British Women Writers and the French Revolution: Citizens of the World/women Romantic Poets: Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson

By Bainbridge, Simon | The Byron Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview

British Women Writers and the French Revolution: Citizens of the World/women Romantic Poets: Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson


Bainbridge, Simon, The Byron Journal


BRITISH WOMEN WRITERS AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: CITIZENS OF THE WORLD. By Adriana Craciun. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. xii + 225. ISBN 1 4039 0235 6. £45.00.

WOMEN ROMANTIC POETS: ANNA BARBAULD AND MARY ROBINSON. By Anne Janowitz. Writers and their Work. Tavistock: Northcote House. 2004. Pp. 128. ISBN 0 7463 1029. £25.00.

These two valuable studies emphasise how central women's writing has now become to our understanding of the writing and culture of the Romantic period. While Craciun and Janowitz both provide excellent close analyses of specific texts, they are perhaps most concerned with seeking to situate the women writers they study historically, geographically and in relation to the various cultural formations sometimes labelled 'Romanticism'. Both authors stress not only how their chosen writers create their sense of self through composition but also how important they become as shaping forces on the world they inherit.

In her lively and stimulating study, Anne Janowitz focuses on two of the best-known and most influential women poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Anna Barbauld and Mary Robinson. Her study provides an excellent introduction to these two very different writers, combining close readings of their texts with informative and entertaining accounts of their lives. But Janowitz's focus on these two writers is also part of a more ambitious project, for she makes them representative of what she sees as the two main modes of women's writing in the period, 'Sense' and 'Sensibility', a neat formulation whose origins in Austen are indicative of the lightly ironic manner in which it is used here. Anna Barbauld, the offspring of Dissenting culture, becomes the poet of Sense, working up 'the poetic language of Enlightenment rationalism from within the religious perspective of deism, reflecting her own education through the polite restraint of Dissenting sociability'. Mary Robinson, actress, celebrity and sometime mistress of the Prince of Wales, is defined in terms of Sensibility, her poetry an overflow of powerful feelings that have their origin in her personal experiences and that make her 'the harbinger of the sentimental romanticism of individualism'. As Janowitz epigrammatically puts it, 'Mrs Barbauld is seemly; Mrs Robinson bursts at the seams'.

Janowitz herself argues that these 'vivid contrasts are overly schematic', but they do provide productive ways of thinking about her chosen writers and enable her to develop her sense of their 'antithetical complementarity' in a number of ways. For example, she draws on Schiller's distinction between the naïve and the sentimental when comparing the two poets' early work, finding an immediacy in Barbauld's first volume of verse that contrasts with Robinson's selfawareness. On a more general level, Janowitz sees the two writers as representatives of different ways in which writers constructed their self in the period, arguing that while Barbauld could fall back on the values and networks of the Dissenting environment in which she grew up for a sense of identity, Robinson's less stable background compelled her to build up a strong sense of an interior self disconnected from environment, place or family connection. Ultimately, Janowitz suggests, by considering these writers as representative figures, we gain a fuller understanding of the cultural forms they both inherited and contributed to; as she comments in her discussion of a volume of Odes published in 1800 to which both poets contributed, 'Romantic poetry was founded at the meeting place of Enlightenment theories of liberty and enfranchisement and the poetics of subjectivity and sensibility'.

Central to Janowitz's account of the development of these two writers are the events of the French Revolution which proved enabling for both of them as poets. …

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