MARY ROBINSON AND THE GENESIS OF ROMANTICISM: LITERARY DIALOGUES AND DEBTS, 1784-1821 by Ashley J. Cross, Reviewed by Stephanie Russo
 

MARY ROBINSON AND THE GENESIS OF ROMANTICISM: LITERARY DIALOGUES AND DEBTS, 1784-1821
By Ashley J. Cross
(Routledge, 2016) 296 pp.
Reviewed by Stephanie Russo on 2017-07-29.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Shortly before her death, Mary Robinson complained to William Godwin that she had been marginalized from the literary culture of the day. By her writing, Robinson strove to transform her image from the notorious "Perdita," former mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), to that of a serious professional writer. As this impressively detailed book demonstrates, Robinson did, in fact, deeply engage in complex literary dialogues with the key writers and thinkers of her time. Cross shows how Robinson used her writing in order to converse with poets such as Coleridge, Smith, Southey, and Wordsworth, and with novelists and thinkers such as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Using "dialogue" in its broadest application, Cross considers the quite explicit forms of literary exchange that underlie Della Cruscan poetry as well as subtler forms of correspondence, such as Robinson's engagement with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. Throughout her work, Cross demonstrates, Robinson used intertextual dialogues with other writers for two ends. With her characteristic aptitude for public relations, she sought to establish herself as a serious writer, and she also wished to suggest that she was extending upon, even perfecting, the achievements of others.

Robinson's career challenges the myth of the lone (masculine) Romantic genius. As Cross observes, the prevalence of this myth means that "writers like Robinson, women whose intersubjective authorship developed with consumer culture and depended on collaboration, became tangential, marked as inferior by definition" (10). In showing instead how much Romanticism sprang from collaboration, exchange, and conversation, Cross defines a new model of Romantic authorship in which women played a central role.

This model is not wholly new. Beside long-established studies of the collaborative relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge (such as Paul Magnuson's Coleridge & Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue [1988]), recent work on Romantic sociability, conversations, and coteries has largely overturned the notion that the Romantics were isolated individual geniuses. But in examining Robinson's relations with other Romantic writers, Cross puts fresh emphasis on reciprocity. Robinson, she explains, used literary dialogues in order to "talk about individual textual relations within that larger construct of a sociable Romanticism without reducing them to unidirectional influence" (4). Strongly rejecting the unidirectional model of literary influence, this book does not simply outline the impact that other writers had on Robinson. Instead it highlights the reciprocal movement of her literary dialogues.

Cross's detailed and specific analysis of the breadth and scope of Robinson's interactions with other key Romantics demonstrates that her work centrally informed Romanticism itself. In meticulously comparing her "Ode to the Snow-Drop" to Coleridge's "The Apotheosis," for instance, Cross shows how Robinson's deployment of images such as the flower and the Eolian harp influenced Coleridge's representations of the Romantic poet. Indeed, Cross argues, the "mutuality of the two poets' conversation entangles their poetic identities, disrupting gender divisions and making each dependent on the other" (28). If Coleridge's portrayal of his poetic self sprang even in part from his early poetic exchanges with Robinson, her contributions to the birth of British Romanticism are significant indeed.

While nearly every chapter of this book illuminates Robinson's literary dialogues, there is little new in the first chapter, which treats her response to Robert Merry and the Della Cruscans, for this topic has been well covered in recent scholarship. By contrast, the chapter on the newspaper poetry of Robinson and Southey sheds new light on the work of both-- even though this topic too has been recently investigated. As contributors to The Morning Post, Cross explains, Southey and Robinson were collaborators as well as literary rivals, crafting a "new understanding of the aesthetic value of commercial poetry, and in the process, a new type of Romantic poetry" (107). In stressing the essentially commercial nature of the poetry Robinson wrote for The Morning Post, Cross shows how prolific and innovative she was as a professional poet. Since she was often accused in her own time and is still accused now --in contemporary scholarship--of writing too hastily for profit, it is refreshing to see Cross argue that even her commercial poetry is innovative and valuable as literature.

