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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

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.