Five Questions: Ian Newman on The Romantic Tavern

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Ian Newman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His research encompasses, among other things, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and song; politics; aesthetics; urban space; John Keats; Charles Macklin; and the transmission and circulation of popular culture. He is the co-editor, with Oskar Cox Jensen and David Kennerley, of Charles Dibdin & Late Georgian Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and was recently the guest editor of a special issue of Studies in Romanticism on “Song and the City” (Winter 2019), to which he also contributed an introduction co-written with Gillian Russell. His first monograph, The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality in the Age of Revolution, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in Romantic-period taverns?

There are really two answers to this question, once personal and sentimental, and one more intellectual, although they may in fact turn out to be the same thing.

The personal first: I grew up in England in a family of enthusiastic drinkers. Most of my childhood holidays involved camping in the back gardens of pubs, or hiking in the Welsh mountains and stopping off at a pub (usually in the beer garden) for lunch. So long before I reached drinking age, I had a strong emotional connection to the institution of the pub as a source of pleasure, which only increased when I was old enough to actually go inside. As an undergrad I spent more hours in the Hat and Feathers in Cambridge than I’m comfortable admitting here. Then, in 2002 I moved to Los Angeles and the thing I missed about England more than anything was the pub. Not the drinking, so much as the forms and rituals of pub culture: the architecture, the hand pumps that frothed the beer into the glass, the clocks on the barbacks, the mirror decorations and elegant tiling, even the smell of piss on a urinal cake, and of course, the forms of talk.

When I first moved I just didn’t understand how young Americans spent their spare time. Where did people go to discuss politics, or TV, or events in the news? Where did students go to talk about the books they were reading or discuss their ideas about a lecture or grumble about the poor behaviour of a classmate? Where did they go to form friendships, to meet people, to flirt and to argue? Where, in short, was the glue that held the culture together? (Brief answer: America affords plenty of ways for these things to happen; they just don’t all happen in the one-stop shop we have in the pub). So, my interest in taverns was really a result of recognizing the value of something that I had taken for granted only when it was no longer available. And in its absence I understood that there was something important about British pub culture that needed to be understood better and explained – especially, I thought, to Americans.

When I started graduate school – and here I’m moving into the more intellectual answer to your question — I grew fascinated by the London Corresponding Society, and in the way politically disenfranchised artisans gathered together in alehouses to read Paine’s The Rights of Man, to talk about their own stake in political discussion and in general to give themselves a political education. (I should say that recent work on the LCS has vastly complicated this narrative, but this, broadly speaking, was the story I’d inherited from E.P. Thompson). I had been tracking the alehouses that the LCS met in, largely just out of a sense of curiosity about what they were like, and wondering if any still existed that I could go and visit.

So I knew that I wanted to write about pubs and the politics of the early Romantic period –- this powerful moment when new political ideas were permeating culture in a tremendously exciting but also potentially frightening way. But the penny really dropped when I was sitting in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and I saw an image of the interior space of the London Tavern for the first time. I remembered that the London Tavern was a place that Edmund Burke referred to in the Reflections, and was immediately struck that this was a colossal space, far bigger than the little pub I’d been imagining when I read the word “tavern” on the pages of Burke’s treatise.  It was truly colossal with magnificent decorations and classical pillars and pilasters, and could accommodate up to two thousand people in just one of its several rooms. And I had an immediate, palpable sense that many critics, myself included, had been referring to “taverns” for a long time without really understanding at all what they were talking about, certainly without recognizing the importance of the distinction between taverns and alehouses. That really opened the door for the book, as I realized that rather than trying to explain pub culture to an American audience – which was a dreadful, patronizing idea anyway – I needed to recover the history of the pub for a British audience too, as we had lost sight of these extraordinary institutions which were right at the center of culture of all kinds, literary and extra-literary, shaping all those energetic political disputes out of which modern democracy was born.  

2) In the course of your research, what emerged as the key touchstones for tavern sociability, and in what ways did these shift over the course of the later eighteenth century?

One of the central claims of the book is that in the second half of the eighteenth century there developed a distinctive form of sociability that was associated with, though not confined to, the tavern that went by the name “conviviality.” This is a form of sociability that had important links with earlier models of eighteenth-century sociability discussed by the likes of Addison and Hume and theorized by Habermas, but which distinguished itself by an assumption of inclusivity. The model for thinking about eighteenth-century sociable conversation is largely antagonistic and improving, with conversation and argument helping to shape opinion. The default assumption of conviviality, on the other hand, is that everyone is already in agreement, and so a variety of forms develop – toasts, drinking songs, speeches – to help articulate what are assumed to be shared values. This shift, from sociability as something that shapes opinion, to conviviality as something that affirms shared belief is one of the defining changes in conceptions of sociability in the second half of the eighteenth century, and there develops a series of key concepts that helped to articulate this change. These include “humour,” meaning both funniness and good humouredness; “sentiment,” a familiar idea from the late eighteenth century but that has a particular convivial inflection because a sentiment was a kind of toast; and “mutuality” a word frequently used to mean the shared desires and affections of an entire room. Together these terms emphasized collectivity, and the confirmation of ideas that had already been settled, rather than ones that might be open to change.

