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Five Questions: Anna Mercer on the Shelleys’ Collaborative Literary Relationship

Anna Mercer is a Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.  She is particularly interested in the dynamics of literary relationships, the works and experiences of women writers and the possibilities unlocked by manuscript studies, and has published a number of articles on these topics.  She organised the Shelley Conference in 2017, works closely with Keats House and the Keats-Shelley Association of America, has served on the BARS Executive as Blog Editor and was recently elected to the new role of BARS Communications Officer.  Her first book, The Collaborative Literary Relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, which we discuss below, was recently published by Routledge.


1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book on the collaborative relationship between the Shelleys?

My first engagement with the Shelleys was when I had the opportunity to study Frankenstein and A Defence of Poetry as an undergraduate – which is surely a very common way to initially encounter these two writers.  A section of research that features in my book probably appeared in some form in a second-year undergraduate essay on Romanticism (well, according to memory it does, although I wouldn’t like to seek it out and read it again!).  I had spent time examining the unity between the language of the Shelleys’ letters and their journal entries during the Alpine travels of 1816, and then compared it to what appeared in the printed 1818 version of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (MWS’s) Frankenstein.  Even as an undergrad it was something that – as I explain in the introduction to my book – I did feel really drawn to, like this way of reading was leading somewhere interesting if only I had the time, credibility and determination to explore such a line of enquiry further.  I expected to find a book that already existed about the Shelleys’ broader collaborations beyond Frankenstein, but didn’t find a full-length study focusing solely on that.  I did of course find some amazing, inspiring work by scholars looking at aspects of the Shelleys’ relationship, including perhaps most significantly Charles E. Robinson’s excellent research on the Frankenstein manuscripts (in which he suggested someone should undertake a further major study of the Shelleys’ collaboration).  Other critics that had spent time identifying the Shelleys’ close working practices that influenced me (I can’t mention them all here) included Nora Crook, Michael O’Neill and Donald H. Reiman.  I went on to study the Shelleys for my MPhil dissertation and then was lucky enough to be funded by the AHRC to complete a PhD at the University of York on the Shelleys.  In early 2018 I was delighted to be offered a contract with Routledge to edit what was my original thesis into a monograph.


2) Where did you find evidence of the Shelleys’ collaborative ethos?  To what extent do you think that the surviving record allows for a full picture?

As I explain in the book, I found evidence of the Shelleys’ collaborative ethos primarily in manuscript facsimile editions of the Shelleys’ shared notebooks.  These were invaluable to me as I explored The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts and The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics in great detail.  In these wonderful publications you can find undeniable pen-on-paper evidence of the Shelleys’ collective working (whether ‘collective’ is the same as ‘collaborative’ is one of the key things I discuss in the book!).  MWS’s involvement in the drafting and copying stages of The Mask of Anarchy, for example, cannot be denied when we look to the manuscripts.  And there are many instances of collective working beyond the famous interventions by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) on the draft of Frankenstein.  It’s important to emphasise, though, that as much as looking at the facsimiles of the holograph drafts (and on occasion, the original documents themselves) was important, it was crucially the editorial work of several hugely influential scholars that supported my research.  Their work framed these notebooks and brought the scribbles to life through explaining the relevant context(s) and providing detailed transcriptions as well as nuanced interpretations.  Without these editions I don’t think my project would have been possible.  Manuscript evidence coupled with the knowledge that we have of the Shelleys’ day-to-day activities (thanks mainly to MWS for recording them and including reading lists!) just substantiates the connections between the two authors’ works.  The Cenci and Mathilda are sister-works by theme; but what is also relevant is that we can identify the crossover points at which PBS and MWS were working on these individual projects.  For example, we know MWS was beginning to write Mathilda just as PBS was completing The Cenci in August 1819.  As for a full picture, I’m not sure.  Obviously so much is missing with regards to what has and hasn’t survived, and we can never truly ‘know’ anything about the way PBS and MWS thought, studied, and composed.  My book seeks to cover a broad period, using a chronological method to trace the ebbs and flows in their relationship, but both of the Shelleys were so prolific it is very fair to say I have only covered a series of case studies and there is so much more work to be done.


3) How would you characterise the collaboration between the Shelleys?  Did each fulfil particular defined roles for the other, or were their interactions more fluid and specific?

I think the range of ways in which the Shelleys collaborated is very important.  What I haven’t already mentioned about my inspiration for the study is the divisions evident in Shelley criticism that saw the couple separated in popular culture and, to some extent, in scholarly observations.  In some (often influential!) pockets of criticism, Shelleyans were divided into two very distinct ‘camps’.  Some who worked on PBS saw MWS as inferior in intellect and style in the first instance, and then a corrupt editor of his posthumous publications in the second, and perhaps worst of all: they considered that she didn’t even have the capacity to understand him.  But it was not just this troublesome group of Percy Shelleyans that were the problem.  Some of the people who worked on Mary Shelley thought that the only way she could be brought back from obscurity would be to denounce him – blame him for overshadowing her, and then even attack the way he collaborated on Frankenstein as an act of patriarchy.  I get very frustrated at the whole idea that PBS and MWS didn’t like each other or one another’s work.  Obviously, they had some relationship difficulties (unsurprising for most people, and expected for a couple like the Shelleys given the tragedies that befell them).  But I think this polarisation – the unhelpful separation of two authors who lived and worked together from 1814 to 1822 and who were also in love – seems a huge shame, especially when Romantic studies and studies of English literature of have of late been far more successfully focused on the idea of social creativity, rejecting the idea of the solitary genius.  I will note again here that the gradual force of change has been led by critics such as Robinson from the mid-twentieth century onwards, and again I am indebted to all of their work.


4) How do you think Romantic Studies might benefit from (re)examining collaborations in the period more widely?

I think Romantic Studies is generally excellent at emphasising the social nature of creativity and I am thrilled to be part of an area of research that is constantly growing and exciting new audiences.  Having said that, the Shelleys can be overlooked in terms of collaboration even now.  I think the Shelleys are one of the greatest of the so-called ‘Romantic collaborations’, alongside Wordsworth and Coleridge for example, and it would be a shame if we were to overlook them because of their shared critical history (which has been turbulent to say the least) and their difficult, frustrating representations in popular culture (see the latest film on Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning).  I enjoy introducing the idea of literary collaboration to my students at Cardiff University and also in the work I do in communications and at Keats House Museum: I think the idea of poets and novelists conversing, sharing their inspirations, and working together on iconic literary texts can be a way of appealing to people who might be less familiar with the Romantics.


5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve said a lot about my love for manuscript studies already – and so I’m thrilled to say I’m currently working on transcribing and editing the only manuscript book containing PBS’s hand that has not been published as a facsimile edition.  The book is MSS 13,290 in the Library of Congress.  For a taster, here’s a short blog post about one of the pages in the notebook via European Romanticisms in Association.  This project in itself is a collaboration!  I’m working with Professor Nora Crook and Dr Bysshe Coffey.

Beyond that, as well as teaching at Cardiff, I continue to work with Keats House Museum on their #Keats200 project(s) and also with the Keats-Shelley Association of America and BARS to promote new activities in Romantic Studies.  I will be organising a conference for the bicentenary of PBS’s death on 8 July 2020, along with Sharon Ruston, Bysshe Coffey, Amanda Blake Davis, and others.

Five Questions: James Wood on Anecdotes of Enlightenment

James Wood is a Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century English Literature at the University of East Anglia.  He has degrees from Victoria University of Wellington and Stanford University, and worked as an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College, Dublin before joining UEA.  He has published essays and articles on authors including John Dryden, Samuel Richardson, William Wordsworth, Daniel Defoe and William Molyneux, covering topics including sociability, embodiment, periodical culture and the representation of travel.  His first book, Anecdotes of Enlightenment: Human Nature from Locke to Wordsworth, which we discuss below, was published in July 2019 by the University of Virginia Press.


1) How did you first become interested in anecdotes?

When I arrived at graduate school in the US, I didn’t know what I’d be doing as a dissertation project.  But I’d been interested in the New Historicist anecdote from taking a seminar on literary theory back in New Zealand, where we read two chapters from Stephen Greenblatt’s and Catherine Gallagher’s Practicing New Historicism.  I remember being impressed with what the anecdote could do in an essay: how it could enable these counterintuitive leaps between an apparently irrelevant artefact from the past and a canonical work of literature.  At that time, I felt sceptical of Greenblatt’s and Gallagher’s explanation of why the anecdote “worked” in critical essays, which for them has to do with the way the anecdote allows for a defamiliarizing encounter with the past in all its strangeness.  I’m not sure if I would have been able to articulate it at the time, but I’ve come to think that the power of the anecdote has to do with its specific formal qualities: its smallness and apparent self-containedness, its lack of connection or explanation.  The anecdote tends to pose an enigma, a problem to be solved.

