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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Report from ‘Romantic Novels 1818’ – Anna Maria Porter’s The Fast of St. Magdalen

Here is a report by Colette Davies from the recent ‘Romantic Novels 1818’ seminar (September 2018). This series is sponsored by BARS and seminars are held at the University of Greenwich.

A Discussion of Anna Maria Porter’s The Fast of St. Magdalen (1818) with Professor Fiona Price (Chichester)

Professor Fiona Price’s illuminating talk on Anna Maria Porter’s three-volume novel, The Fast of St. Magdalen (1818), engaged her audience in considerations of the role of the romance novel in national politics, the disposition and conduct of the hero, and characterology. Contextualising Anna Maria Porter as an author who produced an extensive oeuvre of historical romance novels, yet who has (as Peter Garside observed) often been eclipsed by the works of Walter Scott, Price moved past this overshadowing and drew links between Anna Maria Porter’s writing and the works of Jane West, Maria Edgeworth and Joanna Baillie in terms of the writers’ characterology and participation in ongoing debates about the role of romance in constructing the nation, its politics, and its leaders.

Particularly interesting was Price’s reading of Porter’s modifications of her heroes and heroines; Price focused on the role and construction of the novel’s hero, Valombrosa, arguing that Porter used this character to explore the role of the people within national politics, a focus responding to the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). Valombrosa is a character with inherent flaws of anger and jealousy. This tendency for erroneous sensibility suggests that the hero needs to be re-educated and, in the novel, Valombrosa improves his character by watching and learning from his acquaintance, Prince Angelo Rossano. These emendations of character and disposition ameliorate Valombrosa’s ability to participate in national politics and govern for the sake of the people. Similarly, Rosalia, Valombrosa’s sister, is improved through the novel’s heroine, Ippolita, who mentors her. Price focused on Porter’s decision to design Rosalia as blind, arguing convincingly that it elucidated Porter’s belief that bodily weakness facilitates and signifies mental weakness: Rosalia is indulged as a child due to her blindness and thus her gaze is introspective and solipsistic. Ippolita helps Rosalia to turn her gaze outward and, as such, fashions her as the perfect bride for Angelo Rossano. Price concluded by asserting that developed characterology within the novel’s characters illustrates that heroes and heroines skilled in self-government signify wider consideration and representation of the people in national rule.

In the lively discussion which followed, questions were asked regarding the strength and independence of the female characters in the novel, prompting debate on whether Porter focused more on redefining her heroes than her heroines. From this, we discussed the depiction of intimacy between Valombrosa and Ippolita; Porter intimates that a kiss is shared prior to their engagement, breaking conventions of representing courtship in the period. As the penultimate talk in the ‘Romantic Novels 1818’ seminar series, Professor Fiona Price’s illuminating paper and the ensuing discussion attest to the value of revisiting lesser-known novels of the early nineteenth century. It reiterated the productive practice of studying links between the 1818 novels, their contemporary reception, and the place of these texts and authors in today’s universities.

The next seminar will take place on 15 November 2018 with Christina Morin (Limerick), and will consider Charles Maturin’s Women. Full schedule here.