Of course, these were just aspirational models, and in no way reflect the lived reality of any particular meeting, but these ideas had conceptual weight and influenced the way people perceived the successes or failures of the social occasion.

3) To what extent was the nature of tavern conviviality determined by the particular architecture of tavern spaces?

Well, provisionally I’d say that tavern conviviality wasn’t really determined by the physical space, but I do think the architecture and the practice evolved together along mutually reinforcing lines. So, for example, if you design a pub with a series of little cozy nooks and snugs, it reveals something about the assumed use of the space – it suggests small gatherings of a few people in intimate conversation, which itself might reveal something about the desire for privacy and discretion. But if, as with eighteenth-century taverns, you create a massive space that can accommodate hundreds, or sometimes thousands of people – a space that can be used as a banqueting hall, ball room or an assembly room – then that suggests something quite different about the sorts of gathering you have in mind, and the sorts of conversation that might be possible. So both the forms of sociability and the architecture are motivated by underlying ideas about sociability’s relationship to privacy and publicness.

But to complicate that a little, one of the interesting things about late eighteenth-century taverns was that a change in architecture coincided with the explosion of new forms of sociability, especially ones that included women. Gillian Russell is of course the authority here, but anyone who’s read Burney’s Evelina will have a good sense of the giddy excitement that surrounded these novel forms of urban entertainment. The tavern, a traditionally masculine space, attempted to cater to the rage for mixed gender socializing, and huge rooms were added on to older taverns, and built as part of the new ones, to accommodate balls, concerts, and assemblies, on a large scale.

Of course, architects didn’t have crystal balls and didn’t know how the spaces they designed were going to be used. And one use of these assembly rooms that became extremely common was large-scale meetings organized to gather support for a political cause, whether that was Charles Fox campaigning for an election, or the Society for Constitutional Information campaigning for universal suffrage. These large meetings, with hundreds of attendees were almost exclusively male gatherings, but they had been enabled by the development of these large rooms that had been designed to accommodate mixed gender sociability.

So while initially I would suggest that architectural space can’t determine behavior, it can certainly influence it. It seems likely that the idea of conviviality as inclusive and consensual rather than antagonistic that I talked about in my answer to your last question, was necessitated to a degree by the sheer scale of these vast meetings, the size of which was made possible by the architecture.

4) Four of your chapters focus on particular genres: political ballads, Anacreontic odes, bawdy and lyrical ballads, and the toast.  How can situating these genres in their tavern contexts help to reanimate texts most commonly encountered by Romanticists in often-chastened collected forms?

In general terms, part of my aim was to point out that lyric poetry is only one verse form among many, and that several other forms are best understood in performance rather than as printed texts. And while we have access to these forms only through their textual traces, we can reanimate the world of late eighteenth-century verse by attempting to imagine the social occasion in which performances happened. One of my larger claims then is that we can only really understand these often-chastened collected forms when we see them in the context of the competition between different verse forms. So for example, it’s really hard to understand what’s going on in Keats’s “Ode to A Nightingale” with its references to draughts of vintage and Bacchus if you don’t understand the culture of convivial Anacreontic poetry it was responding to, and suggesting it could supplant. Nor do I think it’s possible to recognize what is distinctive about Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, unless you set it in the context of a robust culture of ballad singing, which is inherently performative and not (as the Lyrical Ballads are) purely textual. Part of what’s getting worked out in these canonical moments is the claiming of the lyric’s special relationship to print rather than performance, and especially the lyric’s relationship to the codex form of the book, which can lend longevity to verse. And this often is opposed to more ephemeral verse forms like the performed drinking song, or political verse, or the broadside ballad, or any of the other myriad forms of poetry that made a virtue of spontaneity, immediacy and embodied presence rather than timelessness. What thinking about taverns and tavern performance can do then is to raise the question of the temporalities of verse, asking us to reconsider the value systems that made a virtue of the now, which have been obscured a little by the Romantic lyric’s idea that the value of the present lies in its ability to provide life and food for future years. Admittedly, an extremely powerful idea, just not the only one available.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been acutely aware that the research I did on ballads for The Romantic Tavern barely scratched the surface of what is a vast world of verse in performance – or what you might, I suppose, call “song”. This work has been spinning out in various directions, one of which is an interest in the role of song in the theatre, and in particular trying to think carefully about what it means when a performer or the audience begins to sing in the middle of a play. What does that performance suggest about the affective bonds between audience, actor, and character, and what exactly is the status of the song in the context of the dramatic action? Some of this thinking will appear in an edited volume I’m working on with David O’Shaughnessy on the Irish actor Charles Macklin called Charles Macklin and the Practice of Enlightenment, for which I’m contributing a chapter called ‘Macklin and Song’. I’m also working on a monograph about the idea of the ballad as a narrative poem called Song Stories. I’m interested here in the kinds of narratives that ballads (by which I mean performed songs, not just printed ballads) provide, attending in particular to the narrators of ballads (who are often curious characters) and the interplay between words and music in providing narrative satisfaction.

And obviously, I remain very interested in drinking songs.