So the anecdote was on my mind when I arrived at Stanford to do a PhD.  At that time a lot of graduate students were especially excited about the work of Alex Woloch, who had recently published his book on minor characters in the nineteenth-century novel.  Several graduate students were doing projects that were positioned against a kind of historicism presumed to be hostile or indifferent to form.  I didn’t necessarily see a conflict between the New Historicism and what was starting to be called the “New Formalism.”  But the intellectual climate of Stanford certainly shaped the project.  I suppose all first books are influenced by the universities at which they were written in one way or another.  The way Woloch writes about minor characters as distorted replicas of real human beings, who either explode out of the text in one disruptive moment or repeat the same aberrant behaviour again and again, fed into my thinking about the anecdote as a genre that relies on repetition for its effect as well as singularity.

So my interest in the anecdote came from a fascination with form.  I was—and am—interested in the thought process behind literary criticism and I carried that interest back into the eighteenth century and its miscellaneous writing on philosophy, travel, history, and social behaviour that tends to go under “non-fictional prose”—not that that is a very satisfactory term!  I wanted to explore how anecdotes worked in the great stew of writings on the human that the eighteenth century produced.


2) Your book examines ‘the enlightening potential of parafactual stories’.  For you, what are the most important manners in which anecdotes facilitated new thinking in the long eighteenth century?

I think that the awareness that anecdotes were parafactual made them central to the playful and sceptical intellectual style that characterizes much Enlightenment writing on human nature.  Writers tend to show an awareness that the anecdotes they tell might be true but almost certainly are not and in any case they probably distort or exaggerate the truth.  Anecdotes are stories that initially appear to be grounded in actual human life, but the awareness that they are anecdotes also tends to detach the stories away from actual human life into a hypothetical or suppositional realm.  The generic contract between the anecdote teller and tellee makes a certain latitude with the truth acceptable.

This sense of the anecdote being a free-floating story that nevertheless retains a persistent yet fragile connection to actual human life allowed it to become a kind of plaything of the mind.  So the power of the anecdote for me is not that it produces certain empirically grounded knowledge of human nature.  It’s almost exactly the opposite: the anecdote becomes a starting point from which to test out possibilities for conceiving human nature.  One advantage of the anecdote was that it did not presume anything about human nature in advance, so it helped Enlightenment writers think about the human as if from first principles.  They also helped focus thinkers’ attention on delimited aspects of human nature rather than obliging them to develop a theory accounting for everything pertaining to the human beforehand.

The anecdote was also readily “sharable”—here it is hard not to think about the little pictures, videos, and stories that “go viral” on the internet—and I’m especially interested in how key Enlightenment anecdotes like the anecdote of Polly Baker keep getting interpreted and reinterpreted.  Anecdotes moved easily between orality and print, providing focal points for the conversations and debates about the human that animated the Enlightenment.


3) Your four chapters study successively a form (the essay), an author (David Hume), an event (the voyage of theEndeavour) and a collection (Lyrical Ballads).  How did you come to select this approach and these particular case studies?

The general structure of the dissertation was in place quite early in the writing.  To be honest, when I was writing the introduction I noticed that the different chapters did have a different principle of organisation so I decided to highlight that—though it wasn’t really an idea to take a different principle of organisation for each chapter from the beginning.  I had a biographical affinity for many of the authors and topics: William Wordsworth from my early childhood just outside the Lake District, the Endeavour voyage from growing up in New Zealand, David Hume for the stories of social awkwardness I enjoyed reading in Ernest C. Mossner’s biography.  I had been fascinated by the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele from taking Denise Gigante’s seminar.  That general plan of organisation worked well in that I discovered plenty of material to keep me going.  I found a photocopy of a manuscript entitled “Banksiana” in the British Library that was full of Banks anecdotes and looking at the “Boswelliana” in the Houghton Library gave me the perfect transition from the David Hume chapter to the Endeavour chapter: an anecdote about a friendly argument between Hume and Alexander Erskine, 3rd Earl of Kellie about whether human nature is one or many in the aftermath of the tales about Tahiti carried back to England by James Cook and company.


4) What do you think that Romanticists in particular might gain by paying more attention to the culture of the anecdote during the Enlightenment?

I’m tempted to turn the question around and ask what Enlightenment scholars have to learn from the Romantic culture of the anecdote!  I think it is fair to say that there has been more work done on the anecdote as a literary genre by Romanticists than by scholars whose centre of gravity is the period before 1790: James Chandler, Kevis Goodman, Alan Liu, and David Simpson spring to mind here.  An exception is Helen Deutsch in Loving Dr. Johnson, who I feared for a while had pipped me to the post on the anecdote.  I ended up going in a quite different direction to Deutsch, however.  I became interested in the way the universal abstraction of the human as such gets thought about through the concrete and aberrant particularity of the anecdote.

I’m struck that it is the 1790s that the anecdote begins to be theorized as such, with Isaac D’Israeli’s A Dissertation on Anecdotes (1793) and Novalis’ very brief but extremely suggestive remarks on the anecdote in his unpublished Logological Fragments (c.1798-1800).  I think that one thing that Romanticists could take from these writings on the anecdote is that for both D’Israeli and Novalis the anecdote is not necessarily a historical genre—in the sense that it tells us something about history or historical characters.  D’Israeli and Novalis are, of course, interested in how the anecdote can be introduced into a work of history.  But they also emphasize the usefulness of the anecdote in telling us something about human nature or getting us to think about the human differently.  One of the aims of the book is to try to get people to see the anecdote as one of the key genres through which writers in both the Enlightenment and Romantic periods thought about the human.  I’d be delighted if the book helped stimulate more work on that function of the anecdote in a moment when Enlightenment moral philosophy was beginning to break up into the human sciences.

I hope too that the project might stimulate more work on the Romantic-era essay, which maintains strong links to its eighteenth-century precursors.  I’d also be delighted if the book in some small way helps foster more work on Romantic narrative poetry, especially poetry by women writers.  One of my regrets in the book is that I didn’t really have space to discuss Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales.  I’m thinking also of Charlotte Smith’s “On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic”—which illustrates, also, how anecdotes are not necessarily about events as such but are often more about circumstances, real or imagined.  (I’m grateful to Jenny Davidson for pointing this out to me.)  Smith never sees the lunatic but only imagines him wandering about on the headland and the poem becomes a little micro-world unto itself.

One of the baneful effects, I think, of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, is that it has helped contribute to a snootiness about Wordsworth’s anecdotal poetry—it is Wordsworth’s anecdote-poems like “Alice Fell” that Coleridge singles out for censure on the grounds he would have rather had them told to him as prose tales.  So I think that taking anecdotes seriously can also help us revalue texts even in the corpus of writings by the “Big Six.”  I think that anecdotes are actually very complicated things and we should take them seriously—even when they strike us as silly or absurd.  Anecdotes can teach us a lot, I think, about how the category of literature itself was beginning to be defined in the Romantic period.  D’Israeli and Novalis seem to see the anecdote as a genre on the threshold of what we would now call “the literary.”


5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a project on the relationship between mental labour and manual labour from John Locke to Mary Shelley.  I’m interested in how many writers across this period understand their own mental labours as analogous to manual labour.  The connection is not simply metaphorical though: writers like Samuel Richardson, the son of a joiner and a working printer, were well acquainted with manual work and emphasize the manual aspects of writing itself.  I’ve published an essay (“Richardson’s Hands”) from this new project in Eighteenth-Century Fiction and another essay from the project is coming out in the same journal in Spring 2020 (“Robinson Crusoe and the Earthy Ground.”)  I’m working on Samuel Johnson at the moment and his “beating a track through the alphabet” in working on the Dictionary of the English Language.

The nature of the project is taking me in an eco-critical direction which I hadn’t anticipated at the beginning: I’m struck by how many theorists understand manual labour as a process in which human beings seem to fuse with the natural world: so Locke writes of people mixing their labour with the earth and Marx writes of labour as a form of metabolism with nature.  I’m excited to find out where else the project leads!

I’m also working on an edition with Ema Vyroubalová of Trinity College Dublin of the manuscript writings of the 18th century writer the Reverend Jermyn Pratt, who was a friend of Christopher Smart, who mentioned Jermyn and his sister Harriet in Jubilate Agno.  There is a cache of Pratt’s literary writings that I came across in the Norfolk Record Office, many written in his neat hand in marbled notebooks.  To be honest he is not much of a poet!  But his play set in Norfolk, The Grange, is hilarious, as is his Sterne-influenced essay “The Zgubbs,” about little gremlin-like spirits that mess up best-laid plans.

Five Questions: David Higgins on British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene: Writing Tambora

David Higgins is Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Leeds and Deputy Director of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute.  He has written widely on Romantic literature and culture, including the monographs Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine and Romantic Englishness: Local, National, and Global Selves, 1780-1850 (which he has previously discussed on the BARS Blog).  Last year, he published two books: a co-edited collection (with Russell Goulbourne) entitled Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism (Bloomsbury) and a monograph called British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene: Writing Tambora (Palgrave), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the implications of the Tambora eruption?

I’m not sure where I first read about Tambora – perhaps in Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – but a few years ago I started thinking about the possibility of producing a kind of popular cultural history of the eruption and its effects in time for the bicentenary of the ‘Year without a Summer’ in 2016.  Through writing my monograph, Romantic Englishness, and working with some brilliant colleagues at Leeds, I had started to see myself as a researcher in the environmental humanities.  Tambora seemed a great case study for such an approach, as well as a potential springboard for public engagement work around culture and climate.

