Five Questions: Orianne Smith on Romantic Women Writers, Revolution, and Prophecy

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Orianne Smith - Romantic Women Writers, Revolution, and Prophecy

Orianne Smith, the inaugural winner of the BARS First Book Prize, is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).  She has published widely on topics including gender in the Romantic period, the Gothic, Romantic war poetry and the connections between religion, superstition and magic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  She edited Hubert de Sevrac (1796) for the Works of Mary Robinson (2009-10) and she is currently working on an edition of Helen Maria Williams’ Julia, a novel (1790) for Broadview.  Her award-winning first monograph, Romantic Women Writers, Revolution, and Prophecy: Rebellious Daughters, 1786–1826, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

1) How did you first come to realise that you wanted to write about the relationship between revolution and prophecy in the works of British women writers of the Romantic period?

It was a happy accident.  During my second year in graduate school I was taking a course on seventeenth-century sectarian writers and wrote my final paper on the wild, wacky and truly wonderful Civil War prophetesses.  Like most students I was still working on the paper on the day it was due and I needed a conclusion.  It occurred to me that there could be an interesting connection between these seventeenth-century women who claimed the authority of God during a period of revolution and Romantic women writers who also assumed the mantle of the female prophet in the wake of the French Revolution.  I wrapped up the paper with this thought, but the idea of a British tradition of female prophecy stuck with me.  Afterwards I mentioned it to my dissertation director, Steve Jones, and he encouraged me to explore the idea more fully.  That was in 1999!  A few sentences at the end of a paper turned into my dissertation and then, in 2013, my book.

2) In what ways did the project evolve between your initial conceptions and the publication of your monograph?

There were two very significant shifts in my thinking.  Originally, I thought of visionary writing in largely secular terms, as essentially a power grab by women writers who used the prophetic register in order to validate their stance as social and political commentators.  My perspective early on was that their visionary discourse consisted of something like 90% politics and 10% religion (at best).  I quickly discovered that this one-size-fits-all approach was not nuanced enough to accommodate the diverse ways in which Romantic women writers engaged in prophecy.  And it did not take into consideration the fact that most of the women in my study were in fact deeply religious and believed that they had a moral imperative to intervene at this critical juncture in human history.  My project truly began to take shape once I began approaching each of the women writers in my study on their own terms and not mine.

The other important shift took place when I was revising the dissertation into a book.  I had happily spent most of my time as a graduate student buried in the archives, reading everything written by and about my five case studies (Piozzi, Williams, Radcliffe, Barbauld and Shelley) as well as a range of historical documents (including sermons, prophecies, letters and diaries) and eighteenth-century scholarly activity (including eschatology, philology, aesthetic theory and moral philosophy).  This was incredibly useful material, but during my revisions I felt like I needed to take a step back and think through the special qualities of prophetic language.  Under what conditions did prophetic discourse succeed and (perhaps more interesting to me) why did it fail?  How was it different from ordinary language?  I began reading widely in speech act theory, as articulated by J. L. Austin in the mid-twentieth century and by later critics such as John Searle, Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu.  I also found Angela Esterhammer’s work on the Romantic performative particularly illuminating.  Speech act theory helped me think through the complex relationship between Romantic women writers who engaged in visionary discourse and their audiences, as well as the specific contexts in which these prophetic performances played out.

3) Religion is often a neglected factor in literary studies, partly because the kinds of aesthetic assumptions on which modern criticism is grounded implicitly seek to marginalise or replace it.  What do you think are the main benefits of approaches like yours in this book which place religious discourses back at the centre of cultural debates?

The main benefit is inherent in your question: religion belongs at the centre of cultural debates and restoring it is necessary if we want to have a more capacious understanding of literature and history.  That said, I think that religion has already made a comeback in literary studies.  You are right though to note that there are some inherent tensions between academic/critical and religious discourses.  I wonder sometimes if that is because of the uncomfortable similarities between the two.  For example, I have always intensely disliked the idea of a literary canon, with its suggestion of a set of timeless sacred texts carefully preserved for the edification of generations of students.  For the record, I do not consider myself to be a high priestess of literature!  To push the analogy even further: some theorists are invoked with something akin to reverence in the academy and I’m sure all of us have read works of criticism that seem truly inspired.  Are literary critics and cultural commentators scientists or prophets?  I would like to think that my work as a researcher is grounded in neutral, quasi-scientific inquiry and yet admittedly my best ideas are hardly ever the result of careful scaffolding and plodding from A to B.  Often they feel more like stolen fire or some sort of gift from the gods (yes, I appear to be channeling my inner—hopefully more responsible!—Victor Frankenstein in my answer here).