The Bigger 6 Collective: New Website

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The Bigger 6 Collective was formed in 2017 to challenge structural racism in the academic study of Romanticism.

The Bigger 6 Collective is a group of literary and cultural critics whose commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial politics grounds their study of the global 18th and 19th centuries and their long (after)lives. They endeavor to effect structural changes in our discipline and institutions by promoting scholarly and creative work by historically marginalized people, those excluded from the Romantic canon, and those excluded from the field of Romanticism. In so doing, they undiscipline Romanticism, build from it rather than within it, and establish lines of radical inquiry that lead, they hope, to politically urgent thought and insurgent actions.

The Bigger 6 Collective has launched a new website. Click here to visit it.

Additional resources are available here.

Angels and Armed Women: Lectures in Literature via Durham University

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Free Public Lectures on Zoom, 17:30 BST Wednesday 9 September 2020

17:30 BST Wednesday 9th September 2020

Dr Sarah Burdett (University of Warwick)
The Actress’s Body in the Audience’s Mind: Receptions of Armed Women in the British Theatre, 1789-1815
In the period of the French Revolution, the arms-bearing woman came to stand in Britain as a representative of extreme political and social disruption. Magnifying heroines who appear on stage brandishing daggers, and even firing explosives, this lecture makes a case for viewing the British theatre as an arena in which the significance of the armed woman is constantly re-modelled and re-appropriated to fulfil diverse ideological functions.

Caitlin Rankin-McCabe (Durham University)
‘Banish the body from your mind’: Bodiless Angels in the Early Modern Imagination
The existence of angels in early modern England was undisputed. However, people’s understanding of angels was certainly not clear or uniform. As idolatrous images of the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels were taken down and removed from churches across England, how were writers responding to this removal of visual representation?

Sign up on Eventbrite for Zoom details here

@Late_Summer2020| #LateSummerLectures

Table Talks 1: New Approaches to Romanticism and the Natural World

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Join Andrew McInnes and Liz Edwards at the first of the ‘Table Talks’ linked to ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’ project on Wednesday 16th December to discuss new approaches to Romanticism and the natural world!

Exciting (paid!) opportunity for PG/ECRs to get involved and share your close readings and work in progress – details in attached document. (Deadline: Wednesday 14th October).

Call for Participants

‘Table Talks’ were a famous genre of literature in the early nineteenth century, recording the conversation of well-known writers, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb. 

As part of ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’ project, EHU Nineteen will host a series of ‘Table Talks’, which will take the form of interactive online workshops led by relevant scholars in the field of Romantic Studies, with an aim to explore new perspectives on Romantic aesthetics, Romantic engagement with nature, society, and childhood, as well as later representations of Romantics and Romanticism.

These ‘Table Talks’ will be structured as informal workshops bringing together established academics with postgraduate students and early career scholars to discuss new methodologies in Romantic Studies. They will be recorded and disseminated as podcasts, available on the project website and advertised through social media. We also intend to produce a printed booklet drawing on the discussions at these ‘Table Talks’, which will present new approaches to Romanticism in critical and creative formats.

‘Table Talks’ will draw on Wayne Booth’s idea of ‘co-duction’, discussed in Maureen McLane’s 2007 essay ‘Romanticism; Or, Now’. Co-duction means leading through conversation with peers, fitting the collective and collaborative spirit of ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’. 

The first ‘Table Talk’ will focus on new approaches to Romanticism and the natural world. As AHRC leadership fellow, Andrew McInnes (Edge Hill University) will focus on how Romantic writers represented the natural world as ridiculous and include readings from Coleridge’s notebooks, letters, and poetry in conversation with selections from Dr Elizabeth Edwards (CAWCS/Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies) on Coleridge in Wales and the French invasion of Fishguard.

We invite postgraduate and early career researchers to pitch a literary text to close read alongside our selections. This close reading does not have to be linked to ‘The Romantic Ridiculous’ project but should lead to a discussion of a new perspective on Romantic Studies and the natural world. We have 4 x £100 bursaries for successful pitches. A virtual reading pack will be sent out before the event and successful applicants will be expected to lead an informal discussion of their chosen text.

Please send a pitch including a literary text of ca. 1000 words with a 250 word rationale for its inclusion to by Wednesday 14th October 2020.

The ‘Table Talk’ will be open to all and we invite you to attend an exciting online discussion of new approaches to Romanticism and the natural world!

CFP – Gothic in a Time of Contagion, Populism and Racial Injustice

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A Gothic-Without-Borders Conference in March 2021, fully online.

  Deadline for proposals: October 31, 2020

Hosted by the Department of World Languages and Literatures (WLL) at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Vancouver, Canada, coordinated by the SFU Center for Educational Excellence (CEE), and co-sponsored by the International Gothic Association (IGA) and others.

“In the first place, a blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after another, a little before the fire. The old women …. remarked…that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid colour, and its motion very heavy, Solemn, and slow…and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgement, slow but severe, terrible and frightful, as was the plague.”  – Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year 1665 (1722)

The conference organizers herewith call for proposals for papers on how forms of the Gothic deal with the critical issues arising from racism, social injustice, populism, mass infection, and the relation of each of these to contagion in at least one of its many forms – the most pressing issues of our current moment — now and throughout world history.

