On This Day: Christmas 1820/2020 special – Walter Scott and The Pirate

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It’s a few days ahead of 25th December, we know… but we wanted to share with you this special ‘On This Day’ Christmas post by Dr Anna Fancett so you have time to enjoy it in the lead up to the holiday break. In the post, Fancett explores how an idea delivered to Walter Scott on Christmas day 200 years ago inspired his 1821 novel The Pirate – and also discusses the contemporary reception of the novel.

See all posts in the ‘On This Day’ series here.

Want to contribute? Contact Anna Mercer.

A Christmas Letter: Walter Scott and The Pirate

Sir Walter Scott by Raeburn (with added festive hat!)

by Dr Anna Fancett (Sultan Qaboos University)

Of all the things that can be given on Christmas Day, perhaps an idea is the most intriguing. On the 25thDecember 1820, Walter Scott received, not a gift-wrapped parcel but a letter from his publisher, Constable. The letter contained an idea: 

‘If you have not already resolved, might I presume to hint at a subject for the next, or for the Succeeding Work? ‘The Bucanier’ is I think un-occupied ground–three of [the] Regicides if I mistake not went to New England after the Restoration and endured great hardships there taken by Pirates, Shipwrecked, etc.’[i]

Scott’s immediate reaction to the letter is unrecorded, but as he was receptive to suggestions and corrections from letters, as Robert Mayer has recently shown,[ii] it is reasonable to assume that he read the suggestion with interest. Indeed, the Edinburgh Edition of The Pirate notes that he ‘must have responded positively’ because Constable wrote about Scott’s future buccaneer book.[iii]

Scott’s 1821 novel, The Pirate, however, is very different from the novel that Constable suggested. The story of the three regicides was saved for inclusion in a later novel, Peveril of the Peak, and the proposed title, The Bucanier, was not used by Scott at all. Instead, Scott took the idea of a story based on pirates and mined his memory for suitable inspiration, landing upon a tale that he had heard on the last day of his tour of Shetland and Orkney with the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners in 1814. The story was about: 

Gow the pirate, who was born near the House of Clestrom, and afterwards commenced buccanier. He came to his native country about 1725, with a snow which he commanded, carried off two women from one of the islands, and committed other enormities,’[iv]

He was later captured and hanged but 

‘While at Stromness, he made love to a Miss Gordon, who pledged her faith to him by shaking hands, an engagement which, in her idea, could not be dissolved without her going to London to seek back again her ‘faith and troth,’ by shaking hands with him again after the execution.’[v]

This tale became the primary inspiration for The Pirate, a novel whose titular pirate, Cleveland, is shipwrecked in Shetland and becomes romantically involved with Minna Troil. Cleveland and Minna’s relationship serves as the catalyst for the rest of the novel’s action, including the love story between the protagonist, the comparatively boring Mordaunt Mertoun, and Minna’s sister, Brenda. Although Scott leaves out both the execution of the pirate and the gruesome ritual of shaking a dead man’s hand, the doomed relationship between a Shetland woman and a desperate pirate remains at the heart of this novel. The Monthly Review remarks on the fact that ‘None of the former novels of this author have been so much imbued with love as the present,’[vi] – a far cry from the political plot recommended by Constable.

However, all was not plain sailing in the composition of this novel. In late 1821, Scott wrote to Erskine saying, ‘I want to talk to you about the locale of Zetland, for I am making my bricks with a very limited allowance of straw.’[vii] Despite his 1814 trip, Scott was uncomfortable with his lack of knowledge about Shetland, as this request demonstrates. The notes in the Edinburgh Edition of The Pirate likewise explains that Scott:

‘proceeded slowly because of the unfamiliar nature of the material in The Pirate. He had previously been writing about historical events that had taken place in locations well known to him or, at least, about well-known historical characters and contexts. Now he was creating an original romance in a strange land.’[viii]

It took almost a whole year between Constable’s letter and the publication of The Pirate – a long time in comparison to Scott’s other works. 

Although the relatively slow composition of this novel was due, in part, to Scott’s unfamiliarity with Shetland, his contemporary readers did not agree that this was the novel’s weakness; characterisation was the problem that they bemoaned. In an 1821 letter, for example, Sydney Smith writes: 

‘pray (wherever the scene is laid) no more Meg Merrilies and Dominie Sampson  very good the first and second times, but now quite worn out, and always recurring. All human themes have an end (except Taxation); but I shall heartily regret my annual amusement if I am to lose it’.[ix]

Smith’s criticism rests not on Scott’s lack of knowledge of Shetland, but rather on the unoriginality of the novel’s characters. La Belle Assemblée shares this perspective:

it is, however, valuably stored with those legendary and superstitious fictions, which are so closely interwoven with the history of the country in which the scene is laid; and if the originality of its leading characters ha[d] been such as we might expect from the vigorous pen of its reputed author, this novel would still be entitled to rank with our established favourites in the same line.’[x]

Despite the complaints about characterisation, this review praises that which Scott was worried about – knowledge of Shetland. Similarly, the Monthly Review, which criticises Scott for the metempsychosis of his characters from one novel to another, praises Scott’s acquaintance with his setting and subject matter:

‘much prudence is manifested in returning to these bleak and gloomy regions from the tranquil plains of England, since the author’s powers of description, which are of the most energetic and vivid kind, are never displayed to so much advantage as in painting all the sublimer features of natural scenery, the mountains and the cataracts of his native land, […]. His local knowledge, also, and his intimate acquaintance with the manners of the people, all point to the north as the true theatre of his genius.’[xi]

No sign of Scott’s lack of ‘straw’ is present here; the reviewer assumes an ‘intimate’ knowledge of Shetland. 

