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Genre, particularly in the realm of feminist criticism, has been a hot topic in Romantic studies for some time. We have become accustomed to thinking about genres in terms of their political implications and consequences even as we have stepped away from formalism as a mode of critique (but see Susan Wolfson, Formal Charges [Stanford, 1997]). We have not, perhaps, looked closely enough at genres as flexible, constantly shifting signifiers of literary change with definitions that emerge not from some Platonic and predetermined dimension, but rather from particular and contingent contexts.
Context-dependent redefinitions of 'genre' preoccupy the recent collection of essays titled Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre, which began as a collaboration between several contributors to the inaugural conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism in 1993. Editors Tilottama Rajan and Julia Wright use the introductory essay to present their understanding of the central generic concerns of Romantic critics. First is 'the question of whether it is not only genres themselves, but also the way we systematize them, that is profoundly historical' (p. 3); the categorization of genre as well as its definition therefore become contingent. Second, Romantic theory searches for 'alternative vocabularies to the purely literary category of genre' (p. 3). Finally, Rajan and Wright note the importance of mood and mode in any historical consideration of genre, arguing both that mode can generate genre 'as a transposition into literature of changes occurring at the level of social life [i.e. the epistolary novel]' and that 'mood [therefore] exerts a reciprocal pressure on the conservatism of genre' (pp. 4,5). The overall intent of the introductory essay is therefore not only to open up the definition of genre by adding considerations of mood, mode, and historical-political-social context, but also to 'unstick' criticism from its tendency to pair historical eras with genres or modes. Rajan and Wright here note Romantic criticism's tendency to identify lyric with Romantic and then to reject the attendant 'Romantic ideology.' The statement rings a bit hollow, in that Romantic criticism has gone overwhelmingly beyond lyric for two decades at least; at the same time, however, books like Wolfson's Formal Charges do focus overwhelmingly on the lyric as they formulate generic theories of the period.
In the process of rejecting the identification of historical periods with particular genres or moods, the editors' opening out of the definition of 'genre' also opens the way for the volume's essays, which 'start from a sense that many Romantic writers are between cultures and ideologies, and thus between genres' (pp. 5-6). The first group of essays, subtitled 'Genre, History, and the Public Sphere,' examines 'genre as a form of cultural intervention' in that they argue that the mode of seeing and interpreting the past constitutes active intervention in contemporary social and political processes (p. 10). Jon Klancher's contribution on 'Godwin and the genre reformers' reminds us that Godwin's essay on narrative genre reform, 'Of History and Romance,' 'may appear today as the first of those British Romantic critical programs that promoted literary genre-reform as a means to induce greater ideological or social change in history' (p. 22). Godwin rejected 'universal history,' argues Klancher, because of its inherent limitations on that of which 'social man is capable' (p. 29). Yet neither does he elevate fictional narrative or contingent historiography; rather, Godwin 'turns both the empirical historian and the romance-writer into competitors in the now highly destabilized universe of modern narrative genres' (p. 33). Klancher's sense of genres as 'historical materials' rather than determinate formulae serves as a highly useful entrée into the book as a whole.
The following three chapters in this section feature essays by Kevin Gilmartin on radical print culture, Gary Handwerk on Godwin's historical fiction, and Ina Ferris on national tales and 'female writing.' Gilmartin shifts the focus to the impact of the 'weekly newspaper or pamphlet of political argument' which was 'the most important print organ of radical protest' (p. 39). Gilmartin's imaginative presentation characterizes the genre as 'a form in crisis, scarred and limited' by the conditions both of publication and of readership (p. 45). Thus 'an imprisoned magazine found a way to exceed its formal limitations by circulating the restricted conditions under which it was produced'; the very crisis that the weekly reports becomes materialized in the conditions of its distribution (p. 54). The radical weekly becomes in fact a deformed form which bears on its surface the evidence of the struggle that it wishes to advance. Thus the weeklies are both a form of 'historical intervention,' as the editors argue, and a register of the particularized and shifting histories labeled Godwinian by Klancher; while conservatives want universalized order, radicals desire the fragmentation and crisis both reported and embodied by the weeklies.
Handwerk returns our attention to Godwin by examining history and trauma in the context of St. Leon, Mandeville, and Political Justice. Handwerk's essay aims to sketch the 'tension in Godwin's own thought between Enlightenment liberalism and an emergent Romantic mentality' (p. 67). While Political Justice took an unproblematically progressive view of history, Handwerk notes that Godwin's novels strive to incorporate the 'possibility of significant breaks in the forward momentum' (p. 70) and 'acknowledge that 'the recursiveness of history as a problem that may set limits on any progressive vision' (p. 81). Handwerk's perspective can be usefully contrasted to Klancher's; while Handwerk sees Godwin's fiction challenging the optimism of Political Justice, Klancher notes Godwin's rejection of 'universal history' in favor of generically flexible contingency.