The Conference Organizing Committee will entertain proposals about Gothic literature, drama, film, television, art-forms and/or cyberspace for a symposium to be conducted entirely online over 2-3 days. The proposals may range from abstracts for individual papers to suggested panels of 3 papers each to possible roundtables of up to 5 speakers.  The final papers should be 3600 words (or less), and audio-visual presentations should last no longer than 20 minutes.  All completed papers or presentations, once each proposal has been accepted (proposers will hear back by or before December 1), should be sent in electronically by February 15, 2021, well in advance of the conference itself. This process will enable the delegates at online sessions to read or view these presentations in full (or in abstract form) beforehand and then participate in hour-long online discussions after each presenter begins each session with a précis of his/her argument.  The official program will list all titles of presentations and the times of every session with the names and institutions of each author. There will be no conference fee for anyone, but all participants are expected to register for the conference and to be paid-up members of the IGA, at least at the partial level [go to]. We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate students, other younger scholars, and specialists in Gothic from all parts of the world, especially those distant from the usual sites of IGA conferences. 

Topics may include, but are not limited to:  

  • Gothic manifestations of any of our themes, treated individually or in connections with each other, insofar as they involve some form of contagion
  • Suggestions about these themes and contagion in monstrosities, ghost-figures or settings that develop the Gothic tradition
  • Gothic renditions of these problems that touch on colonized peoples or postcolonial life
  • Gothic manifestations of contagious cultural conflicts over gender, sexual orientation, or transgender sexuality
  • Contagions in Gothic works as interpreted by ecocriticism or disability studies
  • The Gothic in relation to theoretical discourses connected with contagion and any of our other themes
  • The Gothic as it manifests, or contributes to, the histories and/or politics of contagion, populism, and/or racial injustice or to the cultural and psychological consequences of any one, two, or all of these realities.

Proposals/abstracts for individual papers (proposals no longer than 300 words) should include titles, presenter names, institutional affiliations and e-mail addresses and can result in either typescript documents or audio/visual recordings sent in as e-mail attachments.  Proposals for panels that will take place in one-hour online sessions (with each proposal no longer than 800 words) should include a session title, the name and contact information of the chair and abstracts no longer than 200 words from each presenter, with his/her name and affiliation. Proposals for roundtables (up to 800 words) should include a title; the chair’s name, affiliation, and e-mail address; the names and affiliations of the participants; and a proposed format.  Plenary sessions online may include single speakers or panels of experts invited by the Conference Organizing Committee in consultation with the leadership of this symposium’s co-sponsors. All sessions, if all the participants consent and depending on the available technology, will be recorded and made accessible to all conference attendees online.  The precise dates, panels, and plenary arrangements involving our SFU Zoom technology are still being worked on, and we will keep everyone well informed about the links, schedule, and further tech elements as we go forward.

The exact dates of the conference in March 2021 will be determined after all the proposals have been received so as to avoid conflicts with other events that might involve presenters and/or session leaders.

Send all proposals as word documents to The deadline is the 31st of October.

Wordsworth, Water, Writing

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Thursday, 10 September from 1.00-5.30 pm (GMT).


Registration is open for ‘Wordsworth, Water, Writing’, an afternoon of presentations, reflections and discussion hosted by ‘Wordsworth 2020’, an AHRC-funded research project focussing on The River Duddon and the poetry of rivers, lakes and streams, led by Phil Shaw at the University of Leicester.

Confirmed speakers include Fiona Stafford, Tim Fulford, Saeko Yoshikawa and Ralph Pite.

The conference, which concludes with a virtual guided tour of Dove Cottage hosted by Jeff Cowton, will take place on Zoom.

To register, contact Dr Joanna Wilson:

DISCOVERY – The 42nd Annual Virtual Conference of Nineteenth Century Studies Association

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March 11-13, 2021

Proposal Deadline: October 31, 2020

More details here

NCSA welcomes proposals for papers, panels, roundtables, and special sessions that explore our theme of “Discovery” in the long nineteenth century (1789-1914). Scholars are invited to interrogate the trope of “discovery” by questioning the term’s ideological and colonial implications. Why was the concept of “discovery” so appealing in the nineteenth century, and what does its popularity tell us about the people and social structures that were so invested in it? Papers might also consider indigenous perspectives that challenge ideas of western “discovery” and settler colonialism, new voices that theorize and critique nineteenth-century “discoveries,” intellectual exchange between cultures, and other methods of unmasking narratives of exploration and “discovery.”