2) Why did you decide to write a short book specifically, and how was the experience of writing compared with that for your previous two monographs?

I ended up abandoning the cultural history, partly because I didn’t think that it would play to my strengths and partly because Gillen D’Arcy Wood beat me to it with his excellent 2014 book.  I decided instead to write a shorter book that, rather than simply telling the story of Tambora, would analyse it as a process in which material and discursive elements were profoundly intertwined.  I had started reading theoretical work on speculative realism/new materialism and realised that contemporary ideas about non-anthropocentric agency had a great deal to offer this project and the environmental humanities more broadly.  My case studies seemed to suit a shorter book and I felt that publishing with Palgrave Pivot would allow me to make a more urgent intervention than a longer monograph, as well as roughly coinciding with the bicentenary of the post-Tambora crisis.

The writing experience was very different from my previous research books.  My first was based on my PhD thesis.  It required a lot of primary research and was worked on quite intensively during the course of my PhD and then intermittently for a couple of years afterwards.  My second was a very slow burner as various other things intervened.  In contrast, I wrote this book in not much more than a year, largely during research leave kindly funded by my institution and then by the AHRC.  During this period, I also had some leadership responsibilities associated with the AHRC funding, which took up some time but also very much fed into to my research.  I hope that the resulting study seems timely rather than rushed, and reflects that I had been thinking about the book for a long time before having the chance to write it.

3) How did you come to select the three case studies on which your book focuses: the official narrative of the eruption compiled by the British administration in Java; the 1816 writings of Byron and the Shelleys; and political periodical writings regarding the ‘distresses’ of 1816 and 1817?

Including Byron and the Shelleys was an easy decision as I have a longstanding interest in their writings.  It also struck me that, although their 1816 works were often invoked in relation to Tambora, there was very little actual analysis of the complex ways in which they imagine environmental catastrophe.  Similarly, I noticed that the colonial narrative of the eruption was known as a key source for understanding how Tambora unfolded across the Indonesian archipelago, but nobody had paid any attention to its rhetorical construction of the catastrophe.  Finally, I felt that a chapter on political periodical writings offered a good way to address the impact of Tambora in Britain, as well as to explore the complex relationship between human and nonhuman agents that creates a supposedly ‘natural’ disaster.  I felt, too, that all the case studies would show the value of a close textual analysis of disaster narratives within the broader intellectual framework provided by the environmental humanities.  I have always tried in my work to bring canonical and non-canonical texts into close relationship, and without treating the latter as mere background or context.  The case studies, while manageable for a short book, offered a transnational and generic reach that I felt was vital for a project of this nature.

4) What for you are the most important kinds of insights that can be gleaned by using the lenses of climate change and the Anthropocene to view the art and culture of the Romantic period?

I am very aware of the dangers of ‘presentism’ and I would certainly resist the idea that the Romantic period speaks to us in any straightforward (or moralistic) way about climate change.  I also accept that the present-day environmental crisis may well require new ways of thinking.  However, understanding the Anthropocene as a kind of epistemological breach (as some thinkers do) risks dehistoricising environmental change and presenting it as the inevitable result of human ‘progress’, rather than as the result of a range of contingent factors over time.  As scholars such as Mike Hulme have shown, climate and culture have been understood as intertwined by many human societies.  I believe that understanding how the Romantics address the complex interactions of human and nonhuman agencies that create an environmental catastrophe can contribute to a better understanding of our current predicament.  This genealogical approach requires an attentiveness to the significant differences between then and now, as well as the similarities.

5) Now that this book is finished, what are you planning to work on next?

I’m currently involved in Landlines, an AHRC-funded collaboration between academics at Leeds, Sussex, and St Andrews to write a history of British nature writing over the last two centuries for Cambridge University Press.  We’re not offering a survey, but a pointed and (I hope) sophisticated account of nature writing as a complex literary form.  The project has also involved some very enjoyable public engagement, including a poll to discover the nation’s favourite nature books.  Increasingly, I am motivated as a researcher by the opportunity to engage with broader audiences and so I hope to develop some new impact collaborations around culture and climate over the next twelve months.  In the longer term, I’m planning a book on the relationship between philosophical pessimism and environmental thinking: a project that will take me well out of my Romantic-period comfort zone…

Five Questions: Katie Garner on Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend

Katie Garner is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of St Andrews.  She has published work on subjects as diverse as Angela Carter, Mary Wollstonecraft, liminality, feminism and children’s literature, but her core academic interest is in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Arthurianism, a subject on which she has published a number of articles and which lies at the heart of her first monograph, Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend: The Quest for Knowledge (Palgrave), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in women’s responses to Arthurian legend in the Romantic period?

As part of a very flexible MA programme I took a module on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arthurian literature.  We were given copies of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s ‘A Legend of Tintagel Castle’ to look at alongside Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and I remember being surprised and excited to find out that a woman poet was writing a poem about the Maid of Ascalot at almost the same time as Tennyson.  After that I wrote my MA dissertation on Anne Bannerman’s Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (1802), which includes her Arthurian poem ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’.  I looked into some of the Arthurian texts that Bannerman cites in her notes to the poem, and which I didn’t know much at all about then: Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, and Evan Evans’s Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards.  The question surrounding women’s sources remains central to the book, which is based on my subsequent PhD.  Throughout the PhD I was most eager to find out how women accessed information about Arthur in practical terms, and through what channels of knowledge their interest in the myth was first piqued.  I also suspected that if Felicia Hemans and Landon had both written Arthurian poems, then it was likely that there were more, and I started to keep an annotated list of Arthurian items and allusions by women that had been missed by previous bibliographers.  Mary Russell Mitford, Caroline Norton, Eleanor Anne Porden, and Mary Howitt all wrote poems that draw on aspects of the legend in some way, and the book also covers Arthurian material in prose in women’s travel writing, fiction, and scholarship.

2) To what extent do you perceive distinct traditions of response to Arthurian legends that are peculiar to female readers and writers?

I have become more and more convinced that female readers and writers experienced the legend in different forms and contexts to their male contemporaries, and that this shaped their imaginative responses.  Women with Arthurian interests (or even more general antiquarian ones) were unable to access manuscripts in libraries or gain membership of antiquarian clubs as gentlemen could.  In the few cases where Arthurian texts were specially prepared for women readers, the texts they were offered were censored and curated by editors (male and female) looking to protect female readers from the legend’s violent and sexual content.  In the book I spend some time discussing two notable instances of this: an much abridged version of Percy’s Reliques, entitled Ancient Ballads (1807) that extracted a high proportion of Percy’s Arthurian poems, and an edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur from 1816, censored so that ‘it may no longer be secreted from the fair sex’.  When these bowdlerised editions are the main source for an Arthurian piece by a woman writer, the effects of textual alterations to the myth or added ambiguities made in the pursuit of an ‘improved’ text leave their mark, and aspects of women’s treatment of the legend that might seem original, imaginative, or just plain odd, start to emerge as interpretive traces of the compromised text that inspired it.

3) Your book spans chronologically from 1770 to 1850 – why did you select these dates in particular, and what would you identify as being the key phases in women’s writing about the Matter of Britain within this period?

The 1770s seem to be the point at which conversations about women reading medieval romances start up again with new energy, as part of the broader debate about women’s novel reading.  Many of these discussions take place in periodicals, but are deepened in works that engage more closely with medieval scholarship, such as Susannah Dobson’s Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784) and Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785).  Both Reeve and Dobson are thinking through the intellectual benefits of medieval romance reading for women, which includes the Arthurian romances.  There’s an acceleration in the amount of Arthurian material in women’s travel writing from the 1790s onwards, as women on the home tour explore Arthurian locations in Wales and Scotland, and interest is also evident in accounts of France before and after the Revolutionary wars.  Alongside this, the coexisting vogue for the Gothic in the 1790s ushers in some further interest in using the legend to generate fear, both as part of a generalised ‘medieval’ backdrop in Minerva Press novels, and in greater depth as an available supernatural plot, often focused on Arthur’s undead return or Merlin’s prophetic and magical abilities.  From the 1820s onwards, women begin to produce their own translations of significant Arthurian works, facilitated by new, beginner-friendly editions of Arthurian romances, as well as increasing access to libraries and manuscripts.  Around the same time women also start to produce individual poems on the legend’s female characters.  The book introduces what might well be the earliest Maid of Ascalot poem, published in 1821 in the Ladies’ Monthly Museum, a full decade before Tennyson and Landon.  I also argue in the final chapter that the vogue for literary annuals and their ornamented, decorative style of verse helped to set the dominant aesthetic for the Arthurian myth in poetry as it moved into the nineteenth century.

I hope it’s not straying too far from the question to mention one date that looks like it should be key for women’s Arthurian writing, but actually isn’t.  In 1816 Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur was republished for the first time for nearly two hundred years, in two competing editions.  But rather than transforming women’s knowledge of the legend, there are few references to Malory by Romantic women writers before or immediately after this republication.  Instead women continue to work with other sources and a more eclectic mix of materials, and only really turn to Malory in any significant imaginative way after Tennyson and the first instalment of Idylls of the King (1859).  This lack of knowledge of and reliance on Malory is particular to Romantic women writers, and therefore it seemed right to stop the book at 1850, when Malory moves in to become a dominant source for women for the first time.

