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Jacqueline M. Labbe, Romantic Visualities: Landscape, Gender and Romanticism. London and New York: Macmillan and St Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN: 0 333 71449 0. Price: £40 (US$55).

  • Tim Fulford

…plus d’informations

  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

Corps de l’article

According to Thomas De Quincey, 'the Sublime . . . in contraposition to the Beautiful, grew up on the basis of sexual distinctions.' These distinctions are the subject of Jacqueline's Labbe's detailed and authoritative book. Taking her cue from the work of John Barrell, Labbe begins her treatment of Romantic landscape with the prospect view. She argues that the commanding and panoramic prospect served, on the ground and as a figure in aesthetic and political debate, to confer authority upon men. The view from the top, possessed in practice only by gentlemen landowners, became exclusively theirs in theory too. The capacity to take disinterested general views became, by virtue of this socially-rooted metaphor, the exclusive preserve of men.

If Barrell and others have traced the progress of the prospect view, nobody has investigated its consequences for women, and its influence on gender stereotypes, as thoughtfully as Labbe. Eschewing over-general formulations, Labbe makes illuminating distinctions between the different men who used the prospect view in their poetry, as well as between men and women writers. She reveals 'the anxieties attendant on a strongly-gendered aesthetics and the unsteady nature of that gendering' (p. 65). She uncovers the unease and instability within the versions of the sublime produced by Wordsworth and Coleridge. She does so in carefully weighted and judicious readings of 'Tintern Abbey' and 'Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement,' readings which set the standard for feminist criticism of male Romanticism in that they neither exculpate nor dismiss the poets for their treatment of the feminine. Whereas Anne Mellor, for one, has written of Wordsworth cannibalising and enslaving the feminine, Labbe shows both that he was perpetuating a gender stereotype and that he was registering 'an anxiety at so doing' (p. 6). It was, I would argue, an anxiety that opened a space within which the gender stereotypes could be questioned. Wordsworth himself—although Labbe does not pursue this point—questioned them in poems which by the standards of their day were remarkably feminist. 'The Thorn' and 'The Song of the Forsaken Indian Woman' gave voices to female speakers. In these poems women spoke in ways that did not conform to cultural stereotypes. They were admired as well as pitied for doing so, and they challenged the assumptions of the men who viewed them (including male readers).

It is to Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes rather than to his Lyrical Ballads that Labbe turns, in a chapter which demonstrates that the aesthetics of gender were further complicated in the Romantic period by the picturesque. She argues that, as a hybrid aesthetic, the picturesque mixed masculine and feminine, sublime and beautiful, in a way which made it attractive to male poets who wished to escape from the image of authority produced by the prospect view. Equally, it was attractive to women writers who could use it to colonise the traditionally masculine sublime, as Labbe shows of Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. For both it contained dangers: women risked being attacked for encroaching on men's territory, language and power; men risked losing their position at the top. Wordsworth solved the problem only by an uneasy sleight of hand: he used the picturesque without admitting that he was doing so.

Labbe's discussion of the picturesque includes Gilpin, Uvedale Price and, briefly, Richard Payne Knight as well as Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft. It serves to remind us how influential an aesthetic it was, precisely because it was loosely enough formulated to accommodate tensions and contradictions. But Labbe's focus is narrow: emphasising gender differences in the picturesque leads her to neglect the social and political divisions between its practitioners. Much of Wordsworth's unease about engaging with the picturesque arose not from his fear of being feminised but from his residual dislike for the paternalism of gentlemen landowners. Equally, an account of Humphry Repton, a missing term in Labbe's argument, would reveal the way in which gardens became sites of class resentment.

Repton's absence is a pity, since he was an advocate of planting the small-scale flower gardens which Labbe makes the subject of her next chapter. In two very subtle and astute readings she shows how Hannah More and Dorothy Wordsworth configured gardens as sites for femininity, showing that they discovered behind the flower beds a certain power but also accepted many restrictions. But while these readings are persuasive, the larger thesis is not. Labbe argues that 'gardens represent a paradoxical and potentially disabling space for men' (p. 80) since they represent enclosure, retirement and domesticity rather than the approved 'masculine' virtues of authority and command. But this is to ignore the fact that for many men too, gardens were attractive precisely because they offered an alternative to the commanding masculinity which they were supposed, but unwilling, to assume. Shenstone, Cowper and Repton all designed, tended and represented domestic gardens in this way. A deeper analysis of garden history and garden literature would reveal a more complex inscription of gender upon the lawn and shrubbery than is allowed for here—or would, at least, allow the paradoxes and disablements that gardens posed for men to be focused more sharply.

Lacking such an analysis, Labbe offers instead a brief discussion of the bower as a masculine invention to contrast with the garden. She analyses Wordsworth's 'Nutting,' Coleridge's 'This Lime Tree Bower My Prison' and Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. While the individual readings are well-taken, they are too slight to bear the argumentative weight that is placed on them. If the bower is a feminine space created by men to stimulate their desire, it is also a religious one in which the relationship of good and evil, flesh and spirit, humanity and God takes dramatic form. The male Romantics were engaging with Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and the Bible when they wrote about bowers. Their relationship with Christian tradition needs to be factored in to the account of the way they gendered landscape. Labbe has too little room to do this and, as a result, her garden/bower opposition remains intriguing rather than convincing.

Despite these limitations, Romantic Visualities is a significant addition to the current effort to rehistoricise Romanticism by considering the political implications of aesthetic discourse. One of its virtues is its recontextualisation of canonical texts. Wordsworth and Coleridge appear not just in relation to Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft, but to Priscilla Wakefiled and Mary Delany. Wakefield's travel narrative and Delany's flower paintings are discussed in detail. Here Labbe succeeds in restoring to our attention two particularly feminine forms of aesthetic activity, popular at the time but neglected since. She reminds us, that is to say, that male Romanticism was but one element of a culture marked by a massive expansion in the consumption of literature and art. Rehabilitating women's contribution to that culture and simultaneously revealing the constraints that operated on writers of both sexes, Romantic Visualities is a valuable contribution to a properly nuanced and contextualised feminist history of writing.