As an interdisciplinary organization, we particularly seek papers by scholars working in art/architecture/visual studies, cultural studies, economics, gender and sexuality, history (including history of the book), language and literature, law and politics, musicology, philosophy, and science (and the history of science). In light of the many changes in pedagogy, research, and the exchange of ideas we have all experienced this past year, we particularly welcome papers, panels, or roundtable topics that address discoveries in the use of technology for nineteenth-century studies and teaching. Papers might discuss recovering forgotten manuscripts, or discovering new ways of thinking about aesthetic and historical periods. Scholars might explore not only the physical recovery of the past (archeology, geology), but also intellectual recovery as old ideas become new (evolution, neoclassicism, socialism, spiritualism). Papers might discuss publicizing discoveries (periodicals, lectures), exhibiting discoveries (museums, world’s fairs, exhibitions), or redressing the legacy of nineteenth-century practices (decolonization of museum collections and the repatriation of colonial-era artifacts). Other topics might include rediscovering and revisiting the period itself: teaching the nineteenth century, editing primary texts, and working toward diversity and social justice in the humanities.

For more details, visit the website.

Call for Applications: BARS Digital Events Fellow

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BARS are inviting applications for a BARS Digital Events Fellow to assist with the BARS Online Lecture Series 2020/21. The Fellowship will last for one year, beginning 1 October 2020. The Fellow will assist the BARS Online Lectures Committee on this project. 

The role will include general administrative duties and will be designed to be a position that functions alongside other academic commitments such as completing a research project and/or teaching. Previous involvement in online events/conferences is desirable. This position is paid an honorarium of £500 and is open to all postgraduate students and early career researchers working in Romantic Studies.

To apply: please send an academic CV and personal statement (no more than 1 page) explaining why you are best placed to undertake the duties below to by 14 September 2020. Informal enquiries can be directed to Anna Mercer


  • General administrative activities e.g. corresponding with speakers/attendees on email 
  • Managing the Eventbrite account and website
  • Organising social media posts and promoting the events online
  • Assisting with the running of Zoom online events 
  • Attending bi-monthly meetings with the BARS Online Lectures Committee 
  • Attending all BARS Online Lectures events
  • Suggesting ideas for future events and working with the BARS Online Lectures Committee to select speakers and topics

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to interview during the week commencing 21 September 2020. 

Archive Spotlight: The changing reception of historical novels in periodicals

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Today in the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series, we’re delighted to present a post about the changing reception of the historical novel genre across the nineteenth century. Jonathan Taylor and Helen Kingstone have reviewed and studied the periodical reviews of Proquest’s British Periodicals database to explore how attitudes to the qualities of the historical novel genre shifted over time. We’re delighted to share with you their fascinating findings below, discussing, for example, the significant of Sir Walter Scott and how frequently the reviewers commented on historical fidelity. Enjoy!

View the other posts in the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series here.

Archive Spotlight: The changing reception of historical novels in periodicals by Jonathan Taylor and Helen Kingstone

Hybrid, transformative and difficult to define (or even name) without contention, the historical novel or historical romance is a quintessentially Romantic genre. Indelibly associated with Sir Walter Scott, whom many nineteenth-critics erroneously credited with inventing the form, the historical novel has a far longer Romantic history, which Fiona Price has traced back to the middle of the eighteenth century.[1] The historical novel has also enjoyed remarkable longevity, and the immense popularity which Scott bequeathed the genre is a Romantic legacy that has ensured that historical fiction continues to be written, and read, in the twenty-first century. However, historical novels have never been without their detractors. The genre’s fortunes altered subtly, and sometimes dramatically, during the course of the nineteenth century.

Our current project aims to nuance the story of the historical novel’s ‘rise and fall’ by investigating how periodicals’ reception of the genre changed across the century. We ask: on what grounds was it endorsed or condemned by reviewers? And what kinds of truth was it seen as able to offer? Previous scholarship has tended to focus understandably on the work of the novelists themselves, and commentary by eminent writers of various kinds.[2] Our project starts from the other end of the process, focusing on reception and looking systematically at the role of periodical reviews.

We have used ProQuest’s British Periodicals database to systematically code how over 1,300 nineteenth-century reviews of historical novels responded to particular historical novels and the genre as a whole in relation to particular reviewing criteria. We have covered all reviews of historical novels that include the terms ‘historical novel’, ‘historical romance’, ‘historical fiction’ and ‘historical tale’ (plus the variant ‘historic’). Over 400 of the reviews fall between 1801 and 1840, and our data is beginning to yield valuable insights into changing perceptions of the historical novel during the Romantic period.

The historical romance before Scott

The two most common criteria against which historical novels are reviewed, in our data, are quality of writing and of research. It is unsurprising to see fiction being judged on how well-written it is. However, we have been surprised to find that in the years before Waverley (1814), reviewers were already pervasively concerned about the quality of research in historical romances. In the 1800s decade, 22% of reviews expressed praise for what they saw as good research in the novel they reviewed, whereas 44% expressed criticism of perceived bad research. (Equally surprisingly, at this time there was relatively little concern with the writing quality in these novels: only 13% voiced that criticism in that decade, compared to 26% of reviews the following decade.)

