Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite, Eds. Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840

By Mulrooney, Jonathan | Studies in Romanticism, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite, Eds. Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840


Mulrooney, Jonathan, Studies in Romanticism


Gillian Russell and Clara Tuite, eds. Romantic Sociability: Social Networks and Literary Culture in Britain, 1770-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 267. $60.00 cloth.

The Romantic subject is not the man we thought he was. Once so solitary, so transcendently imaginative, so gorgeously misanthropic even amidst multitudes, he has gone abroad, embraced the city and its streets, thrown himself into markets and theaters, changed his dress and his gender to become unrecognizable before our eyes. Consolidating the advances of two decades of historicist scholarship, Romantic Sociability breaks new ground in our search for this at-large subject's identities, motives, and locales. With eleven diverse and engaging essays, Gillian Russell, Clara Tuite and their contributors illustrate vividly how a renewed attention to "sociability" can help us re-envision Romanticism as an historical and cultural phenomenon. As the book makes clear, sociability takes many forms, but it may be defined generally as the various kinds of "cultural work" through which individuals imagine a relation to the public world (4). Conversation, lecturing, theatergoing, shopping, and above all writing in Romantic-period Britain occurred within, and shaped, new institutional contexts for such imaginings, demanding that human beings rethink not only what they did, but who, and how, they were.

The dominant strain of Romantic New Historicism began with a negative critique---think of Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, and Alan Liu in the 1980s--illustrating how twentieth-century scholarship had embraced Romantic poetry's attempts to transcend history. But another line of inquiry, led by James Chandler and Paul Hamilton among others, has aimed to consider the poets at their most historically engaged, asking in turn how current historicisms dispel and enact Romanticism's intellectual legacies. Romantic Sociability contributes to this conversation by attending closely to the lived experiences of sociable beings ranging from the (allegedly) seditious John Frost to the conversational Anna Barbauld to the sensational Robert Merry to the confessional Anne Lister. To a person, the contributors take "sociability" as a prism through which we might perceive a wider, deeper, and more various Romanticism, one that includes such long ignored figures. Yet one of the book's virtues is that despite this widening gaze it recognizes our continuing investment in Romanticism's political and aesthetic idealisms. Thus we learn in Julie Carlson's superb essay on William Hazlitt, for example, that when Hazlitt considers theater as a locus of conversation and cultural evaluation, he evinces a belief that "dreaming is a legitimate activity, the fostering of which is essential to reducing the chasm that separates the disillusionment of the 1800s from the idealism of the early 1790s" (158). Refusing to align imagination with the privileges of a politically suspect solitude, Carlson seeks Hazlitt abroad and finds dreams at work in the historical world.

Mapping the chasm Hazlitt perceived, a fissure that widened as the nineteenth century lengthened, has long been a hallmark of Romanticist criticism. But Romantic Sociability shows with striking clarity how, in response to their growing estrangement from the day's mainstream political culture, many writers refused to withdraw to a safe distance, choosing instead to build new networks of cultural exchange. As Russell and Tuite's cogent first chapter "Introducing Romantic sociability" makes clear, the 1790s counterrevolution shifted sociability from a concept driving idealist or utopian movements--including the idealisms of the Habermasian public sphere--to a principle that could potentially inform every manner of public interaction. While the eighteenth century might have been said "to announce sociability as a value" with its seemingly apolitical spaces where men could retire from the day's business (5), century's end brought cultural and institutional changes that produced "highly charged combinations of politics and sociability" (7). …

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