British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community
Stephen C. Behrendt
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. $65.00 (hardcover), ix+349 pp.
ISBN: 0801890543, ISBN: 978-0801890543
Reviewed by Aurora Barsalou
York University (Toronto, Ontario)
English Professor Stephen Behrendt’s latest publication on female poets in the Romantic period is, as the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Curran aptly puts it on the dust cover, “an essential contribution to our discipline”. This sharp and sophisticated exploration examines a community of readers, writers, and publishing markets in and between England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1770 to 1835. Behrendt’s departure from the more conventional timeline for the Romantic movement, 1789/98-1832, allows him to move beyond, but not leave behind, the canonical works of the big five (or six): Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Blake. By adopting this new temporal framework, Behrendt has cleverly illustrated that several central themes and techniques of Romantic-era poetry originated earlier on in the movement than has previously been suggested and moreover, that these innovations were adapted from female authors. In recovering the lives and works of these women, Behrendt reveals that they, along with their lesser-known male contemporaries, were active participants and contributors to a rich community of writers and readers throughout the British Isles. Hence, Behrendt has wisely adopted a multi-pronged and highly nuanced approach that gives clarity and substance to the “shades of Romanticism” that reveal the diverse, dynamic, and inclusive nature of the British Romantic writing community .
Over six focused chapters, Behrendt uses biography, textual analysis, and historical context in a sophisticated exploration of the ways in which Britain’s female poets contributed to contemporary debates on the subjects of war, radicalism, patriotism, nostalgia, humanism, and the family. Evidence suggests however, that many of them were certainly aware that the very fact of their gender could be used as a weapon to silence them by critics like Richard Powhele and William Gifford. Hence, the works of female poets were often measured, not by merit, but by the “naturalness” or “un-naturalness” of their subject matter and whether the form itself was “suitable” to the female pen. That does not mean that these prejudices caused all women to shy away from the so-called male modes like the ode, the elegy, and the epic, but that women throughout the British Isles were acutely aware of the potential social and financial consequences for challenging these culturally constructed biases. Hence, female poets, like many of the less recognisable male poets, deliberately manipulated rhetoric, imagery, and formats to shield themselves from criticism and potential unmarketability. Thus, as Behrendt suggests, we would do well to “embrace alternatives and discontinuities rather than seeking to minimise or banish them” as Romantic-era poetry was far from static or uniform .
While much has been written on the intersections between politics and Romantic poetry over the last several decades, Behrendt uniquely places female authors at the centre of this junction and offers a thorough examination of the factors that influenced the process of literary production, and often the form and style of the poems themselves. As the first two chapters suggest, although on the surface many of these poems can be read as typical of the cult of sensibility, the subtext was often not very subtle in the condemnation of governments, sexual double standards, class discrimination, and cultural antagonisms. In fact, many of these poems demonstrate that not only were many British women familiar with literary classics as well as works published in the popular presses, but many of them felt it was their duty to comment on issues of broad national significance as well as domestic concerns. For example, Isabella Lickbarrow’s poem “Written at the Commencement of the Year 1813” represents one of many poems composed by women that lamented the plight of the soldiers fighting and dying overseas during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to questioning the English government’s long-term involvement in this conflict, Lickbarrow also includes the emotional trauma as well as economic and social dislocation experienced by the women and children left behind as part of the overwhelming costs of a protracted battle with Napoleonic France. By framing her discussion as an appeal to a sense of common humanity and domesticity ruptured by the loss of sons, brothers, fathers and husbands to war, Lickbarrow deliberately employed a rhetorical strategy intended to guard her against criticism about the ‘unnaturalness’ or subversiveness of her subject matter. Hence, Lickbarrow’s poem is one of many examples that Behrendt uses to showcase the ways in which women writing in the Romantic era could and did successfully navigate between pejorative cultural expectations and lived realities.
