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Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization.

Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization. By TRICIA LOOTENS. (Victorian Literature and Culture Series) Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia. 1996.xi+243 pp. $35.

In her preface to Lost Saints, Tricia Lootens explains how 'what began as a reception study was transformed into a study of the formation of a literary legend' (p. 3). Starting her doctoral project with the intention of finding out how Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to be excluded from the canon, Lootens came to realize that 'the process of decanonization was much more complex and ambiguous than I had thought' (pp. 1-2). Strangely it appeared that Barrett Browning's diminishment took place as much through expressions of reverence as through hostility. Gradually perceiving that the links between canon formation and religious canonization were not as contingent as they have seemed to many, Lootens understood the need for a more in-depth study of the nature of nineteenth-century canonicity. She discovered that the language of religious sanctity was commonly appropriated to honour writers who were 'revered' as secular saints, but that where this practice was extended to women, ideological conceptions of sanctified femininity tended to magnify the woman at the expense of her work which could only ever be secondary to the legend.

The first three chapters of Lost Saints examine the process of literary canonization. 'Saint Shakespeare and the "Body" of the Text' examines the various means by which the sainted writer's text could be regarded as a relic or monument and shows how critics and editors 'proclaimed themselves as authorized to reshape the "bodies" of texts' (p. 9); a reshaping which could involve 'purging', emendation, and reconstruction in the hope of producing a worthy memorial. 'Poet Worship Meets Woman Worship' shows how the inherited models of medieval female sanctity contributed to the Victorian literary canonization of women with its 'conservative constructions of feminine glory' and created 'a virtual recipe for critical disappearance' (p. 10). Chapter 3: 'Shakespeare's Heroines and Nineteenth-Century Literary Study' shows how Shakespeare's female characters were themselves seen as models, either as timeless, almost interchangeable types or monuments of 'the sex', or (and this represents a more liberal point of view) as highly individualized and historicized portraits of vital women.

The last two chapters examine the canonization of the two most famous Victorian women poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. After her death Barrett Browning's reputation shifted from 'Queen of Song' (a title that necessitated the erasure of her political verse) to romantic heroine. As Barrett Browning's specifically literary standing waned, Rossetti was made a competitor for the title of 'supreme' woman poet although, as Lootens shows, the terms of the competition have less to do with literary merit than with ideals of womanhood.

Inevitably a study of this kind risks making various Victorian critics' views more homogeneous than they might in fact be. To take one small example, Swinburne's famous celebration of Marian's baby in Aurora Leigh (mentioned on p. 141) stems not so much from a contemporary 'glorification' of maternity as his own much-documented and idiosyncratic 'babyolatry'. With respect to Lootens's proposition that canonization effectively veils the woman poet's output, it would none the less have been interesting to have had more reception history of particular works, with a sense perhaps of how Lootens herself, however provisionally, might like to read them. As a personal viewpoint is necessarily implicit in this book, it would been useful to have seen it made critically explicit. However, there are many good inclusions, such as the lively discussion of Shakespeare's heroines, to recommend this intriguing and thoughtful book with its timely reminder that our own late-twentieth-century criticism is not exempt from the canonizing power of literary legend.
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Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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