Sarah Green's 3-volume satire Scotch Novel Reading; or, Modern Quackery (1824) casts Walter Scott's novels as public enemy number one because of their supposed bad effects on women's morals. Unexpectedly, Byron comes off much better. Given his infamy, we might expect Green's novel to treat him as Satan reborn. Instead, when the "young pedant" Mr. Hartfield begins "a violent philippic against Lord Byron" and quotes "in support of his opinion a passage from 'Don Juan,'" he is flattened by Mrs. Howard, "a married woman, truly correct, faultless in her moral conduct" who "despised all fastidious or rather factitious modesty." She blames not Byron but rather "modern readers, who, with the most brilliant treasures of fancy and genius heaped before their eyes, will yet turn up, over and over again, the precious soil, to see if they cannot discover some dross amongst the brilliant jewels" (Green 1: 102, 104). While not denying that Don Juan may contain "dross," Mrs. Howard argues that its risqué moments are outshone by its "brilliant treasures of fancy and genius."
This snippet from Green helps us understand why women writers cared about Byron in the early nineteenth century. For scholars of gender, Byron's savage treatment of his wife, misogynistic cracks in his letters and poetry, and habit of violently killing off female characters do not make him easy to like. Yet insofar as Mrs. Howard speaks for her author, Green registers that attacks made on Byron, in the name of what is good for women, sprang from "fastidious or rather fictitious modesty." They aimed to censor women's reading, limit their autonomy, and clean up literature to achieve pseudo-respectability. Without claiming that Byron is a girl's best friend, Mrs. Howard illustrates why women writers wanted to read and respond to Byron, despite his baggage.
Caroline Franklin, a well-established scholar of Byron and Byronism, has produced the first full-length book about this complicated response. Limiting herself to "how women's fiction of the earlier nineteenth century influenced, interacted with, or responded to the poetry and life story of Byron" (1), she avoids his effect on female poets, a topic already analyzed brilliantly in Susan Wolfson's "Byron and the Muse of Female Poetry," chapter 8 of her Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action (2010). Franklin also explains in her introduction that she does not examine Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's novel-like Aurora Leigh, or such nonfictional works as the Countess of Blessington's Conversations of Lord Byron and Teresa Guiccioli's memoirs of his life in Italy. Nevertheless, she tracks responses to Byron in many other works by authors ranging from Madame de Staël to George Sand, from Lady Caroline Lamb to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In the early nineteenth century, what Franklin calls "the poetry and life story of Byron" shuttled among the words of his texts, his experimental genres, rumors about his life, biographies, and periodical reviews. Despite this complexity, a few cues became shorthand for "Byron," and their appearance let readers know that Byron was somewhere in the textual room. When listed out of context, these cues appear banal, and most were clichés before Byron was even born. Yet, within individual fictions, as Franklin demonstrates, they acquire complexity and depth.
In discussing these fictions, Franklin displays two outstanding strengths. First, she reads intertextuality through politics, showing that women's novels used Byron to stage major debates about government, the status of the political subject, and the rights of the individual in society. For Franklin, the sex/gender system belongs to a nineteenth-century political discourse embedded in gendered rhetoric. Second, she reads the individual texts of an author in terms of her whole career, so that we see not snapshots but a trajectory. Since most of the writers she treats were less prolific than their Victorian successors, she can effectively analyze the novels of each within a single chapter.
Franklin's account of women and Byron begins with Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which she reads as a response to Madame de Staël's treatment of Italy in Corinne. Both authors, Franklin observes, "use self-projections as protagonists, not merely out of egoism, but because the historical change they are registering has shaken their personal sense of aristocratic identity" (22). Franklin then considers how Lady Morgan and Anna Jameson respond to Byron or, more accurately, to his response to de Staël. Both women attack Byron's glorification of Italian sensuality: Lady Morgan's Italy reads it as a bad effect of Catholic barbarism, and Jameson's Diary of an Ennuyée questions the role models that Byron creates for Italian women. Yet even though Jameson's novel parodies fashionable sentimentalism, it portrays Italy more sympathetically than Morgan does.
In her overview of Mary Shelley, Franklin argues that she features "Byronic heroes exemplifying the survival of autocratic tendencies within liberalism" (44). I found especially useful her treatment of Mathilda, because she not only considers how it adapts the incest theme from Byron but also raises "the question of whether suicide is ever morally justifiable," and in so doing, she brilliantly links Mathilda to Byron's Manfred as a key precursor. After the grim Shelley chapter, the tone lightens when she turns next to revisions of Byron's Corsair in Caroline Lamb's Ada Reis and George Sand's Lélia and L'Uscoque, A Venetian Story. To Franklin's credit, she argues that the rather ridiculous Ada Reis can be read as a compelling critique of Byron. More fruitfully, she also shows how Sand's L'Uscoque and Lélia transfer the moral ambiguity of Byron's heroes from men to women, the Kaled-like Naam and the androgynous, freethinking Lélia.
Lady Byron dominates Franklin's chapters on Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Harriet Beecher's novelistic career. Although no feminist herself, Lady Byron reminded Victorian writers of how helpless even an intelligent, pious, aristocratic woman could be when faced with the wreckage of a bad marriage. While the novels of Caroline Norton and Rosina Bulwer-Lytton also foreground marital disasters, Brontë's heroine comes closest to Lady Byron herself in her reserve, religious seriousness, and misguided belief that she can reform her husband. As for Stowe, Franklin demonstrates how Lady Byron Vindicated grew out of Stowe's career-long professional goals: "As a professional writer," Franklin argues, "Stowe felt she had a mission to speak for those without citizenship who could not or dared not speak for themselves, infantilized in the eyes of the law and considered to be existing in a state of everlasting childhood, whether slaves or women" (160). Besides usefully considering the immediate context of Lady Byron Vindicated, including the insults aimed at Lady Byron by the writers of Blackwood's, Franklin also shows how Stowe uses Victorian psychology to cut Byron down to size. At the same time, she reveals, Stowe was drawn to Lord Byron's outspoken "crusade for liberty," along with what Franklin calls (using a borrowed phrase) "romantic racism," a "delighted relish in exotic cultural and racial otherness" (160). Even in works that seem to fault him, Stowe lets the Byronic male voice "the sharpest critique of New England religion and its complicity with the institution of slavery" (180).
The chapters on Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are more perfunctory, largely because critics have discussed their novels in so much detail that new light on them would require a different, more experimental kind of book. But as a whole, Franklin's book provides new information about the pervasive presence of Byron in early nineteenth-century literature. Like much previous scholarship on this topic, her book helps fill out the movement from Romantic to Victorian fiction by stressing continuities between the two, specifically between the ways in which earlier and later women novelists represented Byron. Franklin is particularly original in drawing attention to little-known works and putting better known ones in a broader political context.
Nevertheless, I end on a note of dismay at the quality of editing in this book. Does anyone at Routledge care that while this book costs over $100, it is studded with typographical errors such as "of" for "on" (10), "Cuzolari" for "Curzolari" (75), "telling him no one will want to the rest of the story" (78), "leeding" for "bleeding" (113), "in" for "is" (134), "provided settings or characters for most her novels" (137), and punctuation flaws such as missing quotation marks (74, 87, 89, 134, 151) and inverted or misplaced ones (133, 160, 161, 163). Wherever the money is going, it is evidently not being paid to copy editors (and of course little comes to authors). Scholarship of the caliber of Franklin's deserves better treatment, and it is infuriating that Routledge did not provide it.
Andrew Elfenbein is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.