Constable’s Christmas letter furnished Scott with an idea – piracy – which would turn into the 1821 novel, The Pirate. Some of Scott’s readers, having consumed around a dozen fictional narratives from him in seven years, were fatigued with the appearance of familiar character types, but they praised his descriptions of Shetland, the very thing that Scott himself had been worried about. In 2020, a year in which few people have been able to travel, perhaps his powerful descriptions will once again charm readers. 

Anna Fancett received her PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 2015. Her thesis explored the representation of the family in the novels of Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Since then, she has published on motherhood and narrative in Scott’s novels, and the reception of Walter Scott in China. She is currently working on a comparative piece on education in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Susan Ferrier’s Marriage.

[i] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C. Grierson and others, 12 vols (London, 1932-37), 7.12n.

[ii] Mayer, Robert, Walter Scott and Fame: Authors and Readers in the Romantic Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Mayer discusses how Scott took on suggestions and corrections made by his correspondents. 

[iii] Walter Scott, The Pirate (1822) ed. by Mark Weinstein and Alison Lumsden, Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels 12 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 394.

[iv] The Pirate, 393.

[v] The Pirate, 393.

[vi] Monthly Review, (1822), 69-83, available at: http://www.british-fiction.cardiff.ac.uk/reviews/pira22-68.html.

[vii] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, 7.12.

[viii] The Pirate, 395.

[ix] The Letters of Sydney Smith, ed. Nowell C. Smith, (Oxford, 1953), I, 385, available at: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/record_details.php?id=13414.

[x] La Belle Assemblée, (1822), 40-47, available at http://www.british-fiction.cardiff.ac.uk/reviews/pira22-68.html.

[xi] Monthly Review.

BARS Digital Events: ‘Digital Teaching in Romantic Studies’ Recording Now Online

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The third session of our new Digital Events programme is now available to watch on YouTube – catch up here.

Thank you to everyone who joined us over Zoom for this event!

Good news – we have even more events coming up in 2021, courtesy of our wonderful members and followers who submitted a selection of excellent proposals. Read more and book your tickets in advance here.

On 10 December, we hosted a roundtable discussion between Dr Emma Butcher, Dr Daniel Cook, Dr Stephen Gregg, and Dr Joanna Taylor, chaired by Dr Matthew Sangster. During the session, our guests discussed pedagogy and teaching styles for online learning, challenges they’ve encountered with teaching online, innovative and effective online teaching methods, and much more.

Read more about the speakers for this event here.

See all the posts related to the BARS Digital Event Series (including recordings from our first and second events) here.

Don’t forget to follow @BARS_Official and @BARS_DigiEvents on Twitter.

Job Advertisement: The Year’s Work in English Studies

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The Year’s Work in English Studies is seeking one or two individuals to fulfil the role of contributor for ‘The Novel’ section of Chapter XII, ‘Literature 1780–1830: The Romantic Period’. The role would involve reading all scholarly literature published on the Romantic Novel in the preceding year and summarising this into a comprehensive document for publication. Please click here for an example. More information about The Year’s Work in English Studies can be found here.

The role is to start in 2021. Payment for the role is offered at the rate of £8 per page of a contributor’s final copy and contributors are able to order and keep all books reviewed at no personal cost. This role would suit a PGR or ECR student whose research is concerned with the Romantic novel.

If you are interested in this role, or would like to know more, please contact the editor of Chapter XII, Dr. Katherine Halsey, at katherine.halsey@stir.ac.uk. The deadline for expressing interest is January 31 2021.

BARS 2021 Digital Events Series: Schedule January – July 2021

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The BARS Digital Events Committee want to thank our members and followers for submitting such a range of excellent proposals for our new online events series.

In 2020, the committee scheduled three events on ‘Perspectives on the Field’, ‘Digital Editions in Romantic Studies’ and ‘Digital Teaching in Romantic Studies’. You can now view the recording of these events, hosted on Zoom. Thank you to everyone who attended and to all those who joined the discussion, as well as our dedicated speakers! The final event of 2020, ‘Digital Teaching’, will take place this Thursday at 5pm.

We can now share with you the details of the forthcoming events for 2021, curated and designed by those who submitted proposals to our call. We want the BARS Digital Events Series to be shaped by our members and to speak to the needs and concerns of those involved in Romantic Studies right now. 

Here are some dates for your diary – more comprehensive descriptions will be shared ahead of specific events. 