The last essay on genre and history is Ferris' chapter on national tales and 'female writing.' As previous contributors had pictured political/historical writing as constitutive of interventions into straightforward 'universal histories,' so too does Ferris present 'the later national tale' as 'refusing the impersonality and narrative distance of the historical novel' and instead reading 'history with a present-tense sense of urgency, and fractur[ing] the wholeness of national-historical time' (p. 96). The 'national tale' begins to sound like Finnegans Wake as Ferris references Morgan's ability to create 'stereoscopic time' and to participate in several genres at once (pp. 100-101). Ferris's essay is interesting and important because it enables us to see another way in which multigeneric historical fiction intervenes in the public sphere and thus potentially does connect Lady Morgan to such writers as James Joyce and W.B. Yeats.
The second of the book's three sections shifts the focus to genre and society and includes chapters by Don Bialotosky (Wordsworth, genre, and the Lyrical Ballads), Judith Thompson (John Thelwall), Julia M. Wright (Eliza Fenwick's Secresy), and Jerrold E. Hogle ('Frankenstein as neo-gothic'). Bialotosky's chapter opens up the consideration of Wordsworth's language to include the world-view of its users, and not just the words themselves. Responding to David Simpson and drawing on Bakhtin, Bialotosky argues that 'we will need to learn to recognize that 'languages' in his [Bakhtin's] sense are distinguished ... by the beliefs and evaluations they typically produce, by the contexts in which they are typically used, and by the shapes of utterance in which they typically occur' (p. 111). Less concerned with precise words, phrasing, and dialect than with 'speech genres characteristic of those people and that society,' Bialotosky provides a table listing the poems of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads and attaches a descriptive speech genre to each (for example, 'an epitaph not attached to a tomb' ['Lines left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree'], 'a crazy homeless lady's raving to her baby' ['The Mad Mother']; pp. 114-115). Noting that the speech addressed to strangers constitutes the largest category in the LB, Bialotosky concludes that 'together they identify the public way as a sphere of communication with its own genres' (p. 116).
Judith Thompson's interesting and ingenious essay on Thelwall focuses on The Peripatetic's mixing of genres and argues that it 'offers ... a new way of reading Romantic genres in their complex interrelations with other genres, as ideological forms'; both characters and genres interact and are redefined therein (p. 124). Thompson proposes that Thelwall's technique produces a leveling of genres which produces a multigeneric text within which each genre emerges from a specific politico-social context and therefore has different implications and explicatory abilities. Thelwall's social and literary program, continues Thompson, sees genres as 'inevitably ideological forms ... capable ... of interrogating and critiquing both those systems and themselves' (p. 143). Thompson's own skillful and deft prose, a real pleasure to read, leaves the reader skeptical about idealization and eager to return, as she suggests, to idealized figures like the Discharged Soldier and Leech Gatherer (p. 144).
While Eliza Fenwick does not level genres in the same way that Thelwall does, Julia M. Wright argues that in Secresy she does use the epistolary format 'to present an unresolved cacophony of social values, mores, and expectations that reflects the turmoil of the period' (p. 149); 'no one voice stands above the rest, secure from critique, contradiction, or generic classification' (p. 154). While Wright indicates that she sees a collision of genres in the novel (p. 153), she later rephrases the conflict as one of 'writings,' 'voices,' or 'plots' (p. 161). This leads to a certain fuzziness in the argument, as genres, modes, writings, voices, and plots are used somewhat interchangeably. Nevertheless, Wright's argument—that 'this clash of plots' 'produces the novel's cacophony and disallows the emergence of an authoritative voice' (p. 161)—provides a clear and interesting center to her argument even as it directly connects her essay to Thompson's and even Klancher's.
