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In his ambitious study of British women poets, Stephen Behrendt encourages us to embrace the ambiguities involved in conceiving “British Romanticism.” He argues that by refusing to evade the complexities of this period, we can recreate a more faithful cultural and literary landscape, undetermined by ideas surrounding “the big six.” He is especially interested in how the role of women’s writing can revolutionise our literary and cultural assumptions. As indicated by the monograph’s title, at the heart of this study is the concept of “community”; Behrendt argues that poets, both male and female, made literary production an ongoing, interactive conversation by engaging with, and then responding to, each other’s work. This “community building,” he suggests, was obvious to contemporary readers and became a vital aspect of the reading process. His purpose throughout this study then, is to impress the advantages of a more inclusive approach to Romantic literature. More specifically, Behrendt desires that we appreciate women writers as part of the literary, cultural, and political community, regardless of their level of celebrity.
The thirteen essays edited by Lilla Maria Crisafulli and Cecilia Pietropoli similarly aim to redress the historical neglect of women’s writing, yet because of the divergent assumptions underlying this book, its overall effect is strikingly different. These essays work within the framework of “Romanticism,” presuming a certain fluidity of the term, and rightfully expecting a prior regard for each well-known female writer discussed. It is not therefore a defence of women’s writing in the same way, but an affirmation and explanation of its aesthetic value. The editors argue that “Paradoxically, women’s marginalisation leads to a newly acquired liberty of expression, which opens up new literary perspectives, and allows women to confront public subjects from an unusual point of view” (3). Thus, while the essays work from a concerned awareness for gender inequality, each is more interested in offering a focused analysis of women’s essential contribution to Romanticism because of gender subjugation, not in spite of it. Accordingly, in terms of promoting the importance and impact of women’s writing during this period, the collection is an important and powerful one.
Beginning with Behrendt, however, one is immediately drawn to his superb historical contextualisation of literature alongside an original argument that also makes for a provocative work. The first of the six chapters, “Women Writers, Radical Rhetoric, and the Public,” establishes women’s “remarkably consistent involvement with radical social and political subject matter and ideology” (42). Reminding us of poetry’s particular power for controversial political commentary (which, he suggests, was of more importance than aesthetic considerations in this period), Behrendt gives examples from both renowned figures (Mary Robinson, Helen Maria Williams, Charlotte Smith) and lesser-known women poets (“F.A.C”, Anne Macvicar Grant, Elizabeth Moody) to demonstrate their astute political agendas. “Women Poets during the War Years” uses statistics and commentary to reawaken the reader’s awareness to the serious impact of war in this period (especially for ordinary citizens) something Behrendt feels we can too often underrate. By discussing the poetry of a variety of relatively unknown women poets, he highlights the expanse of women engaging with current affairs. Chapter Three, “Women and the Sonnet” uses the period’s particular appetite for the sonnet to reflect on the intertextual conversations between women poets. Through his comparative approach (of Smith, Robinson and Seward first, and the currently unfamiliar Anna Maria Smallpiece, Martha Hanson and Mary F. Johnson second), Behrendt argues that female poets invited readers to recognise their literary conversations and unique poetic choices.
Chapter Two, “Experimenting with Genre,” analyses how a variety of women adapted different genres to achieve their entrance into the “masculine” worlds of commerce, economics and politics. Behrendt’s continually relevant historical references (including discussions about the victory at Waterloo, the hatred felt towards the Prince Regent, and the effects of Princess Charlotte’s death in childbirth) make this chapter’s argument for women’s interest in public events realistic and meaningful. Most impressive is his analysis of the “Poetry of Social Commitment” including a reading of Felicia Hemans’s Modern Greece, which locates her at the centre of political debate and public concerns, rather than solely within an aesthetic setting. His refusal to simplify these inherently radical poems is most pertinent in his discussion of “The Long Verse Narrative Tale.” Here Behrendt examines how Caroline Anne Bowles’ modification of the Quest Romance “interrogates the prevailing social and cultural norms and exposes [...] their powerfully masculinist orientation [...] against the interests and welfare of women” (177). The final section of the chapter focusing on “The Elegiac Occasional Poem” is particularly sensitive. Behrendt highlights the uniquely personal relationship women are able to establish with readers as opposed to their male contemporaries’ formality. By comparing personal and public elegiac poetry, Behrendt demonstrates the powerful voices of ordinary women who engaged with public issues.