View all posts relating to the BARS Digital Event Series (including links to recordings) on the BARS Blog here

Please note all times listed here are UK time (GMT/BST)

Tuesday 26th January, 5pm

Burns Night


The Burns Supper is a tradition with its roots in the Romantic period. We propose using the order of toasts and entertainments at a Burns Supper to structure an academic event celebrating Scottish Romanticism with an interdisciplinary excursus on whisky production in the Romantic period.

Speakers: Andrew McInnes (Edge Hill University); Gerard Carruthers (Glasgow University); Darroch Bratt (University of the Highlands and Islands); Ainsley McIntosh (Editor of the Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry); James Kelly (University of Exeter); Zayneb Allak (Edge Hill University).

Thursday 18th February, 5pm

The Late Mary Shelley


The British Association for Romantic Studies is delighted to welcome you to the fifth session of our Digital Events series: ‘The Late Mary Shelley’. Please join us on Thursday 18 February at 5pm GMT on Zoom for a roundtable discussion between Dr Antonella Braida, Kathleen Hurlock, Professor Michael Rossington, Professor Angela Wright, and Carly Yingst, chaired by Dr Amanda Blake Davis. During the session, our guests will belatedly mark the anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death on February 1st by discussing her later life, works, and legacy, celebrating Shelley’s many achievements beyond and after Frankenstein. After this, the audience will be invited to take part in a moderated Q&A session.  

Speakers: Antonella Braida (Université de Lorraine), Kathleen Hurlock (University of Georgia), Michael Rossington (Newcastle University), Angela Wright (University of Sheffield), Carly Yingst (Harvard University)  

Chair: Amanda Blake Davis 

Thursday 4th March, 5pm

Romanticism and the Museum


A roundtable which discusses the challenges facing museums and heritage institutions and organisations in 2021. It will draw on the speakers’ experiences of Romantic writers’ house museums and explore diversifying audiences, digital exhibitions and communications; funding; collections: care and promotion; and the relationship between academia and museums.

Speakers: Jeff Cowton (Curator & Head of Learning at Wordsworth Grasmere); Charlotte May (University of Nottingham, Keswick Museum), Rob Shakespeare (Principal Curator at Keats House Museum, Hampstead); Nicola Watson (Open University); Amy Wilcockson (University of Nottingham).

Chair: Anna Mercer (Cardiff University).

Thursday 25th March, 5pm

Romantic Forms


This roundtable explores the myriad forms in which Romantic writers wrote, connecting these to the topics and arguments found within texts. It looks at how form impacted on and was knowingly used to express ideologies and politics in texts by Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Mary Inchbald, Frances Burney, and S. T. Coleridge.

Speakers: Shellie Audsley (University of Hong Kong); Amanda Auerbach (Catholic University); Anne-Claire Michoux (University of Zurich); Rebecca Musk (Lancaster University); Jack Rooney (Ohio State University).

Chair: Ian Haywood (University of Roehampton)

Thursday 15th April, 5pm

Geo & Eco-Criticism: Returning to Romantic Italy


Exploring the possibilities of combining ecocritical and geocritical approaches, the roundtable aims to propose this methodological intersection as a way of unlocking new features of Romantic-period treatments of the connections between the environment and humans, their identities, activities, and institutions. The aim is to discuss the potential advantages of this mixed approach by throwing new light on Romantic-period representations of Italy as a particularly complex and unstable crucible of issues of nature and nurture, ecosystems and political systems, environment and polities. 

CISR (Inter-University Centre for the Study of Romanticism) Speakers: Serena Baiesi (University of Bologna); Paolo Bugliani (University of Pisa); Lilla Maria Crisafulli (University of Bologna); Diego Saglia (University of Parma); Elena Spandri (University of Siena). 

Chair: Gioia Angeletti (University of Parma).

Thursday 6th May, 5pm

Transgender/ Nonbinary Romanticism 


A roundtable to discuss the new and ongoing work on transgender and nonbinary representations, lives, and legacies in the Romantic period. The speakers cover topics such as (resisting) identity, sexuality, dysphoria, and gender politics in Romantic texts. 

Speakers: Kate Singer (Mount Holyoke College); Julia Ftacek (Western Michigan University); Alex Gatten (University of Connecticut); Chris Washington (Francis Marion University). 

Chair: Chris Washington (Francis Marion University).

Thursday 27th May, 5pm

State of the Arts


Scholars of British Romantic literature have become increasingly attentive to the material and cultural contexts inhabited by the period’s authors. This roundtable will showcase some of the innovative work being undertaken in this field for The Edinburgh Companion to Romanticism and the Arts. Each participant will offer a five-minute presentation of their chapter, organized around a key image, allowing plenty of time for discussion about how visual studies have reshaped how we approach and understand the boundaries between print and visual culture in the period.

Speakers: Laura Engel (Duquesne University); Ian Haywood (University of Roehampton); Jill Heydt-Stevenson (University of Colorado); Alison O’Byrne (University of York); Kacie Wills (Illinois College). 

Chairs: Maureen McCue (Bangor University) and Sophie Thomas (Ryerson University). 

