to reify the genre as a prominent means ‘to speak to and of the time’ acting, in Labbe’s words, ‘as an unacknowledged legislator of Romanticism’ that translates ‘cultural violence into literary representation’ (5). The young Robert Southey’s panegyric ‘To Romance’ (1795) sets the tone and scope of chapter one and its exploration of how nineteenth-century theorists and practitioners of romance resuscitated the genre in the wake of the American war of Independence (1775-83) and, later, the French Revolution (1789). Southey’s poetic dedication ‘To Romance’ encapsulates those key concerns associated with romance from the 1770s through to the 1790s, including the connection between feminine sensibility and romance; romance’s preoccupation ‘more with violence than with peace’ (13); and the re-appropriation of chivalric values in the 1790s, especially by political pamphleteers. Political and military realities of the period may have called into question the chivalry and ‘heroes of romance’ (14), but amongst its proponents, Labbe shows, these events served only to fuel a ‘reinscribing of [the genre’s] parameters’ (15) that redefined and represented romance whilst re-writing the numerous positions of those who were its most ardent defenders.
Refracted through ‘[John] Batty’s fin-de-siècle re-appropriation’ (17) of chivalric romance, Labbe reads Bishop Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) as revealing ‘a gentlemanly sense of noblesse oblige’ (16), which is ‘wholly dependent on personal and communal violation and bloodshed’ (17). Hurd recognises the barbaric historic reality of chivalrous virtue only to consign ‘the reality of romantic chivalry…to romantic fantasy’ (18) and the past. Hurd’s ambivalence toward romance is evidenced in his use of language which is, increasingly, imbued with the register and values of romance even as the argumentative logic restricts chivalry to the fanciful romanticised days of yore. Distinguishing between definitions of ‘romance’ and ‘novel’, Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance notes how advocates of the romance — like Hurd, Percy, and Wharton — create insular, self-contained ‘romance-world[s]’ (21) that proffer a series of ‘almost fairy-tale…defences’ (20) of the genre. Reeve, however, does not share all of Hurd’s reservations about the romance genre and believes that ‘as much as chivalry originates in violence…it seems now to be what will contain it.’ (26). Susannah Dobson’s The Literary History of the Troubadour (1779) and Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784) share these convictions about the world of romance, but strike a more cautionary note about its curative effects and recognises that ‘[c]hivalric ideals may purify and ennoble the world, but they also de-naturalise: the world thus created is unrecognisable’ (Labbe, p. 27).
By the 1790’s romance was widely understood as possessing the ability to preserve and disrupt ‘a familiar way of life’ and social order (30). The definitions of romance established by Reeve, Dobson, Hurd and others struck a chord with the post-revolutionary climate and its romance revival. Mary Robinson’s Hubert de Sevrac, a Romance of the Eighteenth Century (1796) established a precedent for the sort of literary ‘romance that was to be derived from the revolution’ (31). Republican in spirit, Robinson’s romance engages with ‘the violence of the terror’ as well as being ‘a veiled criticism of its aristocratic victims’ (31). This transportation of violence from the quotidian world into the fantastic arena of romance underlines the ambiguity surrounding the positive or negative influence of the genre and opens up a ‘new version of romance’ predicated on a ‘vicarious terror’ (38), which is presented and evaded, at numerous textual levels.
