News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive for September 2015

Report from Writing Lives Together (University of Leicester, 2015) – Lucy Johnson

Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The 2015 Writing Lives Together: Romantic and Victorian Biography conference was held on the 18th September at the University of Leicester.  Organised by Dr Felicity James and Dr Julian North, the day provided fascinating papers and stimulating discussion (along with a fabulous lunch!).

The opening keynote lecture, ‘Adventures of an Unromantic Biographer’, was delivered by Dr Daisy Hay (University of Exeter), in which she discussed the ‘creative potential of life-writing’ for women who have been ‘erased from history’.  In this compelling lecture, Hay framed life-writing as an empowering act that can give voice and autonomy to those who might otherwise have been silenced.

The first panel I attended was Women Writing Together, and it was opened by Dr Amy Culley (University of Lincoln).  Her paper, titled ‘Ageing, authorship, and female friendship in the life writing of Mary Berry and Joanna Baillie’, examined the life writing of Mary Berry (1763-1852) through the lens of her friendship with Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) during the two writers’ later lives.  Culley discussed the processes of supporting each other as older literary women, and provided a fascinating reading of rry’s desire to leave a legacy of sorts that might inspire creative acts in other older women.   Culley’s discussion of the ‘gendering’ of the experience of old age gave an especially interesting and unique perspective on the perhaps overlooked complexity of an older woman writer’s role in eighteenth and nineteenth century literary communities.

Next up was Dr Catherine Delafield (Independent), with her paper ‘“I attempt no memoir”: Austen family values and the letter as life writing’.  Delafield examined the two-volume edition of the letters of Jane Austen published by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne in 1884 as an ‘answer’ to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), and discussed how the two texts formed a dialogue on the ‘ownership’ of Austen as a figure.  As Delafield demonstrated, Austen herself has been frequently marginalised in the various attempts to write her life.

The final paper on this panel was delivered by Professor Valerie Sanders (University of Hull).  In ‘The Many Lives of Elizabeth Fry’, she analysed how women write together as editors after the subject’s death, and asked whether editors could be considered writers or collaborators.  Sanders looked at the vexed issue of family members editing other family members’ lives through the prism of Fry’s daughters’ decision to write their mother’s life, asking who ultimately ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ life-writing.

Following the aforementioned fabulous lunch, the second round of panels took place.  I was presenting on Collaborative Suppressions and Experiments, which was opened by Dr Emily Paterson Morgan (Independent) with her paper, ‘Repackaging Peacock: The Collaborative Censorship of The Life and Works of Thomas Love Peacock’.  In this compelling and diverse paper, Morgan examined Peacock’s deconstruction of his own life and explored how this potentially conflicted with the ‘repackaging’ of Peacock’s reputation by the friends who wrote his life.  In particular, Morgan highlighted Peacock’s antipathy towards biography, and discussed how Peacock’s granddaughter  Edith Nichols’ provided a ‘deceptively’ edited version of his life.

Following my own paper, Dr Jane Darcy (UCL) closed the panel with ‘Contemporary portraits of Tennyson’.  Darcy explored the conflict between Tennyson’s disregard for fame and the desire of his circle of friends who wished to record and memorialise aspects of their life with the poet.  In particular, her paper focused on the link between Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait photographs of the poet and the ‘biographical narratives’ of Tennyson’s daughter Anny Thackeray Ritchie.  This paper was a genuine highlight for me, bringing to life the unique and vivid character of Anny Thackeray in particular, complemented by some of Cameron’s stunningly intimate photographs. Darcy also drew our attention to two upcoming exhibitions of Cameron’s work to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s birth: Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, running 28 November 2015 to 21 February 2016, and Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum, running 24 September 2015 to 28 March 2016.

The third and final panel I attended was Women Writing Together II, and was opened by Rebecca Shuttleworth (University of Leicester) with her paper ‘The Domestic Politics of Life-Writing: Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts, and Rewritten Identities in Dissenting 19th Century Biography’.  Shuttleworth examined the various tensions inherent in how these women chose to present their identities versus how they have been depicted by Victorian biographers, and the ways in which this contrasted with how Watts and Heyrick presented themselves as activists and anti-slavery abolitionists.

Next was Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) paper, ‘Canine collaboration: memory, reflection, and human-animal voices in Lucy Thornton’s The Story of a Poodle (1889)’.  In this lovely and engaging paper, Regis examined how Thornton ‘made didactic use of Gaston’s [the poodle] life’, exploring the analogy between children and animals.  This is, Regis told us, the only example she knows of human-animal autobiography and biography, and she explored the concept of dog and mistress as ‘literary collaborators’.