4) Which of the female-authored Arthurian works that you read for the project do you think are the most deserving of wider readerships in the academy?  Are there particular texts that you’d recommend to scholars thinking about covering Romantic-period Arthurian writing in an undergraduate context?

I’m very keen to promote Anna Jane Vardill, who might already be known to some.  She’s one of the writers in the book whose depth of interest in Arthurian material means that she reappears in a number of chapters – as Gothic poet, antiquarian satirist, and potential plagiarist.  She came briefly back into view in criticism at the turn of the twentieth century, and again in the 1960s, when she was finally identified as the author of a continuation of ‘Christabel’ in the European Magazine that appeared before Coleridge got his poem into print.  Vardill puts Merlin at the centre of her sequel: the wizard raises Christabel’s mother from the dead, disguises himself as Bard Bracy, and eventually succeeds in exposing Geraldine and banishing her to hell.  It’s a hugely entertaining and sensational piece, and one of a few Romantic poems to give Merlin a dramatic role, but more importantly I’d like Vardill to be recognised for her substantial involvement in the European Magazine more broadly.  She was the magazine’s largest female contributor by far, and also managed to deceive many of its antiquarian readers into thinking that she was Sir Walter Scott.  The antiquarian satires she wrote for the magazine are very much in the spirit of Scott’s The Antiquary, and I think she’s a significant figure to consider as part of the wider discussion of women’s satire in the early nineteenth century.

I’ve taught Landon’s ‘A Legend of Tintagel Castle’ to undergraduates a number of times myself now, alongside Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, and Louisa Stuart Costello’s ‘The Funeral Boat’ (1829), if time and space permits (available at The Camelot Project and also in Clare Broome Saunders’s Louisa Stuart Costello: A Writing Life (Palgrave, 2016)).  I currently teach Bannerman’s ‘The Prophecy of Merlin’ as part a module on Romantic Gothic, alongside ‘Christabel’ and William Taylor’s ‘Ellenore’.  Bannerman’s poem is perhaps useful for prompting discussion about the critical assumption that the Gothic isn’t seriously invested in medieval topics and settings, and I agree with Elizabeth Fay that Bannerman’s Queen of Beauty is obliquely vampiric: like Coleridge’s Geraldine, she undergoes a transformation in front of King Arthur that is only ever described obliquely, as ‘something, like a demon-smile’.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Much of the book focuses on recuperating forgotten works, but I’m now working on something at the other end of the scale completely: an edition of Jane Eyre for Bloomsbury.  I’m still very much committed to adding new voices to the Arthurian canon, however, and I’m preparing an article on Mary Ann Browne, who wrote a Guinevere poem in the 1830s that never made it into the book.  I’m also writing a chapter on the broader topic of medievalism in women’s periodicals in the nineteenth century.  The 1820s and 1830s in particular continue to fascinate me, as do Hemans and Landon, and my next book will be located somewhere in that broad terrain.

Five Questions: Simon Kövesi on John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

Simon Kövesi is Professor and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Oxford Brookes University.  He tweets as @kovesi1.  He has published widely on contemporary fiction (with a particular focus on the Scottish novelist James Kelman), on working-class literature and on the relationship between writing and the natural world.  At the heart of his work, though, is his abiding interest in and love for John Clare, on whom he has published numerous essays and book chapters.  He is the editor of the John Clare Society Journal and the co-editor (with Scott McEathron) of New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  He has recently led a high-profile campaign to highlight the threat posed to Clare’s archives by ongoing local authority cuts.  His passion for Clare’s work has also led to his being one of the very few academics to have sparred with a straw bear on the silver screen.  Below, we discuss his most recent monograph, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, which was published by Palgrave in September 2017.

1) What first drew you to John Clare?

I was an undergrad on an exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  It was clear to me then that the world needed my dreadful poetry, and (boldly) I showed it to a Professor of Romanticism, the brilliant Robert Kirkpatrick, who took pity on me, and kindly invited me to an evening poetry group at his house.  I’d written this nostalgic thing about watching a fox doing a wee – I suppose I was missing seeing them rifling through the bins of suburban London (to this day I’ve never actually seen a fox doing a wee).  Nevertheless, making the best of it, Kirkpatrick read us Clare’s ‘The Vixen’.  I’d never known of anything poetical about a fox and I’d never read any nature poetry of such precise clarity, all propelled by sharp, delicate sympathy, yet beneath no ostensible organising ego.  I stopped writing poetry straight away, and thankfully.  That was in 1993 – 200 years after Clare was born – and so it happened to be a great year for high profile celebrations and publications about his work.  When I returned to Glasgow for my final year, I became obsessed.  More often than not, I read Clare instead of revising for finals.  Early on, the rich pickings of his nature poetry were extended for me by the stylisations and politics of his (seemingly) wild language; by the capitalisation of land he occasionally protests about; by his diverse insights into folk culture and local traditions; by his unique prose; by his inversions of accepted valuations of nature; by his lyrical verse (which can be nothing but ego of course); by his playfulness, his cheekiness, his political lubricity, his isolation.  Like so many, I was haunted by the sad, depleted, often-romanticised story of his life.  At the start, however, it was his late love poetry that grabbed me most of all and that was the focus of my PhD with John Goodridge.

2) In your new book, you contend that ‘nature, feeling, fidelity persist as limitations on readings of Clare’, tracing the longstanding currency of characterisations such as ‘down-to-earth’ that serve to place and constrain him.  To what extent do you think that modern criticism of Clare is still shaped by the social and critical conditions of his original reception?

Those terms come from very early comments on his work.  I argue in the book that while they have been blown apart by the best of Clare criticism, they have been latently reaffirmed by the polemical accommodation of Clare to the agendas of contemporary green criticism especially, particularly because criticism can have a deaf ear, or a ham-shaped fist, when it comes to class.  The old model of Clare as ‘honest John’ does harm to the way we read his work – many have said so but it still creeps back.  Many critics reveal discomfort in the way they deal with Clare’s class; often, this manifests through treating his work as simple documentary evidence of landscaped fact, or a kind of social realism – as if he’s not capable of slippery, literary sophistication.  Partly this is Clare’s own fault – he often romanticises his agency out of the window – he denies his art and artfulness even in the manner in which he frames its conception.

In the book I also explore the ways critical awkwardness with Clare’s class can sometimes be downright insensitivity.  Calling Clare ‘homeless’ for example, is an historical nonsense, and yet it has such traction in Clare criticism, as it works well for a prevalent version of his relationship to land, or his supposed full-spectrum alienation.  But ‘homeless’ is now a dead metaphor in Clare, and if anything serves to stop us thinking about the subtlety and variety of his versions of ‘home’, and his constant, learned attention to people without one.  Perhaps because of its origins in conservation, but also because of founding tensions with the left and industrially-born socialism, ecocriticism has never been great on class; this is compounded in Clare studies by an understandable confluence between the sentimentalising of Clare’s location with the turn to the local in moralising green criticism – which of course many green critics worry about.

From all kinds of politicised critical approaches, you can track tendencies to reduce Clare to a kind of naïve holy fool whose knees and identity wobbled if he walked beyond the bounds of his parish – and that modelling (down to Clare himself of course – or at least partially so) has been entrenched by the blunter end of green criticism, but also by the crass end of historicism which can only see straightforward autobiography in a poem like ‘The Flitting’ (there’s certainly a reductive channel of class prejudice in assuming every time Clare writes ‘I’ it is uncomplicatedly and ‘honestly’ him).  Clare said himself in one of his most unbelievable and deliberately fragmentary poems – the wilfully fraudulent ‘Child Harold’ – that his life had been ‘one chain of contradictions’.  He did wear a green suit to go dining with his new London Magazine friends who all wore ‘sable’ – but a rich friend bought it for him.  Clare did mostly live in Helpston throughout his life, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to stay there.  Clare did write himself into a tradition of anti-enclosure poems, which have convinced everyone of their veracity, but we should not forget that he worked in enclosure gangs for many years, wrote his best nature poetry after enclosure, and continued to do so after he’d left Helpston – and by no means all of it is looking back to a pre-enclosure Edenic childhood – not at all.  Clare did thresh in a barn from the age of 8 or 9 – but by his own account, he suffered deep and lasting trauma over it.  He did that labour alongside his father so that he could help pay for his schooling, not because he lusted after labour.  He fantasised about having a domestic servant – we ignore these elements if we want honest John back.

It’s indicative of the romanticisation of Clare that no one has ever asked, before me, why he was able to find work in lime kilns.  Why were there so many lime kilns across the countryside in the Romantic period?  The answer is obvious: lime was pretty much the only material cheaply available that could help drain, fertilise and regulate the acidity of newly-enclosed land.  Lime was the main tool of enclosure and Clare helped make it, just before his launch as a poet; indeed the lime-kiln money was supposed to go towards funding his first publication of poetry.  It doesn’t mean he is a hypocrite – and I don’t care about it morally at all – it just means he is not a green messiah.  If we judge him, we have to be completely unhistorical to do so.  He was a poor labourer, and working in enclosure gangs or slaking lime in a kiln was decent money, if offering extremely low social status.  The only thing he seems to have worried about when working the enclosure gangs was the ‘wild and irregular habits’ of the itinerant men he was working with: not the ‘wild and irregular’ countryside they were enclosing.  I think critics need to start incorporating the moral messiness of Clare into their valuation of him – else we’re just forging self-affirming narratives and forgetting the contingencies of a life lived.  We don’t think any the less of the poems Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote, just because Lyrical Ballads was designed to fund a trip to Germany.  Clare is robust enough for these paradoxes, these tensions and multiplicities, to surface.  Too much criticism of Clare is sentimental and patronising – delicate, even.