Thursday 17th June, 5pm

Dialogues and Receptions


This roundtable traces the conversations and legacies surrounding Romantic writers such as William Blake, Percy Shelley, William Hazlitt, Alexander Pope, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. These speakers shed new light on these writers, often by looking at the nexus of connections and influences between these individuals. 

Speakers: Eleanor Booty (Durham University); Bysshe Inigo Coffey (Newcastle University); Octavia Cox (University of Nottingham); Daniela Farkas (The Pennsylvania State University).

Chair: Mark Sandy (Durham University)

Thursday 8th July, 5pm

Re-envisioning Romantic Publishing


This roundtable will address trends in Romantic and Romantic-period studies journal publishing, and help demystify the practices of journal publishing. Ideal for graduate students and early career researchers.

Chair: Jonathan Mulrooney (College of the Holy Cross – editor of the Keats-Shelley Journal)
Participants: Emma Hills (University of Southampton – Romance, Revolution and Reform); Charles Mahoney (University of Connecticut – Wordsworth Circle); Lucy Morrison (University of Nebraska – European Romantic Review); Jennifer Reed (Boston University – Studies in Romanticism); Alexander Regier (Rice University – SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900); Matthew Sangster (University of Glasgow – Romanticism on the Net); Alan Vardy (Hunter College, CUNY – Essays in Romanticism) and Paul Youngquist (University of Colorado – Romantic Circles)

Thursday 29th July, 5pm

Seeing Through Whiteness


This roundtable centres The History of Mary Prince (1831) as a profound challenge to Romanticism and as precursor to many arguments about whiteness to be made in Black Studies. It brings together experts on Prince to highlight gender, labour, motherhood and property in the text and to argue for these aspects as a powerful counter-narrative to Romanticism’s self-idealization. The panel will point to Romanticism’s need for Black studies, not as a co-opted or assimilated area, but as an external force that puts it under considerable pressure. 

Speakers: Kristina Huang (University of Wisconsin–Madison); Shelby Johnson (Florida Atlantic University); Felicia Bishop Denaud (Brown University); Kerry Sinanan (University of Texas at San Antonio). 

Bursaries for the 2021 Student Byron Conference

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The Byron Society (@byron_society) are excited to announce 3 bursaries for £500.00 each for students and ECRs enrolled at UK universities to attend the 2021 Student Byron Conference in Messolonghi.

Conference Title: Byron, Philhellenism and the Greek Revolution of 1821

Conference Dates: 26-31 May 2021, Athens and Messolonghi

For details of the Conference and the CFP, click here.

Bursary Application Requirements:

  • Applicants to this bursary must have a paper accepted for this event.
  • Applicants are only eligible if they are enrolled at UK universities at the time of application
  • Applicants must mention if they are receiving additional funding to attend this event

Please send details of your accepted paper, together with referee details, to Dr Emily Paterson Morgan (contact@thebyronsociety.com).

Bursary applications must be submitted by the 10th of April 2021.

Dreaming Romantic Europe 1&2 and RÊVE: lessons learned

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Monday, 7th December at 14:00 (GMT)

The Digital Humanities at The Open University research collaboration (DH_OU) is pleased to announce the next event in its 2020/21 seminar series.

Speaker: Nicola Watson (English and Creative Writing), The Open University

Please register via the Eventbrite link below by 4th December and join us on 7th December at 14:00 (GMT).

Nicola Watson will be talking about her AHRC-funded project DREAMing Romantic Europe (2018-2020), the network of museums and scholars that it developed, and its core collaborative project, the building of an online exhibition, RÊVE (Romantic Europe: The Virtual Exhibition), comprising some 100 exhibits drawn from collections devoted to Romanticism across Europe.  Her presentation will provide a brief introduction to the project as a whole, with some more detailed discussion of the digital aspects of the project and of the current follow-on bid, discussing in particular the challenges of creating pan-European museum/gallery buy-in before the pandemic, the changing tone of the conversation as a result of the pandemic, and the problems of securing funding for this sort of digital project.

A specialist in Romanticism, Nicola Watson holds a chair in English Literature at the OU, and over the last fifteen years has largely created and defined the study of literary tourism from the 1780s to the present. Her latest monograph, The Author’s Effects; On the Writer’s House Museum was published by OUP in early 2020.

All are welcome. Please register via Eventbrite by clicking here.

Registration closes on Friday 4th December at 13.00 GMT. All registered participants will then be sent a link to the meeting via Eventbrite.

Five Questions: Emily Stanback on The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability

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Emily Stanback is Associate Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her principal research interests include British Romantic literature; disability studies; memorialisation; pedagogy; and the histories of science and medicine. Her first monograph, The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability, which we discuss below, was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2017 as one of the first titles in the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series.

1) How did you first become interested in the intersection of disability studies and Romantic-period writing?