The penultimate “Scottish Women Poets” addresses how Scottish women negotiated the “two varieties of actual or virtual subaltern status,” that is, national cultural identity and gender (203). The excellent discussion explores how England’s imperialist project and its attempted squashing of non-English culture actually encouraged Scottish literature to flourish. Discussing the Act of Union’s cultural effects, Behrendt details the tensions involved for poets who took the opportunity for personal advancement that British identity invited, yet wanted to maintain their Celtic origins: “This is a literature whose impulses are at once assimilation and opposition” (213). Drawing our attention to the experience of transplanted Scots living in England, Wordsworth’s resentment against Scottish commercial success, and James Beattie’s own efforts to help fellow Scots “purge their discourse of the identifiable ‘Scotticisms’” (225), Behrendt highlights the variety of ways xenophobia was expressed and experienced. Such discussion adds weight to his statement that the use of idiom and language for Scottish writers was always loaded: “At the ground level of language, we need to appreciate that whether a poet elects to write in Scottish vernacular or standardized formal English is an act that is at once aesthetic and political” (212). A particularly impressive analysis is that of “the expatriate Scot” (233) Joanna Baillie’s “Lines to a Teapot,” which Behrendt shows to be “a deliberate conversation” about imperialism and gender with Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” (239); while “Both vessels depict social activities that reflect the cultures in which they originate” (239), Baillie’s poem specifically refers to “the decline of modern British imperial culture, an increasingly scathing portrait of the crass materialism that was rapidly accelerating in the new industrial age” (241). This impressive chapter highlights Scottish women’s complex perspectives and their profound value for current research. The last chapter, “Irish Women Poets” complicates the issue of nationality further to explore how Catholicism, the presence of a Protestant ruling class, as well as experiences of deprivation, inevitably affected Irish women’s poetry.
Behrendt’s study is most effective when connecting his continuously superb historical context with contemporary reviews of women’s poetry and specific examples of intertextuality. The only shortcoming of the study is perhaps its extensive subject matter, one that necessarily curbs certain areas of discussion (for example, the chapters on “Irish Women Poets” and “Women and the Sonnet”). However, any less-focused analysis accords with Behrendt’s ambivalence towards the artificial categorization of poetry and ideas; his professed aim was to “name names” (298) and recognise the misplaced voices, not to offer a redefinition of British Romanticism. As he writes in his conclusion, “It is not so much that we need to ‘recalculate’ what we know about Romantic-era poetry [...] we need now to reimagine the Romantic literary community in terms of a broadly interactive and multivocal conversation in which the participants are forthright (with themselves and with their audiences) about acknowledging the presence and influence of the many voices audible in that conversational community” (298). Accordingly, Behrendt’s non-dogmatic and necessary study acts as an ideal introduction to this area. It provides an invitation for scholars to rediscover lost voices and establish the value to be had in envisaging a more inclusive literary community.
Romantic Women Poets: Genre and Gender offers an excellent variety of unquestionably strong essays to support its own re-evaluation of Romanticism. In particular, Stuart Curran’s “Anna Seward and the Dynamics of Female Friendship” and Serena Baiesi’s “Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s The Improvisatrice” stand out for their impressive awareness of the gender-specific literary innovation that this book aims to uphold. Jane Stabler’s “Women Poets and the Aesthetic of the Sketch 1770-1830,” “Within or Without?” by Lilla Maria Crisafulli, and Cecilia Pietropoli’s “Women Romance Writers: Mary Tighe and Mary Hays,” are also exceptional in their unique perspectives concerning women’s originality.