In the years before Walter Scott joined the scene, the genre was also discussed more precisely as a genre (one that was tangled up with gothic and the ‘romance of history’) than it was for several decades afterwards. For example, in 1796 the Monthly Review commented that ‘We have often expressed our dislike of the mixture of history with romance, as a practice tending to perplex and pervert the Evidence of Facts, and thereby greatly to prejudice the Cause of Truth’. An 1810 review referred to ‘the objections which are invariably made to all heterogeneous mixtures of history with fiction’.[3]

By contrast, once the genre became more diverse and popular in the wake of Scott’s success, there came to be more focus on individual novels. It seems that in fact, a second tier of novels gradually developed that became the new butt of criticism, instead of the genre as a whole. There seemed to be a feeling that the genre itself could not be lambasted when it had produced such a hero as Scott!

Dominance of particular periodicals

Our data shows that, at different points during the century, different periodicals came to dominate the act of reviewing historical novels. Though this trend is less pronounced between 1800 and 1840 than later in the century (when a single periodical was sometimes responsible for a third of all such reviews during a decade), in the 1830s The Literary Gazette and The Athenæum alone account for 33% of reviews of historical novels (16% and 17% respectively). This raises an important question: are swings in our data indicative of general shifts in attitudes towards the historical novel, or are they the result of views propounded by one or two dominant periodicals that gained a sort of ‘market dominance’ during a particular period? 

A case study of The Literary Gazette demonstrates just how significantly leading periodicals might produce trends in the data. For example, between the 1820s and 1850s, when it accounted for 11%–17% of all reviews of historical novels, the Gazette correlates closely with the overall data for the percentage of reviews that are positive about their novels’ historical accuracy, but has consistently fewer negative responses on this score. Inevitably, this positive weighting disproportionately contributes to the gulf between positive and negative responses to historical accuracy that develops during these decades (particularly in the 1820s and 1830s). And that remains the case even though the Gazettewas less focused on historical accuracy than most (49% of the Gazette’s 1830s reviews of historical novels mention accuracy, compared to 58% of all reviews during the decade).

The Gazette also offers an instructive example of how periodicals enjoying a large market share could give individual reviewers – not just the magazines themselves – disproportionate influence over trends. Between its launch in 1817 and his retirement in 1850, the Gazette was edited by the Scottish journalist William Jerdan, who is now best known as the exploitative patron, mentor and lover of Letitia E. Landon. Jerdan is a particularly helpful case study of the influence of an individual reviewer because, in contrast to the many critics whose identities have been hidden or rendered uncertain by the culture of anonymous reviewing, we know that he wrote the vast majority of the Gazette’s reviews. During the three full decades that he edited the Gazette, Jerdan was remarkably consistently positive about historical novels: 88-89% of the comments he made (across all reviewing criteria) were positive. 

However, after Jerdan was replaced with a new reviewer (or reviewers) in 1850, the Gazette’s attitude to the genre altered significantly. In the subsequent ten years, the percentage of positive responses fell to 70%, with negative responses rising from 12% to 30%. The magazine’s reviewing priorities and attitudes also shifted significantly with the advent of the new regime. Jerdan’s successor(s) were both more interested in the question of historical accuracy generally (commenting on it in 70% of reviews as opposed to Jerdan’s 47% the decade before) and more condemnatory of novels for lacking historical accuracy (23% of the Gazette’s 1850s reviews censured novels’ historical accuracy, compared to 6% in the 1840s). The Gazette’s staff changes, sizeable contribution (14%) of all reviews of the genre in the 1850s, and newfound willingness to censure departures from the historical record certainly played a role in narrowing the gap between positive and negative responses to historical novels’ historical fidelity.

Analysing these undercurrents in the data gives us insights into the role that individual periodicals and reviewers played in shaping wider attitudes towards the historical novel. It seems probable that, by dominating the conversation about the genre at particular times, periodicals such as The Literary Gazette not only may account for some of the major shifts in our data, but may have influenced other periodicals and their reviewers to adopt similar attitudes, accelerating some of the trends we have observed.

Read more about the Victorian-period findings of this project on Journal of Victorian Online.

Dr Jonathan Taylor is a Research Assistant at the University of Surrey’s School of Literature and Languages, where he is assisting Dr Helen Kingstone to map the changing reception of the historical novel during the nineteenth century through a systematic analysis of periodical reviews of historical novels. He has published articles on Robert Southey’s revolutionary politics in Romanticism and eighteenth-century and Romantic responses to Homer’s hero Achilles in Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He is the 2020 BSECS Georgian Papers Programme Fellow.

Dr Helen Kingstone is a research fellow at the University of Surrey. She is author of Victorian Narratives of the Recent Past: memory, history, fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and currently writing a book From Panoramas to Compilations, about the ways that nineteenth-century writers sought a sense of overview on their contemporary history. She co-leads a Wellcome Trust-funded network on Generations: what’s in the concept and how best should it be used?

[1] Fiona Price, Reinventing Liberty: Nation, Commerce and the Historical Novel from Walpole to Scott (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

[2] A flowering of work in the 1970s includes Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971); James C. Simmons, The Novelist as Historian: Essays on the Victorian Historical Novel (The Hague: Mouton, 1973); Andrew Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840–1880 (London: Macmillan, 1978).

A second wave around ten years ago includes Jerome De Groot, The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010); Richard Maxwell, The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brian Hamnett, The Historical Novel in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Representations of Reality in History and Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Other work on the historical romance, which mostly focuses on the twentieth century, includes Helen Hughes, The Historical Romance, 1890-1990(London ; New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 1 online resource (173 p.); Diana Wallace, The Woman’s Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past, ed. by Kate Mitchell and Nicola Parsons (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 1 online resource (256 p.).

