As part of preparing for my Winter-Spring course on Romanticism, I have been reading Duncan Wu’s incisive 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). I’m inwardly smiling at how little the world may care for a crisis involving a middle-aged woman teacher suddenly discovering that she has to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Romanticism. But, well, this is the crisis I’m going through. I feel blessed and fortunate to be sharing it with my co-teachers, David Owen and Carme Font, who have been in charge of the course for several years. This crisis is already resulting in very fruitful discussion with them, and I am certainly benefitting from their experience and insights: David specializes in Austen, Carme is an expert on women writers of the 18th century, so you see what great company I keep!
I do not intend to comment here on all the thirty myths–a kind word for lies–that Wu destroys with his razor-sharp scholarship. Some are ideas which every self-respecting feminist has been battling for years (myth 25: ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein’); others are a matter of common sense, for it is obvious that myth 5, ‘the Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses’, is nonsense. Almost as barefaced as myth 6, ‘Romantic poems were produced by spontaneous inspiration’. Funnily, the myths about Byron are the ones I cannot stop thinking of, mostly because Wu is quite brutal with poor George Gordon. I accept with no problem, except Wu’s barely concealed homophobia, that Byron was a fat queen who preferred 15-year-old boys to women. Yet the demolition job applied to myth 19, ‘Byron was a “noble warrior” who died fighting for Greek freedom’, ends with a truly pathetic image: that of the poet dying in Greece not in the battlefield but at home, bled to death by incompetent physicians treating him for a fever caught from a tic in his dirty pet Newfoundland, Lyon. This is indeed the complete antithesis of Romanticism!
I must say that myth 14, ‘Jane Austen had an incestuous relationship with her sister’–Cassandra and the author shared a bed for 25 years, it seems–though improbably lurid made me reconsider again a nagging suspicion: Austen may have been a lesbian mocking the heterosexual women of her class, desperately seeking enslavement by the gentlemen of 1810s. An idea to consider when I teach Pride and Prejudice… with much care, for this is what Wu is attacking: using speculation and misinformation as the basis of scholarship. One thing is inviting students to consider ‘what if…?’ Jane Austen had been a lesbian, and quite a different matter is accepting with no proof that this was her sexual identity and, hence, this is how we should read her books. If you find this second option preposterous (which it is!) then you’ll be as surprised as I have been to discover that most assumptions about Romanticism are of that kind: empty bubbles very easy to puncture if only the right bibliography is read. For that is Wu’s main message–if scholars worried to check their sources, the myths would not be perpetuated. An extremely important point to make in the age of fake news.
I’ll quote two passages from Wu’s ‘Introduction’ that call for a profound reflection. ‘What we call Romantic’, Wu observes, ‘might more accurately be called Regency Wartime Literature were we to backdate the Regency, as some historians do, to 1788’ (xiv). Anyone who has studied the early 19th century knows that, properly speaking, it begins in 1789 with the French Revolution and includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). I read a while back the twenty-two volumes by Patrick O’Brien narrating the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin at sea during those wars, but even so I still find it problematic to connect Romanticism with war.
The problem also affects our understanding of Modernism (roughly 1910-1939) for similar reasons: the name attached to a particular movement is used for a historical period, thus breaking the neat monarch-based chronology of English Literature. ‘Victorian Literature’ (1837-1901) should be preceded indeed by ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’ but, then, it is also followed by a mess of labels in the early 20th century which contemplate Edwardian and Georgian as periods but then get lost into Modernism and Post-Modernism (rather than the Second Elizabethan Age!). The point not to forget, however, is that Romanticism belongs in the Regency Period and that this was beset by revolution and war, as was Modernism (WWI, 1914-18; Irish uprising, 1916; Russian Revolution, 1917).