In English Della Cruscan poetry, Labbe identifies an alternative and erotic manifestation of violence that provokes ‘a confrontation between genre and representation’ (42), falsehood and sincerity, lust and desire. In the epistolary exchange between the romantic constructs of Anna Matilda and Della Crusca, Labbe ventures, that the metaphorical embodiment of desire runs the risk of turning into the agony of physical suffering. Foregrounding the corporeal permits the ‘importation of the erotic into the romance’ and Della Cruscan poetry to adopt ‘the tone of romance while pursuing the satisfications of the body’ (52). This violent eroticism threatens to destabilise the poetry’s open declarations of love and corrupt the romance form by ‘re-creating the desirable and obtainable physical body’ (53). The language of carnal desire speaks through the formalities and decorum of romance to entrap the object of these violent affections in the prospective lover’s gaze and enslave the beloved in, according to Labbe, an ‘emotional bondage’ (52). The amorous exchanges between Della Crusca and Anna Matilda subvert the traditional romance plot by ‘introducing the erotics of the body into the romance paradigm’ (66). Sexual violence translates into creative violence perpetrated against the genre of romance, typified by Della Crusca’s final view that the love most worthy is that which is silent and private rather than publicly declared. Over time this change of heart renders Della Crusca’s affair with Anna Matilda emotionally bankrupt, as their whole relationship was founded on theatrical posturing and a public display of their inner most feelings. Ultimately, time and change unravels the Della Cruscan affair and ensures the failure of romance.
Failing and failure in the romance is the basis for Labbe’s third chapter on the presentation of the romance hero in the poetry of Coleridge and Keats. Coleridge, Labbe contends, ‘unusually offers himself as the hero of the text’ participating in the sequential ‘cyclical quest-romance’ (67) of the conversation poems. By contrast, ‘Keats assumes the familiar persona of narrator and projects heroic inadequacy onto his characters’ (67). Their poetic mode of presentation may differ but, Labbe demonstrates, Coleridge and Keats share an inability to write ‘heroes that function properly’ and their failure to do so is indicative of further ‘form of violence done to the romance’ (68) at a level of internalisation. Coleridge’s conversation poems and Keats’s romance narratives interrogate the long-standing ‘association of masculinity and heroism’ (73). The ‘romance landscape’ of Coleridge’s conversation poems ‘offers the questing speaker a variety of mental adventures, from which he moves toward a development and growth that he is never able to sustain’ (75). Coleridge’s speaker as romance hero, in these poems, emerges as a composite of other heroic types — including the ‘Child of Nature’, ‘Man of Feeling’, and ‘Gloomy Egotist’ — who moves through the various stages of the romance quest so that Coleridge can debate with himself the ‘viability of the heroic ideal’ (75). Recognising that he must forsake his home, in ‘The Eolian Harp’, the speaker-hero, reluctantly, embarks upon a journey only to be waylaid by a forced spell of imprisonment, in ‘The Lime-Tree Bower: My Prison’ (1797) and ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798), and, finally, completes his ‘cycle of questing and retreat’ (81) with ‘Fears in Solitude’ and ‘The Nightingale’ (1798). This movement through Coleridge’s poetic sequence charts a failed endeavour to achieve ‘psychic unity’, prevents the traditional masculine ‘heroic triumph’, and disrupts ‘the quest-narrative itself’ (84). Coleridge’s conservation poems, according to Labbe, are so infused ‘with doubt, melancholy, and failure’ that they all but wither away ‘the heroic ideal’ (84) of romance.
Keats, similarly, ‘subverts and rearranges old Romance’ to reformulate the ‘romantic hero’ and ‘heroic endeavour’ and discovers that these ideals are ‘found wanting’ (85). Keats’s ‘new romance[s]’ (such as Lamia, Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, and The Eve of St. Agnes from his 1820 volume), Labbe suggests, never truly commit to the romance world as their heroes are ‘embodied and deconstructed simultaneously’ (pp. 85; 86). Keats’s narrative poetry often questions the machinations of romance upon which their structures depend by enacting a falling-off (a detumescence) of chivalric heroic qualities. Lamia’s plot, for instance, unfurls with many romance trappings, but the central heroic figure of Lycius is systematically rendered impotent and inactive through the narrative’s progression. With differing degrees of emphases and violence, Keats’s Lamia and Isabella dispatch with heroic values and the masculine figures that represent them, recognising ‘the romance’s need for a hero and its need to destroy him’ (92). Keats preferred poetic method of ‘violently finishing off his heroes’ (95) finds metaphorical expression in The Eve of St. Agnes’s presentation of Porphyro as ‘a mixed hero, honourable and base, respectful and opportunistic’ and whose flight into the ‘elfin-storm from faery-land’ (The Eve of St. Agnes, quoted in Labbe, p. 96) undermines the viability of the romance hero. Labbe generously interprets Porphyro (in light of his name) as possessing some elements of genuine magnanimity, a claim which is, perhaps, slightly less persuasive than her astute observation that Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes ‘hollows out the old romance, withers heroic potency and signals [Keats’s] impatience with the standards represented by the hero’ (96). Like Lorenzo’s spectral visitation in Isabella, Porphyro’s embodiment in the text, for Labbe, finally rests with his violent and physical banishment from the narrative into the past where he is only able to exist as ‘a ghostly disembodied revenant’ (96).
