Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"A Story Telling and a Story Reading Age": Textuality and Sociability in the Romantic Frame Tale

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"A Story Telling and a Story Reading Age": Textuality and Sociability in the Romantic Frame Tale

Article excerpt

IN RECENT YEARS, ROMANTIC STUDIES HAS COME TO DEVOTE MORE AND more attention to the period's conception of sociability in connection with the production and dissemination of literary texts. (1) What is often stressed in contemporary scholarship is that behind Romanticism's romance with individualism and solitariness lay an environment of sociable and interpersonal exchange that decisively conditioned the parameters under which texts were actually produced. As William St. Clair notes: "[w]hatever the initial transfer from mind to paper, the creation of a text was seldom a solitary activity." (2) In Romantic Sociability, their recent standard volume on the topic, Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite stress that the elucidation of individual modes and forms of sociability during the Romantic period has two chief benefits. First, it helps further contextualize Romantic works, since, as they note, various types of interpersonal exchange "formed the sociable contexts in which literary production was discussed, circulated and sometimes created." (3) Second, and more importantly, Russell and Tuite emphasize that an engagement with the period's conceptions of interpersonal exchange reveals sociability as a "kind of text in its own right," one that was not solely restricted to real life exchanges (dinner parties, debating clubs, salons), but that came to be reiterated in particular text-types of the period such as diaries, letters, and, above all, periodical publications. (4) Such observations not only generate additional knowledge about the period, they also carry considerable revisionist traction. Romantic sociability, these views suggest, has too long been overshadowed by an overt emphasis on textuality and its function as a substitutional medium.

It is commonly acknowledged that the Enlightenment conceived of writing as an effective aid to sociability since it enabled conversation across geographical or national-political boundaries. (5) Such perceptions no longer subordinated the written to the spoken word, but merged them into a productive symbiosis, thereby reworking such classic conceptualizations as Plato's in Phaedrus where texts are figured as particularly incompetent social beings. (6) As critics of the early Romantic period have emphasized, however, this more or less equated relationship between the written and the sociable was undergoing a broad shift in cultural response by the turn of the century. (7) In 1790s Britain, the production and dissemination of textuality was steadily rising, aided by increased literacy rates and new publishing technologies, while the traditional eighteenth-century values of sociability seemed, by contrast, to lose their footing. Haunted by governmental repression of free speech and radical thinking, and in many ways sublimated by the possibilities of (anonymous) textual production, the famous model of coffeehouse sociability, so vital to the project of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, moved more and more into the cultural margin. (8) In 1790, for instance, the Edinburgh journal The Bee suggested to its readers that the textual space of the periodical was the sociable space in perfection, since it allowed its reader "after the fatigues of the day [to] sit down in his elbow chair, and ... be introduced, as it were into a spacious coffee-house, which is frequented by all men of the nations." (9) To some modern critics, this revalorization of the written word over the face-to-face sociable encounter is what lay the cultural ground for Romanticism. Mark Philp, for instance, concludes that starting in the late 1790s, "the ideals nurtured by sociability collapsed ... leaving the stage free for the isolationism of the Romantics." (10) Similarly, Lawrence Klein describes the cultural work of the period as a "reaction against emphatic sociability." (11) The very spread of print culture seems to have played a vital role in such processes. The public space of Romanticism, Paul Magnuson notes, was "the book and the periodical," thereby suggesting that the eighteenth-century world of interpersonal exchange became literally overwritten by a fully textual universe. …

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