Repossessing the Romantic Past

Article excerpt

Repossessing the Romantic Past edited by Heather Glen and Paul Hamilton. Cambridge U. Press, 2006. Pp. ix + 254. $90.

In the past three decades a new picture of British Romanticism has emerged in opposition to the focus on six male poets in two generations. Along with the expansion of the field to women writers and prose works, there has been a new recognition of the continuities between eighteenth-century literature and Romanticism, as well as an abandonment of oversimplified binaries between rationalism and imagination, Enlightenment and enchantment, the constraints of genre and tradition and the spontaneous overflow of liberated passion. Repossessing the Romantic Past is a major collection of well-researched essays that serve to consolidate this expansion and renewal of the field of Romantic studies. We can locate an emblem of the new conception of Romanticism in Anne Janowitz's chapter on how Lucy Aikin's memoirs serve as part of the family "reputation machine" that established the fame of Aikin's aunt Anna Laetitia Barbauld (80). Like other contributors to this collection, Janowitz focuses on sociability and conversation, especially in a tradition of rational dissent--located here in the circle of the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson: "In Johnson's dining room Fuseli hung his painting The Nightmare, so Johnson's dining club of discursive rationality was overseen by the Romantic passions of that frightening and compelling dreamscape" (87). In this new vision of Romanticism, the imagination and its unconscious sources occupy the same room as the rational conversations of politically engaged writers in a circle that includes those whom Jon Mee terms "disputatious women such as Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft" (33).

Six of the eleven chapters in Repossessing the Romantic Past focus on women writers: Janowitz on Aikin; Mee on Barbauld's attraction to what Godwin termed "the collision of mind with mind" as opposed to the bluestocking politeness of the dominant Anglican culture; Nigel Leask on Elizabeth Hamilton; Janet Todd on "Jane Austen and the Professional Wife"; and Susan Manly's and James Chandler's contributions to a section of the book entitled "Reopening the Case of Edgeworth." In addition to exploring the culture of rational Dissent, focusing on sociability rather than the solitary communion with nature, and positioning Romanticism within rather than against Enlightenment, the contributors define a Romantic mode that is explicitly non-Wordsworthian, while they reject a view of imagination as a flight from politics. Thus, Kevin Gilmartin replaces "conventional Romantic utopianism (the Lakeland republic of Wordsworth's vision)" with "a potentially shared experience of life in London," which might provide for William Hazlitt a radical "counterweight" to the nightmare of "Legitimacy" (7, 42). In "Shelley's Republics," Michael Rossington elevates Marlow in 1817--with the "working-out of Shelley's differences from Godwin and Hunt"--to a similar status as Alfoxden in 1797, where Wordsworth and Coleridge began their collaboration (65). The book concludes with Jerome McGann's critique of Wordsworth's desire that his poetry be used "as a form of worship rather than a poetic tale" (240). McGann sets against the idealist Wordsworth a tradition of temporality and mortal beauty running from Byron, through Poe and Baudelaire, to Swinburne. In a similar rejection of Romantic transcendence, once Barbauld is "forced ... into retirement by the practical position of Dissenters in a hostile print culture," she did not, according to Jon Mee, transmute these circumstances "into a romantic idea of a 'higher' freedom of the imagination" (32).

An important fact about Repossessing the Romantic Past, not indicated on the title page or in the cataloging information, is that the book is intended as a tribute to Marilyn Butler. The collection concludes with a bibliography of Butler's works, compiled by Heather Glen--a list that indicates the great range of Butler's scholarship, from the four influential books that she published between 1972 and 1981 (Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Peacock Displayed, and Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries), to her editorial labors on the Pickering and Chatto editions of the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth, to almost fifty articles, to a series of major book reviews especially in the London Review of Books. …