News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Archive for September 2019

Stephen Copley Research Report: Jonathan Taylor on Alexander Runciman

This report is by Jonathan Taylor (University of Surrey), a recipient of the Stephen Copley Research grant. Find out how to apply for this BARS award here.

My Stephen Copley Research Award funded a trip to Edinburgh to consult the National Records of Scotland and the Scottish National Gallery’s collections of letters and drawings by the painter Alexander Runciman (1736-85).

What interests me about Runciman — who is best known as the creator of the first (now sadly lost) decorative scheme based on James Macpherson’s Ossian epics — is his heroic treatment of female characters from the epic tradition. Whereas other late eighteenth-century artists (most notably Angelica Kauffman) had pioneered painters’ treatment of women as heroic subjects, they also tended to circumscribe the heroism of female epic characters, such as Andromache and Penelope, to passive acts of suffering and endurance. In several instances, Runciman went a step further, representing the suffering of female epic heroes not as something in which they have no agency, but something that they bravely elect to undergo. This is most obviously the case in Runciman’s depiction of Corgan Carglâ, a hunter from Macpherson’s Ossian, who chooses to be imprisoned in a cave for life rather than submit to her husband’s murderer.

Before my research trip, I thought I had discerned the origins of Runciman’s contemporarily unusual approach to female heroism in preparatory drawings for a rendering of the death of Dido, which appear to give Virgil’s tragic heroine more and more agency in successive sketches. The truth was, as I found out, both more interesting and more confusing. The drawings (held by the Scottish National Gallery) do gradually shift away from the passive and sentimental renderings of Dido that were popular with earlier eighteenth-century artists, in which the queen typically appears to have died as the direct result of her abandonment by Aeneas, rather than (in any obvious way) by her own hand. However, while what appears to be the final drawing shows Dido very much alive, clutching the sword with which she will end her own life and evidently weighing her options — an artistic choice which emphasises her agency and tacitly associates her with the Classical tradition of tragic but heroic suicide populated by figures including Seneca and Lucan — the painting itself rows back on these innovations and offers a conventional portrayal of Dido as a passive and inert victim.

National Records of Scotland

A year later, as I discovered in a letter held at the National Records of Scotland, Runciman was contemplating an even more drastic return to the gendered conventions of male heroism and female passivity that typify the epic. His original plan for what he would later turn into the Ossian decorative scheme at Sir John Clerk’s Penicuik House (near Edinburgh) was an uncompromisingly manly and conventionally heroic scheme based upon the life of Achilles. The only female character Runciman proposed for this series was Achilles’ mother, Thetis, whose agency, as Runciman’s detailed description makes clear, would not even have extended to untying her own sandals.

Evidently, Runciman later opted for the Ossian illustrations, which put Corban Carglâ centre stage, but even here, he agonised over whether to represent the imprisoned hunter as an awe-inspiring figure in her own right, or as a damsel in distress saved by Macpherson’s epic hero Fingal. Two preparatory drawings (also at the Scottish National Gallery) show Runciman wavering between these options, with a muscled and armed Fingal occupying the foreground in one and a (literally towering) Corban Carglâ dominating the frame (with Fingal relegated to the background and looking up awe-struck) in the other.

My findings have made me reflect upon external factors that may have caused Runciman’s apparent flip-flopping, what his prevarication may tell us more broadly about the difficulties or potential repercussions of portraying female heroes during the Romantic period, and the particular problems he may have faced as a male artist championing this model of heroism. I am very grateful to BARS for funding what has been a very productive few days of confusion!

By Jonathan Taylor (University of Surrey)

Keats’s Bees in the Ode ‘To Autumn’ – Written On This Day in 1819

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Today, on 19th September 2019, we celebrate the bicentenary of Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’ with an article by Ellen Nicholls discussing the depiction of bees in the poem.

