Five Questions: Elizabeth Neiman on Minerva’s Gothics

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Elizabeth Neiman is an Associate Professor in both English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine. Her research interests include British Romanticism, genre, the history of the novel, feminist theory and the digital humanities, and she has published on these areas in European Romantic Review and Women’s Writing. She has recently co-edited (with Christina Morin) a journal special issue on ‘The Minerva Press and the Literary Marketplace’, which will be published shortly by Romantic Textualities. Her first monograph, Minerva’s Gothics: The Politics and Poetics of Romantic Exchange, 1780-1820, which we discuss below, was published in 2019 by the University of Wales Press.

1) How did you first become interested in the Minerva Press?

I love this question because it allows for a backstory that is as much “personal” as it is about the larger field of Romantic studies. I first learned of the Minerva Press when studying for my preliminary exam as a doctoral student in 2007. I was not yet a student of Romantic studies. Rather, I had been studying feminist theory as well as “genre” as defined and understood by what is called “composition studies” here in the States. Composition studies (or writing studies as it sometimes is called) defines genre as a situation that involves a dynamic interaction between readers and writers. Genres impact what can be said and by whom. Compositionists push back on the idea that to teach first-year writing is a sort of bottom-dweller activity, the price almost any graduate student has to pay to “get” to teach more advanced courses, especially courses in literature. Composition theory suggests instead that student writing can itself be worth analyzing closely, being a site where students (especially those from marginalized backgrounds) engage and negotiate academic conventions. In my preliminary exams, I was studying genre theory alongside scholarship on women’s gothic novels. Emma Clery’s The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995) introduced me to the Minerva Press and also the idea that its novels were pretty much all the same—derivative and socially and politically conservative.

While I knew I had a lot to learn about Romantic studies, I felt that coming into the field backwards so it was, with questions and insights from composition pedagogy and feminist theory, provided me with different vantage point to assess the novels. Rather than approach genre fiction with the presumption that it limits what can be said, I wondered what genre conventions of popular fiction might allow marginalized writers to say. This question was at the heart of my dissertation, “Novels Begetting novel(ists): Minerva Press Formula and Romantic-Era Literary Production.” At the 2011 ASECS meeting in Vancouver, just months before defending my dissertation, I attended a session that caused me no small degree of consternation. Someone else was also writing a dissertation on Minerva novels! I listened to Hannah Doherty Hudson’s presentation, my only consolation being that at least I would defend my dissertation first. Several years later (NASSR 2014), Hannah and I confessed to each other how alarmed we had both been at the discovery that we were not the only one reassessing Minerva’s collectively shared formulas. It’s hard not to smile at the irony—what a Romantic idea, that contribution to a field is independent, springing up out of nowhere. By the time I was proofing my book in 2019, I had come to see how my own perspective on Minerva was very much of the moment. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Romanticists like Clery and Michael Gamer drew attention to Minerva’s role in inciting Romantic “anxiety”—those canonically Romantic attitudes about authorship and literature that still persist today. Their attention to the Press’s role in shaping the literary market brought Minerva novels back into view. In writing Minerva’s Gothics as a new assistant professor in the mid-2010s, my sense that Minerva was of the moment—a sign of the field’s broadening investments—only grew as I came into conversation with others (Jennie Batchelor, Hannah Hudson, Anthony Mandal, Tina Morin, Megan Peiser, Yael Shapira) who also were looking more closely at Minerva novels themselves.

2) Works published under the Minerva Press imprint have often been lumped together as an undifferentiated mass, as in Charles Lamb’s description of ‘Lane’s novels’ as ‘those scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public’.  What are the main ways your book corrects such views by tracing the changing contents and contexts of Minerva’s productions?

Here, Emma Clery’s work on Minerva was an important starting point. Clery described Minerva’s prolific production of formulaic novels as precipitating modern-day divisions between “high” and “low” literature. What did it mean then to think of Minerva novels as predating (and yet also helping to incite) that division? I began to think about Minerva circulation in the broader sense that the novels’ shared conventions and formulas were not theirs alone but rather part of a larger cultural legacy. Minerva novelists participate in contemporary debates by and through borrowing the same conventions and turns of phrase popularized by better-known writers. These conventions changed over time and in use, from the sentimental novel’s lovers’ vows to the gothic novel’s endorsement of poetic genius. I map the exchange among Minerva novelists, but also between obscure and now-canonical authors. Minerva becomes a touchpoint for canonical Romantic writers to denounce cliché, but perhaps more interestingly, Minerva authors recycle the language and conventions of “genius” so to envision themselves as collaborators.

In order to show how Minerva authors collectively revised and added new emphasis to popular conventions, I read as many of their novels as I could (this included novels from the mid-to late-1780s, when William Lane began to publish novels with some frequency but before the Press was christened Minerva). I paired close reading with analysis of publishing records to see what Minerva was actually publishing and when. I wanted to know when (and, indeed, if) women novelists started flocking to Minerva and if they did so in the numbers that the contemporary reviews suggest; I also wanted to know if Minerva novelists had different publishing profiles than other period novelists—such as publishing anonymously, publishing more frequently, or publishing only with Minerva. To answer these and other related questions I created a database of publishing records for all British Romantic era novels—records are drawn from James Raven’s and Peter Garside’s bibliographic study, The English Novel, which provides information on all published novels in the period, such as the author’s name, if known, and the publisher. Statistical analysis led me to confirm that there was indeed a “Minerva” effect on the market, though this effect differs across Minerva’s thirty-year run. I also found it necessary to define Minerva author broadly so to include any author who published any of their work with the Press.

