A Short Judges’ Report on the 2021 BARS First Book Prize

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(Derived from the remarks delivered at the ceremony on August 19th at the Romantic Disconnections/Reconnections Conference.)

Awarded biennially for the best first monograph in Romantic Studies, for the current round the prize was open to first books published between 1 January 2019 and 1 January 2021. The judges for the current round were, in alphabetical order, David Fallon, Tess Somervell, and Angela Wright. Francesca Saggini chaired the panel.

The judges received 17 submissions, 12 of which were considered eligible. The remaining books were considered ineligible due to language (not in English) or as being outwith the current cut-off date of the Award.

First of all, we must say that the judges were impressed by the overall high level of originality and by the interdisciplinarity of all the submissions. Here we would like to commend all the researchers for the unfailingly high level of their scholarship. The competition was incredibly high spirited in this round as we immediately realised that some of the nominated books in 2021 would provide a very strong contribution to Romantic Studies not only now but also in the years to come.

It was a very tough job for the judges to narrow down the field. However, in July, we agreed on a four-strong shortlist of books, as follows (in alphabetical order):

  1. Will Bowers, The Italian Idea: Anglo-Italian Radical Literary Culture, 1815-1823 (2020)
  2. Amelia Dale, The Printed Reader: Gender, Quixotism, and Textual Bodies in 18thC Britain (2019)
  3. Hrileena Ghosh, John Keats’ Medical Notebook: Text, Context, and Poems (2020)
  4. Gerard Lee McKeever, Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831 (2020)

After further discussion and an intense to-ing and froing on emails, the judges reached consensus. Today, we are thrilled to share with you the name of the winner and celebrate with you all the research of the Early Career Researchers forming the roots and branches of the BARS community.

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First, we would like to praise the works of Will Bowers and Amelia Dale (in alphabetical order).

Will Bowers’ The Italian Idea: Anglo-Italian Radical Literary Culture, 1815-1823 is an excellent interdisciplinary work, focussing upon a very useful distinction between tourists and exiles, and demonstrating an exceptional and strong understanding of British Romanticism, and its engagements with authors such as Dante and Sismondi. Will Bowers’ study ranges over English and Italian literature, European and British history, criticism, translation, print culture, art and more, with some impressive and original archival research. It’s knitted together well into a convincing argument sustained over the chapters, and the written style is lucid and dexterous. This is a very good book, carefully researched and original in most of its aspects. Although focusing on a quite limited period (the ‘hot chronology’ from 1815-1823), it is engagingly presented as a double-focussed study and the organization of the book—closely knit place/time chapters, as in a Bakhtinian chronotope—clearly benefits from this approach.

The judges agree that this is a wide-ranging work, revelatory in many ways, and demonstrates excellent scholarship on both British and Romantic authors, and the interactions between both. A dexterous book, setting the bar of the study of this phase of Anglo-Italianism high.

Amelia Dale’s The Printed Reader is an enjoyable and wide-ranging study, which coordinates a range of concerns (the novel, reading, material print, psychology, gender) deftly and provides illuminating analyses of texts in relation to these concerns. Focussing upon experiential impressions, and the positioning of the reading body as implicitly female, this work brings together in breath-taking fashion considerations of the material text, the history of reading, philosophies, and eighteenth-century British quixotic narratives. It is a work of the long eighteenth century, with valuable insights into how, precisely, reading in the Romantic period comes to fashion the reading body as female too, which happened in so many reviews as well as works of fiction. In this way, Dale also makes an important contribution to the study of Romanticism, for the way in which she traces the impulses of reading and impressions through from the mid eighteenth century to the Romantic period.

The judges agree that this is a fluent, incisive, and highly original work. The Printed Reader teaches a great deal to those interested in book history and female readerships.

As you will be aware, these two books already show the extremely high level of competition in 2021. However, as far any competition goes, this one must have a winner too. And the winner of the 2021 BARS First Book Award is Gerard Lee McKeever with Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831. The panel of judges unanimously also wants to celebrate the truly exceptional work of Hrileena Ghosh: therefore, we propose that an honourable mention go to John Keats’ Medical Notebook: Text, Context, and Poems.

Before celebrating the terrific research of Gerard, a few words on Hrileena’s study.

Hrileena Ghosh’s John Keats’ Medical Notebook is a carefully researched study of the medical Notebook from Keats’ time at Guy’s Hospital. This is the first annotated edition of the notebook (and surely a long overdue feat) and makes a compelling case that Keats was intensely invested in his medical studies, considering how cosmopolitan and cutting-edge they were, and how they left a profound mark on his life, poetry, and letters. The judges were impressed by the interdisciplinarity of Hrileena’s research: poetry, biography, textual editing, palaeography, stylistics, political and social context, multiple archives, and of course medical humanities (particularly anatomy and physiology). The latter was particularly impressive given it triangulated Keats’ poems and notebook with historical and modern medical knowledge and terminology.

Ghosh takes up the challenge of moving from medicine to poetry and back, in a far from easy feat. The results are convincing and illuminating. What we have here is impressive archival and editorial work: a revelatory, valuable work, important for scholars and students. Ghosh makes an excellent job of it, marrying the observations on the notebooks up in new and revealing ways with how to read Keats’ poetry.

The judges agree that this is a superb work.

And finally, on to our 2021 winner: Gerard Lee McKeever’s Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831. The judges were highly impressed by this book – it’s ambitious, admirably clear, and underpinned by meticulous research and close readings, covering both well-known canonical writers (Burns, Scott, Hogg) and less familiar writers/texts (Baillie, Galt). It’s impressively interdisciplinary: philosophy, historiography, textual criticism and editing history, print culture, politics and religion are all in the mix. The four case studies addressed by McKeever offer representative and complementing foci to the study of ‘improvement’, a complex discourse—or network of discourses, contradictory at times—that the author examines from a cross-sectional standpoint and in several contexts (poetry, drama, short fiction and aesthetic theory, amongst others) and with a cross-temporal approach. As a ‘supreme narrative’ (p. 1), ‘improvement’ and its companion ‘progress’ can be both a metaphor and a practice, moral as well as material ‘idea(l)s.’ McKeever makes an excellent job of weaving several strands of inquiry together, thus highlighting the overarching dialectical complexity of his work.

Dialectics of Improvement is very well-written, robustly argued, and includes an interesting range of authors and subjects. The texts by Joanna Baillie, for example, are not the most discussed or studied of her works, and thus McKeever’s analysis of Baillie really adds a new dimension to the scholarship on her work, as does the focus, in a different way, on a single and well-known poem by Robert Burns. The study is full of moments of brilliant close reading, closely balanced by larger claims about Romanticism.

To sum up, this an excellent work of scholarship, insightful and enriched by many incisive and subtle readings of less familiar texts.

Congratulations to the two short-listed authors for their brilliant work: to Will Bowers and Amelia Dale. Also, congratulations to Hrileena for her outstanding book.

The 2021 BARS First Book Award Judges, 23/08/21