The 19th September 2019 marks the 200-year anniversary of Keats’s composition of the ode ‘To Autumn’. As this date approaches, I am struck by how the ode continues to capture the imaginations of modern readers, transcending its sociohistorical boundaries to resonate with the attitudes and concerns of the present day. In particular, I am drawn to the presence of bees in the ode’s opening stanza. Buzzing with insect and animal life, Keats’s ode is often celebrated for the ease with which it balances the sensuous plenitude of seasonal growth against the anticipation of natural loss and decay. Bees are essential figures in this balancing act. Keats positions bees as vital pollinators who conspire with nature ‘how to load and bless’ (‘To Autumn’, 3) flowers and fruit ‘with a sweet kernel’ (8), as well as creatures that participate in the ‘wailful choir’ (27) of the ode’s ‘soft-dying’ (25) music, implicitly capturing current anxieties around the decline in bee populations across the earth. While bee pollination is responsible for 70% of the earth’s food production, in recent years, bees have undergone a drastic population decline of 90% due to factors such as colony collapse disorder, pesticides, deforestation, parasites, viruses, and a lack of biodiversity. Such a catastrophic threat to bee populations has most recently animated protests across the UK from groups such as Extinction Rebellion who, amongst other things, have staged a ‘Critical Swarm “Die-In”’ outside of the Tate Modern gallery and a protest at the gates of Buckingham Palace to advocate for bee rehabilitation. As with the ode ‘To Autumn’, bees are located in the public imagination as figures of growth and loss; creatures who are under serious threat of extinction despite their crucial ability ‘to set budding more, / And still more’ (9-10).

In ‘To Autumn’, the image of the ‘o’er-brimmed […] clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive creates an ambivalence that weighs the pleasure of fecundity against the anxiety of waste. Amidst the ode’s luxurious growth, the presence of the bee gestures towards a fullness that might lead to loss. Images of loading, swelling, and plumping dominate the opening of the poem. Like the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the beehive, this stanza is heavy and overflowing with nature’s bounty. Keats’s use of the noun ‘cell’ is itself packed with multiple associations. Amongst other definitions, ‘cell’ is at once evoked as: an entomologically specific term for the ‘hexagonal wax compartments in a honeycomb’; a small room; the suffocatingly enclosed space of the prison cell; a ‘storeroom’; and, the ‘cavities […] of the brain’.[1] More importantly still, the word ‘cell’ contains a crucial metapoetic echo with the etymological roots of the Italian word ‘stanza’, which translates as ‘stopping place’ and ‘dwelling room’.[2] The ‘clammy cells’ of the hive become closely associated with the ‘teeming brain’ (‘When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be’, 2) of the poet, whose creative imagination is so full that it overflows its confines, spilling out into the rich produce of the stanza:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells
(‘To Autumn’, 1-11).

Illustration for “To Autumn” by William James Neatby, from A Day with Keats, 1899

The Apollonian sun is evoked here as a subtle presence that not only ‘load[s] and bless[es]’ (3) the natural world with fruit, but also nurtures both the poet and reader towards ‘a ripeness of intellect’ (Letters: John Keats I, 231).[3] Keats describes the bounty of nature in rich sensual imagery, pushing the poetic language to breaking point to demonstrate the plenitude of the poet’s creative imagination and the potential meanings to be garnered by the reader. The stanza is formed as one long poetic sentence, containing enjambed lines and false stopping points that make the reader believe they have arrived at a concluding thought, before continuing with a related idea. We see this most clearly in lines 7, 8, and 9: ‘To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells / With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, / And still more’ (7-9). Keats’s use of enjambment here dramatizes the expanding of the engorged hazel shells by making the syntax of lines 7 and 8 explode outside of the parameters of the rhyme scheme. The semi-colon in line 8 seems to offer a brief pause for breath, ostensibly marking the end-point of nature’s swelling and the ceasing of its ‘fruitfulness’ (1). And yet ‘to set budding’ (8) continues the forward momentum of the poetic line, reinforced by Keats’s undermining of the punctuation point at the close of line 8 through the added clause ‘And still more’ (9). Keats appears to subvert any sense that growth has ceased, pushing the stanza towards the image of the bee filling the ‘clammy cells’ (11) of the hive until its stores have ‘o’er-brimmed’ (11) with honey. Helen Vendler characterises the bee’s summer activities in ‘To Autumn’ as an ‘Edenic harvest’.[4] The bee does not pluck and destroy the flower, but delicately extracts its nectar to store in the granaries of the hive. But Keats does not straightforwardly present bees as the ideal harvesters of creative fruit in this stanza in the way Vendler proposes. By rhyming the word ‘trees’ (5) with ‘bees’ (9) and ‘cease’ (10), Keats shadows Autumn’s fecundity with the prospect of death, decay, and the potential for loss. Just as Autumn is pictured watching the ‘last oozings’ (22) of the apple spill from the cider-press in the second stanza, the reader is made aware that we may never taste the ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) plenitude of the poet’s imaginings, instead allowing the possible meanings of the poem to be laid to waste. Bees become shifting figures in ‘To Autumn’ that weigh the pleasure of endless poetic possibility against the fear of failure and loss.

