Karen Fang. Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs: Periodical Culture and Post-Napoleonic Authorship.
In the last sentence of her rich, intricately textured book, Karen Fang remarks on the irony of how, in the "periodical empire" that arose in post-Napoleonic Britain, "the entity that benefited most was the individual author, the very person usually thought to be lost in the corporate and collective nature of the periodical format, but whose upward mobility through affiliation with that format actually legitimated the era's pervasive imperial metaphor" (190). Indeed, while Fang characterizes her book's most significant methodological innovation as an emphasis upon the dimension of space rather than time as the periodical form's defining attribute, others may be even more struck by her unapologetic recuperation of the "idealist" concerns of traditional Romantic literary studies. For while much of the excellent earlier work on Romantic-era periodical writing--by Jon Klancher, Mark Parker, Mark Schoenfield, Kim Wheatley, and others--focused on how the materiality of the periodical format elicits effects in excess of, or even contrary to, the text considered as an isolated phenomenon, Fang's equally careful attention to context and intertext produces, instead, a figure of the author as supremely intentional: capable of reinscribing the material conditions of his or her writing into ornate, layered, even devious literary strategies.
Fang takes for her subject the late Romantic period which Virgil Nemoianu once influentially described as "Biedermeier," but which she--with a different set of geographical referents and an outlook informed by postcolonial theory--re-characterizes as a moment in which the consolidation of print capitalism felicitously collaborated with the post-Napoleonic consolidation of Britain's imperial identity. Yet while the new geopolitical realities brought about by the Napoleonic wars (and Britain's everexpanding imperial ambitions) loom large throughout this book, Fang is not primarily interested in demonstrating how the authors she studies advance imperial ideology or apologize for orientalism. Instead, she treats their engagements with Napoleonic history and iconography as the stuff of authorial self-fashioning--which happens, in the various cases she examines, sometimes to coincide with, sometimes to critique or even subvert, the more straightforwardly capitalist and expansionist ambitions of the periodical industry's "literary lower empire." The geographical reach of the periodicals, and "the prominence of imperial and geographic metaphors throughout [the] writing" that populated them (28), account for Fang's insistence upon space as the primary axis of periodical text; and indeed, her analysis takes in a remarkable array of phenomena closely or loosely affiliated with the vicissitudes of Britain's contemporary global engagements. Extending from British trade with China to Napoleonic Italy, post-Napoleonic Egyptology, and the colonization of Tahiti, Fang's interpolated histories are vivid, absorbing, and thoroughly researched, showing a nicely calibrated sense for the telling detail.
The structure of the book, on the other hand, recapitulates the formalist allegiances of Fang's interpretive method. Following an introductory discussion of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the Elgin marbles sonnets, which she relates to the ongoing discussion about the meaning of Greek antiquities in the Annals of the Fine Arts, Fang divides her study into four long chapters, divided between two "exemplary" cases of what she calls "periodical collaboration" (Chapters One and Two), and two "exceptional" cases (Three and Four). Each of the two sections, in turn, is divided between a happier, or less ideologically fraught, instance of periodical authorship and a more problematic or critical one. Thus, in Chapters One and Two, Fang juxtaposes Charles Lamb and James Hogg, while in the second section she contrasts Letitia Landon and Lord Byron. The texts Fang addresses were all published in 1823-24, and this fact gives additional historical density to analyses whose breadth of reference might otherwise become too sheerly associative.
Fang's first and best chapter expands outward from Lamb's "Ella" essays, published in The London Magazine, to the history of porcelain trade and manufacture, British trade relations with China more generally, and other Romantic engagements with Sinophilia or-phobia, particularly Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." Her centerpiece is the essay "Old China," but by the time she has done, she has said something interesting about almost all of the Elia essays, which, despite some excellent recent work, remain an understudied topic in Romantic scholarship. Fang's argument here turns on the antique china teacup, Lamb's nominal subject in "Old China," as the emblem for his materialist twist on the Romantic doctrine of creativity epitomized in the Khan's sublime "decree." Lamb, she contends, alludes to "Kubla Khan" in his own glorification of a miniaturized and commodified "dome," the teacup itself, in such a way as to demonstrate both his superior knowledge of actual Chinese manufacture and his more practical commitment to a serial aesthetic that, by "simulat[ing] the attributes of the commodity it portrays[,] presents a productivity and infinitude that far surpass Coleridge's sublime, but solitary and incomplete, poem" (65).