The first essay of the collection, Stuart Curran’s “Anna Seward and the Dynamics of Female Friendship,” re-questions our concepts of romantic friendship between women. Acknowledging such relationships as particular to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he diverts out attention away from their general description (which establish the studies of other critics) to interrogate their actual meaning: “Whatever the spectrum of attachment [...] We know it existed, but what did it mean? What did it mean to mean?” (12). Curran shows that answers to this more important question can be located successfully in poetry, a genre that has the ability to encapsulate feeling. Taking Anna Seward’s poetry about the celebrated Ladies of Llangollen, he demonstrates how romantic friendship between women is seen by Seward to transpose on to the surrounding environment, enhancing it in a special, feminine way: the “essential trope” is that “the Ladies of Llangollen have infused the valley in which they reside with their vital presence” (14). More than this, in Seward’s more intense, personal poems regarding her love for Honora Sneyd, Curran reveals how Seward similarly transposes emotion and environment into poetry, making the poem a site for representing the emotion of attachment itself. Regarding the sonnets about Sneyd, Curran states, “their artistry reminds us that there is more than mere desire at work,” Seward “recreates her relationship with Honora Sneyd within an enclosed, interiorized, condensed space. It is a counterpart to and an enactment of the relationship two women may hold outside the normative social structures defined by patriarchy” (20). Seward attempts to “inscribe her friend” because she “lacks the power to circumscribe her,” (17) and, in this way, the poems attempt “to render permanent the emotional axis binding the two women” (17). Curran locates this type of love as unique to women’s relationships and in so doing, explicates how exclusively female experience can create a distinctively female poetics.
Also contributing to this notion of a uniquely female perspective, “‘Know Me What I Paint’: Women Poets and the Aesthetics of the Sketch 1770-1830” repudiates the notion that metaphors of sketch and painting are an indication of female modesty or creative limitation. Instead, Jane Stabler argues that “For Romantic writers [...] painting and sketching always had the potential either to be free or bounded” (24). Stabler suggests that women relished the unification of apparent contraries like this to a far greater degree than their male counterparts. Working within the framework of this period’s rivalry between painting and poetry, she demonstrates how female poets united the advantages of these “sister arts” to great effect in their poems. So in Barbauld’s poetry, Stabler sees “‘The flowing line’ of both poetry and painting connects ‘accurate’, ‘scientific’ attention with imaginative expansion” (26). She also recognises Anna Seward’s professed inability to choose between the two: “To Seward, poetry surpasses painting in its power of movement, but Painting excels in its ability to summon up the presence of an absent lover or friend” (32). For Stabler, it is women’s ability to embrace multiplicity (rather than accept exclusive categories) that encourages their fascination for artistic metaphors and produces their exceptional poetic perspectives. For Crisafulli, in “Within or Without?” “a woman is shaped and determined by being viewed, since she is traditionally the object of perception” (38). Thus, because “Romantic poetry, calls for a vision that returns to the self” and is “self-reflexive,” Romantic ideology “jeopardizes femininity,” (38) supporting the marginalisation of women from poetics. Crisafulli asks therefore, “which direction can their view take and with what perspective?” (39). In a particularly fruitful comparison of Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld and Dorothy Wordsworth, she draws out the numerous devices which enable the poetic personae to become subjects, rather than objects. The supporting references to Kristeva, as well as Bachelard, and the superb biographical framework make the strong poetical analysis in this essay particularly rewarding. The next essay relates to Crisafulli’s study; “Helen Maria Williams: The Shaping of a Poetic Identity” tracks the career of Williams to demonstrate how she manipulates and modifies her literary persona (and genre choice) to ensure public support.
Part Two of the collection begins with Timothy Webb’s “Listing the Busy Sounds: Anna Seward, Mary Robinson and the Poetic Challenge to the City,” an essay that redresses the neglect of women’s conceptions of the city. “Joanna Baillie’s Embarrassment” by Dorothy McMillan takes the reader to Ballie’s vacillating literary and personal relationship with Scotland. Part Three of the collection, “Genre Crossing: Verse Versus Prose and Drama” contains four essays: the first, “‘The Pieces of Poetry’ in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho,” by Beatrice Battaglia, impresses the vitality of Ann Radcliffe’s poetry and “word-painting technique” (“picturesque in its essence”) (140) for the considerable success of her novels. Next, Diego Saglia offers a particularly sensitive discussion of poetic technique, with “Ending the Romance: Women Poets and the Romantic Verse Tale.” This re-values the verse narrative, “one of the most popular and lucrative forms of poetry,” (153) taking particular record of the “elusive and irregular feature” that is the genre’s continual refusal to give the reader closure by the poem’s end (166). For female authors, Saglia argues, this lack of closure represents gender-conflict.