3) In seeking to move beyond that echoing phrase from By Our Selves – ‘John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad’ – which occluded aspects of Clare’s life and art do you think should be emphasised more strongly?

We need to think about what we do when we emphasise Clare’s ‘lack’ of education.  What did he gain by not having a ‘formal education’?  What forms of knowledge and routes to understanding did he have open to him that other poets ‘lacked’?  Could Byron play the fiddle like Clare?  What does Byron’s poetry lack because he didn’t go to the pub and listen to storytellers spinning folk narratives?  It’s as if academics just don’t know what to do with writers who have never been to a lecture, and so we flock to the poets who have.  People like us, right?  What we tend to do is express astonishment at writers like Clare and move awkwardly on: that’s the history of the reception of working-class writing in academia in a nutshell.  Clare’s education was incredibly complicated – it needs much more attention.

In the book, I talk about ‘place’ being not just a liberation for Clare – it was not merely a ‘positive’ platform for his locally ‘botanising’ focus.  Place was also a narrowing problem: being placed, knowing his place, keeping to his place, being regarded as ‘down to earth’ – the organicist impulse is still prevalent in contemporary criticism and you can see it in the accident of phrasing sometimes.  Clare talks about feeling like a donkey tied to a post in his relation to Helpston.  Too often we turn what was a severe limitation on the life of this poorest of poets, conflate it with a certain mood in some poems, and construct a magical green or folksily happy commitment to place, particularity and soil.  This move can be dangerously patronising, dismissive of material suffering, and can mean we ignore Clare’s constant changes of mood and temperament – let alone his shifting desires.  To shift all of this into blanket ‘alienation’ is also to obfuscate things.  Clare loved London, he loved travelling to the largest seasonal body of water in England (Whittlesea Mere – drained by one of his patron’s sons when Clare was in an asylum), he loved going beyond the ‘edge of the orison’ – he wasn’t ruined by doing so.  And he loved Helpston too – but he resented its parochialness, the lack of anyone to talk to about books, and wanted it to move closer to London.  There is a funny early poem where he speculates what his fantasy home will be like one day, when he’s made it, and while the house he builds for himself is determinedly rural, someone else will be doing the labour and chores while he writes, and there’s no family around to bother him, just a maidservant.  He hated being poor and not being able to buy the books he wanted, or food for his kids, or travel.  It is amazing we have to say this, but the fact is Clare criticism ignores it.  The fraudulent Reverend of a quack who ran Clare’s asylum – Matthew Allen – thought in 1840 that the only reason Clare needed help was what we would now call ‘anxiety’ over money coupled with a poor diet across decades.

There’s no romance in poverty, rural or urban, just as there’s little romance in hand-work or pre-mechanised agriculture – pre- or post-enclosure – though Clare does manage to squeeze a good deal of emotive nostalgia out of it, for sure.  He can be sentimental and conservative, as much as he can cry for reform and protest against the monied and the greedy.  His politics are as slippery as his accounts of grammar: in this mobility he is the most Byronic of poets.  Like all good poets, Clare is an unstable subject, and we need to be aware of that much more – and stop reducing a very long writing career to a moment of fury, passion or creative depression.  I think some of his greatest poems are not about enclosure or nature: they are about human poverty, about social mores, about status, ignorance and prejudice.  And to answer the question directly, Clare could have been a great satirist but nobody encouraged him, for example, when he wrote ‘The Parish’, while his sonnet parodying Wordsworth’s use of enjambment is brilliant, and his reworking of Byron by way of poetical masculinist empowerment is as foul as can be.  He also writes light comic verse of which John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Hood would have been proud.  He is so knowingly playful in rummaging amongst others’ styles and techniques – a sociable yet solitary magpie – stealing shiny bits – lining his own poetic nest.

4) Which of Clare’s works do you think are particularly ripe for reconsideration from a broader range of perspectives?  Which texts would you select for an undergraduate seminar to try and give a balanced sense of his value and achievements?

In Clare studies this is a sore point.  There just are not enough editions of his verse – particularly cheap ones or selections with good scholarly notes.  There are some good collections but they do not yet amount to easy access to the full range of his work.  I hope scholars reading this blog will one day produce their own editions of Clare, according to a wide variety of editing principles and presentational styles.  Imagine the possibilities of a manuscript-based facsimile edition online, with all sorts of reading texts (as the Cornell Wordsworth called them), of all the variants – which included (rather than demoted) lifetime published texts too?  That’s got to be the future of editing Clare.  To answer the question, I think Clare’s work offering social commentary does not get enough attention: sometimes it is satire, sometimes straight narrative, sometimes polemic, and some prose moments are also unique in the period; the letters can be really pointed in this area.  We have good engagement with the nature poetry, for sure, though I think more emphasis on the work of the early 1830s would reveal some real gems – and I think it is in this period that Clare’s writing about nature becomes super-sophisticated.  Though most commentary would have it that after leaving Helpston he loses his mojo, the poetic evidence just does not support it.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

A big travelling exhibition of Clare portraits, original manuscripts, books and ephemera, to kick off in January 2020, 200 years after the publication of Poems Descriptive.  It’s a good time to take Clare on the road, I hope – just need to locate some funding.  I’ve just signed a contract with Palgrave to co-write a book with Bridget Keegan entitled The Occupations of Labour: Labouring-Class Writers, 1800–1900; this will group what shoemaker Chartist poet James Dacres Devlin (one of my personal favourites) called ‘hand-producer poets’ into their occupations for thematic consideration.  With Erin Lafford, I am putting together a collection of new Clare essays to propose to a publisher soon.  The longer-term book I’ve been chewing on for a while now is to be called British Literature and Poverty: 1800–2000, and the reading for that is opening up all sorts of new avenues for me.  It’s probably too big a project to ever finish, but I’m happy to give it a go.  Before any of that, I’ve got to finish an essay on poverty in the Romantic period – especially in agricultural improvement debates – and another on Clare’s reading, and rewriting, of Byron.

Five Questions: David Stewart on The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s

David Stewart is Senior Lecturer in Romanticism at Northumbria University.  He has published widely on figures including Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb and on topics including short fiction, ephemerality, paradox, commerce, mass culture and the politics of style.  His first monograph, Romantic Magazines and Metropolitan Literary Culture, was published in 2011 and considered the qualities of the extraordinary wave of periodicals that burgeoned in the period after the Napoleonic wars.  His new book, The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s: A Period of Doubt, which we discuss below, has just been published by Palgrave.

1) When do you first remember encountering the poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, and what led you to want to write a monograph about it?

For a long time I didn’t know that I was writing a book about it.  I’d been teaching Leigh Hunt’s Story of Rimini for a few years and kept having fascinating discussions with students who loved it, and yet found it oddly unstable, almost, but not quite, laughable.  There are some kinds of poetry that we don’t quite know how to read: do we look for a deep and serious philosophy or a buried political context beneath the surface, or do we delight in its seemingly superficial charms?  I found some other poets who provoked the same reaction in me, and I realised what linked them was that they fell somewhere between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Victorian’ poetry.  A poem like Rimini might be the beginning of a poetic history that never quite took shape.  The usual story is that the poetry market collapsed in the mid-1820s, and the few poets who did produce poetry were not very good.  The fact that neither part of this is true (the market did not collapse, and these poets are just joyous to read) was something I wanted to correct.  Equally, though, I kept coming back to my own unstable reactions to these poets: the wavering uncertainty with which we view this hinterland might be its most valuable feature.  I wanted to bring the period’s poetic scene to a fuller attention, but without giving it the firm outlines of a clearly demarcated ‘literary period’.

2) Your subtitle characterises the two decades as ‘a period of doubt’, a doubt manifested both in poets’ responses to their contexts and in later critics’ attempts to frame their achievements.  How can working to understand the doubts that poets struggled with help us to gain a better understanding of their cultural moment?

I find doubt a fascinating state of mind.  Doubt can be active, even aggressive, but it can also be comic, a matter of being baffled; it might even produce wonder.  It is not a fixed state; instead, when we are in doubt we can test things out, we can speculate on what things are, or how things might be.  Byron writes so well about doubt in Don Juan, and I like especially these lines in Canto 1: ‘What is the end of Fame? ‘tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper: / Some liken it to climbing up a hill, / Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour’.  The poets of this period are remarkable partly because they thought so often, and so playfully, about the possibility that critics like me might come along and sift and sort them into a period.  The form that that writing takes – the fact that it is on ‘uncertain paper’ – is the means by which it can be transmitted to future readers, but equally is itself a matter that prompts doubts.  Are some ways of ‘filling’ that paper (some metrical techniques) more ‘certain’ of Fame than others?  Are some kinds of paper (some methods of publishing) more ephemeral, more ‘uncertain’, than others?  The lesson that I hope I’ve taken from these poets is that doubt can be a pleasure.  To ‘gain a better understanding’ of this ‘cultural moment’ means, I think, accepting that we’ll always be groping around in vapour.