While the chapter on Lamb is, to my mind, almost wholly persuasive, Fang's knack for exfoliating such minute textual details can be less effective when she comes to a more resistant case such as The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which--while undoubtedly an artifact of Hogg's troubled history with Blackwood's Magazine---is nevertheless probably not, as she claims, "first and foremost, a novel about a magazine" (99). Her focus in this chapter is on Hogg's references to Egyptology, especially the Rosetta Stone, considered in connection with the persistent thematics of ciphering and encoding in the Private Memoirs as well as the earlier "Chaldee Manuscript." As before, Fang tells an interesting story here, but the context adds less to the received understanding of the Private Memoirs than does the corresponding material in her Lamb chapter, and some of her assertions, such as that Hogg alludes to the Rosetta Stone "as a sign of his willing cooperation with magazines" (78), strain her emphasis on authorial intentionality past the suspension of my own disbelief.
Fang is at her most ingenious in Chapter Three, "'But Another Name for Her Who Wrote': Corinne and the Making of Landon's Giftbook Style." In contrast with many critics who treat Landon's gender as the determining condition of her authorship, Fang suggests that while "gender provides the vehicle of Landon's literary devices ... that element is less significant than the topically imperial dimensions of that vehicle" (132). The vehicle in question is Landon's identification as the "English Corinne," achieved through her many tributes to, and ventriloquy of, Getmaine de Stall's half-Italian, half-English heroine. Fang's sensitivity to the intricacies of this intertextual relationship is as keen as ever here, but to her great credit, she makes no attempt to read such allusions as intimating a "deeper" or more politically engaged Landon--to the contrary, she sees Landon as deliberately espousing a superficial, second-order aesthetic which invokes the imperial allegory of de Stael's novel only to empty it of topical reference. This very "absence of empire" then becomes Fang's evidence for an "enthusiastic and uncomplicated" embrace of empire as the figure for female genius (117).
The opposite is true for Byron, whose involvement in the founding of The Liberal, and whose late orientalist poem "The Island" form the subjects of Fang's last chapter. While both The Liberal and "The Island" have received their share of critical notice (although, in the case of "The Island," that notice has often been dismissive), Fang calls attention to the fact that "The Island" was originally intended for publication in The Liberal, arguing that this fact helps to explain its alleged aesthetic deficiencies. She begins her chapter by rehearsing the history of The Liberal's short run and "its deeply loaded emphasis upon southern geography" (154), the context in which, she argues, "The Island"'s fictional account of the 1789 Bounty mutiny needs to be understood. The poem's Tahitian setting becomes, in her account, an emblem both of "undisturbed nature" and "the inescapable power of contemporary imperialism," while its tonal unevenness similarly suggests the disruption of a pre-modern sentimental idyll (157, 162). The poem thus registers Byron's political hopes for The Liberal and his ultimate disenchantment with the capabilities of the periodical form, to the extent that his subversive aims were shrunken to that of "preserv[ing] ... a space outside of contemporary history altogether" (175). Even so, Fang concludes, "The Island" represents "Romanticism's strongest and most intriguing application of orientalism for imperial critique" (177).
As this synopsis implies, one of the great strengths of Fang's book is the diversity of material it encompasses, despite the apparent limitations of her focus on a mere two-year span of textual production in one language. Especially impressive is the way her primary case studies lead Fang to consider how these mostly "minor" authors (with the obvious exception of Byron) engage--in intricate, sinuous, and sometimes richly conflicted ways--with the major issues and major writers of their day. The result is an illuminating and informative history, not only of periodical writing per se, but also of British Romanticism as a geopolitical phenomenon.
University of Southern California
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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