While chapters three and four examine the contributions of British women to the long verse narrative and the occasional lyric, Romantic poets, and particularly Charlotte Smith, seem to have been at the centre of the resurgence in the popularity of the sonnet. The sonnet, which was celebrated in England during the time of Shakespeare, returned to favour as it combined the private sensibilities of the author, while also engaging the reader(s) in an artistic display of rhetorical and technical performance. Although she was not the first or most prolific of the Romantic sonneteers, Smith was acclaimed by her peers and audiences alike. Among Smith’s contemporaries, writing in the Universal Magazine in 1792, John Thelwall declared that Smith’s poems displayed “a greater vigour and correctness of genius, than any other English poems I have ever seen…Every province has its separate competitors…and in the sonnet, Charlotte Smith…triumphs without a rival” . Further evidence of the weighty impact her sonnets had on the Romantic writing community was that her slim volume Elegiac Sonnets, originally published in 1784, went through nine editions in her lifetime. With each subsequent edition, Smith added additional works that displayed her ability to create something that was “at once personal and universal” . Although Smith’s work was well respected in her own time, until recently her work has not been counted among the foundational texts of Romantic-era poetry.
Behrendt’s instructive text provides a detailed account of the process by which female authors like Smith were gradually pushed to the margins by their contemporaries and forgotten by successive generations. In between the close of the eighteenth century and the end of the Romantic period, there was an increasing cultural backlash against women writers, artists, and intellectuals who entered the public sphere. Sparked by fears of social and political instability brought on by war with America, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and a series of domestic crises in England, the increased terrain of influence women had enjoyed and occupied throughout the eighteenth century was slowly restricted. In addition to privileging the masculinist voice in matters of public discourse, rising literacy rates, cheap production costs, and the rise of conspicuous consumption helped create a mass market that male writers increasingly identified as an enormously profitable enterprise. Apparently this campaign was so successful that by the turn of the century, even accomplished writers like Virginia Woolf were unaware of any successful women writers before the time of Shakespeare.1 Thus, spurned by capitalism, what was once thought of as the “democracy of the literary marketplace” was replaced by an intellectual and cultural conservatism that informed the ways in which Romantic poetry was evaluated, taught, and remembered .
Although Behrendt’s work as a whole deserves much credit and praise, his engagement with the varied contributions of Scottish and Irish poets to the British Romantic movement notably sets this work apart. In the final two chapters, Behrendt explores the similarities and differences between poetic styles, forms, and ideologies as well as the particular socio-economic and political circumstances that influenced the production, distribution, and reception of the works of English poets and their Scottish and Irish sisters. Not only does this investigation cleverly expose the gender biases that assailed women in the public sphere regardless of class or geographic location, but like Jerome McGann's earlier work,2 this study poignantly illustrates that the traditional framework of “British” “Romanticism” is far from representative of the Romantic writing community as a whole.
Incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1707 and 1800 respectively, Scotland and Ireland cannot be thought of as equal or necessarily willing partners in these transactions. Although Ireland’s relationship with England was certainly more fractured due a long history of bloody conflicts, political repression and religious differences, Romantic-era writers in Scotland were also denied any real sense of equality with their English counterparts. Indeed the second-class treatment of Scottish and Irish citizens would seem to prove that like her relationships with her colonial subjects, England felt herself to be the imperial power over “(a) ‘united’ kingdom (that) was in many respects an illusion” . While poetry produced by Scottish and Irish writers was variously decried by the likes of Wordsworth as examples of “insupportable slovenliness and neglect of syntax and grammar”, female authors were additionally stigmatised as playing with “pastimes” as opposed to engaging in “writing careers” like their male counterparts . Criticism of this sort highlights not only the increasing sexism evident among commentators, but also the prevalence of prejudices around class.