This answer will bring us back decades. At a young age, I found that poets—first Emily Dickinson, but soon many others—spoke to me in language and images and forms that resonated with my own experiences of disability. By centering the slant, a great deal of poetry from the past 250 years can be said to embody what, building on Tobin Siebers, I refer to in my book as disability aesthetics. And seeking disability led me as an undergraduate to Romanticism. Like the modern art Siebers discusses in Disability Aesthetics, Romantic-era poetry is made memorable, powerful, and beautiful by virtue of its non-normative forms (think poetic fragments, metrical irregularities, repetition, experimentation); by the ways that it slows down or speeds up experience, memory, and narration into what Disability Studies might call crip time; and by the kinds of embodied human experiences it centers—including illness and disability, yes, but also other experiences of non-normative embodiment including intoxication, trances, and that most irrational and inarticulable experience, the sublime. And then there are the Romantic-era characters in poetry and fiction who embody mental and physical disability—from Wordsworth’s Johnny Foy and Martha Ray to William Earle’s reimagined Three-Fingered Jack (based on Jack Mansong) to Mary Shelley’s Creature—and the authors whose disabled bodyminds shaped their texts in content and form—from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dorothy Wordsworth to Lord Byron to John Keats to Mary Prince. My view, and I hope my book bears this out, is that Romantic aesthetics are disability aesthetics.

2) The book focuses on ‘aesthetically significant experiences enabled by non-normative states of body and mind, and also the aesthetic dimensions of non-normative bodies and minds, as considered from without.’  To what extent do these two different kinds of representations align in the writers you examine, and to what extent is there a contest regarding meanings between internally- and externally-focused figurations of non-normative bodies and minds?

I tend to think of it less as a contest between internally- and externally-focused figurations of non-normative bodies and minds, and more a contest between the wide and often contradictory range of approaches to disability that coexisted at the time. In 1800, some interpreted the forms of non-normative embodiment we would now call “disabilities” in a primarily religious framework, or according to other categories and concepts that had been predominant for some time. Others, possibly influenced by the rise of scientific medicine and solidifying norms of embodiment, held what closely resemble normative views—in the modern sense of the word. Yet others saw individual disabilities, or disability writ large, as social identities or even as cultural constructions, much as Disability Studies does today. It was also altogether possible for a Romantic-era author to view some disabilities neutrally, others as distinctly advantageous, and yet others as severe deficits or tragic misfortunes. We can identify similar conflicts and contradictions today, even sometimes within disability communities.

Of the authors I discuss in my book, and probably of all of the Romantic-era authors I regularly teach, I think Charles Lamb comes the closest to a comprehensive and self-aware approach to disability. As I describe in the final chapter of my book, disability was central to Lamb’s sense of self and his urban aesthetic. He claimed that he developed his characteristic humor in response to his stammer, and he built a life of mutual care with his sister, Mary, largely in response to the practical demands of her mental illness and periodic institutionalization—experiences he’d also had. Although he suffered, Lamb did not take his experiences of disability as tragedies, but rather came to understand them as inextricable from his identity. In an 1822 letter to Wordsworth, Lamb described how “Common natures do not suffice me.” He was, he wrote, “made up of queer points” and wanted “so many answering needles.” In his letters, poetry, and essays, Lamb explored several topics related to the cultural construction of disability—for example, physiognomy and the ways that we interpret non-normative bodyminds, the scientific classification of humans, the lived experience of stigma, and the performativity of disability. And through what I call Lamb’s “cripped metropolitan aesthetics,” his writing explicitly centered disabled people and embraced what he called “The deformities of London” itself. In his Elia essays, Lamb focused on figures like Samuel Horsey, the amputee beggar who appears on the cover to my book, who Lamb called a “grand fragment; as good as an Elgin marble.” Lamb’s comparison of Horsey to the Parthenon marbles suggest how Lamb’s cripped aesthetics are in fact characteristic of his era. Lamb just connected the dots between actual disability and disability aesthetics more explicitly than most did.

3) What would you identify as the most major shifts in cultural attitudes to disability during the period that the book covers?

I’ve already mentioned that I see the period as one of great openness and contestation, but it is also a singularly transformational moment in the history of medicine. This was the era during which you can trace the rise of normative scientific approaches to the human body, as well as the rise of professional scientific medicine. Eighteenth-century medicine had tended to figure “health” in relative and holistic ways, and there was not yet a general norm of health to which bodies were compared. I still think that there was an operative concept of disability in 1650 and 1750, but not in the modern sense of the word. During the Romantic era, however, the Enlightenment push to classify human bodies dovetailed with the regularization of diagnoses and medical practices, as well as the consolidation of increasingly universal standards of health. With the rise of the norm, you also began to see the emergence of “disability” in a much more recognizably modern form. So while many Romantic-era texts and strains of thought about non-normative bodyminds do not bear a close relationship to what we now think of as “disability,” I demonstrate in my book that many do.

