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Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend

The Quest for Knowledge

Katie Garner

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Hardcover. xi+311p. ISBN 978-1137597113. £72

Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2





Even though the “Big Six” had no truck indeed with King Arthur and his knights [9], such sweeping statements cease to be true as soon as one embraces a wider view of British Romanticism. That Robert Southey had a strong interest in the Arthurian legend is amply demonstrated by the fact that he wrote a scholarly introduction for one of the three (!) modern editions of Malory’s Morte Darthur which were published almost simultaneously in 1816-1817 [54], and further confirmed by his openly expressed desire for a trustworthy printed version of the Mabinogion [193]. And obviously, if one includes women writers, the Romantic era truly becomes one of Arthurian rediscovery, before the massive revival the Round Table would enjoy during the Victorian age.  By focusing on “Romantic women writers”, Katie Garner offers the reader a much more open approach to Romanticism which, instead of focusing on a limited number of world-famous geniuses, brings to the fore a whole host of neglected authors. And yet, this also allows her to show that Coleridge or, later, Tennyson, did not create in a vacuum: just like “Christabel” inspired various imitations and sequels, “The Lady of Shalott” came after several (female) rewritings of the story of Elaine of Astolat.

Katie Garner’s aim is to show that “a new level of engagement with Arthurian material” appeared in the final quarter of the 18th century [10], and to explain “how Arthurian literature was read and reimagined by Britain’s women writers between 1770 and 1850” [1], at the same time as some male authors were trying to “regender” the genre of the romance, often considered as more attractive to female readers. Those women laboured under the disadvantage of being deprived of any easy access to rare editions and manuscripts, which constrained them to make the most of such second-hand sources as were available to them:

All readers encounter the Arthurian world at a historical distance, but the Romantic women writers must also breach the space between herself and the antiquarian, between herself and the library, and between herself and a literary establishment intent on connecting women’s romance reading with danger and excess. [264]

As shown by various Arthurian poems published in magazine for ladies right from the year 1775, “The Matter of Britain was considered suitable reading matter for middle-class women, but only if … it was radically rewritten to fit sentimental plots and modes” [31]. Arthurian legends may have been a source of models of virtuous behaviour for young men, but medieval texts had to be carefully “edited” (i.e. sanitised, bowdlerised) in case they should have raised a blush into the cheek of the young person. All “objectionable passages” had to be deleted, as was the case in Ancient Ballads; Selected from Percy’s Collection; with Explanatory Notes, Taken from Different Authors, for the Use and Entertainment of Young Persons (1807), edited by an anonymous lady.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw the birth of Gothic literature, which could accommodate the interest for the Arthurian legend through its two main supernatural features: Merlin’s prophetic abilities and the king’s undead return. Gothic poems allowed women to appropriate those legendary times, since the Gothic past was “intrinsically unknowable, and therefore malleable” [81]. In her collection entitled Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (1802), Anne Bannerman included an Arthurian Gothic poem, “The Prophecy of Merlin”, in which the king meets a disturbingly vampiric Queen of Beauty, anticipating Keats’s Belle Dame sans Merci and Coleridge’s Geraldine in “Christabel”. Anna Jane Vardill introduced the enchanter as a character in her sequel to Coleridge’s yet unpublished fantastic fragment, “Christobel, A Gothic Tale” (1815).

For women writers, another way of recovering the Arthurian past was to publish travelogues, since the myth of the Round Table was strongly associated with Wales: “rather than the outcome of adjacent historical investigations, topography becomes the dominant means for Romantic women writers to stage their quest for a historical Arthur” [116]. Mythical spaces and mappable sites were thus mixed in books like Mary Morgan’s A Tour to Milford Haven (1795), which included a twenty-nine-page “Account of Merlin, the Welsh Prophet; and of Arthur, the Welsh Hero”. In an interesting example of genre-bending, topographical poems could also be inserted within prose travelogues.

Being denied access to costly editions reserved to club members, and their going to public libraries being still frowned upon, women writers showed great ingenuity in adapting what little they could read, as brilliantly exposed by Katie Garner in Chapter 5 of her book. George Ellis, a Romantic medievalist, was famous, among other publications, for his Specimens of the Early English Poets, whose summaries provided the basic inspiration for various plagiarisms and forgeries. “The Maid of Ascolot, A Romantic Fragment”, by “T.B.G.” (one has to accept that those initials were those of a female contributor), was published in the March 1821 number of The Ladies’ Monthly Museum: the poem is based on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, written circa 1400, but only through Ellis’s partial translation into modern prose. The same can be said of Vardill’s “La Morte D’arthur” (The European Magazine, 1821), in which even the scholarly notes were “borrowed” from Ellis. In 1835, obviously taking Ellis’s own Specimens as her model, Louisa Stuart Costello published Specimens of the Early Poetry of France, in which she proposed a “liberal translation” [190] of old French poems into modern English. Another translator of medieval poetry was Lady Charlotte Guest, the unexpected editor of a three-volume edition of The Mabinogion in English (1849).

A far less serious kind of publication, but extremely fashionable in the first half of the nineteenth century was the annual, the decorative gift book which juxtaposed engravings and poems (the latter often being descriptions of the former). The texts printed in those books were generally as lavish with superficial motifs as their splendid covers: “by adorning Arthurian subjects with the gems, flowers, and other beautiful ornaments necessary for their contextualisation with the annuals’ gilded and decorated exteriors, [Letitia Elizabeth] Landon and her successors helped the Arthurian legend to cast off the associations with the crude and barbaric” [244]. The young Tennyson sometimes wrote for annuals, which may have influenced not only his choice of subjects, but even his style; he would later pare down the far-fetched rhymes and superfluous jewels, but he would go on depicting isolated women trying to overcome man-made obstacles and to infiltrate male networks, just like the women writing about the Arthurian myth had had to overcome all sorts of barriers.


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