“Reclaiming Romance”: Jacqueline M. Labbe. The Romantic Paradox: Love, Violence and the Uses of Romance, 1760-1830. London: Macmillan, 2000; New York: Saint Martin’s, 2000. ISBN 0-333-76032-8. Price: US$59.95.[Record]

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    Durham University

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 …