Serena Baiesi’s compelling “Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s The Improvisatrice” is similarly interested in the female’s role within the male-dominated literary landscape. For Baiesi, Landon’s poem is a commentary on the tensions between “public fame and private life,” more specifically on talented women for whom the divide between “artistic will and domestic duty have always been antagonists” (176). Baiesi reads The Improvisatrice therefore as Landon’s self-conscious reflection on the problems facing the female poet. Having established the importance of the purposefully exotic context, Italy, which is for Landon “a land of opportunity, a place free from rules imposed by British middle-class tradition” (176), and referring us to the poem’s relationship with Madame de Staël’s Corinne, Baiesi emphasises the oppressive culture in which Landon felt she was working. It is the particularly admirable discussion concerning the life of the Improvisatrice however, that most aids our understanding of Landon’s own difficult position as a public figure: “the Improvisatrice finds in the public the source of her genius as well as her own identity. This is not presumption or aimless ambition; the woman needs to be acknowledged by society in order not to be overwhelmed or marginalized by it” (175). Gender inequality, then, is at the forefront of Baiesi’s argument, yet she also demonstrates how Landon employed “a mode of literary hybridism in order to underline the play of voices staged” (179-180). Here, and in her other long poems, this technique asserts woman’s special ability for “multiplied and shifting perspective” (180). Once again, this insight relates to the book’s interest in presenting a particularly female poetics. Baiesi concludes that women’s writing often demonstrates how “the creative mind cannot altogether bear the passions, since love dries up the woman’s heart and with it her literary achievement” (180); women are destined to combine their public and private roles to maintain power and self-affirmation. This is a choice that will necessarily give the female poet suffering, even while offering her representation for all time: “for Landon herself, the art of performance is something that goes behind her will: the poet feels a compulsion towards composing poems that drives her out of her mind and leaves her without physical and mental strength” (181-182). While Baiesi records Landon’s awareness of her own poetical genius, her essay also depicts the poet’s refusal of intellectual compromise; in the face of restriction and suffering, Landon develops genre and poetic technique to produce innovative and more emotional literature. Relating to feeling’s place in women’s writing, the final essay in this section, “Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Ethics of Sentiment,” by Donatella Montini, traces Barbauld’s valuation for emotion as a means of education, as indicated by her professed literary tastes.
Part Four most obviously observes relations between male and female literary figures. The section begins with Cecilia Pietropoli’s “Women Romance Writers: Mary Tighe and Mary Hays,” an essay that offers a rich comparison of Tighe’s Psyche and Hays’ “A Fragment. In the manner of the Old Romances.” Pietropoli claims that as part of female poets’ special revision of the Romance, Tighe and Hays use their poems to create metaphors for their relationship with the male literary world. She examines the (unusually) female protagonists, Tighe’s Psyche and Hays’s Cleanthe, to show how the relationship between lady and knight reflects the poet’s vocational decisions. From this observation, Pietropoli is able to conclude that Tighe is actually more successful at “taming” the romance than the radical Hays, despite the traditionalist gender relations she seems to reinforce. Pietropoli draws out how Cleanthe’s declaration of chastity is not victorious, connecting it to Hays’s own controversial and ultimately unfruitful withdrawal from the public world. Richard Cronin’s “Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Lady’s Rule” follows with a reflection on Landon and Hemans’s very different models of “femininity.” Cronin suggests that “each produced the other” (222) and observes how the success of their feminine personae influenced Tennyson’s own poems. The collection ends with Gioia Angeletti’s “Women Re-writing Men: The Example of Anna Seward and Lady Caroline Lamb,” which examines how Seward and Lamb develop specific male models and texts in their own writing. Such a diverse selection of essays can only be supported by Behrendt’s own reinterpretation of this period; the adulation these women received within such a competitive literary climate makes any disregard for them today all the more erroneous.
Sophie Rudland is a first-year PhD student at the University of Warwick working on David Hartley’s Observations on Man and Eighteenth-Century women’s poetry.