Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"A Series of Small Inconstancies": Letitia Landon and the Sewn-Together Subject

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"A Series of Small Inconstancies": Letitia Landon and the Sewn-Together Subject

Article excerpt

Constancy is made up of a series of small inconstancies, which never come to any thing; and the heart takes credit for its loyalty, because in the long-run it ends where it began. (1)

THE PRECEDING EPIGRAPH APPEARS IN LETITIA ELIZABETH LANDON'S FIRST "Silver Fork" novel, Romance and Reality (1831). At first the passage seems to refer primarily to romantic relationships (one "heart takes credit for its loyalty" to another heart), and to suggest that no lover is ever quite faithful to his/her partner in a strict and absolute sense. But Landon is a writer who tends to blast all essential categories out of existence. Her literary corpus suggests that not just constancy in love, but constancy itself is theoretically impossible. To be "constant" to anything--a lover, a moral or intellectual ideal, a sense of self--is simply to be abortively inconstant to it. And this is especially the case with traditional, high romantic notions of subjectivity. For Landon, the self is little more than a sewn-together construct (fondly imagined as an organism) whose stitched fissures are conveniently and perennially ignored.

In this sense Landon is the voice of her literary epoch. Consider the following description of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and its famous monster:

   Frankenstein ... questions the very idea of nature.... In the sense
   that [the creature's] existence subtends our personhood, he figures
   forth an essentialist view of nature. But insofar as this nature is
   abject and its stitches are showing, this "essence" includes
   arbitrariness and supplementarity.... He is a horrific abject that
   speaks beautiful Enlightenment prose. (2)

Not only Shelley's novel but much of late-romantic British literature runs the risk of being overshadowed by critical emphasis on its derivative character. As Timothy Morton points out concerning the creature itself, any work in which "the stitches are showing" seems to lose its claim on authentic, essential being. Yet, at the same time, it provokes meditation on the arbitrary and fluid nature of identity. Critics have long emphasized the "stitched together" aspect of late romanticism at the expense of its dynamic, experimental pluralities. The stories they tell about late romantic literature (especially poetry) tend to rationalize the neglect to which the period has been subject, rather than enable its recovery. Lionel Stevenson refers to the "third decade of the nineteenth century" as an "amazing hiatus in English poetry," a time when romanticism proper becomes "vulgarized." Virgil Nemoianu observes that "the 1820s and 1830s seem an embarrassment to the historian of English literature." The writers of that period (Nemoianu studies Byron, Keats, De Quincey, Peacock, and Scott) tend to produce a "lower romanticism" reliant "on other sources and on rewriting." Herbert Tucker sees the poetry of the 1820s as domesticated, full of "home and its attendant tropes," as an art once exotic but now primarily an affair of the "hearthside or the parlor table." For Daniel Riess the texts produced in these decades tend to resemble commodities, written "amid the ever-increasing commodification of literature and the visual arts." (3) Vulgarized, diluted, domesticated, commodified--the literature of the period hardly stands a chance.

Scholars should not be so quick to characterize British literature in the 1820s and 1830s as the intellectually aimless stuff of a second-hand romanticism. Many works written in these decades are powerful critiques of romanticism. What unites them is a shared interest in renegotiating the high romantic model of subjectivity as a coherent, organic, and transhistorical reality--a model that several authors of this period neither quite discard, nor accept as inherited. When we attend to this collective critique, a new and exciting constellation of attempts to remodel the romantic subject emerges. Some recent critical accounts illuminate this new field of possibility. …

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