News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

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.