This stimulating collection of essays investigates the wide range of issues implied by the term 'Romantic biography', examining not only biographies of writers of the Romantic period (including Wordsworth, Clare, Southey, Austen, Byron, Burns, Scott, Keats, and Shelley), but also the degree to which the form is itself shaped by assumptions about the self and its relations to creativity and society that are themselves Romantic. The volume is framed by two polemical essays that address particularly this question, the editors' introduction, which calls for Romantic biography to become both 'less Romanticized' by escaping these assumptions and 'more Romanticized' by bringing to light the hidden contexts of Romanticism (p. xii), and Ralph Pite's excellent closing essay, 'Writing Biography that is not Romantic', which argues that biography is 'worth reforming because it is a means of revealing the social locatedness of particular selves' (p. 178).
The collection begins with four essays by writers who are both Romantic biographers and literary critics. In the first, Michael O'Neill shows how the poems of the period are themselves engaged with the issues at stake in Romantic biography; they offer a complex treatment of selfhood and feeling that the biographer can never hope to equal. As O'Neill argues with reference to 'This Lime Tree Bower My Prison', 'what one wants is a biography as sensitive to the fluctuations of feeling as the poem itself. Which is to say, one wants the poem' (p. 7). It is testimony to both the power of O'Neill's argument and the brilliance of his readings that at the end of his essay it is indeed the poems he discusses that the reader wants to turn to, rather than the biographies of their writers. With a different readership in mind, Jonathan Bate argues strongly that it is literary biography, rather than academic literary criticism, that will bring John Clare to the attention of a large potential audience who 'would be compelled by his life and work if only they knew about it' (p. 18).Mark Storey presents the aim of his biography of Robert Southey as being 'to set the record straight, to give as true a picture as possible' (p. 34), while Kenneth R. Johnston illuminatingly discusses the challenges presented to the biographer by William Wordsworth's own self-creation as a Romantic figure.
A concern with the extent to which Romantic assumptions shape the biographies of Romantic subjects is shared by the next three essays. Joe Bray contrasts Claire Tomalin's and David Nokes's biographies of Jane Austen, showing how their differing attitudes to the relationship between the life and the novels informs their presentation of the writer, particularly in relation to the mysterious gaps in her life. Alan Rawes examines Benita Eisler's treatment of a similar mystery in Byron's life, demonstrating how her emphasis on the poet's incestuous relationship with his half-sister (of which there is no decisive proof) is influenced by Byron's own fictions and by the Romantic model of poetry as self-expression. Similarly, Gerard Carruthers highlights the Romantic elements in Lockhart's biographies of Burns and Scott, revealing, for example, that 'Lockhart's Scott--unforgivably in a biography--is very much a version of Scott's Scott' (p. 106).
Of the remaining essays, two address issues of gender. Drawing on the work of Anne Mellor, Julian North considers the gendering of biography, particularly in terms of the shifting attitudes of biographers to the myth of the heroic masculine genius, while Jennifer Wallace compellingly shows how the contemporary focus on Keats's body feminized and etherealized him. Finally, Arthur Bradley examines the structure and methodology of biography more generally, using the work of Jacques Derrida to show how the dialectic presentation of the relationship between Byron and Shelley has excluded other ways of thinking about their creative friendship, finding in the winged laughter of 'Julian and Maddalo' a figure for an alternative mode of biography that resists dialecticism. Like many contributions to this excellent volume, Bradley's stimulating essay not only offers a powerful critique of the structures and methods of Romantic biography as it has existed for the last two centuries but, in its proposals for its future direction, reveals the continuing value and importance of the form.
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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