‘To Autumn’ Manuscript

And yet, ‘To Autumn’ demands that the reader is at ease with our inability to capture and digest the totality of the poem’s available meanings. Instead, Keats encourages the reader to remain content with our fear of missing out on luxuriating in the poem’s rich imaginings, encouraging us to be receptive to the experience of loss itself. If the words ‘bees’, ‘trees’, and ‘cease’ chime together in ‘To Autumn’ to portend a winter in which creativity and the budding of flowers will be no more, then the prospect of such waste paradoxically becomes a source of poetic inspiration, wherein Keats’s rhymes draw attention to the music created by loss, decay, and death. Amidst the songs of Autumn — the ‘wailful choir [of] the small gnats’ (27) and the ‘full grown lambs[’] loud bleat’ (30) — bees take on an ambivalence in which the defiant celebration of life is held in equipoise with the grief of imminent decay and departure. Bees help to situate Autumn in its rightful place between the generative force of ‘o’er-brimm[ing]’ (11) summer and the apparent lifelessness of winter’s ‘crystal fretting’ (‘In Drear-Nighted December’, 14). The bees of ‘To Autumn’ reveal how abundance transmutes into loss, and in turn how loss becomes the source of creative possibility.

Works Cited:

[1] ‘Cell n. 1’ in Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[2] See Etymology of ‘Stanza, n.’ in Oxford English Dictionary <> [accessed 05/07/2019].

[3] John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1818, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).

[4] Vendler, ‘Peaceful Sway Above Man’s Harvesting’ in The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 227-288 , p. 247.


Ellen Nicholls completed her doctoral research on the experience of ‘aching Pleasure’ (‘Ode on Melancholy’, 23) in the works of John Keats at the University of Sheffield in 2019. Her research focused on how Keats explores the interdependency between pleasure and pain. She has recently assumed a new post in higher education at Derby College and will be pursuing research into Romantic conceptualisations of numbness.

Romantic Reimaginings: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email


Jerusalem, NHB Modern Plays book cover (2009).

Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem does not hide its debts to British Romantic poetry. It takes its title from William Blake’s Milton: A Poem (by way of Hubert Parry), and attempts to update for modern England the fantasy of England that Blake conjures. The play opens with a prologue that recites Blake’s prologue, and ends, as if in a revelation of a divine truth, with the character Ginger acknowledging Blake’s authorship. The protagonist, a distinctly Byronic figure and local cock-of-the-walk, is, in a subtle stroke, called Johnny “Rooster” Byron. The play premiered in 2009 at Royal Court Theatre in London and has since been frequently staged across the UK, the US, and Canada, most recently, through June 2019, in Vancouver.

As a play about nostalgia for bygone times and national myths, and as a play committed to bringing plain speech, and even crass speech, into the realm of literary high art, Jerusalem is a thoroughly Romantic play: it is both romantic, if ugly and unsentimental, and Romantic, in its eagerness to confer the dignity of literary classics upon a gang of self-described “educationally subnormal outcasts” (p.53). Rooster, a forcibly retired daredevil encamped illegally for decades on public land, spends his days drinking, getting banned from pubs, causing public disturbances, selling drugs to teenagers, and luring them into exploitative non-consensual sex. His squatter’s rights are being challenged by his wealthier, more respectable neighbours, and Rooster, dreaming of a “Flintock rebellion” (p.53), maintains staunch opposition to Kennet and Avon Council and its enforcement officers. As the drama unfolds, Butterworth effectively reactivates the ethos of Lyrical Ballads: Rooster, like Wordsworth’s Simon Lee, is a man once central to his local community who is forced to confront his own uselessness in the modern world, but whose act of living on as the last of his kind can be seen as a meaningful form of political resistance to the neoliberal powers that have dismantled the community. His capacity for tall tales (reminiscent of “The Thorn”) exposes the modern world to the realm of the mythological and supernatural (as in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and highlights his allegiances with literature. It is as if Lord Byron were inserted into the world of Lyrical Ballads and tasked with enacting Blake’s vision of divine political renovation. To see or read Jerusalem as a Romanticist, then, is to encounter something deeply familiar.

Jerusalem at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 2018. Photograph by Philip Tull.

The play’s populist politics have not aged well in the decade since its debut. It is clear, though, that Butterworth saw the urgency with which white, poor, and sometimes xenophobic people, feeling abandoned by the official national eye and encroached upon by outsiders, and enamoured especially of ludicrous bullshit, were set to become the focal point of national politics in Britain and worldwide. There is a nativist strand in the play, according to which supposedly real Britons, through “lines of ancient energy” (p.72), can claim an ancestral connection to Stonehenge, May Day, and the woods. Hence Rooster delights in his fantasy of having urinated on the car of the traffic wardens in Marlborough town, whom he supposes to be “big Nigerians,” and of having escaped their clutches by refusing their “Nigerian delicacies” (p.68). Rooster deems himself authentically British by virtue of his bloodlines—what Rooster boasts of as Romany “Byron blood”—even when those bloodlines mark him as a perpetual outsider and subject him to racialized violence. His marginalization, legally and socially, are all the more a sign that he belongs in “Rooster’s Wood,” whatever the Rules of County Court would say. Jerusalem uses Romantic poetry as a signifier for these nativist bona fides, and to justify the squatters’ battle against the respectable New Estate. This all seems problematic and over-familiar in 2019. Yet, as Rooster and Ginger become more desperate in Act 3, their Romantic myths begin to turn against them with the brutality of a gang and with the administrative violence of the law. The myths are nevertheless all they’ve got, and so the play begins to undercut its characters’ propensity to valorize their own social and economic marginalization. The irony that results is, I think, part of the play’s Byronic and Blakean ethos.

Jerusalem is a complex and challenging contemporary response to British Romanticism. It re-activates the Romantic era’s debates over enclosure and the commons, its revolutionary impulses, its class warfare over respectability, its commitment to the “real language of men,” its affection for the supernatural, its consolidation of nationalist and racial ideologies, and its valorizations of drug addiction and sexual exploitation; it persuasively implies that these Romantic inheritances have laid the groundwork for contemporary British politics. It then suggests—with recourse to a magical golden drum—that Romanticism might offer a solution to Britain’s current political impasses, such as Brexit, which the play very much anticipates. Yet it does so by refusing to wish away the fault lines that have come to a crisis since 2009, especially during the Brexit referendum but also in the U.S. and around the world. Jerusalem, like a CNN pundit from 2016, demands that we learn to respect the values and prejudices of the rural poor—lest these forgotten people vow to exact their cosmic revenge. It invites us to think of “England” as a “green and pleasant land” belonging to the people, and redeemed by its miniature oases of authenticity, in which, ironically, self-aggrandizing lies are the coin of the realm. And it stresses the living presence of activist poetry as part of a national counterpublic that, even when it is ignored or forcibly suppressed, still simmers, by many undetected, in British politics. In that sense it is prescient and quite thoughtful—even revolutionary.

