Ceri Hunter »

Ceri Hunter is a DPhil student at Oxford University. Her thesis examines the literary and cultural meanings of cousin love in the nineteenth-century novel. She teaches in the field of Victorian literature and has previously published in the George Eliot Review. Ceri completed her MA in English at Cardiff University in 2005, where she also developed interests in women’s fiction and Welsh writing in English.

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Referring to this Article

C. HUNTER. Review of Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy (eds), Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 19 (Winter 2009).

Online: Internet (date accessed): https://www.romtext.org.uk/reviews/rt19_r01/

Andrew Radford and Mark Sandy (eds), Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), xi + 237pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-5788-0; £55 (hb).

Abstract Tags

This collection of essays, which takes as its unifying theme the cultural traffic between Romanticism and Victorianism, is a recent addition to Ashgate’s The Nineteenth Century, a series which in itself challenges established patterns of periodisation by including studies of both Romantic and Victorian writers. As the editors of the volume acknowledge, the central premise of the collection breaks little new ground: it seems to take its critical cue from Francis O’Gorman and Katherine Turner’s collection on the Victorians and the eighteenth century, which examines the complexity of Victorian attitudes towards Augustanism and is also published by Ashgate. [1] If the kinship of these two collections goes unremarked, Sandy and Radford do make clear their debt to existing criticism of Victorian responses to Romanticism, including Andrew Elfenbein on Byron and the Victorians, Stephen Gill on Wordsworth and the Victorians, and Richard Cronin on the twilight years 1824–40. That said, the merit of a collection is not always measurable by the sum of its parts. The strength of this volume lies in the individual essays, often fresh and stimulating insights from established scholars in the field, to the readjustment of our assumptions about the inspiration and reception of nineteenth-century writers and artists, well-known and less well-known.

The editors’ definition of the relationship between Romanticism and Victor­ianism has ambitious and compelling implications for the practice of literary criticism. The Victorians, obsessed with developing taxonomies of knowledge, struggled to create a single definition of Romanticism. Frustrated by their inability to define a unified Romanticism, they unintentionally drew attention to its contradictions and inconsistencies: revolution and reaction, democracy and aristocracy, parochialism and cosmopolitanism, realism and idealism. In doing so, Radford and Sandy argue, the Victorians ‘contributed to the serious semantic and historical instability of Romanticism, which has wider and far-reaching implications for literary classification and historiography’, and which today still influences Romantic scholarship (p. 14). Ironically, given the volume’s wariness of reductive definitions, this core argument relies on a stereotype of the Victorian writer as a Mr Casaubon driven to distraction by the fruitless struggle to file and index his Romantic literary and cultural inheritance. He sets out to conquer the Romantic legacy with all the chutzpah of the imperial age, determined to ‘possess, master and discipline’. The unruliness of his material drives the ‘neurotic fear that the potentially subversive, ungovernable essence of Romanticism will begin to work independently and possess the Victorian possessor’ (p. 3). Elaborating on the metaphor of haunting, the editors describe Victorian responses to Romanticism as ‘exorcisms and invocations’ (p. 7). The metaphor is an apt one which calls to mind the Victorian remembrance of Rom­antic writers and artists through biographies and memorials, as well evoking the distinctively Victorian themes of grief and ghostliness. It is surprising that it has not been articulated more strongly in the collection’s title.

Between them, and sometimes within them, the essays cover the gamut of genres, including poetry, fiction, prose, autobiography, autobiography, art and mythology. The principle behind the order in which they appear is not immediately obvious but seems to have been influenced by the idea of haunting and embodied memory. The opening essays address the Victorian afterlives of Romantic writers. Lisa Vargo explores how and why the writing careers of Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were refashioned by their biographers to fit a very Victorian template of propriety. Julie Crane homes in on a reference made to Chatterton by Wilkie Collins’s grotesque villain Count Fosco, arguing that Chatterton’s allusive and elusive presence in the nineteenth-century novel reveals the extent to which the Victorians were disconcerted by the multiple faces of the Romantic icon they had inherited. Two essays, by Andrew Bennett and Sarah Wootton, consider the Victorian reception of Keats. Bennett uses the inscription of Keats’s name on Joseph Severn’s gravestone as the starting point for reflection on Severn’s role in mediating the poet’s ghostly presence in Victorian culture. [2] Wootton, whose essay is revised from her interdisciplinary study of Keats’s influence on authors and artists during the long nineteenth century, reflects on how Dante Gabriel Rosetti used the Victorian image of Keats as sensitive poet to help construct his own reclusive artistic identity. [3]

From this point, the collection begins to address the broader question of exchange between Romantic and Victorian literary aesthetics, through a sequence of essays that makes fresh connections between Victorian fiction and Romantic poetry. Vincent Newey’s contribution on Charles Dickens and the Byronic legacy, an expansion of an article published in The Byron Journal, draws an analogy between the apparently oppositional Byronic social detachment and Dickensian social engagement by considering the different ways both writers create and engage with the idea of a fallen society. [4] James Najarian counters the received view of Elizabeth Gaskell as an exclusively social novelist by his reading of allusions to romantic poetry in Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Andrew Radford lays out the contradictions in Hardy’s response to the figure of the Shelleyan poet, which culminate in the black comedy of Jocelyn Pierston’s quest for his ideal woman in The Well-Beloved.

The essays based on Victorian fiction are followed by those which address Victorian poetry. Marjorie Stone draws on cognitive psychology to argue that Aurora Leigh was influenced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s self-defining memory of reading Byron’s poetry and Wollstonecraft’s prose as a girl. J. R. Watson explores how Gerard Manley Hopkins’s thinking was profoundly influenced, aesthetically and politically, by his appreciation of Wordsworth. Mark Sandy’s essay focuses on ornithological poetry to question the binary between the supposedly idealistic Romantics versus the more coldly pragmatic Victorians. Michael O’Neill scrutinises how Victorian poets absorb and modify Romantic constructions of passion. The more generically anomalous essays, Ve-Yin Tee on the painter Henry Tuke’s young male nudes, and John Holmes on how the use of Romantic constructions of Prometheus changed throughout the century, are reserved for the volume’s end.

The most stimulating essays are those which seek to provoke dialogue not just across periods but also between different literary and artistic forms. With research interests primarily in fiction, this reviewer was struck by the genealogies of the Victorian novel created by Newey, Najarian, and Radford’s essays, which mark out the Romantic poets as its forebears. However, there are essays to appeal to readers with different interests in this eclectic collection, the diversity of which is both its strength and its flaw. The deconstruction of existing taxonomies of both chronology and genre makes for a demanding read cover-to-cover and the book will most likely be plundered for insights on individual authors. The volume also, perhaps inevitably, allows the balance of critical interest to tip in favour of one period. In tracing the ‘relational struggle between the Victorians and so-called Romantics’ (p. 7), both the editors and contributors occasionally deploy the label of Victorianism with a lack of guard that they would rightly consider to be injudicious when discussing Romanticism. There is also a slight tendency to pigeon-hole as anomalies or anxieties those attitudes and responses that don’t fit with the received view of Victorianism. While the collection is attuned to the polyvalence of Victorian responses to Romanticism, it poses but leaves unanswered the intriguing question of what that polyvalence has to say about the usefulness of Victorianism itself as a critical concept.

1. The Victorians and the Eighteenth-Century: Reassessing the Tradition, edited by Francis O’Gorman and Katherine Turner (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

2. Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

3. Sarah Wootton, Consuming Keats: Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

4. Vincent Newey, ‘Rival Cultures: Charles Dickens and the Byronic Legacy’, Byron Journal, 32 (2004), 85–100.