3) Introducing the book, you stress the divide between emergent formalist and commercial aesthetics, and also discuss the prominence of light verse during the period, but you stress that these three strands have more in common than the discourses surrounding them often admitted.  How would you characterise the defining qualities of these three modes, and what are the main things that unite them?

One of the real pleasures of writing this book has been getting back to reading poetry attentively.  We tend to associate this kind of ‘formalist’ close reading with a detached idealism, and also with only particular kinds of poet.  One group of poets might seem to fit that model.  I discuss the young Browning and Tennyson, but also poets like Hartley Coleridge, George Darley, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes who have always found ‘fit audience, though few’, admirers who pride themselves on hearing the delicate modulations of their metre.  We can place these poets as the first buds of a Victorian aestheticism that comes into full bloom with Walter Pater.  They are opposed to another group associated especially with the material form of their commercial books: the poets of the literary annuals, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Landon.  These poets use metres, of course, but metre is deemed an irrelevance in books that are merely objects for display in the drawing room.  A final group – Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, John Hamilton Reynolds, for example – provide something like what Kingsley Amis calls ‘light verse’: punning, bright-eyed wit that skims over the surface of society, valuable for the very perfection of the metrical surface they create and polish.  The attempt to create oppositions between kinds of poet is important, most particularly the role that gender plays in that process.  But they all share a curiously enabling doubt about categorisation.  Landon, for example, plays brilliantly with verse form and its relation to the books in which she appears; that tactic is mirrored by George Darley who, when he was not writing poems about fairies, was busy writing abusive articles about Landon.  The fact that Darley, Hood, and Hemans are all bound up in the green silk covers of the annual The Amulet in 1828 suggests some of the possibilities and perplexities this culture presents.  All of them think carefully, and with a disarming self-consciousness, about the place their poetry might have in culture, and how their poetry might form itself (metrically and materially) for readers in their own time and in an unguessable future.  It’s a conversation that is worth tuning in to, particularly in our own critical moment as we attempt to rethink critical methods like ‘formalism’, ‘historicism’ and ‘book history’.

4) If you were selecting a few key poems as standard-bearers for the poetry of this period (for a MA seminar, say), which would these be?

This feels like a slightly mischievous question: I feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘standard bearers’, poets marching under the banner of a territory that I would prefer to remain bewitchingly vague!  But no MA seminar can try to cover everything.  Some of these poets are well known: Hemans, Landon and Clare need no introduction for Romanticists.  There’s been excellent recent work on poets I look at like Hartley Coleridge and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  Others will, I hope, prove more interesting than they have hitherto: George Darley and Winthrop Mackworth Praed especially.  I end with a section on the young Tennyson, who hardly needs my help to find fame, and consider how his work starts to change when we place him alongside Clare, Landon, Praed, Hood, Hunt and others.  I think we might learn the lesson from the editors of annuals like The Amulet and Friendship’s Offering: place a diverse selection of poems together, and see what chance lights are thrown out.  If I had to choose one poem, though, that gives a glimpse of what I love about this period, it’d be Praed’s ‘The Fancy Ball’ from the New Monthly Magazine of 1828.

5) What new projects are you currently at work on?

I’m working on place and fiction in the Romantic period.  My focus is on the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and on writers including Walter Scott, Allan Cunningham and James Hogg.  There’s a relationship between humour, lies, fiction, and the experience of movement that I want to track.  I’ve been approaching it from a longstanding interest in this ‘region’ and these writers, but also via theories of place and mobility in geography and anthropology.  The anthropologist Tim Ingold’s work has been a revelation for me, as has work that sits between the creative and the critical by Rebecca Solnit and Kapka Kassabova.  I have an article on James Hogg that is the first fruit of this work: it should be coming out in The Yearbook of English Studies in a special issue on the 1830s.  I’ve also got a piece about Wordsworth and parody coming out this year in European Romantic Review.  I secretly want to write something about V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, but don’t tell anybody, least of all my research lead.

Five Questions: Tom Mole on What the Victorians Made of Romanticism

Tom Mole is Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh.  He has published extensively on Byron, Romantic-period celebrity, periodicals and print culture.  His recent books include The Broadview Introduction to Book History and The Broadview Reader in Book History (both with Michelle Levy); he is also a member of the Multigraph Collective, which authored the recently-released Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation.  His new book, What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History, which we discuss below, was published by Princeton University Press.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book about what the Victorians made of Romanticism?

This project grew out of my previous work on Romanticism and celebrity culture.  One of the things I discovered in that research was that people at the beginning of the nineteenth century often talked about celebrity as a second-rate kind of fame.  Celebrity was a kind of fleeting recognition you received in your own lifetime; true fame was usually posthumous, but it lasted much longer.  Once the idea was established that these two kinds of fame were mutually exclusive, it became easy to assume that people who had been famous in their lifetimes – Byron, Scott – would be forgotten after their deaths.  Lots of people actually said that these poets would be forgotten.  And yet they weren’t.  So my starting question was – why?  What kinds of cultural work were necessary to keep those writers in the public eye?  That question, in turn, led me to others, as I started to uncover what I’ve come to call the web of reception – all the material artefacts and cultural practices that shaped the reception of Romantic writers and their works.

2) In your second chapter, you set what you’re doing in the book against a tradition of ‘punctual historicism’ that privileges moments of composition, first publication and initial reception.  What are the principal kinds of insight that you believe we can gain by turning to longer and more diverse reception histories?

The trouble with punctual historicism, as I see it, is that it focuses on one context to the exclusion of all others.  This can make literature seem like something that’s tied to a particular historical moment – the moment of its production – and that cannot operate outside of that moment.  But one of the things that makes literature special is that it outlives its moment of production.  I don’t want to go back to the old idea that great literature transcends its historical moment and becomes timeless because it appeals to some kind of universal humanity.  Instead, I want a kind of criticism that recognises that works of literature can be reactivated in historical moments beyond the imaginations of their authors, and even that they might make their most important impacts when they are redeployed in new historical, social, political and media contexts.

3) After an initial section on the web of reception, your book mainly focuses on four media through which Victorian culture remade Romantic-period authors and texts: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.  How did you come to select these four media to make your case, and were there others that you explored during the process of composition?

These four strands of the web of reception give me a broad range to explore.  They allow me to take in artefacts and practices, verbal and visual responses to Romanticism, mass-produced books and one-off sculptures.  They allow me to tell stories of remediation, as works produced in one medium were mediated through another to new audiences.  These strands of the web also constitute their own self-aware traditions, so that, for example, anthologies refer back to earlier anthologies and sustain an ongoing debate about what a good anthology should be like.  But I could certainly have divided my material along other lines.  Photography is discussed in relation to both illustrations and statues, but it could have had a section of its own.  There are other strands of the web, and I hope I’ve identified enough that other people will be able to unpick them, taking up where I’ve left off.

4) You argue convincingly that ‘complex acts of selective forgetting’ were as crucial as acts of memory for Victorians making use of Romantic poets and their works.  What, for you, are the most telling things that the Victorians sought to forget, either about the individual poets you examine (Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Scott and Hemans), or about the Romantic-period generations more generally?

It wasn’t surprising to learn that the Victorians found Shelley’s atheism to be a problem. But I was surprised to discover the lengths they went to in their effort to forget it. First, they claimed that his atheism wasn’t important for his poetry.  Second, they went so far as to argue that his poetry carried a Christian message, even if Shelley the man would have denied it.  More generally, commemorating the Romantics meant forgetting many of their political commitments.  This wasn’t just true for radicals like Byron and Shelley, but also for a Tory like Scott – the problem wasn’t a particular set of political views, it was politics per se.  Romantic poets had to leave political commitments behind them as they were absorbed into the canon of English Literature.  Some critics have approached reception history through the lens of cultural memory – but I think that cultural memory studies are only helpful up to point.  We need to grasp that this process is as much about motivated forgetting as it is about remembering.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have a number of articles coming out: one about the connections between celebrity and anonymity in the Romantic period; one about John ‘Walking’ Stewart, the Romantic pedestrian traveller and philosopher; and two about Byron – ‘Byron and the Good Death’ and ‘Byron and the Difficulty of Beginning’.  After that I have some ideas for another book, but it’s really too early to talk about them at the moment.

Five Questions: James Whitehead on Madness and the Romantic Poet

James Whitehead is a Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University; he is also correspondent for the Hazlitt Society and The Hazlitt Review and a former lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary.  His major interests include Romanticism and its legacies; psychiatry and mental illness in nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature; and autobiographical and biographical life-writing.  These interests all combine in his first monograph, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History, which was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the putative links between Romantic creativity and madness?