If anything, the deeper I dug the more I was struck by the correspondences between 1800 and today. In Hygëia, for example, Thomas Beddoes includes an extended discussion of the social and emotional consequences of severe scars, despite their functional irrelevance—a passage that maps strikingly onto one from Susan Wendell’s Rejected Body (1996) in which she uses facial scarring as an example of “a disability constructed totally by stigma and cultural meanings.” And while authors of the Romantic era didn’t use the term “disability” in the way we do today, several explored or theorized concepts of disability as a social identity and aesthetic category in similar ways to contemporary disability theorists. In addition to Beddoes and Lamb, Wordsworth wrote powerfully of several dimensions of encountering disability; as an elocutionary scientist, John Thelwall critiqued normative views of his pupils; Coleridge narrated his ill bodymind in extraordinarily nuanced ways; and Tom Wedgwood developed a brilliant and influential metaphysical system around his embodied concepts, as a chronically ill person, of pleasure and pain. And to go beyond my book (although I had initially planned to write a coda along these lines), through the creation of her gigantic, “deformed,” yellow-tinted Creature, Mary Shelley may be said to have crafted one of the most compelling narratives of how disability is socially constructed in the modern world, as well as the profound consequences of such constructions for both individual and community.

4) What led you to focus your work principally on an extended Wordsworth-Coleridge circle (including John Thelwall, Thomas Beddoes, Humphry Davy, Tom Wedgwood and Charles Lamb)?  Are there particular authors from your secondary list (Robert Southey, Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Lamb, Thomas Poole, William Godwin, Erasmus Darwin and Sara Coleridge) on whom you’d have liked to have spent more time, given the space and leisure (or who you’re planning to revisit in future work)?

I chose the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle primarily for methodological reasons. I knew that I wanted to examine disability across a range of literary genres, but also beyond literature and beyond aesthetics and metaphysics. To contextualize Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb’s literary works, I also wanted to look to the scientific and medical discourses and texts that these authors often regarded their own work as directly addressing. This was, after all, an era before disciplines had solidified. Poetic and philosophical figures like Coleridge and Southey participated in medical experimentation at Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution, and scientific figures like Humphry Davy wrote poetry. Moreover, Romantic-era medicine laid claim to authority over the human body, so it felt necessary to explore medical perspectives—what kinds of bodies physicians and anatomists pathologized at the time, and how they did so. I also wondered whether there were those working within medicine who resisted the rise of normative approaches to human embodiment. (There were.) I likewise wanted to look at a diversity of subject positions—how disabled authors depicted their own experiences of disability, as well as how disabled and nondisabled authors depicted others’ disabilities. Because I was trying to cover so much ground, I needed to find a way to make narrative sense of the project, and focusing on a single circle of collaborators and friends struck me as a logical way of doing so.

There was a somewhat unexpected—but from a Disability Studies standpoint, ethically important—side effect of looking at a single circle of authors. I began to discern how the conversations these particular authors had with one another, especially during the 1790s, contributed to the remarkable ways that they were able to conceive of disability. And through tracing intellectual exchange, I was led again and again to Tom Wedgwood, who I have come to regard as the heart of my book. Wedgwood’s friends, collaborators, and acquaintances uniformly described him as an absolutely critical intellectual influence, but because of his chronic illness he never published his metaphysical essays and died young. Subsequent generations of biographers and scholars thought that pity and personal regard had led people like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and William Godwin to exalt Wedgwood’s genius, but I had trouble buying into what increasingly felt like a stock ableist narrative. Alan Barnes and Gavin Budge had both called for a reassessment of Wedgwood’s thought and importance, and by working at the Wedgwood Archive I began to trace for myself what I agreed was Wedgwood’s crucial role in the development of Romantic-era thought. By attending to relationships, in other words, I was able to contribute to what I see as the important recuperation and restoration of Tom Wedgwood’s metaphysics—and with that, disability epistemology—to the center of the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle. Combine that with the thinking and writing of Coleridge and Lamb, both of whom explicitly considered themselves to be ill or disabled subjects, and it becomes clear just how central disability perspectives were to Romanticism.

As to those who didn’t make it into the book… I wish I’d been able to address Dorothy Wordsworth’s unpublished Rydal journals, but I only first read and began to transcribe them at the Wordsworth Trust as I was revising the book. The Rydal journals, I believe, embody disabled possibilities that for Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth remained somewhat aspirational. A bigger regret—because it’s an omission that can’t be chalked up to timing—is that I didn’t include Mary Lamb’s writing in the book. Truth be told, I think a whole book could be written on the Lambs and disability, and I hope in the future to look at the siblings’ collaborative work, both in its content and also in terms of the Lambs’ ethos of care and interdependence, which resonates strongly with contemporary Disability Studies.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have several ongoing projects at the moment, some of which I began years ago and some of which are excitingly new. I’m currently revising an article on Romanticism’s disability poetics that may grow into a larger project, and I’m just now turning my attention back to what I call pathographical epitaphs (epitaphs that mention cause of death and/or medical care—a relatively common occurrence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). I hope to also get back to revising an article on Dorothy Wordsworth’s late style before too long. Following my teaching, in recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the ways that Romantic-era medicine similarly pathologized, classified, and exploited disabled and non-European people, and how the overlapping and often mutually constitutive discourses of disability and race shaped literature and culture of the era. I’m not sure where these interests will take me, but I hope to at some point write about Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince and William Earle’s Obi; or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack, and possibly other related texts. Along with some new collaborators, I’m working at the moment to relaunch The Gravestone Project, which I co-founded with Polly Atkin nearly a decade ago; as the anniversary of John Keats’s death approaches, I’m looking forward to the next chapter of the Keats Letters Project; and further in the future, I really hope to be able to return to Tom Wedgwood’s manuscripts as there’s so much more in them than I could cover in the book.