If Keats and Coleridge expose the latent tragic and violent potentiality of the romance quest, then Mary Robinson and Felicia Hemans write romances that render the absolute destruction of the traditional figure of the hero. Robinson’s ‘Golfre’, ‘The Hermit of Mont Blanc’, and ‘The Lady of the Black Tower’ draw upon the panoply of romance plot-devices and characters (including the knight, lady, and villain) to translate these elements into the terrifying, horrific, and violent series of ‘gothic scenarios’ (102). Cleverly, Robinson’s version of Gothic-romance diffuses the violence committed against her characters and its poetic form. Displacement of these violent acts is achieved by Robinson’s deferred disclosure of her use of a dream narrative framework and, more usually, through a transformation of ‘the potentially terrifying into the merely moral’ (104). Robinson, Labbe argues, frequently achieves narrative closure through an asserted religiosity and extracted morality that contains the ‘Gothic violence and disrupted, murderous romance’ (110) which characterises the mainstay of these poems. These framing devices enable ‘reality and nature [to] reassert themselves’ against the provoking challenges of ‘outrageous Gothicism…to convention and to representation’ (120). Even when, as with ‘The Lady of the Black Tower’, Robinson seemingly effects a happy resolution she remains, as does Hemans, uneasy about ‘the needs and requirements of the romance’ (121).
Felicia Hemans, on Labbe’s account, is equally distrustful of ‘romantic convention’ but, unlike Robinson’s preoccupation with dream vision and spectral forms, elicits the authority of ‘a reality based on documentation and history’ (122) by purporting to write Records of Woman (1828). In the poetic ‘sleight-of-hand’ that, in Labbe’s view, is Hemans’s Records of Woman, death and love are, inextricably, entwined in more surprising and complicated ways than might first appear. Taking issue with Anthony Harding’s interpretation, Labbe contends that the centrality of death has less to do with ‘the ultimate form of [female] self-sacrifice’ and more to do with how a sense of finality ‘acts to free Hemans’s women from the constraints of conventional romance’ (123). Hemans’s highly poeticised version of unflinching ‘scenes of violence and torture’ uses death as a vehicle to extend ‘Robinson’s vision of…the impossibility of romantic love’ (pp. 122; 123). Although reluctant to dismiss romance entirely out of hand, Hemans ‘conveys her disillusionment with a romance based on romantic love’ by almost exclusively reserving (with the notable exception of Seymour in ‘Arabella Stuart’) ‘violence and death for her male characters’ (131). This serial massacring of the masculine is not born of hatred of men, but ‘a desire to kill off stereotypes of behaviour that harm both sexes’ in which the ‘violence figures the desire to destroy romance’ (134) and its gendered delineation of permissible conduct for feminine and masculine subject. By redirecting the violence of romance, Hemans and Robinson may register their ‘dissatisfication with a genre thought most appealing to women as writers and readers’ (134), but they also run the risk of denying the possibility of fruitful intercourse between the sexes and proliferating a new set of false, divisive, and destructive meanings for the romance form.