The book began some years ago as an undergraduate essay.  I still have it somewhere written out longhand, which tells you how old it is!  At that point I was probably more of a callow enthusiast for the idea of ‘mad genius’, but even as I wrote about it then, and tried to assess Cowper, Smart, Blake, Clare, etc. on those terms, I think I realised that a more sceptical and historically defined account might be in order.  (I never finished that essay to my satisfaction.)  When I returned to academia and was formulating a PhD proposal, I was surprised to find nothing comprehensive on the topic; in addition to which Dino Felluga’s Perversity of Poetry, which set out several useful lines of interpretation and argument that I wanted to extend, had just been published, as had the unabridged translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, at last (this was in 2006).  So the timing seemed right.

2) You write in your introduction about the dangers of perpetuating ‘a cycle of endorsement and denial’ when discussing poets and madness.  How did you come to fix upon the form you describe in your subtitle as ‘critical history’ as a means for escaping this cycle?

From the moment of formulating the book as a PhD topic, I always imagined it as a reception study: a study of the posthumous mythologizing of the lives and writings of the relevant Romantic poets.  But I didn’t want it to be just a dismissive debunking of this mythologizing (that would be the ‘denial’).  For a start, that wasn’t really necessary on a case by case basis, because of the amount of information easily available about these canonical writers.  I doubt that anyone who has read any amount at all of Shelley or Blake, for example, and certainly any modern biography and criticism on them, is going to straightforwardly dismiss or celebrate them as simply ‘mad’ any more, although this did once happen in spades, as the book shows.  At the same time I felt that a lot of general critical writing on literature and madness still vaguely assented to or gestured towards the ‘mad genius’ or ‘mad poet’ idea, without really examining it as the product of particular historical moments or discourses (that would be the ‘endorsement’).  In terms of Romantic studies specifically, I also wanted to strike a balance between acknowledging some of the ideologically constructed aspects of canonical Romanticism or ‘Romantic genius’ and providing an account of its real continuing appeal and productivity as a category and idea, rather than making it a bad object to be violently ejected, which recent scholarship has sometimes tended to do; so again, neither endorsing or denying.  ‘Critical history’ is a pun, of a sort, with which I wanted to convey a sense that the book is a sceptical history, critical of the myth from the beginning, but also that it is (in one small way) a history of the critical; of critical assumptions and practices specifically developed around Romantic writers, but also wired into the later construction or study of ‘English’ generally.  In many ways it’s a book about how hard it can be to escape such assumptions once they set in.

3) What would you identify as being the most important forms and discourses that fed into the nineteenth-century construction of the figure of the Romantic mad poet?

For me, they are undoubtedly: periodical reviews and reviewing; literary biography; and pop psychology about genius, in its nineteenth-century manifestations in medical writing.  Each of these gets a chapter, and each concatenates with the others.  Early reviews fed into periodical sketches, and thence biographies; biography provided data-sets for later (pseudo) medical studies; and medical writing had originally provided many of the diagnostic attitudes and ideas that underpinned the reviewers’ rhetoric of madness.  The modern form of the ancient idea of ‘poetic madness’ (furor poeticus) was the product of reviewers, and the new persona of the ‘mad poet’ (the old vesanus poeta) was the product of biographers.  And the last part of the book, chronologically, discusses writing about degenerate genius from the fin de siècle, which I came to see as the unholy alliance of journalism, life-writing, and popular science (the book gives a more detailed summary about how these discursive domains fit together on pages 207–8.)  Again, this pattern seemed compelling to me in the ways that it foreshadowed the piecemeal combination of formal scrutiny from the perspective of the reviewer, the assessment of ‘life and mind’ from the perspective of the biographer, and the systematic elaboration on the nature of the imagination or creativity from the perspective of the scientist or theorist, that characterizes so much later literary critical practice.

4) Do you think that madness, properly contextualised, deserves to continue to occupy an important place in modern conceptions of Romantic artistry, or would you argue for its decentring or reformulation?

Well, while I hope the book provides some new information or a new frame for thinking about the connection between Romantic poetry or creativity and madness, as it was discussed across the nineteenth century and beyond, by writers who mostly were not poets themselves, I can’t pretend that I offer much here that is new on the real nature of literary creativity or poetic artistry.  Because it is mostly a reception study, it is limited to epiphenomena, which may not say anything at all about this, indeed.  However, I think it does raise some interesting questions about whether any conception of ‘Romanticism’ has always been a constellation of reactions and receptions, as well as of primary texts.  And one of the consequences of moving Foucault’s ‘great confinement’ of unreason from physical institutions in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries into cultural institutions and symbolic forms of confinement in the nineteenth century (a necessary move following various critiques of Foucault, and one which I hope the book partly effects) is that Romantic madness cannot then simply be a ‘lightning flash’ of reaction and protest (Foucault’s characterization) against Enlightenment reason: it comes before the real ‘great confinement’.  So Romanticism and its associated stereotypes of madness come to be seen not just as reactions to but as auguries of instrumental rationalism; as part of the powerful processes of conformity and control in modernity where rebellion and deviance from norms are accommodated or projected onto special classes of homines sacri.  But obviously, and more plainly, a genuine openness and willingness to admit the irrational, non-rational, or anti-rational remains an important and enduring part of why we (and I) value the great poetry of this period, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to sound this out fully.  So I hope to continue thinking about this question!

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have two other ongoing larger projects, although neither of them is really new, and neither is about Romanticism.  There is a sequel of sorts to this book in the form of a monograph, in Liverpool University Press’s Representations: Health, Disability, Culture and Society series, which addresses the representation of schizophrenia in twentieth-century culture.  It’s a sequel in so far as it picks up from where Madness and the Romantic Poet’s account of the modern mythologizing of the connection between madness and creativity ends, in the fin de siècle, and explores how this mythologizing continued into the twentieth century, in divergent ideas about (supposed) schizophrenia or the schizophrenic, and especially in the appropriation of these ideas by modernism and other avant-garde movements.  My other project is amends for writing so much about cultural myths of madness: a book about actual mental illness, and a history of how its experience is communicated in autobiographical accounts.  As a Romanticist, along with the usual teaching, I do practical things for the Hazlitt Society, and continue to think about Romantic prose writing and literary criticism in particular.

Five Questions: David Fallon on Blake, Myth and Enlightenment

David Fallon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.  He has published widely on topics including the debates surrounding the French Revolution, London bookselling and Romantic-period notions of sociability, but has a particular interest in William Blake, on whom he has published a series of articles and book chapters that have now culminated in his first monograph, Blake, Myth, and Enlightenment (Palgrave, 2017), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Blake’s tangled relationship with Enlightenment thought?

I’d originally got interested in Blake through music and he seems to combine the dreamy utopianism of psychedelia with the hard-headed opposition and disillusionment of punk.  I was always drawn to Blake as a contradictory writer and artist, whose difficulty to pin down was part of his fascination.  From my undergraduate days I found him sitting uneasily with traditional notions of Romanticism.  I’d always been captivated by the deep and creative spiritual vision in his poetry and art, but I felt that Blake was too hard-headed to simply be a flaky mystic dreamer, in the way he can sometimes be dismissed.  The work of a number of Blake specialists, including Donald Ault and Matthew Green, suggested there was more to Blake and Enlightenment than opposition and I was keen to trace how this intellectual side emerged through the structures of meaning in his art and poetry.

2) How did you come to choose apotheosis (in Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘Deification; the rite of adding any one to the number of the gods’) as your key point of focus in the book?

The original project, in the earliest days of the PhD was rather broad, looking at Blake and the idea of heroism.  As part of this, I was looking at the pair of ‘spiritual form’ paintings of William Pit and Horatio Nelson from the 1809 exhibition.  They were pretty bewildering, but I noted that the Descriptive Catalogue labelled them ‘grand apotheoses’.  I started tugging away at the key term ‘apotheosis’ and that became the end of the golden string that I spent many years unravelling.  I’d always been fascinated – albeit confused! – by Blake’s interest in transformations and his use of star imagery in his poetry and designs.  I felt I had discovered a context in which these began to make more sense.  The term’s many strands (art history, anthropology, classical culture, religion, political satire and so on) were particularly appealing, as they took me towards a focus which allowed me (hopefully) to do justice Blake as an artist who gleefully capered across disciplinary boundaries.

3) What for you are the most important insights that we can gain from seeing Blake as actively engaged with Enlightenment, as opposed to ‘an exemplary Romantic opponent’?

Blake can be a bit straightjacketed by the label ‘Romantic’, so I hoped that this approach might make room for a lively, different sort of Blake to wriggle out.  The book hopefully allows us to situate Blake’s hermeneutics and myth-making historically.  While rather unBlakean in resisting the embrace of Eternity, this helps to show how his poetry and art could have been more meaningful to his contemporaries and it shows how his model of ‘contraries’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is fundamental to the ways in which he conceived of his creativity.

4) You contend that ‘Blake came ultimately to give precedence to mythopoesis over critical thought’.  How do you conceptualise Blake’s early position on this issue?  Do you see his movement towards mythopoesis as happening in a relatively smooth manner across his artistic career, or was his engagement with Enlightenment and myth (as expressed in his works) more complex and conflicted?