BARS Digital Events: ‘Digital Editions in Romantic Studies’ Recording Now Online

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The second session of our new Digital Events programme is now available to watch on YouTube!

Thank you to everyone who joined us over Zoom for this event.

Read more about the speakers here.

Professor Lynda Pratt, Dr. Sophie Coulombeau, Dr. Corrina Readioff, and Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull presented on the topic of ‘Digital Editions in Romantic Studies’. The event was chaired by BARS President, Professor Anthony Mandal.

Book your ticket for our next event, ‘Digital Teaching in Romantic Studies’, here.

BARS Digital Events: ‘Digital Teaching in Romantic Studies’

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The British Association for Romantic Studies is delighted to welcome you to the third session of our new Digital Events series: ‘Digital Teaching in Romantic Studies’. Please join us on Thursday 10 December at 5pm GMT on Zoom for a roundtable discussion between Dr Emma Butcher, Dr Daniel Cook, Dr Stephen Gregg, and Dr Joanna Taylor, chaired by Dr Matthew Sangster. During the session, our guests will discuss pedagogy and teaching styles for online learning, any challenges they’ve encountered with teaching online, innovative and effective online teaching methods, and much more. After this, the audience will be invited to take part in a moderated Q&A session. 

Book your ticket here!

Dr Emma Butcher is a Lecturer at Edge Hill University. She recently completed a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Leicester, as well as previously holding teaching positions at the University of Lincoln and Manchester Metropolitan University. She was named a 2017 BBC New Generation Thinker. Her research focuses on children’s experiences of war in the long nineteenth century. Dr Butcher has been published in the Journal of Victorian Culture and Victorian Periodicals Review. Her first monograph, The Brontës and War, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. She is currently writing her second monograph, Children in the Age of Modern War, contracted to OUP Trade for publication in 2022.

Dr Daniel Cook is Reader in English and Associate Director of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. His books include Walter Scott and Shorter Fiction (Edinburgh UP, 2021), Reading Swift’s Poetry (Cambridge UP, 2020), Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760-1830 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), The Afterlives of Eighteenth-Century Fiction (with Nicholas Seager; Cambridge UP, 2015), and Women’s Life Writing, 1700-1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship (with Amy Culley; Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). For Romantic Textualities he curates the Teaching Romanticism series online. 

Dr Stephen Gregg is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Bath Spa University. He specialises in eighteenth-century literature and digital humanities. His latest book, Old Books and Digital Publishing: Eighteenth Century Collections Online is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. He has recently taught courses on gender and the eighteenth-century novel, empire and identity in the eighteenth century, digital literary studies, and book history.

Dr Joanna Taylor is a Presidential Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Manchester. Her recent work explores the uses of digital technologies in humanities research, particularly at the intersection between literary geographies and environmental studies. She has published in Studies in Romanticism, the International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing and Nineteenth-Century Contexts and her book Deep Mapping the Literary Lake District, co-authored with Ian Gregory, will be published by Bucknell UP next year. 

See the recording of Session 1, ‘Romantic Studies in 2020’, here.

Archive Spotlight: Robert Southey at Keswick Museum

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A new post today for the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series. Many archives are of course closed in these strange and difficult times. We hope that this illustrated post will be one way of continuing to celebrate the archive – albeit remotely – in these circumstances, thereby reminding us of the treasures held in Romanticism collections. If you’d like to contribute future post, please get in touch.

The post below explores Keswick Museum’s unique collections by and connected to Robert Southey (1774-1843).

About the authors: Dr Charlotte May is a Cultural Engagement Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and Nicola Lawson is the Curator for the Museum’s extensive collections. 

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

Encountering Southey – Charlotte May

From February 2020 I have been working with Keswick Museum, Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt to deliver the AHRC-funded project ‘Robert Southey’s Keswick: Enhancing Understanding of the Literary Culture of the Northern Lake District’.  The project aims to effect a step-change in Keswick Museum’s presentation of the significance of Southey and his circle to a range of stakeholders by developing new educational, training and other resources.  It draws on The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, which is publishing for the first time all of Southey’s surviving correspondence, including hundreds of manuscript letters held by Keswick Museum.     

Working with archival materials is a privilege, and an experience that is truly unique. You learn about a person’s habits and behaviours, from their handwriting to their health. In Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Oliver De Hamel writes about ‘the experience of encounter’ when one handles historic manuscripts. Indeed, I have certainly encountered Southey at Keswick Museum, and working with the collection there has been a true joy.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a prolific and controversial poet, biographer, historian, and essayist. He lived at Greta Hall, Keswick for forty years and during this time used his extensive correspondence to record changes in local, national and international life. About six hundred of Southey’s letters are in the Museum’s collections, along with manuscripts of major works such as Madoc, notebooks that reveal the reading and research that underpinned his writings, personal effects and portraits. The latter include one commissioned by Southey’s friend William Taylor of Norwich and painted by John Opie in 1806, that is currently the focal point of the Museum’s exhibition.