While a number of English poets like Felicia Hemans admitted that they sacrificed their art and beliefs for a taste of commercial success, the contemporary argument that “(a)rt for profit…is tainted art” had the effect of classifying many of these works as “lesser” forms . In addition, working-class women writers from Scotland and Ireland were also slighted because they often crafted their works using indigenous themes and characters from oral or folk traditions. Although Behrendt’s analysis of Isabel Pagan’s spirited poems suggests that she could readily switch back and forth between the colloquialisms of the Highland vernacular tradition and the mainstream idiom, her poetry, like that of the Scotch milkmaid Janet Little, “prevented her from being read as either wholly Scottish or wholly English” . While her appeals to a sense of Scottish nationalism ensured her popularity among some literary circles at home, Pagan’s linguistic distinctiveness and politically charged messages placed her work in a ‘literary borderland’. Consequently, in a parallel process that informed the academic study of British Romanticism through the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, poems that failed to demonstrate the specific standards of taste, skill, and professionalism found in the works of Shelley et al., were gradually left out of anthologies and textbooks. Thus, what was removed in both cases was really any trace of the diversity of the texts, authors, and audiences that characterised the dynamism, diversity, and complexity of the Romantic writing community.
Although Romantic-era poetry written by women from the British Isles is now beginning to appear in anthologies and post-secondary classrooms, advances in technology and access to digital archives allow for a much wider availability of many rare texts. As a result of the increased visibility of these texts and their authors, one cannot help but agree with Behrendt’s assessment that the poetic genius of the nation was not confined to five (or six) men. As Behrendt demonstrates, this interpretation is a gross oversimplification of the complex and diverse community of Romantic-era writers and readers. In rethinking our paradigms, it is not necessary to abandon the familiar canon altogether; however, we should strive to explore the ways in which these works and their authors were part of larger dialogues, debates, and conversations within a richly textured intellectual and cultural landscape. As Behrendt suggests, this can be done more cogently by setting aside reductive binaries like “good” and “bad”, and adopting more fluid terms like “dynamism,” “function,” “effectiveness,” and “consequence” .
While Behrendt has done a masterful job flushing out the links between politics and poetics, he reminds us that contributors to the Romantic writing community were well aware that their interactions and discussions were taking place during a period of social and political change and instability. Hence, this study necessarily surveys the ways in which production, reception, and consumption influenced the private and professional lives of Romantic-era poets and vice versa. In 2005, Paula Backscheider cautioned against simply mapping women onto the literary landscape as “tourist sites”, and to his credit, Behrendt has successfully shown that women writers were not just part of some peripheral or fringe movement.3 Indeed, while a number of female poets, like Charlotte Smith, Lady Catherine Rebecca Manners, and Anna Letitia Barbauld, were widely read and applauded in their own lifetimes, others like Mary Robinson, described in the popular press as “the first Poet now living”, enjoyed more critical success than their subsequently canonised male contemporaries .
In addition to an examination of these more recognisable English poets, Behrendt also compellingly explores working-class women’s poetry, the idiomatic expressiveness of Scottish women’s writing, and the sometimes lighthearted and humorous nature of Irish verse. Hence, by investigating the “shades or hues of Romanticism”, Behrendt successfully demonstrates that a singular notion of British Romantic poetry is a wholly inappropriate measure of the dynamic body of styles, forms, and ideologies circulated en masse in the period. To suggest otherwise ignores the interactive exchanges and cultural bridges between and throughout the British Isles and minimises the importance of the highly visible conversations that took place between male and female writers alike. Although Behrendt clearly stated that this study was not exhaustive or totally comprehensive, what remains unclear however, is how Welsh poetry fits into this dynamic. One can only hope that a polished study of this sort will encourage other scholars, teachers, and students in British literary studies, women's studies, and cultural history to explore these relationships and work towards creating a fuller and more nuanced picture of the British Romantic writing community.
1 Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Vintage Books, 2007 : 104.
2 McGann, Jerome. The Romantic Ideology : A Critical Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 : 134.
3 Backscheider, Paula. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005 : xxi.
Cercles © 2010