To me, there always seem to be two key features at play in his work, one partaking of Enlightenment scepticism towards myths of power, the other celebrating myth as a powerful mode of collective vision.  Approaching Blake’s visionary imagination in a dynamic relationship with Enlightenment critical approaches allowed me to sketch out shifts in his thought over his career, with his later works representing something of a recovery from his pronounced radical scepticism of the mid-to-late 1790s, albeit still attacking institutions of state repression and deploying that critical impulse productively to enable creative, utopian imaginings.  Some of his annotations from the 1780s and early 1790s suggest he saw himself as a sort of philosophe and the later works are clearly more emphatically Christian, but rather than there being a linear progression, these identities seem to rub along together in different permutations throughout his career.  I’d go for ‘complex and conflicted’…

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m gleaning grains of information about the lively world of eighteenth-century and Romantic publishing, working on my next monograph which is on literary sociability, production, and booksellers’ shops from about 1740 to 1840.  I’ve also co-edited a special issue of Romanticism with Jon Shears on Romanticism and Ageing, which will appear in 2018.  I have an essay on Caleb Williams in the pipeline for William Godwin: Forms, Fears, Futures, which should be out in 2018 too.  There will undoubtedly be a few essays on Blake, too, developing material which has been sparked off by writing the book.

Five Questions: Beatrice Turner on Romantic Childhood, Romantic Heirs

Beatrice Turner is Research Facilitator in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.  She completed her undergraduate education and Master’s degree at Victoria University of Wellington before moving to the UK to pursue a doctorate at Newcastle University.  She is broadly interested in Romantic afterlives and periodicity, and has worked on nineteenth-century children’s literature, the Godwin-Shelley circle and the Coleridge family; the latter two threads come together in her first monograph, Romantic Childhood, Romantic Heirs: Reproduction and Retrospection, 1820-1850, which was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the children of canonical Romantic-period writers?

Quite a few years ago now, my Master’s supervisor at Victoria University of Wellington, Harry Ricketts, read me Hartley Coleridge’s sonnet ‘Long Time a Child’.  I can’t remember what we were talking about – probably Swallows and Amazons, and definitely not Romantic poetry – but the line ‘For I have lost the race I never ran’ seized me absolutely.  It seemed to express a complexly doubled feeling about being entered into something unconsciously, or without having a choice, and about failure being a form of both resistance and of capitulation, which I found very powerful.  I set out to read more, and found again and again in Hartley’s poetry this compelling idea of the child who is both literally and literarily produced by his father: he feels simultaneously a flesh-and-blood child and a text, something birthed in a poem.  I’d have called myself someone who was interested in children’s literature, if anything, up until then, but when I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I found I couldn’t get Hartley’s poems out of my head.  So Hartley was the starting point, but from there it made sense to turn to his sister Sara, and other children of Romantic authors.  What I found was that Hartley’s not unique but emblematic, as I say in the introduction: that doubly-born feeling recurs in the work of all four authors I wrote about, and the reproductive failure it triggers seemed to resonate across the period.

2) What do you feel are the most important things that we can learn about the period between 1820 and 1850 by studying it as an age of ‘writing back’, characterised, at least for the biological children of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Godwin, by ‘cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual disruption’?

‘Writing back’ is what I came to call the move, which I see in all four children’s work, to look back towards their fathers and to reckon with their textual selves as produced by those author-fathers.  It’s a term that for me helped articulate the sense of productive or reproductive failure all four children register in their own writing and some extent in their cultural moment at large.  It’s this failure which I think brings the period into view as a period, with its own distinctive anxieties.  I spent a long time going back and forth with Palgrave (sorry Ben!) about the title because I wanted both ‘reproduction’ and ‘retrospection’ in there (which is also how I ended up with a rather unintentionally alliterative title): to me, those two terms are particularly useful for thinking about the decades between 1820 and 1850.  It’s a period defined in many ways by looking back, assessing, memorialising (this is one reason why biography and history and reviewing culture are so prominent) – but also by the problem of reproduction, by this anxiety of inheritance.  What can you create when you yourself are a hybrid production of a set of discourses which are intensely invested in childhood?  I think this anxiety registers across the period, not just in the work of the four children, from Hazlitt’s concern in The Spirit of the Age that there’s no-one capable of climbing the monuments left by previous generations, to Shelley’s sense that the ‘age of theory and enthusiasm’ has given way to a more cautious and less optimistic one of ‘facts and practicabilities’.  Writing back, then, is the mode in which such anxieties might be articulated, and a way of registering the felt gap  – or disruption – between the two generations.

3) To what extent do you think that there were general modes through which the Romantic heirs you consider engaged with the writings of their fathers, and to what extent were their responses distinctly individual?

One of the things that unites the four children is their strong resistance to being reified into symbols by their fathers’ texts and by Romantic-era discourses of childhood and creative production, so it feels particularly unfair of me say that the reason I chose to focus on the four is because of what they represent.  All four are doubly born – both as their fathers’ children, and as their fathers’ texts.  I think we can use their predicament, and their responses, to read this wider moment.  In that sense, all four are working in a similar mode, and asking versions of the same question: whether what I’m crudely calling the Romantic inheritance was one that allowed its children the space or the material for their own creative authority.  The conclusion reached by Hartley, Sara, Shelley, and Godwin Jr was that it didn’t, that aesthetically and psychically fulfilling production (whether as an author or a parent) was not possible if you were a child of Romanticism and its various discourses.  But it’s also true to say that each reaches this conclusion through different generic and formal modes, and sometimes to different ideological ends.  All four textualise their own lives to some extent, but only Hartley explicitly and self-consciously writes autobiographically, and I think this is because Hartley is so directly taken into and produced by his father’s verse – responding in kind, as the child-text STC creates, is almost the only option.  Sara achieves her most powerful readings of her father by a kind of stealth, through her work as his editor, while her maternal poetry, in which she speaks with raw feeling and sometimes something like malice, remained largely unpublished and possibly unread in her lifetime.  Shelley and Godwin Jr are both novelists, rather than poets (I do think there’s something interesting in the way both sets of siblings followed their fathers’ preferred formal modes), but they are also working to uncover different things.  Hartley and Sara’s labour I read as being to uncover the ways in which a form of childhood which is presented as entirely natural is actually produced through artifice and subject to stringent cultural surveillance.  Shelley and Godwin, however, are concerned with showing how the Godwinian idea of family relations which are entirely and self-consciously culturally constructed runs into its own generative dead-end, producing increasingly deformed and sterile versions of family feeling.

4) Mary Shelley is well-known as a writer in her own right, but Hartley Coleridge, Sara Coleridge and (perhaps especially) William Godwin Junior are less familiar even to educated modern readers.  Which of their works would you particularly recommend to those interested in exploring them?

It’s hard to restrict myself to just a few – I think all three deserve to be much more widely read!  Hartley’s sonnets are really beautiful.  He’s the master of the overlooked, the miniature, the apparently inconsequential, and the feelings that can hide within an idle thought or a glimpsed object.  The messier and more complex the emotion he’s working with, the more formally neat and gem-like the sonnet.  ‘Long Time a Child’ is the most anthologised, but ‘Let me not deem that I was made in vain’ is probably my favourite: it works through a clever sequence of negative statements and images to construct a self-portrait defined by absence or negative space, and is quietly heartbreaking.

Sara’s work is becoming more widely-read I think, thanks in most part to Peter Swaab’s excellent selections of her poetry and criticism, as well as recent monographs by Alan Vardy and Jeffrey Barbeau, to which my chapter’s indebted.  A lot of her poetry (unpublished in her lifetime for fairly obvious reasons!) is about profoundly ambivalent maternal feelings, and I think poems like ‘To Herbert and Edith’ and ‘To a Little Invisible Being’ offer a useful corrective to the ‘angel of the hearth’ narrative of nineteenth century motherhood: Sara is precise about the physical, emotional, and creative sacrifice attendant on mothering a Romantic child.  I’d also recommend her introductory essay to the 1847 Biographia Literaria as a fascinating, clear-eyed assessment of her father’s power as a thinker and failure as an author.

As for Godwin Jr, I think all Romanticists, and especially anyone working on the Godwin-Shelley circle, should read his short story ‘The Executioner’.  It’s a gothic psychodrama about a man who’s tricked into executing his biological father by an evil foster-father (a barely-disguised Godwin).  It’d be worth reading anyway as an astonishingly raw expression of Godwin Jr’s sense he doesn’t belong in the Godwin family and as a version of the family romance fantasy, but it’s also a skilful psychological narrative.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Right now I’m combining my interest in Romantic ideas about childhood with my love of pop music, writing an essay for a volume on Romanticism and David Bowie along with Matt Sangster, Jo Taylor, and Emily Bernhard Jackson.  I’ve also gone back to Godwin, and I’m thinking about how he felt about owning, gifting, and borrowing books, and the way they can function as affective objects, in the context of his frankly baffling ‘Essay on Sepulchres’.  That’s for an essay collection which I’m co-editing with Eliza O’Brien and Helen Stark, called New Approaches to William Godwin: Forms, Fears, Futures.  Thinking about Godwin and books and feelings is a sort of precursor to my next big project, which is about the relationship between literary biography and literary criticism in that same in-betweeny 1810 – 1840ish period – there’s obviously something in me which is drawn to the definitionally awkward and the marginal!