Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Romanticism Rediscovers Austen
Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion
Edited by Thomas Pfau and Robert E Gleckner.
Duke University Press, 1998. xii + 475 pages.
14 b/w illustrations. Paperback, $23 Hardcover, $70.
Reviewed by Gene W. Ruoff.
Over 20 years ago, The Wordsworth Circle published a special issue on the position of Jane Austen within English romanticism. The guest editor offered two justifications for this peculiar effort: "that discussing Jane Austen either as a figure outside the bounds of literary history or as a throwback to an earlier time is not a wholly satisfying exercise; and that omitting Jane Austen from our general discussions of English Romanticism impoverishes our understanding of that phenomenon." Today he might be more blunt: any literary history that declines to account for the presence of the greatest writer of an age needs a stern course of remedial work.
This special issue appeared on the cusp of a series of related changes in romantic studies that would ask penetrating questions about the adequacy of a concept of Romanticism exemplified through its six major male poets. Some critics would question the exclusion of female writers; others would probe literary history's "lyricization" of the writings of the period and consequent neglect of all forms of prose, including the novel; and still others would remark the Englishness of the core group of poets, which led to the neglect of substantial Scottish and Irish contributions to the literary corpus of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
The volume of essays before us reflects some of the ways in which gender studies, post-colonial studies, and several flavors of new historicism have reshaped the emphases of Romantic criticism. Readers should be prepared to ignore its title and subtitle. "Lessons of Romanticism" has a misleading Bill Bennett-ish ring, and "Critical Companion" suggests a kind of pipe- and-slippers comfiness. Those who habitually resort to Austen will probably find few recognizable lessons here and even less comfort. This heavy and handsome volume is a collection of 22 essays that grew out of a 1994 conference at Duke University on "The Political and Aesthetic Education of Romanticism." Like most conference volumes, it provides a snapshot of the profession, especially of the work being pursued by the rising generation. It is largely uncompromising in its rigor and rhetoric, and Austen enthusiasts will find it interesting primarily for what it suggests of her current role in advanced study of the period.
The good news is that Austen is much more heavily present in the volume than she would have been 20 years ago. She appears in the titles of three essays, more than any other writer. Coleridge, Keats, and Clare make it into two titles, while Beethoven, Blake, Burney, Byron, Radcliffe, P. B. Shelley, and Thoreau squeak into one. (That's right, Wordsworth is shut out!) But before proclaiming that Jane Austen now rules Romanticism, we need to take a look at what period criticism is now doing with, to, and perhaps for her.
The most impressive and refreshing contribution is by Jill Heydt Stevenson, who takes up issues of the politics of landscape first pursued extensively by Alistair Duckworth in The Improvement of the Estate (1971). While such studies typically use the novels' opposition to frivolous or even destructive "improvement" as evidence of the writer's conservative, Burkean roots, Heydt- Stevenson suggests a more complex reading: "arguments about construction of a national identity converge with arguments about the construction of womanhood and the construction of landscape. When we examine this convergence, we find that Austen explores the junction between the boundaries of personal liberty allowed to women and those allowed to landscape itself, privileging for her own heroines bonds with the wilder, unornamented, picturesque landscape." The essay argues that readers have not taken Austen's close knowledge of the aesthetic of picturesque landscape sufficiently seriously, and it explores the writings of contemporary theorists Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight in detail. The work is especially valuable in distinguishing clearly between the natural (or naturalized) picturesque landscape espoused by Price and Knight and the more despotic improvements typical of the work of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton.
Miranda Burgess offers an essay entitled "Domesticating Gothic: Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and National Romance." Burgess begins with astute obversations on Sir Walter Scott's construction of a history of romance, including Austen's and his own place in the genealogy of the national form we now know as the domestic novel. Part of an increasing trend in historical studies is the essay's concentration on material facts of publication: the pricing of books; the social and political implications of the form in which a book is issued (quarto, duodecimo, etc.); and changes wrought in the larger British culture by changes in copyright law, for example.
Finally, William Galperin, best known for his work on romantic poetry, contributes an essay entitled "What Happens When Jane Austen and Frances Burney Enter the Romantic Canon?" What happens, unfortunately, is that a few interesting observations on anti-theatricality in Mansfield Park get buried under the weight of an enormous and cumbersome intellectual apparatus. The overall verdict seems fairly easy: having survived the neglect of scholars of the Romantic period, Austen should be able to survive their attentions as well.
Gene W. Ruoff is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he continues to work as Special Assistant to the Chancellor. He is the author of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
JASNA News v.15, no. 3, Winter 1999, p. 24
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