Robert Southey by John Opie, 1806

A second portrait shows Southey aged two.  In 1796 it was the prompt for verses in which Southey reflected on his younger self and on his decision to embark on a poetic career:  

‘And I was once like this! that glowing cheek
Was mine, those pleasure-sparkling eyes, that brow
Smooth as the level lake, when not a breeze
Dies o’er the sleeping surface!’

You can listen to the full poem here.

Miniature of Robert Southey, aged 2

To encounter Southey in Keswick is to take up an imaginative residence in Greta Hall, and to be among his extended family and his many friends and acquaintances. Indeed the Museum’s collections contain important evidence of Southey’s love for family and home, including the ‘Memoir of the Cats of Greta Hall’, written for Edith May Southey and later published in The Doctor. One of the most poignant items is the ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ that Southey wrote for his son Herbert.  The death of the latter, aged nine, in April 1816 was a blow from which Southey and his wife Edith never fully recovered.  

Greek Grammar in Rhyme, written by Robert Southey for his son Herbert

After looking at this beautiful – and fragile – item, it was incredible to hear Herbert’s own voice in a letter he sent to a close family friend, Mary Barker.  The same letter contains a postscript by Herbert’s aunt Sara Coleridge and thus offers a reminder of the close familial, as well as professional, ties that connected and helped shape the lives and works of Southey and, indeed, other members of the ‘Lake School’.

Letter to Miss Barker from Herbert Southey, 3 November [1815]

The ‘Robert Southey’s Keswick’ project has contributed to the Museum’s new Southey exhibition and also produced a number of related outputs.  These include: training resources for the Museum’s guides and volunteers, a new guidebook on Robert Southey and Keswick, a learning box for schools, a walking tour, and online resources, including highlights from the Museum’s Southey collection that are not currently on display. By making this important collection better known and more accessible, the project also hopes to contribute to the Museum’s longer-term sustainability at a time when it, like other regional museums and archives, faces unprecedented challenges.

Our collections and their future – Nicola Lawson

Keswick Museum’s Southey collection is of huge historical value, and it is important that we care for it properly. The aim is that, as we are lucky enough to be able to see these objects 200 years after Southey lived, we preserve them so they last another 200 years and more.

This care involves two strands: preventative and remedial conservation. Preventative conservation is something we do every day at the Museum, and involves practices which slow down the deterioration of objects. For example, we make sure that paper objects, like Southey’s letters and notebooks, aren’t exposed to too much light. If you’ve ever had a picture facing a window, you know how quickly light can fade objects.

We also have to control the temperature and relative humidity of the spaces where the objects are stored and displayed. If the relative humidity in a room gets too high, there is moisture in the air and objects can become mouldy. If the relative humidity is too low, they can dry out and become brittle. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Other things we do to prevent damage and decay include regularly checking for pests, and preventing them as much as we can, and handling objects appropriately. This means always holding them by the base, and never by a handle, and usually wearing gloves. We wear gloves because hands naturally secrete oils which, over time, can be damaging to objects. Museum professionals used to wear cotton gloves, which are the type you’ll see most often on TV, but now we tend to use nitrile gloves. These give you a better grip on the object. For paper, we don’t wear gloves, as you can potentially do more damage by wearing them: if you can’t feel the paper properly, you might accidentally tear it. So we handle paper with clean, dry hands.

Keswick Museum curator Nicola Lawson with some of the Southey collection, including his death mask and his dress shoes.

Remedial conservation is different. This is restoring a historic object, and is only ever done by a qualified conservator. Currently, the ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ booklet Southey wrote for Herbert has some pages which are coming loose from the binding. The Museum is trying to raise the money to have to have this restored by a conservator.

One of the ways the Museum is raising money is through its Adopt an Object scheme. Adopters can choose from a range of local objects to sponsor for a year, many of which are related to Southey and the Romantics. Adopt an Object packages are sold in the Museum shop, and orders can also be taken over the phone. All proceeds support the Museum mission to care for Keswick’s wonderful heritage. When you adopt an object you will receive a card featuring images of the Museum’s collections, a certificate featuring the name of the adopter and a picture of the chosen object, and a ticket to visit the Museum which is valid for 12 months.

The Romantic period objects up for adoption are:

  • John Opie’s portrait of Robert Southey – £150
  • Robert Southey’s notebook – £100
  • A lock of William Wordsworth’s hair – £40
  • Robert Southey’s death mask – £35
  • A poem to Robert Southey from his cats – £15

Keswick Museum is very proud to care for this large collection relating to Southey’s life and works, and to make it available for research in collaboration with the University of Nottingham.

To adopt an object and support the Museum to preserve its collections for future generations to enjoy, please visit our website, call Keswick Museum on 017687 73263, or visit the Museum at Station Street, Keswick.

If the Museum is closed due to a lockdown, please either order online, or call 017687 73263 and leave a message with your name, contact details, and request, and a member of staff will get back to you.