The third and final paper was given by Dr Rebecca Styler (University of Lincoln), ‘Finding Vocation Through the Lives of Others: Josephine Butler’s Spiritual Auto/Biographies’.  She discussed how feminist and reformer Butler ‘overcame her fear of ‘unfeminine’ public discourse’ in order to lead the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act that placed her in direct opposition to the establishment of the later Victorian period.

The closing keynote lecture was given by Professor David Amigoni (University of Keele), and was titled ‘Writing Lives Together in the Darwin Family, 1804-1876: gender, heredity, and authority’.  Amigoni discussed Gwen Raverat’s memories of her grandfather Charles Darwin in Period Piece, and highlighted how those writing lives on the Darwin family conceptualised sympathy as a ‘key moral category in life writing’, particularly in how it influences readers’ perceptions.  Amigoni also discussed Nora Barlow’s publication of Darwin’s Beagle diary as a focal point in the construction of his afterlife persona.

Many thanks to the organisers Dr James and Dr North and to all involved in making this a genuinely fantastic, friendly, and diverse day!

– Lucy Johnson, University of Chester.

On This Day in 1815: William Wordsworth and a Sonnet for a Season

This is part of a new series of On This Day posts edited by Anna Mercer.  If you’re interested in contributing to the series, please contact her on We are currently looking for contributions about literary/historical events in 1816.

September’s post is contributed by Katherine Fender, who is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Wordsworth on Helvellyn”, (1842) – oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Wordsworth on Helvellyn”, (1842) – oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

…I have never been so moved as I was on reading your exquisite sonnets…I must say that I have felt melancholy ever since receiving your sonnets, as if I was elevated so exceedingly, with such a drunken humming in my brain, that my nature took refuge in quiet humbleness and gratitude to God.

– Benjamin Robert Haydon in a letter to William Wordsworth, 29th December 1815

On 12th September 1815, in a letter to painter Benjamin Robert Haydon – who he had befriended on his visit to London in May-June 1815 – Wordsworth declared that:

I have not forgotten your Request to have a few verses of my Composition in my own handwriting, and the first short piece that I compose, if it be not totally destitute of merit, shall be sent you.

Close to many key Romantic figures such as Shelley, Hazlitt and Keats, Haydon had already taken a plaster cast of Wordsworth’s face on 12th June 1815 in order to make a life mask of the poet. Haydon was determined to ensure that – as Wordsworth phrases it in a later letter (of 13th January 1816) – “my [Wordsworth’s] merits as a Poet might be acknowledged during my life-time.” True to his word (albeit slightly later than anticipated), Wordsworth sent the sonnet below to Haydon a few months afterwards:

September, 1815


While not a leaf seems faded; while the fields,

With ripening harvest prodigally fair,

In brightest sunshine bask; this nipping air,

Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields

His icy scymetar, a foretaste yields

Of bitter change, and bids the Flowers beware;

And whispers to the silent Birds, “Prepare

Against the threatening Foe your trustiest shields.”

For me, who under kindlier laws belong

To Nature’s tuneful quire, this rustling dry

Through leaves yet green, and yon crystalline sky,

Announce a season potent to renew,

‘Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song,

And nobler cares than listless summer knew.

The poem initially centres on images of comfort and plenitude: “not a leaf seems faded”, “ripening”, “prodigally”, “brightest”, “bask”. However, by line 3, a chilling wind – “this nipping air”, which spooks the speaker – heralds change. The alliteration in the phrase “where Winter wields” in line 4 – through repetition of the voiced labio-velar approximant “w” – mimics the motion and sound of the blustery onset of the winter wind referenced. Similarly, the repetition of the bilabial “b” in the stressed syllables of “bitter” and “bids” in line 6 reinforces the sharp contrast between the initial potential for gathering – the sheer abundance of autumn at the poem’s opening, highlighted by the reference to harvest – and the comparative emptiness of the winter, signalled by the expulsion of air necessitated by the bilabial sounds. Autumn invites acts of reaping, gathering, taking all inward; the coming winter promises to be cold, “silent”, “threatening”, with all warmth and growth expelled. The speaker’s choice of words hints at warfare: “wields”, “scymetar”, “Foe”, “shields”. The coming season is presented as an adversary to the landscape; it is the “Flowers” and the “Birds” that are warned to prepare for the “bitter change” that the winter shall bring.