[3] ‘Henrietta, Princess Royal of England. An historical novel’, Monthly Review (November 1796), p. 347. ‘Anne of Brittany; an Historical Romance’, The Critical Review (August 1810), p. 442.

Five Questions: Kate Singer on Romantic Vacancy

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Kate Singer is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College. Her wide-ranging research engages with fields including gender, philosophy, mediation, virtuality and digitality. She edits the Pedagogies section of Romantic Circles and is Secretary of the Keats-Shelley Association of America; with Ashley Cross and Suzanne L Barnett, she has recently published a new edited collection entitled Material Transgressions: Beyond Romantic Bodies, Genders, Things (Liverpool University Press, 2020). Her first monograph, Romantic Vacancy: The Poetics of Gender, Affect and Radical Speculation, which we discuss below, was published in August 2019 by SUNY Press.

1) How did you first become interested in exploring the ways that Romantic writers use vacancy?

When I was reading for my PhD comprehensive exams, I kept getting pulled toward moments in Charlotte Smith’s and Mary Robinson’s poems that seemed pretty deconstructive, particularly where very luxurious statements about sensibility were then negated via the form of the sonnet (Charlotte Smith’s voltas about tasting the Lethean cup that negates the very sensations that initiate the poetic voice), the allegory of the poem (such as sentimental Sappho’s suicidal leap into the Leucadian deep in Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon that destroys the poet and her voice), or a figural movement (such as the vanishing of the hermit at the end of Beachy Head, but not before alluding to his not-yet-written epitaph). These moments seemed oddly similar to Percy Shelley’s shadowy articulations of “vacancy” in his essay fragment “On Life” and in “Mont Blanc.” It took me a while to figure out how these moments were working as more than deconstructive or textual involutions that signaled the failures of sensibility, or its tendency to burn out into a clichéd emo numbness. But the more I felt these moments weren’t entirely empty, but often working through edgy, nebulous, or chaotic remainders of wispy language or materiality (the hinted-at hermit’s epitaph, the motion of drinking a metaphor like the Lethean cup), the more these moments seemed to offer a kind of dialectical movement, one that went further than further than negating the clichés of sensibility, but so far as fomenting new forms of affect and materiality outside the embodied emotion of sensibility. It was a lot of reading and rereading and a lot of failed attempts to talk gropingly about women’s poetry for its philosophic, poetic, and speculative dynamism.

2) As you conducted this research, what qualities came to define the poetics of vacancy you delineate?

These were figural moments in poems (and sometimes in other kinds of writing) that marked a resistance to strict forms of gendered embodiment and that attempted to raze empirical materiality via a figural movement that would then allow other forms of floating, iterative feelings (or affects) and materiality to be born. (I chose Sonia Gechtoff’s abstract expressionist painting “The Beginning” for the cover because it seemed visually to represent the material affect that came into being through figuration, which so many Romantic authors seemed to be after.) To be less abstract in terms of poetics, Mary Robinson’s sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon moves to ironize certain forms of repetition in sonnets of sensibility, then turns to figure Sappho’s leap in to the Leucadian deep as a form of evanishment of that repetitive language tied to the feminine feeling body. Yet, the end of that poem with its oceanic depths has intimations of another figural move, an immersion, a becoming awash in a more oceanic materiality of language and embodiment that we then see at the end of “To the Poet Coleridge,” with its echoing caverns and streams and various trilling voices of humans and nonhumans ululating all around in a kind of Deleuzian or Baradian stew. It was striking to see, too, how Wordsworth and Shelley were likewise worrying over similar problems for feminine poetics in poems from “The Solitary Reaper” to “Alastor” to “Epipsychidion” and so on.

3) How did you come to select the principal subjects of your chapters (Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, Maria Jane Jewsbury, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley)?

When I started really reading Hemans seriously, thanks in no small part to Susan Wolfson’s Princeton edition, I realized not only how much she was taking from Percy Shelley (as Susan Wolfson and others have noted), but also how her poetry opened up some of the concerns of Charlotte Smith about the edges of the national body (a.k.a., Beachy Head) to a more global purview. Maria Jane Jewsbury was similarly working through some of Wordsworth (through her friendship with his daughter and her rereading of his work) to think about Anglo-Indian tensions. (My reading of Jewsbury was also in no small part due to becoming the technical editor of Judith Pascoe’s edition of The Oceanides while a Site Manager at Romantic Circles.) So, I began to conceptualize Smith and Robinson opening certain concerns about feminine poetics, sensibility, and the national body/landscape that then became shot through with concerns of empire and imperialism in Hemans and Jewsbury.