3) Your book juxtaposes Minerva Press novels with well-known Romantic-period texts by writers including William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley.  What are the most important things these writers reveal about the influence of the Minerva Press, and how does bringing Minerva into the picture help us better understand these canonical figures?

In one sense, my attention to these canonical writers confirms what we already knew from the work of Clery and Gamer—canonical Romanticism is underwritten in part by “anxiety” about the prolific print culture. Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft in particular are vexed by popular novels, seeing them as sort of the dark side of Enlightenment print culture. The dissemination of ideas does not necessarily mean fresh insights, disinterested inquiry, genuine feelings. Rather, it can mean indoctrination, cliché (many of us are certainly drawing similar conclusions about the role of social media in an increasingly polarized political climate). I pay particular attention to Wordsworth to map out how his 1800/1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads sets originality in opposition to cliché, laying the groundwork for Minerva’s erasure from literary history. But over the course of the book, I also show that there is a contrary undercurrent in canonical Romantic poetics, or perhaps a conflicting set of ideas. By placing William Godwin’s Caleb Williams in the larger context of what I call Minerva’s “Providential” novels (novels that like Godwin’s rely heavily on fatalistic language and conventions) I could detect an alternative attitude towards literary formula to Wordsworth’s. In borrowing from this Providential network of conventions, Godwin reassesses cliché, seeing it as a site for powerful emotions and as an opportunity to reach rather than alienate readers when saying something new. I then suggest that Percy Shelley shares Godwin’s sense of the power of popular conventions even while being drawn simultaneously to the competing idea of the Poet’s break from stale associations—his originality.

4) Which Minerva Press novels would you recommend to scholars seeking to expand their knowledge, and which do you think might most fruitfully be added to Romantic Studies syllabi?

These are both great questions—as for the first, Minerva novels are often long and quite tedious if read individually, but there is so much more to be learned from Minerva novels when read in concert with each other and with other Romantic-era texts. Tina Morin and I just made the point in our introduction to a special issue on Minerva and the Romantic market (in Romantic Textualities) that the true test of Minerva’s lasting impact on Romantic-studies is whether or not they continue to be read. As for the second question, Jonathan Sadow and I have recently proposed a Broadview edition of the 1801 novel, What Has Been. This two-volume novel is unusual in being a fast read that would not overburden students. A “spin-off” of Radcliffe’s gothics, it is an excellent example of how Minerva’s “formulaic” novels can add new perspectives to Romantic studies, in this case, debates about authorship, the Romantic imagination, and revolutionary feminism.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am working on two interrelated book projects—the second, a memoir, was unanticipated. I drafted But not so, little boys: writing to and of a sister between March and July of this year, following the unexpected death in February of my sister’s not-quite three year old little boy. The first project is on Romantic autobiographical expression, paying particular attention to how women writers wrote about love, loss, and grief in ways that might not seem “personal.” I had begun this research following my Mom’s death of pancreatic cancer in 2015 when it was not lost on me that in standing at her deathbed, I occupied a similar space as so many Minerva heroines. In some of my newest work, I weigh how some of the best-known women writers of the period, like Wollstonecraft, Hays, and Shelley, participate in the Romantic turn inwards in their novels. What happens to the conventional turns of, say, gothic romance, when infused by self—from meditative lyricism to feminist self-analysis?  As I continue with this project, I intend to ask this same question of more obscure novels by authors we know little or nothing about, such as the anonymous epistolary novel The Woman of Colour (1808). With this novel in mind, I began my post-tenure sabbatical this past spring bent on understanding how scholars presently understand Romanticism as it intersects with race. Ian Baucom’s 2005 reflections on the limits of the Romantic imagination were on my mind in February as I flew out to Iowa City with my own two-year old, Simon, in tow. In those weeks by my sister’s side I never felt so agonized and yet I was also always keenly aware that I was not my sister. On March 1st I returned home to Bangor and to my life, my two children by my side. In the memoir I explore the limits but also the potential of empathy, questions that seem especially timely given the inequities exposed during the pandemic and also the recent call for racial justice. I ask, might “empathy” keep us in our own heads, our own lives—so that a momentary sting of sadness or even a more prolonged despair is soon to fade again in the drama of day-to-day life?

The memoir has been a reminder of how central Romanticism can be now—politically (writers of color are presently mapping out the limits of empathy in news articles) but also personally. I find myself turning towards but also away from writers like Wordsworth in thinking about what it means to write about another person’s suffering. How might Romantic era writers express grief, love and loss through shared conventions and with what implications for how we understand and assess empathy and the Romantic imagination? This question brings me back to Minerva novels with the sense that there is far more to be said.