Beyond Robinson's interactions with male Romantics, she endearingly prized female authorship and in particular the work of Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft. Even after Wollstonecraft's posthumous reputation was destroyed by the publication of Godwin's scandalous memoir, Robinson continued to laud her achievements, and Cross finely examines her influence on Robinson in Robinson's last novel, The Natural Daughter, as well as in her Letter to the Women of England. Nevertheless, this topic has been extensively considered elsewhere, as Cross admits.

More illuminating, therefore, is Cross's consideration of Robinson's complex literary relationship with Charlotte Smith. Though Robinson's scandalous reputation made Smith hesitate to befriend her openly, this did not keep Robinson from addressing a poem to her. Written so hastily after the event it commemorates that, as Cross points out, Smith would hardly have had time to process the news herself, Robinson's "Sonnet to Mrs. Charlotte Smith, on Hearing that her Son was Wounded at the Siege of Dunkirk" appeared on 17 September 1793 in The Oracle. Furthermore, in her extended analysis of the way Robinson's sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon, reweaves Smith's Elegaic Sonnets, Cross clearly demonstrates that Robinson used literary dialogue as a form of genesis. "[B]y intertextually intertwining her sonnets with Smith's," Cross explains, "Robinson turns Sappho's fateful relationship with Phaon into an allegory about the sonnet and evaluates its current and future value for women writers" (71). Robinson thus uses Smith's earlier work to move beyond Smith's sentimentality: even while inheriting Smith's genius, Robinson subtly competes with her. Yet both women used their personal biographies to stir interest in their work. Just as Robinson wrote for readers aware--as she knew-- of her tumultuous private life, Smith cast herself as a wronged woman, forced into literary enterprise by her unhappy marriage to an absentee husband. Given this similarity, Robinson's poetic persona, and particularly her concept of female Romantic authorship, is tied to that of Smith in complex ways, as Cross usefully explains.

Nevertheless, Cross's heavy emphasis on Robinson's poetry leads her to slight Robinson's fiction. While Cross does consider the influence of William Godwin on Robinson's Walsingham (1796), she treats her other novels only in passing, and only in reference to her complex literary relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft. In this respect Cross follows the lead of previous scholarship on Robinson, which has generally paid more attention to her poetry and Memoirs than to her novels. But Cross might have considered how Robinson's novels--like her poetry-- engage in complex literary dialogues. How, for instance, does Robinson's earliest Gothic novel, Vancenza, respond to the novels of Ann Radcliffe?

In the final two chapters, which offer genuinely new material, Cross considers the impact of Robinson on Charlotte Dacre and John Keats. Dacre was the daughter of Jonathan "Jew" King, who published Letters from Perdita to a Certain Israelite, purportedly letters from an affair he had with Robinson in 1773. According to Cross, Dacre's poem "To the Shade of Mary Robinson," which appeared in her volume Hours of Solitude (1805), "articulates Dacre's identification with Robinson as a woman writer whom the world did not appreciate" (201). Precisely because of the tenuousness of female poetic reputation, Robinson becomes for Dacre a shady, ghostly muse. Likewise, as Cross fascinatingly demonstrates, Robinson also leaves her imprint on the poetry of Keats, particularly in its treatment of sexual transgression and illness. Cross's analysis of Keats's debts to her suggests that even though her influence on the first generation of Romantics is widely known, her influence on the second deserves further study: one wonders, for example, what a further chapter on Mary Shelley might have uncovered. In any case, by considering Robinson's impact on writers whose work postdates her own, Cross reveals the hitherto unexamined extent of Robinson's influence on later British Romanticism.

In sum, by showing how deeply Robinson penetrated the literary cultures of her day, this book makes a valuable contribution to the developing field of Robinson studies. It corrects both outdated notions of the isolated Romantic genius and of the role of women within Romantic cultures. Its detailed close readings of Robinson's works convincingly show how they enact a complex form of literary dialogue. Casting Robinson a key figure in both the formation and development of Romanticism, Cross thus makes a powerful argument for considering her work as central, rather than marginal, to the history of Romanticism. Consequently, this book should interest not only Robinson specialists but also scholars of Romantic women writers more generally.

Stephanie Russo is a Lecturer in English at Macquarie University, Australia.


Leave a comment on Stephanie Russo's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading