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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: Michael Bradshaw on Disabling Romanticism

Disabling Romanticism

Michael Bradshaw is Professor and Head of the Department of English, History & Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.  He has previously taught at a number of different institutions in Britain and Japan and has published on a wide range of Romantic-period subjects, including Thomas Hood, the poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, Walter Savage Landor, Romantic drama, George Darley, fragment poems and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  His latest publication is a collaborative endeavour: the essay collection Disabling Romanticism, which has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.  Below, we discuss the contexts for this collection and the new intellectual contributions that it makes to the field of Romantic Studies.

1) What first made you want to put together a collection on Romanticism and disability?

Critical disability studies (DS) is an expanding field; its impact is being felt across the full range of arts and Humanities disciplines.  I was particularly interested in the potential of critical DS to re-contextualise and re-interpret historical literature.  Being a Romanticist, I thought it was time this connection was made more explicit and visible.  I was also curious to find out how much independent scholarship was already going on ‘out there’; there seemed to be a timely opportunity to create a more prominent conversation in our subject about how bodily and mental difference is represented, and to co-ordinate an emerging theme.  The intersection of Romanticism and disability was established in Andrew Elfenbein’s well-regarded issue of European Romantic Review devoted to Byron’s lameness (2001).  Fifteen years later, it must be time to take stock again, and extend the debate to a more diverse range of texts and authors – Coleridge and addiction, Darley and speech therapy, Frankenstein and autism, Mary Robinson’s paralysis, and so on.

In terms of my own previous research, I have interests in ‘anatomy literature’ and critical / theoretical themes which foreground the body, which are conducive to a DS approach to texts.  I recently wrote an article on the poet Thomas Hood which observes his apparent fascination with amputation and prosthesis; although it fell outside the scope of that particular discussion, which was about anxiety and laughter, I thought there was another story to tell there, that texts and images which represent bodily difference for whatever apparent purpose should be put into contact with the historical lived experience of disability in the Romantic period.

2) How did you set about gathering your contributors?

I put out a brief CFA via subject networks such as BARS and NASSR.  There were one or two colleagues whose work I knew, whom I was able to contact directly.  But in general the team came to me, in response to the CFA.  I wanted this to be an edited collection from the outset, so I didn’t go through the preliminary stage of building a network with a themed conference.

3) Your introduction opens by contending that ‘dominant critical practices associated with Romantic studies continue to marginalise and disable the different in body and mind’.  What do you think are the most significant benefits to be gained through working to counter this marginalisation?

Historicist scholarship has had a lot to say over the years about race and ethnicity, about gender and sexuality, about nation and empire, and about socio-economic class as well; but a proper re-assessment of literature and criticism in terms of disability has been much slower to emerge.  Hopefully, this book will be a step forward in that process: it will help to raise awareness, and accelerate further development.

The introduction tries to give a sense of how intrinsic concepts of disability, incompleteness, and deformity are to many of the distinctive themes of Romanticism; and consequently, it draws attention to how marginalised and hidden disabled experience has been.  For example, the fragment poem – one of the signature forms of Romantic writing – connects transcendence with incompleteness.  The fragment projects beyond the arbitrary boundaries of the text into an ideal space, but it’s the present experience of incompleteness or brokenness which makes this possible.  The theme of disability has always been latent in critical debates about fragmentary texts, it seems to me.

Re-reading literature from a DS approach also involves interrogating our reliance on metaphor.  Disability metaphors are very widespread, but sometimes seem to pass almost unnoticed.  So when an instance of blindness is said to evoke a sense of ‘inner vision’ or spirituality, a DS critic might want to question that in terms of symbolic appropriation, and to test the idea in terms of the historical lived experience of blindness.  Cognitive difference and mental illness are already better established in Romantic studies, I would say, in that the Romantic cult of the creative mind has long been connected to alternative mental states.  But in terms of physical and sensory impairment, there is a lot of work still to be done – a lot of re-reading in terms of challenging negative images, and reclaiming agency.

These are just examples, of course; it’s a big and diverse field.

4) To what extent do you conceive of the collection as providing a series of discrete case studies sensitive to the individualities of the people and works it considers, and to what extent you think that larger narratives about the history of disabilities and attitudes to them can be traced within it?

I think it has to be both these things.  I like the specific case study approach, and don’t feel the need to subsume studies of specific texts and authors, or make them obedient to a meta-narrative or agenda.  I felt it was important for the collection to be a ‘broad church’ and to include some different methodologies.  So there are some chapters written from a very committed DS / disability theory perspective, and others which are less ideological in approach, contextual studies of disability themes in Romantic writing.  I thought there should be space for all these things.  I think breadth of methodology is important for a book like this to stay current, and to achieve its aim of promoting further debate; I would like to reach not only professional academics, but also students of Romanticism looking for new challenges and possibilities.

Having said that, the book can be seen in the context of a larger ongoing project to challenge the exclusion of disabled experience in academic discourse.  David Bolt and Claire Penketh’s Disability, Avoidance and the Academy (London: Routledge, 2016) gives a good overview of this debate.

In terms of content, I’m really pleased that we’ve not only managed to cover some of the key canonical texts and authors – we have our Byron chapter, our Frankenstein chapter, our chapter on Lyrical Ballads, etc. – but also some less familiar figures, such as George Darley, Richard Payne Knight, and Mary Robinson.

5) You and Essaka Joshua write in the introduction that you see the book in part as a means ‘to promote further research and discussion’.  Are there particular directions that you think could fruitfully be further explored, or particular works or figures that you think could be re-examined using the critical tools that the collection provides?

At this point, that’s for other to decide.  But I think the book shows that a DS approach to Romantic literature can be very comprehensive, working in terms of historical / social context and author biography, and also at the level of close analysis of textual form and genre.  I would be interested to see some interdisciplinary work analysing literary texts and visual images of disability themes, perhaps facilitated by the Romantic Illustration NetworkDisabling Romanticism is specific to Romantic literature; there are equivalent complementary studies of eighteenth-century literature, Gothic, and Victorian culture also ongoing.  I’m sure we’ll see some exciting new scholarship on these themes in the coming years.

I hope the book can also help readers to look at familiar texts afresh.  As Peter Kitson and Tom Shakespeare generously write in their Foreword: ‘Who, after reading the essays in this collection, will ever read the opening lines of Percy Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’ with its vivid depiction of George III as an “old, mad, blind, despised and dying king” in quite the same way?’

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