In Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History and Transcendence, Kari E. Lokke successfully defends her thesis that the feminine visions of Germaine de Staël in Corinne, Mary Shelley in Valperga, Bettine von Arnim in Die Günderode, and George Sand in Consuelo and its sequel, The Countess of Rudolstadt, progressively constitute a critique of Romanticism from within, negating masculine aesthetics and masculine historical paradigms—entropic melancholy and the will to power, or Byronic Prometheanism. The four “heretical” views of history in these four Romantic novels move from the glorification of the Romantic iconoclast and toward the democratization of history.
Lokke reads Staël’s famous Künstlerroman, Corinne, as historical dialectic. The syllogistic thesis of the novel is the melancholia of Corinne’s English lover, Oswald, whose obsessive brooding is patriarchal, guilt-centered, and rationalist. Corinne’s Italian enthusiasm serves as antithesis in its feminism, liberation, and spontaneity. Enthusiasm is Corrine’s aesthetics and her religion, the basis of morality, subjectivity, and identity. But Corinne is eventually seduced by Oswald’s suicidal world view, accepting his defeatist and Romantic melancholy as “cultural elitism” and “moral authority.” (Melancholy is not merely Oswald’s personal remorse and grief, but also a socio-political response to the sorry end of the French Revolution.) Lokke posits that in the novel’s final pages, the dying heroine discovers a natural synthesis in Juliette, the young daughter of Oswald and Corinne’s half-sister, Lucile. A homo-social bonding among Corinne (the Sibyl), Lucile (the Madonna) and Juliette (the hope for future womanhood) excludes Oswald’s monomania of melancholy and offers transcendence through the socio-political voice of enlightened womanhood. Lokke’s chief problem, however, is Staël herself. Elsewhere Staël excludes women from the political sphere and advocates a feminine aesthetics of selflessness, but Lokke argues that Staël knew there would be no political opportunities for women and therefore adopted a stance that this very deprivation of power “has enabled [women] to develop spiritual faculties that should in fact be emulated by all humankind ...” (34).
As in Corinne, so also in Shelley’s Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, no happy ending is possible because post-Revolutionary struggle is ongoing. (Shelley’s novel is set in Italy at the time of Guelph-Ghibelline strife, but Lokke notes that the action is, like that of Staël’s novel, an analogue for the Napoleonic era.) Therefore Shelley’s heroine, Euthanasia, like Corinne, dies at the end—although, unlike Corinne, she has never succumbed to the ideology of the novel’s male protagonist. Prince Castruccio demonstrates the Napoleonic/Byronic will to power; for him, transcendence is the glory of the individual ego and power—a world view countered in Euthanasia’s (and Shelley’s) civic humanism. In Shelley’s novel, as in Staël’s, a trio of women serves as antithesis to the masculine world view. Shelley’s maiden, mother, and crone characters (Beatrice, Euthanasia, and Mandragola) share Corrine-like characteristics of eloquence and enthusiasm and jointly prove Napoleonic imperial arrogance to be self-destructive, although they are also destroyed in the process. Lokke interprets Euthanasia’s “civic humanist values” as an alternative historical model to that of Burkean or Machiavellian conquest by the sword—the “sado-masochistic death at the core of [the] Byronic will to power” (69). A champion of liberty, Euthanasia joins a doomed plot against the man she has loved from childhood, but she is trying to save Castruccio from himself, even as she attempts to save his people from his tyranny. Lokke concludes that Euthanasia’s “political aristocracy” is to be interpreted as a dedication to liberty, more than a personal passion for transcendence. Therefore it serves as antithesis to Castruccio’s masculine and imperialist world view.
Bettine von Arnim’s Die Günderode is an epistolary novel based upon her correspondence with the poet Karoline von Günderode. It studies abandonment, a theme treated in both Staël and Shelley, as well as the psychic peril of art (Günderode having committed suicide). Lokke reads Arnim’s text as a radical critique of Kant, Schiller, Goethe, and German Romanticism, a re-write of Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and a female sublime replacing Wilhelm Meister. Lokke posits that Bettine’s Bildung is the knowledge that history lives only in the consciousness of its students, an epiphany that Bettine achieves after abandoning her male pedagogues. In Valperga, transcendental feminism abides in a revisionary Platonic cave of Truth, Poetry, Imagination, Madness, and Heresy; in Die Günderode, Karoline and Bettine dwell together for a time in a castle of philosophical freedom, subscribing to a religion of nature and love. Like Corinne, Die Günderode is interpreted as a life-affirming response to melancholy.