However, the whispering wind – the “rustling” of the autumn leaves prompted by the wind, warning of winter’s imminent arrival – highlights the benefits of nature and of natural forces to the speaker. This becomes the focus of the poem’s sestet. Rather than foregrounding the landscape (as in the sonnet’s octave) by detailing its sights and its sounds, the chill in the air contrasting with the autumn sunshine, the emphasis of the sestet from its outset is on the personal, on the individual, in relation to changes in the external world. Opening with the prepositional phrase “For me” – foregrounding the human subject, the speaker – these lines invert the poem’s earlier theme of sterility, typically associated with winter, by highlighting the creative potency of the winter months. Affiliating himself with “Nature’s tuneful quire”, the “rustling” brought about by the winter wind relieves the silence of the birds and the eerie quiet of the landscape for the speaker.

This could, perhaps, be seen as a metaphor for Wordsworth’s own frustration at not having been able to produce as much writing as he had wished to during the preceding summer months. The poem, though set in September, was not in fact penned until December of 1815, when Wordsworth sent it (together with two others, “November 1, 1815” and “To R. B. Haydon, Esq.”) to Haydon. In the accompanying letter, of 21st December, he begins:

My dear Sir,

I sit down to perform my promise of sending you the first little Poem I might compose on my arrival at home. I am grieved to think what a time has elapsed since I last paid my devoirs to the Muses, and not less so to know that now in the depth of Winter when I hoped to resume my Labours, I continue to be called from them by my unavoidable engagements.

Wordsworth informs Haydon that the poem offers an account of a “still earlier sensation which the revolution of the seasons impressed me with last Autumn”. It seems that the sharp, stinging effects of the “nipping air” and “frost and snow” are rejuvenating ones for the speaker, the noun phrase “green leaves” connoting growth, life, potential, bolstered by the phrase “a season potent to renew”. The phrase “instinctive joys of song” suggests that it is these – the joys of song, poetry – which can be revived by the change in season.

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker implies that there is greater creative inspiration to be found in times of adversity than in those of calm and comfort, the latter state conveyed through the phrase “listless summer”:

                                               …this rustling dry

…and yon crystalline sky,

Announce a season potent to renew,

‘Mid frost and snow, the instinctive joys of song… [ll. 10-13]

In The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), Jared Curtis speculates as to whether the “nobler cares” described relate to Wordsworth’s concerns for Dorothy – specifically, his anxiety about how, given her fragile state of health, she would cope with the bitterly cold winters of the Lake District.

The final word of the poem is a crucial one. End-stopped, and constituting the last beat of the final line of the poem, the sense of finality we may expect is instead replaced by an echo of “renew” in line 12. Rather than simply rhyming with line 12, the last word of line 14 is a homophone of the second syllable of “renew”. Thus, a seasonal and textual end marks a new intellectual and artistic beginning: it is a reminder to create.

Fittingly, the poem was itself recreated. Unsurprisingly, the text was revised by Wordsworth – as well as reprinted in various publications – multiple times. It was published in the magazine Examiner on 11th February 1816, and subsequently appeared in both The Advertiser and, just a week later, Wordsworth’s local paper, the Westmoreland Advertiser.

The publication of the poem in Wordsworth’s local paper seems appropriate given that, like so many of his other poems, “September, 1815” foregrounds the important of locality and community. Firstly, emphasis is on the perception and experience of the external world – the sensory, and the grandeur of nature. Then, the focus shifts to the speaking subject’s personal, emotional and psychological response to it. This is what Geoffrey Hartman has described as “a summons to self-consciousness”: the poet is alone with the landscape.[1] Such a process leads to acts of imagination, whether of recollection or innovative creation. Finally, the speaker turns to consider broader concerns and “nobler cares” – about community, society, faith and family. As David Ferry has observed, and as Frances Ferguson has helpfully phrased it:

Wordsworth learns from his love of nature a love of man that is a love of the idea of man – and that is, in turn, again a love of nature.[2]

For Wordsworth, acts of introspection induced by one’s surroundings afford a depth of thought – and feeling – that in turn engenders nobler cares and even greater imaginings.

Plaster cast of William Wordsworth’s life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1815). National Portrait Gallery, London

Plaster cast of William Wordsworth’s life mask by Benjamin Robert Haydon (1815). National Portrait Gallery, London

Works cited: 

[1] Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 29.

[2] Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 125.