Five Questions: Porscha Fermanis on Romantic Pasts

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Porscha Fermanis is Professor of Romantic Literature at University College Dublin. Her research interests include Romantic poetry and poetics; the relationship between Romanticism and Enlightenment; history and historiography; nineteenth-century colonial material culture; global Romanticisms; and the history of globalisation. She is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council-funded SouthHem project. Her recent books include Romanticism: A Literary and Cultural History (Routledge, 2016; with Carmen Casaliggi), Early Public Libraries and Colonial Citizenship in the British Southern Hemisphere (Palgrave, 2019; with Lara Atkin et al) and Worlding the South: Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture and the Southern Settler Colonies (Manchester University Press, 2021; ed. with Sarah Comyn). Her latest book, Romantic Pasts: History, Fiction and Feeling in Britain, 1790-1850, which we discuss below, has just been published by Edinburgh University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in what your introduction describes as ‘the complex relationship between feeling and the making of the modern historical method’?

I’ve been interested in historiography for what seems like a long time now, dating back to my 2009 book on Keats and extending to a co-edited collection on Romantic-era history in 2014 (with John Regan). While my interest in feeling is a bit more recent, the role and place of feeling in written history is a long-standing issue in the philosophy of history. There are a number of ways of understanding historiographical shifts over the longue durée, but in nearly all of these explanations feeling has had a significant role to play in history’s changing self-definition. It’s almost a truism at this point to say that the historical writing of the Romantic period saw a deepening of those sympathetic registers that emerged out of late Enlightenment thinking. Ironically, however, my own interest in feeling surfaced from the ambivalence towards sentimental techniques that I discovered in Romantic-era written histories. There is a sense in the historical writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, and others that sympathetic identification—while desirable—comes with its own set of ethical problems, including ideological concealment and the complicity between the personal and political. More generally, I was interested in connecting work from the history of emotion, which has demonstrated how modern conceptions of emotion took shape in the nineteenth century, to the writing of history itself.

2) How did you decide to focus on ‘the protocols, norms, and evidentiary claims of “real” history rather than on the novel, memoir, or biography’?  What for you are the most important things we see when we place the spotlight on such histories, rather than on forms like the historical novel?

My decision to focus on ‘real’ or ‘official’ history was partly a pragmatic one. There has already been so much excellent work produced on women’s historical writing and on the historical novel. Mark Salber Phillips has also done a brilliant job of thinking about quasi- and para-historical genres in Society and Sentiment (2000). It seemed to me, however, that some (although by no means all) of this work tended to see official history as an unchanging norm against which innovations in other genres could be mapped or measured. I wanted to think instead about how written history was contributing to, rather than just belatedly incorporating, some of the formal innovations we normally attribute to the novel, memoir, and biography. Putting the spotlight on official history can, for instance, allow us to see how the genre developed new technologies for the staging of historical selves, technologies that emerged as much from Enlightenment faculty psychology and from what I call ‘feeling documents’ as from the novel. By treating written history as (at least to some degree) separable and distinct from quasi- and para-historical genres, I think that we can see more clearly what heuristic models history borrowed from the novel and vice versa.

3) To what extent do you see Romantic-period history-writing as departing from earlier eighteenth-century practices?  What are the main legacies of the period’s approaches for the development of historical writing and the organisation of history as a discipline?

History’s familiar coming-of-age or disciplinary birth story is that professional empirical history emerged only in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Romantic Pasts I focus less on questions of institutional or disciplinary professionalisation and more on the longer and slower processes of differentiation and specialisation internal to genre hierarchies and classifications. While I do not deny that the Romantic period reflects a gradual shift away from eighteenth-century philosophic history towards a more affective and narrative type of history, the legacies of Romantic-era historical writing are, I think, much more closely aligned with the development of the modern historical method than they first appear. For one thing, the archival turn was well and truly under way in the Romantic period, fortified by a revised form of antiquarianism. For another thing, Romantic-era historians had already begun to centre a different conceptualisation of emotion that the traditional empiricist one, a conceptualisation that focused more on the motivational than the affective character of emotions. I suggest that this new conceptualisation of emotion gradually allowed for the objectification of feeling in written history, in the sense that feeling was increasingly seen as an object of historical study rather than just as a rhetorical mode.

4) How did you come to select the groupings of writers around which you structure your chapters (Edmund Burke and Wollstonecraft; Godwin and Carlyle; Scott, Thomas Moore and Robert Southey; Thomas Babington Macaulay and Carlyle; the reviewers for the Edinburgh Review and ‘other organs of “higher journalism”‘)?  Were there other historians you considered including as you refined the plan, but who ultimately didn’t fit with the book’s design?

I could have considered many other historians in more depth in the book. Among them are figures who are perhaps closer to what we would today consider ‘career’ historians: for example, Sharon Turner, Henry Hallam, Francis Palgrave, and John Lingard. If I had centred those historians, the book might have looked very different. It could, for instance, have been structured around more traditional historical sub-categories, such as constitutional history, military history, ecclesiastical history, and so forth. As I started to focus on feeling, however, it became important to me to look primarily at writers who either produced multigenre corpuses or who were directly engaged with the relationship between history and fiction. Within this particular set of histories, a number of alternative thematic categories emerged, such as historical experience, character, and style. I decided to include a final chapter on periodical reviews because it allowed me to think more fully about questions of occupational identity (particularly the distinction between ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’) and reception (including the gendering of reception). Even here, however, had I not focused on organs of higher journalism, the chapter would have looked very different since other, less elite types of journals promoted more popular and accessible forms of history.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve finally left historiography behind (I think!) and I’m currently finishing a book called Southern Settler Fiction and the Transcolonial Imaginary, 1820-1890. This book posits that the nineteenth-century settler novel, far from being a generic and belated version of metropolitan fiction, can assist us in understanding complex, transitionary modes of settler and migrant cultural identification across and between multiple spaces, thereby disrupting understandings of Angloworld migration as a single long ship voyage from Europe or America. It examines the kind of ‘mobile fiction’ that depicts transient and short-term movement, primarily between colonial Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa but also between the South Pacific, India, Africa, China, and Southeast Asia. Its central premise is that novels that foreground border-crossing or mobility between spaces can enable us to think about how national canons have marginalised mobile communities and naturalised the nation-state itself. My focus in the book is on two themes: first, the ways in which settler novels encode specifically regional spatial imaginaries (Australasia, Trans-Tasman, Oceania etc); and second, representations in settler fiction of imagined noncommunities, marginalised or precarious political subjects, and the historically punishable bodies of convicts, indentured labourers, servants, non-European diasporas, Indigenous peoples, and mixed-race peoples.