In doing so, however, Jerusalem takes a narrow and stereotyped view of British Romanticism and its legacy. Its vision of Romanticism is nearly a cult of masculinity that worships solitary men of extraordinary vision, who, through the force of their irrepressible personalities, are clearly better than the regular folks around them. These men, Butterworth suggests, won’t be constrained by society’s rules. This is the most conservative possible vision of British Romanticism, and one that the field of Romantic studies has been working to undo for several decades now.


Work cited: Butterworth, Jez. Jerusalem. Nick Hern Books, 2009.


David Sigler is Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary (Canada). He is the author of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015) and co-editor of Lacan and Romanticism (SUNY Press, 2019).

Call for Papers: Coleridge Conference 2020 – 27th-31st July in the Lakes

From 27-31 July 2020 the Coleridge Conference will be held, for the first time, in the Lake District, in the heart of Newlands, the valley he loved for ‘the exceeding greenness & pastoral beauty of the Vale itself, with the savage wildness of the Mountains, their Coves, and long arm-shaped & elbow-shaped Ridges’.


As usual, the conference will be both intense and relaxed, as the mostly plenary sessions overspill into garden parties, poetry readings and hikes along the river, up Causey Pike or to the nearby pub and tearooms.  A ropes course, volleyball and archery will be available for the more athletic Coleridgeans.  Paddling and stone-skimming in the beck is also possible.

This time, our keynote speaker is Mary Favret, author of War at a Distance and Romantic Correspondence.

Our venue, Newlands Activity Centre, is viewable here:

The cost, for full residence, meals, fee and transport to and from Penrith railway station will be approx. £380-£520, depending on the level of accommodation you choose.  Bursaries for part of this cost will be available to graduate students and to unwaged scholars on a competitive basis.  If you wish to be considered for a bursary, say so and explain why at the top of your proposal.

The conference is supported in 2020 by the Friends of Coleridge and the Charles Lamb Society.

Proposals for 20 minute papers on Coleridge and related authors/topics are now invited (Charles Lamb especially welcome): send a maximum of 200 words to  by the end of November.  Please put your name, email address and affiliation at the top of the email and at the top of the attached proposal.

We look forward to seeing you.

Tim Fulford, Kerri Andrews and Jo Taylor

Stephen Copley Research Report: Francesco Marchionni on Nietzsche

To find out how to apply for a BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, visit the main BARS site here.

Thanks to the Stephen Copley Research Award granted by BARS, I was able to spend a week in Weimar (Germany) to consult Friedrich Nietzsche’s Nachlass and work with manuscripts related to Nietzsche’s reading of Lord Byron, P.B. Shelley and Giacomo Leopardi. My doctoral thesis investigates notions of grief, death and posterity in the works of Byron, Shelley and Leopardi as a result of their readings of the Promethean myth from Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. I avow that the Romantics’ fragmented poetic thoughts between hubris and nemesis anticipate the Nietzschean discourse of modernity as divided and contradictory.

My research residence began with a visit to the Nietzsche Archiv museum, dedicated to Nietzsche’s last days in Villa Silberblick before his death. From the very moment I entered the building, I remembered Nietzsche’s letter from 1884 where he bemoans: ‘Who knows how many generations must pass before people will come who can feel the whole depth of what I have done!’ In retrospect, Nietzsche’s letter seemed to me to echo Virgil’s line from the first book of Georgics, ‘scilicet et tempus veniet’, raising the question of what we can truly know of the time to come.

Nietzsche Archiv Museum

Looking at the portrait of Nietzsche in the museum as a man consumed day by day by an ill-fated disease, it seemed to me that the moribund philosopher silently lamented the paradox of the philosopher, between the deception of ambition derived from knowledge and the unfolding reality of suffering, a dilemma that finds in death an ultimate salvation. The portrait and epistle from 1884 reveal Nietzsche’s uncertainty regarding posterity and his rejoicing in the certainty of death ceasing his anguish. Having left the museum, I contemplated how Nietzsche’s mournful meditations chimed with the scepticism and gloom embedded in the works of Byron, Shelley and Leopardi. We can think, for example, of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (‘O Wind,  / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’), Byron’s Don Juan (‘What is the end of fame? ‘tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper’) and Leopardi’s Sappho’s Last Song (‘after endless/ Hoped-for honours and enjoyed illusions,/ Only Tartarus remains’).