According to Lokke the promise of Corinne is fulfilled in Sand’s Consuelo—another Künstlerroman of a great female talent. Here Lokke interprets Albert (Consuelo’s one great love, as Oswald is Corinne’s and Castruccio is Euthanasia’s) as Byronic/Promethean/Satanic, as well as melancholic, although Sand is much more focused upon Albert’s Hamlet-like inertia than his swash-buckling heroics (which are never employed as are Castruccio’s in a will to power, but always to save the oppressed). Nevertheless I do agree with Lokke’s conclusion: the secret society to which Albert and Consuelo finally commit themselves—the synthesis of Sand’s dialectic—is a paradigm much influenced by the social utopianism of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Leroux. Its twin goals are the political and economic liberation of people everywhere and a revolution of gender imbalance (with Albert’s mother, the sibyl/crone Wanda, as the novel’s spokeswoman for Sand’s view of sexual equality).
I wonder, though, why Lokke devalues the sexual desire of Consuelo (insisting that her marriage is to a “feminized” man when she could just as accurately have noted that Albert’s marriage is to a “masculinized” woman). The novel, after all, features the Orpheus motif as its central myth with the male and the female heroes frequently exchanging the roles of Orpheus and Eurydice, rescuer and rescued. Both Consuelo and Albert are androgynous. An acknowledgement of Consuelo’s sexual desire in the second volume of the Consuelo novels merely supports Sand’s sexual liberation and in no way undermines Lokke’s point that the virginal Consuelo, prior to her marriage, has been perfectly capable of creating great art (achieving transcendence). Lokke apparently feels the need to establish a connection among the novels in showing their mutual rejection of male values; thus as Corrine rejects Oswald’s melancholy, Euthanasia plots to overthrow Castruccio’s tyranny, and Bettine rejects the teachings of her brother, Lokke insists that Consuelo rejects both Albert’s melancholy and his Satanic rebellion. Given Albert’s commitment to politics and Consuelo’s to her celestial art, however, Sand solves the dilemma of masculine/feminine and artist/activist paradigms by merely merging them. Albert does not ask Consuelo to abandon the operatic stage, and the formerly apolitical Consuelo espouses Albert’s Les Invisibles (the secret, socialist, and iconoclastic political society for which Wanda serves as prophetess) when she marries Albert.
Lokke’s interpretation of Consuelo’s loss of her great singing voice at the end of The Countess of Rudolstadt is unusual; whereas most critics examine it from the perspective of feminist aesthetics, Lokke interprets it as politics: Corinne’s obscurity, along with Albert’s returned melancholia, is a sign that Europe is unprepared for the socialist utopia that they advocate. Here Lokke cleverly parallels the conclusion of Sand’s novel with the closure of the novels of Sand’s predecessors.
In the conclusion of her brilliant and thoroughly-informed study, Lokke briefly studies Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers as an example of a modern Künstlerroman. Dinesen’s novel begins where Staël, Shelley, and Sand conclude—the silencing of the artist. Pellegrina, Dinesen’s opera singer, is, like Consuelo, a servant of the people and an advocate of liberty. As Shelley alludes to Corinne in her frenzied prophetess Beatrice and her self-sacrificing Euthanasia and as Sand splits aspects of Corinne in her egocentric artist Corilla and her divine singer Consuelo, Dinesen knowingly writes within (and against) the tradition. In fact she parodies the entire range of nineteenth-century Künstlerromane—from Staël’s abandoned woman to Sand’s artist of the people. According to Lokke the “masculinist strictures” of the twentieth-century still haunt the female artist (157), although Dinesen treats that theme with irony and comedy, rather than melodrama and tragedy. Lokke says, “... the teleology of divine providence and resultant human progress” in the works of Staël, Shelley, Arnim, and Sand (159) is replaced in The Dreamers with the material realities and comic fates—and by the suicide of the artist. Thus nineteenth-century idealism is replaced by twentieth-century nihilism.