The second passage: ‘The point is that the contemporary perspective was different from our own. Today Jane Austen is one of the most popular novelists of all time but in 1814 no one thought she would occupy that status, nor did they suspect an obscure engraver named Blake would 150 years later be hailed as a literary and artistic genius’ (xv-xvi). The writers that Wu names as popular, best-selling names in Regency Wartime Literature (let’s start using the label) are not at all part of the canon that has survived, in which mostly unknown names with some exceptions (Byron, Scott) shine. I suspect that Wu cheats a little when he claims that ‘The current popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner would have been unimaginable to the scattered few who heard of them when they first appeared’ (xvi, my italics), for I believe that their fame soon grew (or am I perpetuating a myth?). Yet the point he makes is equally relevant. What survives from the past is a haphazard selection no person then living could foresee. If we could bring back a handful of common readers from the early 19th century they would be as amused (or dismayed) by our preferences as we’re certain to be should we return from death in the 23rd century. What great fun it is to guess who will survive!! I wonder that gambling houses are not already offering the chance to bet, for the benefit of our descendants…
Why do the myths persist? Wu replies that ‘The limpet-like persistence of some myths may be related to the illusion they draw the Romantics closer to us’ (xviii) but I’m not quite convinced. It might even be the other way round: Wu’s presentation of Byron as a flamboyant homosexual feels somehow more relatable than his reputation as a heterosexual Don Juan; likewise, his middle-class Keats, the well-educated Medicine student, makes more sense than the working-class apprentice apothecary killed off by a review. Wu, then, is the one approaching the Romantics to our time while debunking old and new myths (lesbian Austen!). Rather, what seems to be happening is that since the instability of the label ‘Romantic’ makes it impossible to understand what Romanticism truly was, we clutch at the myths, even knowing they’re lies. At least they form a coherent body of knowledge, fossilized into respectability first by the Victorian critics and scholars, and later by all the rest until our days. The myths, in short, are convenient and, as we know both as students and teachers, they’re also a convenient way to keep undergrads interested as they swallow with immense difficulties the poetry and the novels (we don’t even touch the Romantic plays).
Wu is at his most sarcastic when he highlights the ‘nuttiness of the thesis’ defended among others by John Lauritsen, according to which Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Why? Because any scholar who bothered to check the two volumes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–17, edited by Charles E. Robinson (1996) could see that a) Percy contributed little and b) of no interest. Wu is specially annoyed because most of the textual evidence required not to blunder and perpetuate myths is easily accessible online. The point that he is making is transparent: all our knowledge of English Literature, beyond Romanticism, relies on bad scholarship; even worse, despite the efforts made in recent decades to correct the most glaring mistakes/lies/myths, they are still being perpetuated because nobody really cares about the truth. You may be thinking, ‘well, I prefer my Byron thin, handsome, and a woman-eater’ but apply lazy scholarship to other fields and we might get ‘Stalin was never as big a genocidal tyrant as Hitler’, a myth we should question. For, you see?, if the History of Literature is based on almost indestructible myths, surely this also applies to History, only too easy to sum up as a pack of lies. Not what you want to do in Trump’s era.
How should we, then, teach Romanticism? There is no introduction yet that follows faithfully Wu’s volume, which means that we’re bound to teach still a myth-based version of Romanticism (a mythical version?!). I see little sense in teaching the myth and the truth together to students who know nothing about Romanticism, yet I don’t feel ready to incorporate fat queen Byron into my teaching–I might be starting another myth, for all I know. Then, as Google tells me, with two exceptions in minor colleges, everyone still uses the label ‘Romantic Literature’ rather than ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’, though I’d be happy to re-name our course at UAB. What Wu has produced, then, is a sort of intaglio effect in cameo carving, by which you see the figure as concave or convex, depending on the light. I have reached the point when the effect is visible but, to be honest, I don’t know how to proceed.
Well, I do know: hard study. I doubt, however, that I have before February the time it will take to undo 30 years of knowing the Romantic in the standard, clichéd way. And this is how myths survive: by acquiring partial, biased knowledge we are later too pressed for time–or too plain lazy!–to undo.
(PS: Now go and check myth 26, ‘Women writers were an exploited underclass–unknown, unloved, and unpaid’)
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