Then, early in my time at Mount Holyoke, I had to give a brief, entertainy lunchtime introduction to my scholarship to other colleagues across the college. I thought to use bits of Wordsworth and Shelley as pieces of Romantic-era poetry to represent that “naive Romanticism” that wasn’t hip to vacancy. I got reprimanded by a curmudgeonly older professor (in my department) for reading a line from Wordsworth’s Prelude about the brooding imagination as feminine, and I was so irritated and embarrassed that I eventually decided to write a chapter on Wordsworth and Shelley. This reinvestment in “male poets” helped me rethink the gender binarization I was actually still holding onto, vis-à-vis “women writers” and “male writers,” particularly when figures of the imagination and of thinking itself in both their works, to varying degrees, often invoke and then shirk gender binaries. Thinking about “The Solitary Reaper” one summer while I was wandering around Germany and Switzerland for NASSR and DH conferences, listening to languages and looking at different landscapes through the window of the Eurorail was pretty helpful for thinking about what’s happening in that poem as something more than the colonizing imagination, as Alan Richardson argues. The movements of the train and of languages I half knew and half created in my mind seemed an apt figure for a Wordsworthian feminist resistance to the assumption that the lass is singing a song of sensibility, or a recognizable version of women’s writing—a suspension of the presumption that we even know what she’s singing, which paradoxically opens a field of possibility, however narrow, for other voices not defined by their attachment to a sexed or gendered body but rather expressed through a nonbinary and ever-moving, ever-sung rolling landscape.

4) In your introduction, you argue that a strong investment in ‘the lens of sensibility’ has led to criticism that is ‘overwhelmingly unmindful of women poets’ play with other forms of knowledge and being’.  How might attending to the ‘serious, speculative poetics’ that your book uncovers help us rewrite our gender-inflected expectations regarding Romantic poetry, and how might this feed into the curricula we build?

I’m hoping that we can start from a place of openness to women’s and men’s poetry in new ways—that we don’t begin reading women’s writing of the period by assuming that they are writing about embodied emotion related to childrearing, domestic entanglements, or personal suffering—or when they do, they might also be writing incisively about questions of epistemology and ontology. Like many Romantic writers, women are interminably interested in how language can iteratively reflect and create structures of thought. I also believe that there is a strong sense of the nonbinary in writing from the period that we haven’t completely come to terms with. I don’t just mean nonbinary gender in terms of cross-dressing, or Blakean opposition as true friendship, or even formations of transgender in The Last Man, “The Forest Sanctuary,” or Frankenstein. I think there are other formulations that skirt either the two-sex or one-sex models, which are much more nebulous and that explore more shifting senses of gender identity and sexuality grounded in an equally shifting sense of materiality. (You can see some of this work others have done on this area in Material Transgressions: Beyond Romantic Genders, Bodies, Things (LUP 2020), and I think there’s more to do.) I had the opportunity this past year at Mount Holyoke to put together a two-semester series of courses on “The Queer Eighteenth Century” and “Nonbinary Romanticism” to help explore how notions of materiality might be quite different from the standard narrative of the shift from the one-sex to the two-sex model. This was my way of doing some extra reading on the early eighteenth century leading into a reconceptualization of the way I (try to) teach Romanticism, so that rather than, say, the idea of revolution, the idea of the nonbinary became the organizing idea. It was pretty incredible to read Olaudah Equiano, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Shelleys, and others, after reading things like Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. Earlier eighteenth-century women’s communes offer other possibilities for non-phallic sexuality and rearrangements of gender that follow into the gothic spaces of the asylum (in Wollstonecraft’s Maria) and the ship (in Equiano’s Interesting Narrative) and the historical syncopes in Mary Shelley’s back-to-the-future stories such as “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman.”

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently in the guts of an essay about Jane Austen and ontology, trying to understand Fanny Price in Mansfield Park as alternately a withdrawn object (in Tim Morton’s sense) and a new material actant (in Jane Bennett’s sense), as Austen’s way of thinking through questions of the human/nonhuman/inhuman via the double questions that haunt that novel, as Patricia Matthew has written—women’s ontological status as objects and moral actants and slaves’ ontologies as nonbeing, chattel, and undercommon disavowal. While we usually think of Fanny as a frustratingly static character who holds her puritanical ground against the footloose exploits of her cousins’ play-acting and Henry Crawford’s inconstancy (his “oops I did it again” moments with Maria Bertram), I think she actually does revolve through a number of ontological positions as human, inhuman, and nonhuman, and I’m interested in how and why she does—and how that articulates possibilities for ontological change. I’m also starting research on a book on shapeshifting that attempts to understand the confluence of BIPOC ontology, climate change, disability, and transgender in the Romantic period and how it speaks to the entanglements of those concerns now. It’s been a way for me to try to understand better how different pieces of Romantic-era culture conceptualize change, particularly ontological change that allows for (or causes) changes in being, to rethink questions about how we change, why, and what happens if we can’t change when we’d like to (e.g., the American political disaster). A final piece I’m looking forward to writing is on Anne Lister’s diaries and the ideas of coding—coding as a way to talk about both early computing and gender identity. Lister used mathematical symbols and Greek letters to code the very sex-in-the-suburbs queer content in her diaries, and, after reading these with my students, I’m really interested in how they might help us think about the way we code, decode, and recode gender identities—as a measure of the nonbinary nature of Romantic-era texts that has gone under the gaydar, as it were.