The visit to the Nietzsche Archiv proved itself beneficial for the later consultation of Nietzsche’s Nachlass. From letters to friends (Erwin Rohde and Marie Baumgarten) and family (his mother Franziska Nietzsche and sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche) I could access, though in brief form, Nietzsche’s commentaries on the poetry of Shelley and Leopardi. In a letter to his sister from 1861, Nietzsche requests a copy of Shelley’s poetry edited by Julius Seybt (1844) and in a letter to Erwin Rohde from 1877, Nietzsche praises the English Romantic for the poetic achievement of Prometheus Unbound. Additionally, the letter to Rohde is compelling because Nietzsche comments how he found in Shelley a version of himself, philosophically and poetically. A few years after reading Shelley, Nietzsche received from Marie Baumgarten a copy of Leopardi’s poetry edited by Paul Heyse (1878). The 1878 epistle to Baumgarten about Leopardi attests to Nietzsche’s fascination regarding the Italian Romantic and his delightfully gloomy poetry. However, later in the epistle Nietzsche points out a philosophical detour from Leopardi’s pessimism. Nietzsche illuminates that Leopardi’s poetry is suffused with a profound sense of resignation regarding the gloom of human existence. By contrast, the German philosopher argues that such gloom should be contemplated in order to apprehend human suffering.

The final days of research were spent reading and working on Nietzsche’s unpublished essay Über die dramatischen Dichtungen Byrons (‘On the dramatic Works of Byron’), written at the age of 17. Though Nietzsche argues that Byron is not a dramatist because his works lack of dramatic objectivity, the essay presents a fond enthusiasm for the English poet. Nietzsche writes that Byron’s poetry resembles the rage of a volcanic explosion that falls into a sinister tranquillity, and also contends that his poetry contains the diseases of the world within the purity of his lyricism. Nietzsche offers an interesting example of Byron’s poetics by looking at Manfred. He comments that Manfred encompasses a Byronic superhuman despair and, through the protagonist of the dramatic poem, Byron is capable of performing, theatrically, the stormy hall of his poetic thoughts. Thus, Nietzsche concludes, Byron deconstructs in Manfred a discourse about knowledge, confessions about a disordered world and the notion of divine self-consciousness.

Reading Nietzsche’s unpublished essay on Byron, and his letters on Shelley and Leopardi, allowed me to assess Nietzsche’s familiarity with the three Romantic poets, who, interestingly, seem to be depicted as poetic titans who were forerunners of the Olympian Pantheon of what Nietzsche calls his ‘Gay Science’. I am deeply grateful to BARS for granting me this opportunity and I am sure the research in Weimar will be of great value for the completion of my doctoral thesis.

Francesco Marchionni (Durham University)

Applications Open: Research Associate, ‘Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers’

Research Associate in Reading Practices


Placed On:  30th August 2019
Closes:  1st October 2019


Please click here for the full job advertisement via

This post will support the exciting Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project Unlocking the Mary Hamilton Papers. This ambitious Digital Humanities project will use a uniquely rich, but largely unexplored, archive to explore a diverse – yet related – set of research questions on reading, letter-writing and language practices in Georgian England.

This post will explore the commonalities and differences in the operation and the relevance to reading, writing and everyday language of the social networks around Mary Hamilton, and how textual traces of reader circulation, reception and response contained in the Hamilton Papers help us to think differently about eighteenth-century literature.

You should have completed a PhD (or equivalent) in English Literature, or History, or Art History or other allied field focusing on the period 1740-1830, and have a strong grasp of recent debates in at least one of the following fields; gender studies, Bluestocking culture, social networks, digital humanities, public humanities.

You should have excellent analytical and writing skills, experience of working with a variety of archival sources in archives and libraries and strong palaeographic skills.

