Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

England and Spain and the Domestic Affections: Felicia Hemans and the Politics of Literature

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

England and Spain and the Domestic Affections: Felicia Hemans and the Politics of Literature

Article excerpt

IN THE WAKE OF OVER A DECADE OF IMPORTANT RECOVERY WORK ON Felicia Hemans inspired by the groundbreaking scholarship of such critics as Marlon Ross, Stuart Curran, and, of course, Anne Mellor, the question of "Why Hemans Now?" a question posed some time ago by Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk about the importance of Hemans to Romanticism, might just as easily be phrased today as: "Who's/whose Hemans now?" (1) Out of Mellor's once well-recognized and universally-acknowledged domestic Hemans, eager critics have spun out a dazzling array of new incarnations, including Diego Saglia's anti-domestic "heroic" Hemans, Donelle Ruwe's "bourgeois" Hemans, Margot Louis's "sentimental" Hemans, Gary Kelly's "liberal" Hemans, and, a personal favorite, E. Douka Kabitoglou's "transvestite" Hemans. Although these constructions are not necessarily incompatible they are sometimes antithetical, as in Tricia Looten's "imperial Hemans" and Nanora Sweet's anti-imperialist "republican" Hemans. (2)

In some ways, the numerous incarnations of Felicia Hemans offer a simple commentary on the generative nature of interpretation itself. Though this nature is anything but straightforward, I want to make a special case about the peculiarity of Hemans's mode of writing that I argue may help us account for the seemingly endless ways of reading Flemans, not only among her contemporaries but also among many of her critics today. Examination of the special characteristics of Hemans's poetry, what I call, to borrow Ranciere's theoretical framework, the politics of her literature, is then less about an investigation of the ideological positionings of Hemans's texts or even their coded representations of social, cultural, and political struggle. (3) Rather it is more abstractly about the way in which her poetry frames, as Ranciere puts it, the relation between what can be said and what can be seen, or, to state it in historical terms, what could be said and what could be seen in post-1790s Britain. When applied to politics proper, such an investigation moves away from ideological critique toward a rhetorical and textual analysis of how literature gives rise to different modes of perception of the political that make possible different ways of speaking about the world. To that end, this essay considers those aspects of Hemans's writing that not only make possible but also encourage antithetical appropriations of her work without apparent contradiction. In placing the destabilizing literary tropes of her poems in stark relief to the more stable narrative structure that often frames them, Hemans's writing dramatizes the political, a style of writing that brings to life the dynamic nature of early nineteenth-century political debate and thought. In the absence of definitive proof of Hemans's personal political commitments--Hemans never openly declared herself Whig, Tory, republican, or other-- not to mention the unfavorable conditions that made it difficult for women to comment openly on the political world, reading the politics of Hemans's texts in this way may not only foster a greater appreciation of Hemans's aesthetic mode, the value of which critics continue to debate, but also illuminate more broadly our understanding of the ways in which women in the Romantic period, as Anne Mellor has argued, fully participated in the public sphere.

Discussion of the politics of Hemans's writing seems particularly apt given the fact that Hemans's earliest poetry involved a direct engagement with the most heated political debate of her time. In 1808, Hemans, then Felicia Browne, launched her prodigious writing career with a 622-line occasional poem in heroic couplets directly responding to the Spanish resistance to Napoleon's invasion of Spain earlier that year. Hemans had already published a small collection of poems, but England and Spain; or, Valour and Patriotism proved by far her most ambitious work to date and was no doubt intended as a public announcement of her arrival on the literary scene. …

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