The final chapter of Labbe’s study concerns Letitia Landon and Lord Byron active transformation of the literary mode of ‘violent romances’ (137) through the melodramatic and ‘recalibrates the parameters of gender interaction’ so that their ‘poetry renders opposite-sex attraction violently destructive’ (140). Both Byron and Landon, Labbe points out, ‘(melo)dramatises the incompatibility of the feminine and masculine worlds and insists on the destructiveness of love and heterosexual interaction’ (141). In her negotiations with the violence of romance, Landon is understood to be ‘more direct and subtle’ than Byron who achieves liberation from these romantic visionary bowers ‘by consigning [r]omance to its own destruction’ (137) in his address ‘To Romance’ (1806-7). Byron’s ‘The Corsair’, ‘Lara’, ‘The Bride of Abydos’ and ‘Parsinia’ stage a homoerotic (as opposed to heterosexual) violent conflicts, as the women ‘in each case…are tangential to the poems’ primary concern: the confrontation of “hero” and “villain”’ (144). Collectively, Byron’s Eastern Tales attest to a concentrated effort ‘to change the established narrative pattern of romance’ and shifts the focus away from ‘the heterosexual love story’ to a deliberate ‘exploration of homosocial bonding only voiceable through violence’ (157). In the Eastern Tales, this reiteration of the same ‘story again and again’ enacts an active forgetting of those established gender relations in the romance between male and female in order that the unspeakable ‘desire between men’ can be voiced through melodrama with ‘its potential for signifying silences’ (158).
Landon is also reluctant to accept ‘the conventional wisdom of the romance’ (174), but she differs in emphasis from Byron in her deployment of melodrama as ‘the main witness called against the cultural monopoly’ of love (161). Unlike Byron, Landon seeks to operate outside ‘the conventions of gender’ and recognises the hierarchical and destructive nature of gender as ‘the worst enemy of love’ (160). Landon subordinates individual heterosexual or homosexual relationships in her work ‘to a disquisition on Love itself’ (161) which ‘challenges society to justify its morals’ and identifies gender as ‘self and other-destructive’ (160). These issues are raised through Landon’s theatrical presentation of love, for example in her ‘Venetian Bracelet’ (1829), which provides a heightened sense ‘that emotion is always necessarily feigned’ and ‘that love itself follows a preordained path, a theatricalised script familiar to readers and to the narrator, but not to the players’ (pp. 164-5). Through the melodramatic and sometimes tragic, as exemplified in ‘Roland’s Tower’ (1824), Landon offers a ‘rendering of romance that serves to underscore its failures and dangers’ (166). This ‘final transmutation’ of romance into the ‘poetical melodramas of Landon and Byron’ gesture towards the dominance and formal ‘codification of melodrama’ in the Victorian era. In time, Labbe concludes, melodrama supplanted the romance as a literary genre and violently precipitated the ‘death of the Romantic romance’ itself (174).
The Romantic Paradox offers original, sometimes ingenious, ways of rethinking the centrality of violence in literary romance of the early nineteenth century. Labbe’s close readings of those major exponents of the romance form in the period extend beyond Coleridge, Keats, and Byron to encompass significant innovations in the genre by the work of the Della Cruscans, Hemans, Landon, and Robinson. These critical engagements build constructively upon their intelligent dialogues with contemporary scholarship in the field, represented by the research of Isobel Armstrong, Stuart Curran, Anthony Harding, Ann Mellor, and Marjorie Levinson. The study provides a comprehensive and helpful survey of contemporary criticism and its responses to the romance as a literary form in the Romantic Period as well as reshaping the relations between genders and our understanding of the variety of strategies that nineteenth-century male and female writers of the genre employed. Alert to the shifting landscapes of romance within the Romantic Period, Labbe’s innovative readings and re-readings of romantic romance re-sensitises us to the sublimated physical and emotional violence that characterises and threatens, from within, the very endeavour of writing romance.