You should also be well organised and be able to work both independently and as part of a team. A record of publication, of presenting your research to academic audiences, of promoting research via social media and of public engagement or impact are desirable, as it familiarity with Digital Humanities and using software applications for research.

We expect to hold interviews for the post between 8 and 10 October 2019

As an equal opportunities employer we welcome applicants from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status.  All appointments will be made on merit.

Please note that we are unable to respond to enquiries, accept CVs or applications from Recruitment Agencies.

Enquiries about the vacancy, shortlisting and interviews:
Name: Dr Sophie Coulombeau or Professor Hannah Barker
Email: or 
Technical support:
Tel: 0161 850 2004
General enquiries:
Tel: 0161 275 4499

This vacancy will close for applications at midnight on the closing date.

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.

Call for Papers: British Romanticism and Europe

 British Romanticism and Europe, 5-8 July 2020, Monte Verità conference center, Ascona, Switzerland


Organisers: Patrick Vincent, David Duff, and Simon Swift

Keynote Speakers: Christoph Bode, Biancamaria Fontana, and Paul Hamilton



British Romanticism is part of European Romanticism and British writers drew inspiration from personal and cultural links with mainland Europe as well as the many forms of Continental travel. This international conference will explore the manifold relations between Britain and Europe during the Romantic period, taking advantage of recent work on transnational circulations and exchanges and a growing interest in comparative methodology. The conference will question stereotypes of Great Britain as insular by highlighting the island-nation’s European identity and its participation in a pan-European Romanticism shaped by transnational cultural dialogue and the cross-fertilization of art forms and disciplines.  The aim is to uncover the channels and mechanisms by which Romantic ideas and influences were conveyed across national and disciplinary boundaries and to examine the role of individuals, communities and institutions in this complex transmission process. As well as directing attention to the often-overlooked international dimension of British Romanticism, the conference aims, by bringing together scholars working in Britain and on mainland Europe, to help develop the expanding research network on European Romanticism. Held at Monte Verità, an international conference centre in Ascona in the Swiss canton of Ticino which was formerly the site of a utopian community attracting intellectuals from across Europe, the conference will be divided between plenary lectures, invited panels, and open panel sessions. There will also be a public round-table discussion on British Romanticism and the Italian Lakes, as well as an excursion to Lake Como.

There will be nine invited panel sessions on the following topics: British Romanticism and Italy, British Romanticism and Scandinavia, British Romanticism and France, European Romantic Historicism, late Romanticism, travel and material culture, Romanticism and the environment, Romantic women’s networks, and European Romanticism and / in Britain.

To fill the open panel sessions, we invite proposals for 20-minute papers on any aspect of the conference topic, including:

  • European Romantic networks
  • Romantic mediations and mediating figures
  • Romantic salons, communities, and constellations
  • Romantic disseminations and circulations
  • Romantic theories of ‘Europe’
  • European Romantic politics
  • European Romantic aesthetics
  • Romantic Europhobia and Europhilia
  • Romantic exile and displacement
  • British relations with Northern, Southern, and Eastern Romanticisms
  • British Romanticism and Continental philosophy
  • British Romanticism and Continental science
  • British Romanticism and European travel
  • Britain’s Four Nations and Europe

We encourage junior scholars from mainland Europe to apply, and in order to cut down on carbon emissions, urge attendees to travel by train.

Abstracts of approximately 250 words are due by 1 November 2019. Please send abstracts to

Conference site (under construction).

Romantic Reviews and Receptions: Editorial Position, Applications Welcome

Romantic Circles Reviews & Receptions seeks a new member of its three-person editorial collective.

The ideal candidate will have broad familiarity with the state of Romantic studies, strong editing and organizational skills, and some social media savvy and will bring creative and innovative energy to the project.

The position is open to scholars worldwide and in any stages of their careers, but we do ask for a three-year commitment.

Please send a cv and very brief (less than one page) letter of interest to Candidates may be asked to  interview via Skype with Orrin Wang, one of the General Editors of Romantic Circles, and with Suzanne Barnett and Ross Wilson, current  Associate Editors of Reviews & Receptions.