Jerrold Hogle's essay on the neo-gothic elements of Frankenstein introduces the theme of gender, which will be central to the last section of the collection, even as it claims that Shelley's novel both advances and undercuts certain central thematics and processes of the gothic. Hogle focuses his argument on the concept of the 'counterfeit,' which he defines as 'signifiers referring back to signifiers, none of which contain or connect to their own meanings in the ways their users and observers assume they do or wish they would' (p. 181). He expands the doubled concept of the counterfeit by relating Romanticism's ghosts to the 'Renaissance counterfeit of the medieval': 'the Gothic is haunted by the ghost of that already spectral past—and thus by its refaking of what is already fake and already an emblem of the nearly empty and dead' (p. 189). In a preview of the essays to follow, Hogle conjures the female as neo-gothic's 'other' and connects the 'spectral counterfeiting of woman' to the concept of the abject (p. 194). Hogle's argument is most interesting when he addresses the concept of the counterfeit as a palimpsest which has to confront 'the paradox of its every layer being other than itself' (p. 197)—particularly in Frankenstein, with its 'way of rooting 'monsters' in the 'mothers''(199). Hogle concludes by productively connecting this construct to other Romantic Gothic writing, including P.B. Shelley's St. Irvyne and Alastor.
The collection's final section addresses 'genre, gender, and the private sphere' and includes essays by Tilottama Rajan (Mary Hays), Mary Jacobus ('female enlightenment'), and Jerome McGann (on 'the failures of romanticism'). Rajan's typically dense essay challenges the status quo 'reduction of text to biography' from which Mary Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney suffers (p. 213). Rajan coins the term 'autonarration' to indicate an 'intergenre' which is a 'form of self-writing in which the author writes her life as a fictional narrative, and thus consciously raises the question of the relationship between experience and its narrativization' (p. 222). Neither fiction nor autobiography, autonarration enables the author to situate her (life) experience in a particular historical moment and then implicate the reader in 'the continuation of its project,' thus creating a 'transactional text whose significance must be conceived historically, and must be developed and negotiated through its reading' (p. 231). With regard to 'female writing,' Rajan in most interested in 'the transposition of personal experience into fiction,' which 'recognizes 'experience' as discursively constructed' (p. 213). Rajan's indication that (inter)genre may thus be used to construct 'autobiography,' and more broadly 'experience,' thus recalls the arguments made by several other authors in the volume, particularly Klancher's, Gilmartin's, and Thompson's.
In an elegantly written essay that is also both consistently interesting and eminently useful, Mary Jacobus addresses 'female enlightenment' by taking up Inchbald's A Simple Story, Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest, Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Edgeworth's Belinda. Recalling Hogle's interest in the female (or feminized) figure of abjection, Jacobus notes that in scenes of 'female enlightenment' 'the figure of the mother ... surfaces as a figure of melancholic abjection' (p. 240). Taking the phrase from Inchbald's version of Lover's Vows, Jacobus defines 'the science of herself' as 'a form of enlightenment knowledge that occupies, by default, the place of a lost or abjected maternal object' (p. 240). Jacobus recalls the Rousseauian model of 'female education' in order to demonstrate what she means by feminine resistance to 'enlightenment' education. She focuses on melancholia as a typically masculine practice denied to women and notes that Wollstonecraft in particular uses melancholy to signal female resistance and even transgression (p. 255). In the most interesting of a series of revelatory readings, Jacobus takes up the character Virginia in Edgeworth's Belinda to demonstrate the power of resistance to Rousseauian 'education': 'Virginia, through her apparent ineducability, educates Edgeworth's readers in the meaning of feminine resistance. While dutifully and naively trying to please Hervey, she discovers and articulates for herself that 'Wishes, and feelings, and sentiments, are not so easily regulated' (p. 263; quotes Belinda p. 380). The 'ineducable' woman therefore becomes the scion of 'the science of herself,' which 'none but a woman can teach.'
Jerome McGann's comments on the failures of romanticism constitute the final chapter of the volume. McGann argues that the 'failures' in which he is interested 'draw their stylistic authority from conventions of sensibility and sentimentality' (p. 271). Failure and the feminine are identified to a certain extent as writers like Robinson and Smith construct alternative founding myths for the romantic culture on which their poetry draws, as 'poetic failure ceases to be simply an available subject or theme; it becomes a textual event, a new foundational feature of imaginative work' (p. 280). The sapphic myth that forms the new foundation dictates that 'poetry is the discourse of failure,' continues McGann, and turns to Landon's contribution to the 1829 Keepsake volume and terms it 'a kind of antipoem' (pp. 281; 282). McGann thus draws our attention back to the disruptive potential of 'intergenre' and of 'female writing,' again, as do many of the authors in the volume, using generic inquiry to map the transgressive and even anti-idealistic potential of women's writing.
Romanticism, history, and the possibilities of genre offers a collection of new genre studies that manages to be creative and diverse at the same time that it collects eleven essays that share several themes—among them the intervention of genre in history and society, the ability of women's writing to resist and challenge limitations through 'intergenre,' and most of all the flexibility and contingency of all romantic genres. The volume should interest Romantic scholars, from deconstructionists to cultural materialists, as well as scholars of genre and generic development.