As I mentioned above, I didn’t set out to write a book on the influence of religion on Romantic-era writers, and I was certainly no expert on the subject when I began.  What I learned during the course of this project though is that while religious belief is about faith, it is also fueled by the imagination, the ability to imagine another super-natural world and to communicate this to others.  Those of us who make our living analyzing works of the imagination are therefore uniquely equipped to analyze the influence of religion and religious narrative on the figures we study.  And I am now convinced that, at least in our period, it is impossible to conduct literary analysis without some attention to the author’s beliefs, spiritual as well as secular.

4) To what extent do you see the figures you principally examine (Hester Lynch Piozzi, Helen Maria Williams, Ann Radcliffe, Anna Barbauld and Mary Shelley) as employing a common set of prophetic tropes, and to what extent do they each invent their own particular visionary modes?

That’s a great question.  I believe that all of the figures in my study were aware of, and attracted to, a genealogy of female authority that they used to position themselves as visionary writers and thinkers.  In the wake of the French Revolution these writers tended to draw on a Christian tradition of female prophecy, which was explicitly political and revolutionary, with a clear connection to the visionary discourse engaged in by the sectarian female prophets of the Civil War decades.  Later in the period, well after the revolution and the millenarian expectations that it inspired, I found a distinct shift from Christian to pagan modes of prophetic discourse in the work of second-generation Romantic writers like Mary Shelley.  Within this very general framework, however, each of these writers reinvented or explored the model of the female prophet in radically different ways.  Piozzi was especially drawn to the notion of female prophecy as theatrical performance, taking inspiration from her friend Sarah Siddons as well as the famous Italian improvisatrice Corilla.  Williams seemed to hit her stride as a visionary writer when she moved to Paris in 1790, and switched from writing poetry and her one novel Julia to political commentary, describing and prophesying the events unfolding around her.  Radcliffe had better luck than Williams with integrating female prophecy into the genre of the novel, casting the heroines of her Gothic narratives as prophets and revealing how their appreciation of God’s ordering of the natural world inspires their visionary activity.  Barbauld was one of my favorite case studies because of her utter fearlessness in her approach to visionary discourse.  Throughout her career, in her poetry and prose, Barbauld represents herself as a poet-prophet along the lines of Milton, leading the nation in a period of profound spiritual and political crisis.  I believe Shelley was perhaps more attuned than the rest to the notion of a matrilineal genealogy of prophecy with a beginning and an end, and in some ways saw herself as the last of the female visionaries in this tradition.

5) What new topics are you currently researching?

I’ve gone to the dark side.  Well, at least in terms of my interest in the intersection of religion and literature!  My next book is an exploration of representations of gender, witchcraft and magic in Romantic-era poetry and prose.  This is a natural extension of my first project and the research I did then on female enthusiasm.  From the Civil War decades through the Romantic period writers pondered the source of enthusiasm, and wondered if female enthusiasts were divinely or diabolically inspired.  My first book explored the limits and potential of divine inspiration for Romantic women writers and my second book will take up the diabolical angle.  So far it has been a lot of fun!  I’m currently working on the connections between Macbeth, Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor and Baillie’s Witchcraft, focusing on the ways in which the ties of kinship and community are disrupted and subverted by the villainesses.  I am still very interested in performative language, but I’m particularly intrigued by speech acts that founder or flail around or are willfully ignored by the characters in the works I’m studying.  I have found Eve Sedgwick’s idea of periperformatives—speech acts which populate the area around a performative and behave like bad neighbors, seeking to undo or weaken the illocutionary force of a performative—very useful in this project.